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The bikes speak for themselves at North American Handmade Bike Show in Austin

Ian Dille

The North American Handmade Bike Show is akin to South by Southwest for bike geeks. The event showcases both major players in the cycling industry and upstart bike builders. It appeals to the most ardent of cycling aficionados, as well as people who simply appreciate a beautifully constructed, handmade, two-wheeled machine.

The first North American Handmade Bike Show was held in Houston six years ago. Custom frame builder Don Walker, formerly based in Waco, founded the event and still oversees its organization. Since its inception, the show has grown in size from 23 exhibitors and 700 attendees to more than 100 exhibitors and 6,000 attendees. It's crossed the country, spreading the gospel of bicycles in cycling hot spots such as Portland, Ore., and Richmond, Va., and become a living testament to the artistry of bicycle-building. Now fully grown, the event is coming home to Texas.

Though a sense of community permeates the exhibits at the show, the builders - no matter the size of their operation or their intended audience - will admit that they're attempting to outdo each other. The bikes on display range from immaculately designed and mind-bogglingly practical city bikes to avant-garde featherweight racers constructed from the rarest of earthly materials. (Custom bikes, for the frame and fork only, start around $1,200 and go up from there.)

The handmade bike show is even known to draw notable bike-loving celebrities, such as Robin Williams and Austin's own cycling star, Lance Armstrong. At the 2008 show in Portland, Armstrong purchased the bike awarded Best in Show. It now hangs above the cash register at his downtown Austin bike shop, Mellow Johnny's.

Five Austin builders of custom bike frames will exhibit at this year's show, including Nick Crumpton, who's listed as one of the half-dozen builders who've attended the North American Handmade Bike Show since the event's inauguration. The profiles below give a glimpse of the history, mindset and construction process that leads to each Austin-based builder's final product. In the end, though, the bikes speak for themselves.

KirkLee Bicycles

www.kirkleebicycles.com

After graduating from Texas A&M University in 2005 with an MBA and undergraduate degree in industrial distribution, Brad Cason knew he wanted to make custom bicycles. At first, he contemplated more education - taking classes specifically geared toward bike frame construction. Then, says Cason, "I thought to myself, I could spend two to three thousand dollars on classes. Or, I could spend the same amount of money on materials and tools and teach myself."

Not long after receiving his first order of raw carbon fiber, Cason crafted his own hand-built, carbon-fiber mountain bike frame. He dubbed the bike KirkLee #001 and set about testing it. During a visit to his shop, located in a small garage behind his Allandale home, Cason pulls the retired #001 frame out from underneath a worktable. "I raced this bike off-road all over Texas," he says. "After three years of abuse without any problems, I decided I was ready to go into business."

Today, Cason is one of the few handmade bike-frame builders in the nation using carbon fiber. And although many builders outsource the manufacturing of the carbon-fiber tubing to larger companies, Cason makes almost all of the individual parts used to construct a frame himself. The carbon-fiber frame tubes are set in machined, aluminum molds Cason designed, then cast into rigid structures in his shop's industrial-quality oven. "I don't want to just assemble a bike someone else built," he says.

In addition to their sleek, modern look, KirkLee bikes frequently attract attention for their unique paint jobs. At this weekend's bike show, keep an eye out for KirkLee's latest masterpiece, a bike based on Van Gogh's "Starry Night."

Alchemy Bicycles

www.alchemybicycles.com

Though it's one of Austin's newest custom bike shops, Alchemy Bicycles, located on Ben White Boulevard in South Austin, contains no shortage of ambition. Upon entering Alchemy, customers step into a state-of-the-art fitting area and showroom. On display is the wide variety of bicycles made by Alchemy, from rigid-steel mountain bikes to titanium and carbon-fiber road racers. Each frame starts here with a custom bike fit, using a fully adjustable stationary bike and 3-D imaging technology.

Alchemy's owner, James Flatman, 34, is a native of Australia and lifelong disciple of the bike industry. (He took a brief respite to work as a welder on NASA aircraft.) Flatman views Alchemy as a custom-bicycle company that can offer superior quality and personal service at a price equal to some of the nation's biggest brands.

"We can offer bikes in the same price range, with a hell of a lot better fit," says Flatman, who envisions Alchemy expanding to the spaces on both sides of his shop.

Like many local builders, Flatman frequently performs repairs for customers who've broken bike frames made by larger companies. Many of the broken bikes occur in crashes, but others fail simply because of shoddy manufacturing. "In repairing these bikes, we're able to see the mistakes other bike frame companies are making," Flatman says.

Even the repair process echoes Alchemy's ethos, transforming something of lesser value into greater value. Flatman says, "We're not only transforming raw materials into custom bikes. We're transforming individuals into better people through these bikes." And if Flatman is successful in directly competing with mass market bike companies, Alchemy might transform the bicycle industry, too.

Crumpton Cycles

www.crumptoncycles.com

In 1986, Nick Crumpton says, a simple "light-bulb moment" lead him to build some of the industry's most innovative custom bike frames. "I was given a steel Schwinn road bike that needed repainting," says Crumpton. "When I stripped off the paint, I realized the bike wasn't manufactured. It was hand-built."

