As the native son of an affordably priced beach resort town, I appreciate the thought and craftsmanship that goes into a good screen-printed t-shirt. It starts with the basic graphic design elements like the colors and style of the design, which have to mesh with broader branding elements like an attractive, easily recognizable logo and a clever, catchy, and commercially desirable motto or catch phrase. Laid over (or underneath) all of that, there are the considerations of shirt colors, fabric weights, cuts, and quality. Between the art itself and the cotton canvas that hosts it, there’s plenty to appreciate for a true enthusiast of the medium. So, you could imagine my delight at the variety and volume of stunning shirt-craft on offer at the Shimano North American Handbuilt Bicycle Show, where seemingly every booth had something delightful in ink and cotton for sale. But this was no ordinary t-shirt show – there were some bicycles scattered about, too.
I'm kidding, of course. Fantastic handbuilt bikes were obviously and overwhelmingly the centerpiece of NAHBS, and if you’re interested in that sort of thing, you’ve probably already combed through a dizzying number of web sites and Flickr galleries to get your fix. But there were a hell of a lot of shirts on offer, too, and a good number of socks and hats as well. And though it might have created confusion as to what the real product was at times, the swift soft goods trade made sense for several reasons.
First, compared to selling the merits of marginally different $1,200+ custom frames, moving $20 t-shirts is easy money, and they pretty much sell themselves. Hang one up or throw a stack on the table, and if people like it enough, they’ll buy it. You’d don’t have to take the time to explain why your just-so seatstay treatment is better, or why getting just the right axle-to-crown length is crucial to executing your creative vision. It’s a t-shirt. People get it. And if you have a good design and sell enough of them, you can help mitigate the cost of getting to the show, at least.
Second, every good luxury brand – and most of the exhibitors at NAHBS could be considered luxury brands in cycling – knows that while most people can’t afford a $2,500 purse, they can afford a $40 t-shirt bearing the logo of a brand whose goods they admire. Most shirts at the show seemed to slot in at around $20, but the aspirational aspects of the marketing are the same.
Finally, if you have a reasonably attractive t-shirt design, people will actually pay you for a chance to advertise your brand. What could be better if you’re a small company looking to raise your profile? This concept is already well-trodden ground in cycling, though, so I won’t go any farther than that. (Except to point out that just because I’m noting that t-shirts give companies cheaper-than-free advertising doesn’t mean I’m one of those people who hangs around cycling message boards harrumphing about how I stripped all the logos from my frame and ride in a plain blue jersey because those bastards don’t pay me to advertise their stuff dontchaknowit. Who has the time?)
The Bicycle Trend Report
But enough about t-shirts -- you're probably wondering what was notable about the show for non-shirt enthusiasts. I’d say it was the move away from the over-the-top commuter/utility bikes of the past few years, and back towards what I’ll call sport bikes. By sport bikes, I mean road bikes designed for lively riding, but which will accommodate a greater range of fitness and flexibility levels than racing bikes, accept a 28c tire, fenders, and maybe a rack, and hopefully handle a bit of abuse without complaint. If you’re over 40, you probably call them sport-tourers, and if you’re over 40 and particularly crotchety you’ll probably rattle on about how Nishiki used to build a perfectly fine one and it didn’t cost two grand.
Given the emphasis on that genre, it was also refreshing to see that the interpretations of sport bikes were not radical, stylized overreactions to the exaggerated deficiencies people like to broadly assign to racing bikes. By and large, they didn’t have 700x98c tires to “smooth out rough roads”, or disc brakes, or handlebars so high that they would gently nuzzle your bearded chin, or self-consciously retro builds. They were just very nice bikes for people to take their normal rides on, without trying to oversell the buyer on some underlying, all-encompassing riding philosophy. And that’s progress, people. (So what's the next step on the road to universal cycling enlightenment? People who should and do know better will stop crowing about how racing bikes are uncomfortable in their marketing materials. Horses for courses, and for people who race, who ride long and fast, and who are used to them, racing bikes are shockingly comfortable.)
