In 2009, Talking Heads front man David Byrne released his memoir, The Bicycle Diaries, of his journeys riding his bike around the world. Byrne writes at length about his chosen mode of transportation, calling it an efficient and “uncool” way to get around the East Village. As the book goes on, he details his adventures across seven countries. Very cool.
He opens with the epigraph: “A bike is the world’s most used form of transportation.” And this is true. In America alone, 103 million citizens ride bikes on a regular basis, and on a global scale half of the 7.6 billion people on Earth can ride a bike, with around 2 billion of them proud owners.
Biking is a multibillion-dollar industry, and in the U.S. alone there are hundreds of companies designing special interest products: handlebars and tires, chains or aluminum bike frames; many of them represented at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show.
Outside the Connecticut Convention Center, bike valets pedal along the gutter, splashing the sidewalk with oily water en route to the parking garage. There are mountain bikes with tires thick as arms, pink bikes and blue bikes, and bikes with handlebar baskets stuffed with flowers. There are novelty bikes and tricycles and street bikes, and bicycles built for two. There are safety bikes—the normal kind with two equally sized wheels and a bike chain—and “ordinary bikes,” or the ones you might see in a silent film, with six-foot tall front wheels, operated by a man wearing a tailcoat.
Mark Twain learned to ride on an ordinary bike, and in his essay, “Taming the Bicycle,” he described the “villainy” of the bike, calling the experience rewarding, “if you live.” Over time, the life-threatening design of the ordinary bike was phased out in favor of the much safer—and aptly named—safety bike. Since the wheels were closer to the ground, a fall was less of a liability.
Because of Connecticut’s long and varied history with bicycle manufacturing, it makes sense for the bike show to be held in the capital. In an interview on WNPR, a spokesperson for J.P. Weigle, a local bicycle company, called the event a “homecoming.”
Around the convention floor, men and women dash up escalators, graceful as deer, rushing to the next seminar. “How a Professional Mechanic Can Help You” begins at 11:00 a.m., while an hour later the “NAHBS Women’s Series: Cycling as a Career” begins for the ladies.
“At the turn of the century, most bikes were made in Hartford,” says Ultra Romance, a bike designer and self-described “Martha Stewart” of bike camping. (Although his real name is Benedict, word on the street is he’ll answer to anything.) “The first ever modern bike, the safety bicycle, pedaled on American soil.”
But Ultra Romance doesn’t look like Martha Stewart, aside from the blue button up shirt. He’s got long hair and glasses and a beard. He’s tall. He doesn’t have a website or a line of dishware at Kohl’s, but he makes things happen through Instagram; a self-professed Generation X member on a millennial platform. He describes Connecticut as a place with a “rich bicycle manufacturing industry.”
Though several companies represented at the show are based in Connecticut, most are not. There are companies from Maine and Michigan, Florida and Alabama and Texas. Santana Cycles, a company based in La Verne, California, arrived at the convention center with a whole arsenal of tandem bikes: two-seaters. Bill McCready of Santana Cycles travels the country selling this design. He says riding a tandem bike is easier than a typical style, all about the “illusion of control.”
On a tandem bike, the person seated in front is referred to as the pilot, or the steersman, and gets to pick the direction the bicycle moves in. Bill says the man usually takes this position, since men like to be in control, like to “watch the road.” In contrast, the person seated on the second position, the woman, is known as the stoker, or the rear admiral, who provides most of the power. Like a marriage—the illusion of control.
“This is a tandem bicycle, and a lot of people don’t understand how it works,” he says. He’s got a cup of coffee in his left hand, but uses his right to gesture at the bike, pointing at all of the features as if it’s an award-winning pumpkin at a county fair. “The control point of the bicycle is right here, [just behind the front seat] so it’s bicycle riding without all that watching the road.”
Of course, the tandem bicycle is not the only specialty bike represented at the show. Dude-bros with shaggy hair, waxy mustaches, and baseball caps show off sleek innovations in mountain biking, while across the showroom floor, a man wearing a suit jacket shows off a tricycle with shifting parts, designed to grow along with a toddler.
Lance Rake, a professor of architecture at the University of Kansas, displays a bicycle made completely of bamboo. He stands out from the rest of the vendors in that his bike serves a distinct humanitarian purpose. The bicycle has an elongated seat, meant for multiple passengers to ride at once.
“I designed [the bicycle] in India,” he says. “I was on a Fulbright working with bamboo craftspeople so they could make and sell things worth more than the usual crafts they’d been making. Bikes have a higher market value.”
Rake’s enthusiasm for his bike is evident when he speaks. Like any proud Kansan might, he’s wearing a red flannel shirt and a baseball hat, but he discusses the intricacies of the design like a child visiting New York City for the first time.
“Connecting the bamboo tubes is a challenge. They’re usually connected with epoxy resins, sometimes fiberglass, but I borrowed a technique that’s been around in bicycling for a long time. They’re called wedge-nuts.”
Because bamboo tubes can vary in shape and width, connecting them in a secure way can be difficult. When a bolt within the tube of the bike, in this case, the bamboo tube, is tightened, the wedge-nut provides a sliding mechanism, a type of tube-within-a-tube, creating extra durability.
“It’s a way of tightening a round thing within the tube,” he says. “You can make it really strong. So, if the bamboo shrinks over time—which it does—instead of pulling away from the fiberglass, it will actually pull down on the stuff in the middle. It’ll make it stiffer.”
Rake hopes to build the joints of his bike from water bottles, making a bike that’s almost completely biodegradable.
“This can be done for next to nothing,” he says. He plans on bringing his design to Haiti, with a long-term goal of expanding into more rural communities.
Aside from Haitian farming communities, urban biking is also growing exponentially. In major cultural centers across the world—London, New York City, Amsterdam—bike shares have sprung up on sidewalks with more enthusiasm and fanfare than rappers pedaling mixtapes.
City-dwellers adopted the practice as a cheaper alternative to driving, and since 2001 the number of bike commuters nationally has risen 62%. As people everywhere become more conscious of the benefits of bike-riding, more opportunities open up for special interest retailers. At the North American Handmade Bike Show, sellers are at the cusp of innovation, creating bikes designed for everything as they race to the finish line, eager to be first at the future of bicycles.