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North American Hand Made Bicycle Show -

San Jose, California, March 2-4, 2007

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Part 4 - Handbuilt for the dirt

By James Huang in San Jose, CA

San Francisco-based Nelson Titanium Products
Photo ©: James Huang
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The NAHBS surely isn't just about bikes built for the road. Last year's show was littered with mountain bikes, particularly of the 29" wheel variety. While the '07 show didn't quite have the same dense population this time around, there were still plenty of mountain and 'cross bikes to be found on the exhibition floor, and few 26" wheels at all.

Yet another mountain bike wheel size format, though, was introduced at the show this year by Kirk Pacenti (former Bontrager builder and now of Bikelugs.com). Pacenti was an early proponent of the 29" wheel movement, and still believes in the bigger wheel concept. However, as a frame designer, "tossing out fundamental frame design principles to accommodate the 29" wheel just doesn't sit well with me."

The alternate size he proposed is roughly 27.5" in diameter and essentially splits the difference between the current rivals. To be fair, the 'new' size isn't new at all, but rather uses the old 650B standard that's been around for ages. According to Pacenti, 650B can offer most of the 29" wheel's ability to roll over obstacles, but can retain most of the perceived acceleration advantage of 26" wheels, all while accommodating a broader range of rider sizes.

Bohemian Cycles is best known for its intricately lugged road machines
Photo ©: James Huang
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"It's just like a pendulum; you get this idea and it grows and takes off, and it goes to an extreme. Fifteen years ago, the view was that, if 16" chain stays were good, 15" ones were better and everyone was going with an elevated stay [in order to reduce the chain stay length]. Here we are, fifteen years later, and we're all back running 16.75" stays. So I kind of view it that way. In general, I think it's the best of both worlds."

Tires on Pacenti's show bike were hand-trimmed and stitched from WTB 29" tires, but Panaracer has apparently signed on to produce proper 650B mountain bike tires. Pacenti says that he's already sold about 500 hundred tires to both Rivendell (who has been advocating the 650B for some time now) and "another company". The idea certainly holds some merit, and we'll be eagerly waiting to see where this one goes (and no, we're not adding 650B wheels to our ongoing 26" vs. 29" experiment, so don't even ask!).

On the cyclocross front, some of the most interesting news came from Sacha White of Vanilla Bicycles. After last year's NAHBS, White's backlog ballooned from a fairly reasonable 13 months up to a gargantuan 47 months. "We might as well just call it four years," he said.

Looks like a nice, normal hardtail, right?
Photo ©: James Huang
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In spite of the seemingly insurmountable workload, White announced the introduction of a new line of cyclocross racing bikes dubbed Speedvagen. White has a strong background in 'cross, but, according to him, the limited run is "less about reminding people about my roots in racing and more about preserving Vanilla as what it is. Right now, with having a backlog of four years, I don't want to feel rushed to have to produce more Vanillas and bring on a workforce and have people build my bikes. I want to keep that as sort of my 'pursuit of craft', but also 'cross is totally near and dear to my heart. I love racing 'cross, I love building 'cross racing machines, and so this was kind of the answer to that."

The Speedvagen bikes will certainly be a departure from what has become the norm for Vanilla Bicycles. First off, in order to have bicycles ready for the '07 'cross season, White is actually bringing in another builder to help get them completed (other Vanillas will remain strictly White creations). As opposed to other ornate Vanillas, Speedvagen will strictly be "a bad-ass racing machine, stripped of what it doesn't really need. This is all about race, and all about going fast. It's not going to be this superfine, delectable paint job. You don't want to worry about your bike; you want to race the hell out of it.

Rear disc mount is neatly tucked in between
Photo ©: James Huang
(Click for larger image)

Indeed, Speedvagen bikes will wear a monochromatic, industrial-hued paint job in contrast to the typically ornate dressings. Performance-enhancing features will include a uniquely integrated seat mast (bearing a cannibalized Thomson head), pared-down stainless steel dropouts, and direct-mount rear brake stubs that are specifically designed around Paul cantilevers to increase braking power and feel instead of standard cantilever bosses.

Speedvagen will consist of only thirty pieces, all of which will be custom-built to measure. White will begin taking applications for the bikes beginning April 1, and applications will be handled on a "first-come, first-serve basis." However, White strongly emphasizes that he wants each of these limited-run bikes to be used as intended: for racing. Obviously, he has no real way to police that edict so we're not sure how exactly applications will be truly handled once received, but rest assured that if your intent is to simply have a Vanilla to display on your wall… well, you're likely better off throwing yourself into that four-year queue.

If things go well, Speedvagen may not be the last of this type of limited run. White says that, "I could easily see it being a limited run for road, being kind of a biannual thing for road and 'cross."


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Images by James Huang/Cyclingnews.com

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