Anyway, from a market perspective, the move to sport bikes from uber-commuters makes sense. Almost too much sense for the bike industry. I’d venture there are far more people looking for a fine, pricey, handbuilt bicycle for recreation -- something comfortable and fun to ride with friends or on a Backroads tour of the Sonoma wine country -- than there are people looking for a fine, pricey, handbuilt bicycle to ride to the Safeway for deodorant and cheese and then lock to the parking meter outside the office. And since they’re already fighting for a tiny segment of overall bicycle consumption, builders are well served in providing what the greatest number of consumers want to buy, not what builders wish they wanted to buy. In the interest of full disclosure, I don’t have statistics to back any of that last part up.
The whole commuter-centric feel that pervaded the past few years’ shows gave off a bit of a racing-is-passé vibe, at least for someone reading the coverage from a distance. But while it would be foolish for NAHBS-type builders to focus heavily on a racing market dominated by big production, big marketing, and high margins, there was still a lot for someone involved in competitive cycling to like at the show. For instance, two of the last great European shadow-builders were present – Dario Pegorretti and Cyfac. Together, those two outfits account for quite a few high-profile professional racing results – it’s just that their frames were buried under someone else’s name at the time. With uniquely sculpted and easily identifiable (read: branded) carbon now the universal norm at the professional level, it’s tougher to pull off a good rebadging, so both companies have had to build their own brands in recent years, both to considerable success.
Further highlighting the changes in how bike builders and pro cycling teams interact was Italian builder Tiziano Zullo, based in Castelnuovo del Garda. Under its own name, Zullo sponsored the powerful Dutch TVM squad in the early 1990s, netting the final stage of the 1991 Tour de France under Dmitri Konyshev for the brand. Zullo’s production? About 200 frames per year. Compare that with the financial and production capacity needed to sponsor a top team today, and you see why there’s less diversity on the downtubes of the pro peloton these days.
The Cultural Trend Report
The success of the NAHBS over the past several years fits with what I see as a trend that goes beyond cycling. In a nation that traded its ability to manufacture much of anything for cheap product and the vaunted service economy (which is, in turn, being outsourced), there had been growing acceptance that material goods are things that are made by machines somewhere overseas, not by people here with ideas and families and houses. But in response to that alienation from the goods we consume, there now seems to be a growing fascination with people who can actually MAKE things – quality things – using knowledge, skill, and their own two hands. You can see it at NAHBS, of course, where I ran into people who already had bikes on order with builders, but who made the trip down just to meet the person making their bike face-to-face. But maybe more importantly for culture at large, you can see returned interest in production and origin in more moneyed industries than cycling. On television, there are any number of cable shows highlight the work of carpenters doing home remodels; show how, where, and by whom consumer items are made; and espouse the benefits of cooking real food. Grocery stores that note where, how, and by whom the food you’re buying was produced are doing better than ever, despite their higher prices. Foreign car manufacturers trumpet the fact that many of their cars are actually made in the United States by American workers. In short, people are starting to care again about where things came from and how they’re made, and that’s important. Beats not giving a damn, anyway.
- Did I really just refer to it as the Shimano North American Handbuilt Bicycle Show up there? Yes, I did. Sponsors keep cycling’s collective show on the air, so when it’s reasonable, I try to keep their names associated with the events and teams they’re bankrolling. When is it not reasonable? When people name their team something like “ShipCrap International Logistics Company Professional Cycling Team presented by Stinky Puppy Coffee Company – Put Some Pup in Your Cup.” In print, that sort of branding diarrhea eats up your word count. Online, it just annoys me.
- Sports – particularly the vaguely defined category of “outdoor sports” like cycling, running, surfing, and skateboarding – have always been a t-shirt rich environment. We’ve been over brand shirts already, but then you’ve got your participant shirts, your souvenir shirts, your one-off novelty shirts, your cause shirts, your tribute shirts, you name it. For godssake, you’d think cyclists didn’t know how to use buttons.
- Several of the display booth designs at NAHBS really stood out. Vanilla’s booth, with a series of large crates depicting phases of frame production and others housing bike-display dioramas, was well done down to the last detail, as was Bilenky's full-scale reproduction of its workshop. I also liked Rapha’s mini-mart themed booth, since it reminded me of a travelling companion from my junior days who used long drives to expound at length on the virtues of well-stocked marts and their undeniable value to cyclists.
- The big-time booths were nice, but one of the most intriguing areas of the show was the back right corner, where the ultra-small builders had their space. One man, one bike, and a folding table. It doesn’t get more grassroots than that.
- No, I didn’t buy any t-shirts.