Thursday, February 28, 2013

Mud In The Museum

All the jibber-jabber around The Internets about this year's North American Handmade Bicycle Show reminds me of a trip Dear Spouse and I took to NYC back in ought-ten. One of the jillions of museums we visited was the Museum of Arts and Design, which was featuring a show called Bespoke: The Handbuilt Bicycle.

The show displayed the handiwork of six builders who often haunt the aisles of NAHBS: Mike Flanigan, Jeff Jones, Dario Pegoretti, Richard Sachs, Peter Weigle, and Sacha White. The bikes were -- as you might expect -- gorgeous, made only more so by the fact that they were displayed in a museum setting by folks who really know how to show off amazing objects. It was by far my favorite museum experience of all time, and being married to a museum nerd (he said with love), I've had my share.

No disrespect to the other builders and their (jaw-dropping) work, but the bike that I couldn't stop going back to was the Richard Sachs cyclocross bike (Aside: My favorite thing about that link is how the museum text describes the bike as "mixed media/found objects.") It was one of the builder's personal race bikes, and still carried the dried mud of its last race. In a room full of gleaming, polished-to-within-an-inch-of-their lives show bikes, here sat this muddy mutt. You could almost imagine it leaving tire tracks across the gallery like the paw prints of a disobedient dog. But it wasn't just the glaring, grimy contrast that got my attention -- it was what that mud said about the builder and his bikes.

By choosing to show his race bike, mud and all, Sachs seemed to be calling attention to the fact that the bike was at its core a tool to get something done. Carve the lugs all you want, braze on all the stainless logos you can fit, bend the tubes into swoops and swirls, wrap every surface in matching leather, or paint circus animals on it, but at the end of the day, it still has to work as a bicycle. That attitude (which I admit, I may be fabricating in my own strange mind) has changed the way I ogle show bikes ever since. I like a good flourish as much as the next guy, but if a builder seems more interested in the gingerbread than in the bicycle itself, I'm moving on.

This is not to say there isn't artistry in a Sachs frame -- get in close on that muddy cross bike and you start to see the small details of a true master who's been honing his craft for decades. And if swoops and swirls float your boat, there's nothing inherently wrong with them. After all, you have to look at the bike while you're riding it, so it should look good to you. I just don't like to see flourish getting in the way of function. After all, I might have the prettiest hammer in the world, but if I can't drive a nail with it, what's the point? 

Housekeeping Note: You may have noticed that my recent post about pal Tarik's experience at NAHBS is no more. Tarik has reached a satisfactory resolution with the NAHBS folks, so I thought it was only fair to redact my post in its entirety so half the story isn't floating out there for The Googles to find for all eternity. Nobody asked -- or forced -- me to take it down. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

...and no pictures???

well heck, I also enjoyed the esteemed Mr. Sachs work at the 2009 NAHBS. He had a cross bike with presumably authentic mud on it there too, and it is a great statement that this is not a bike to be worshiped or coddled, but a bike to be used.

I don't recall if Mr. Sachs has ever built a bike that emphasized the artistic aspect over the usual craftsmanship and good design. He's certainly built a reputation on craft, and it would be a surprise to see him change.

OTOH, it is a contrast to other luminaries such as Bruce Gordon. Mr. Gordon has a history of making purely functional bikes as well as making wonderfully artistic bikes. I don't know that I could say that one is better than the other. As an owner of commuting bikes as well as bikes with needlessly ornate lugs and such, all I know is that it's nice to have a number of bikes of all types!

Steve in Peoria