Inspired to build his own bikes, Crumpton started crafting his own frames, while also working as a bike mechanic throughout the mid-'90s. In 2001, after marrying and later taking a job in the high-tech industry, Crumpton realized the future of modern bike frames was in composite materials, i.e. carbon fiber. Crumpton spent two years researching the properties of carbon fiber. He scoured online forums and traded information with the handful of builders dabbling in the process as well. In 2003, he crafted a prototype carbon-fiber frame, and in December 2004, he began taking orders.

Today, Crumpton is considered one of the forefathers of handmade carbon-fiber bike frames. Across the country, only a half-dozen or so other custom-frame builders use what Crumpton calls the "tube-to-tube" construction process - which allows the builder to fully modify the size and angles of the bike frame. Each custom, carbon-fiber Crumpton bike frame is still assembled in a tidy shop behind his home in Allandale.

In 2008, Bicycling magazine gave Crumpton its "Dream Road Bike" Editor's Choice award. Since then, the customer waiting list for one of his frames, which sell for $5,300 (without parts), hasn't dropped below six months. An early pioneer of custom carbon-fiber bicycle frames, Crumpton remains an industry leader.

True Fabrication

www.truefabricationbicycles.com

The guys who run True Fabrication bicycles are unique, in that building bicycles is not their full-time job. And they believe that's exactly what helps set them apart. "We don't build bikes to pay the bills. We build bikes because of our passion for cycling and the frame-building process," says Cody Baron, one of True Fabrication's three founding members. In addition to his role as the initial customer liaison and frame designer at True Fabrication, Baron also owns the retail store, Hammerhead Bicycles, and works in educational sales for Apple Computer, Inc.

Though they build a variety of bike styles, True Fabrication is probably best known within Austin's mountain bike community. Baron frequently meets prospective customers at the trailhead of local riding spots. "I'll bring a couple of our bikes for them to try out and have them describe their riding style to me while we pedal," he says. Then, with a keen insight of exactly what the cyclist is looking for, Baron will hand over a computer-generated frame design to True Fabrication's master welder, Clark Davidson.

Davidson, who is an IT project manager by day, builds each True Fabrication frame in the garage of his North Austin home by night. Frames partially constructed from raw steel and titanium hang from the ceiling of the shop, which contains myriad high-powered tools, including a 1951 Bridgeport mill weighing nearly 2,000 pounds.

Before True Fabrication was founded, Davidson, who still rides regularly, was an avid racer. Though he doesn't necessarily miss the thrill of competition. "When you hand a completed bike off to a customer, the feeling of satisfaction is almost exactly the same as winning a race," he says.

Violet Crown Cycles

www.violetcrowncycles.com

For Elliott McFadden, building bikes is less about lightweight, high-speed performance and more about utility, comfort and, frankly, saving the world. McFadden is the owner of Violet Crown Cycles, as well as the author of Austinontwowheels.com, a blog chronicling the city's expanding cycling culture.

A longtime activist for a less car-dependent, more bike-friendly city, McFadden founded Austin CarShare and worked on the campaign to bring commuter rail to town. In 2009, McFadden traveled to Michigan to study under master frame builder Doug Fattic, and not long afterward he opened Violet Crown Cycles. His most popular models, the Pa and Ma Ferguson (men's and women's versions, respectively), are based after Dutch city bicycles of the same style (known as the Opa and Oma).

The bikes feature a more upright pedaling position, fenders to guard from water splashing up on the rider, built-in front and rear lights, and racks for carrying cargo to work or home from the grocery store. The seat is wide and spring-cushioned. A large brass bell adorns the handlebars. Elegant metal lugs join the frame's steel tubes.

"I noticed that the U.S. bicycle market is very recreation-oriented," says McFadden of his decision to focus on building bikes for practical, day-to-day use. "There are lots of bikes out there designed for exercise, but not many meant to live your life on."

McFadden's shop is noticeably sparse compared with most of Austin's other frame builders. It contains no high-powered, heavyweight metal-working equipment. Instead, McFadden uses an expansive set of steel files and a 4-inch thick, perfectly level, solid marble table to construct his bikes. Even the frame building process, like McFadden's approach to life, is evidently low impact.

Ian Dille is a freelance writer and a Category 1 amateur bike racer for the Super Squadra cycling team.

North American Handmade Bicycle Show

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday

Where: Halls 1 and 2, Austin Convention Center, 500 E. Cesar Chavez St.

Cost: $22 for one day; $40 for two days; $58 for all three days

Information:2011.handmadebicycleshow.com

Side parties

NAHBS-Austin Original Party: A showcase of NAHBS builders from around the world paired with a few of Austin's own originals, including Real Ale, music by the Rust Tones, Amy's Ice Cream and Austin Barbecue Co. If you own a hand-built bike, bring it to the party. A photographer will be in-store to take a portrait of you and your bike. All hand-built bikes can be parked inside the store during the party. 6:30-8:30 p.m. Saturday. Bicycle Sport Shop, 517 S. Lamar Blvd. Free. 477-3472, bicyclesportshop.com .

Rapha Continental Movie Premiere: Mellow Johnny's bike shop will host the premiere of Rapha clothing company's latest Continental Film, along with a screening of 'D'Acciaio' ('Of Steel'), which captures master frame builder Dario Pegoretti in his Italian workshop. Both films will be shown on a big screen, with food and drinks served. 9 p.m. to 11:59 p.m., tonight. Free. Mellow Johnny's, 400 Nueces. 473-0222, mellowjohnnys.com .