Saturday 31 July 2010

Bespoke: The Handbuilt Bicycle

There are many reasons that cycling is so popular: the joy of riding in the open air and amidst never-ending scenery; the physical challenges of racing; the delicious pleasure of pure speed; the unknown road ahead on a long tour; the engaging history, both technological and social, of bicycles, to name but a few. But for me, one of the attractions is the sheer aesthetic quality of a bicycle.

It is an apparently simple device that has not changed a great deal since the Rover Safety Bicycle was introduced in 1885. Two wheels of generally of equal size, chain drive and pedals, a triangular frame and so forth. It was left to later generations to come up with inflatable tires, variable gearing, clipless pedals, effective brakes and lightweight material, of course, but the idea was there. Where form follows function, things engineered tend in one direction, so most airliners now look pretty much the same. Bicycles have perhaps followed a similar path but it is clear that there remains room, in a world of mass-produced commodity bicycles, for artistic self-expression. In May I had an opportunity to attend an exhibition in New York City's Museum of Arts and Design on Columbus Circle that celebrates the craftsmanship and the beauty to be found in the work of six chosen custom bicycle framebuilders.

Photo: J. Peter Weigle
The show is entitled “Bespoke: The Handbuilt Bicycle,” and it opened on May 13 and will run until August 15, 2010. The museum website notes:

In the 1980s and 1990s the demand for handbuilt bicycles was eclipsed by the popularity of costly factory-produced racing bikes endorsed (if not actually ridden) by star cyclists. Custom frame builders also had to contend with a new and booming market for mass-manufactured mountain bikes. Over the past decade, renewed interest in craft, coupled with a rising social movement favoring the durable over the disposable and supporting cycling's physical and environmental benefits, has contributed to a revival of handbuilt bicycles and fostered a new generation of artisans and clientele.

Photo: Museum of Arts and Design
The builders, five American and one Italian, have provided superb and very diverse examples of their art. Mike Flanagan, who builds as Alternative Needs Transportation (A.N.T.), presented an unusual pair of bicycles: a “basket bike,” clearly meant for shopping, and a novel “Truss Frame Bike” that resembles something from the early part of the 20th Century. The bicycles were charming, and had touches such as hand-etched brass badges and a chainring hollowed out with playing card suits!

There were also a pair of bikes from Jeff Jones, who builds titanium mountain bikes without suspension in the wilds of Oregon. These bicycles roll to the beat of a different drummer, with trussed forks and appealing curves.

The other four builders construct more traditional bicycles but are each masters in their own rights. Dario Pegoretti builds classic Italian racing bicycles characterized by not only their excellent build quality but by outlandish paint schemes that bring modern art to the tube surfaces. The bicycles have unusual names as well, such as “Love #3,” and “Day is Done.” (Actually, the names remind me a bit of some of my Jerry Garcia neckties, based on artworks with titles such as “the Poet Considers the War.”)

I had the good fortune to meet the final three artists/artisans personally at Cirque du Cyclisme in 2007 The market for finely-crafted steel frames has mushroomed in the United States and the order books of Sasha White (Vanilla), Richard Sachs and J. Peter Weigle all show an impressive backlog. Looking at the bicycles in New York, it is easy to understand why.

Photo : D. James Dee
The surprisingly-young Sasha White builds in Portland, Oregon, and his bikes not only feature superb workmanship but also a spirit of playfulness. There was a child's bicycle and even a tricyle. One of his Speedvagen models, from a line of quasi-production run bicycles, was present, but the Vanilla bikes (a track and a road model), with their detailed lugwork were more appealing to me. I spent quite a bit of time looking at the Randonneur model, with its beautiful metallic paint and matching fenders, and featuring a handmade old-style aluminum water bottle (with a hardwood cap!) and cage. That said, a randonneur bike, as I understand it, is meant for long-distance, comfortable touring and the Vanilla bicycle looked more to me like a racing bike with fenders. No racks or lighting system, and narrow racing tires but lovely nonetheless.

Photo: J. Peter Weigle
Richard Sachs of Massachusetts, considered one of the deans of American framebuilding, showed models for road, track and cyclocross racing, all in his familiar red-and-white paint scheme. The cyclocross bike was particularly appealing, as it had a layer of mud on it, an idea that took it away from an objet d'art in a museum to its direct function. A display case in the museum showed artifacts from the builders, and not only could you see Richard Sachs' own racing license, but also his collection of New Yorker magazine covers featuring bicycles.
Ladies' Randonneur Bike--Photo J. Peter Weigle
Also from New England comes Peter Weigle of Connecticut. He had only two bikes on show, a ladies' randonneur bike and a men's sportif model, both equipped with vintage parts and including Peter's own custom tail light. The men's bike won Best in Show at Cirque du Cyclisme in 2009 I looked closely at Peter's work at Cirque and was impressed not only with the skillful construction but also the seamless appearance of his bikes. Their subtle detailing and beautiful proportions are distinctive. At Cirque, Peter brought an old Raleigh of middling quality that he had turned into a beautiful randonneur bike and it was immediately apparent that there was more Peter Weigle in it than Nottingham at that point. Yet was just another diamond-framed safety bicycle. Peter also provided interesting material for the display case, including a memorabilia from his own racing career.

The exhibition is nicely set out in an uncrowded and attractive environment, enabling the visitor to get a close view of all the pieces. Of course, with the exception of the cyclocross bike, everything is surgically clean so the bicycles are considered as artworks alone, with no distracting environment. As it is a gallery, the property rights of the artists are closely guarded, so photography is not allowed. Well, for some people it is: I am indebted to Peter Weigle for the photos on this blog.

Photo: J. Peter Weigle
A rather expensive catalogue (but with admittedly excellent photography and comments about the bicycles and their “artists”) is available from the Museum shop here. Mine had to be sent after my visit as it was prepared too late for the opening of the show.

Take the opportunity to enjoy the exhibition if you can as bicycles are so seldom presented with a focus that takes them from mechanical objects to fine art.