MADE 2023 – Tilting at Windmills
I spent much of last week walking the floor of the MADE bicycle show in Portland, OR, drifting in and out of booths, running my eye over the best work of the best bike builders, and trying to understand what it all means. “What’s the coolest bike you’ve seen?” was a frequent question. “I don’t know. They’re all so cool,” I usually replied.
I had a five-hour flight home to think about what to tell you about this show and came up nearly empty, until I realized, at last, that the bikes, beautiful, startling and varied though they were, might have been so many red herring, working against the current. The thing about the show, about this niche of a niche of the bike business, is that the people are, for better and worse, my people.
There in the partial darkness of the rambling, old warehouse at the Zidell Yards, perched on the banks of the Willamette River, everyone sweating in the late summer funk, gathered a group of strange individuals, irreverent, creative, profane, romantic and driven, who do what they do despite its poor commercial prospects and obscurity to the everyday horde of bike riders.
Nao Tomii, who is somehow not well-known even among bike nerds, is possibly the most underrated builder currently plying his trade in the United States, and yet he strode the show floor beaming beatifically and having a fine time. B Vivit stood in her Hot Salad booth administering hugs and smiles to her many friends, and when asked about her own bikes, deferred her interlocutors to Ashely at Significant Other Bikes, just across the way. “Her bikes are amazing. You should check them out,” she said.
We are, all of us there, just tilting at windmills, fighting against homogeneity, against cliche, against practicality, against the crushing force of global capitalism.
The industry churns like an ocean, spitting these small builders up on the shore. Decisions get made on high, at the big companies, in California, in Japan, in Europe, bike shops shifting in the currents and tides. And this lot sits in their garages or barns or cheap commercial spaces with brazing torches and TIG-welders, trying to eke out a living.
There was so much to see at MADE 2023. Without much work you can find the explicit bicycle pornography I saw in the dim light of the Portland summer. It’s worth looking at, poring over, trying to understand. I really wish, though, that you could meet this rag-tag bunch of weirdos. They’re fun. They’re inspiring. And, they love bicycles in a way that you and I think we do, but realize, when confronted by their work, that we’ve only just got a crush, that we’re still just absolute beginners.