This weekend, Austin, Texas hosts the 7th annual North American Handmade Bicycle Show—affectionately known as “NAHBS”—where many of the worlds finest bicycle and accessory craftsmen will assemble to show their wares, exchange ideas, and in some special cases, maybe enjoy a ride or two.
This year, one of our favorite builders, Steve Hampsten from Seattle, Washington’s Hampsten Cycles, will make the trip, armed with a beautiful array of bikes designed using traditional principles and materials and geared for racers and enthusiasts alike. While you may know Steve more for his brother’s exploits, his framesets are proof that there’s more behind the family name than just legendary Grand Tour victories.
Thanks for the taking the time to answer some questions, Steve. Let’s begin with an easy one: what’s your 6-word memoir?
SH – “A Life Gloriously Mis-spent with Bicycles”
Before making bicycles, you spent about 18 years as a chef in Madison, Wisconsin and Seattle, Washington. Are there any similarities between creating the perfect meal and the perfect frame?
SH – I initially learned classic French cuisine, straight out of Escoffier, then started playing with Nouvelle Cuisine (small portions, high prices)—this was all back in the early 1980s. After that, for me, came New American cooking, followed by many years of Italian food—mostly Northern Italian. So in the restaurants I worked in I was usually the “Italian” guy or the “Classic” guy—meaning that I understood the basics of cooking pretty thoroughly and I liked to work in a fairly traditional realm.
So when I’m executing a dish from the menu or creating a special for that evening, I’m bring my knowledge, my love for what I’m doing, and my feel for the ingredients used to that particular dish. I’m not really asking myself if the customer will like what I’m doing—it’s almost a given that they will.
If we apply this to the bikes we sell, I feel like the customers know what kind of bikes I’m doing, they know what the flavors are going to be, they simply want me to translate that into a bike for them personally. You know—it works. And the bicycles—like my cooking—are fairly traditional and classic.
For those readers who might be meeting Hampsten Cycles for the first time, what would you like them to know? What impressions do you hope they’ll take away?
SH – Andy and I are the principals in Hampsten Cycles and we both started riding in about 1965 and racing in 1975. Andy is a retired professional racer who won the Giro d’Italia in 1988, finished fourth in the Tour de France twice, and had some other good results. Andy now leads tours in Italy with Cinghiale Cycling Tours and is a mean cook in his own right.
I/Steve am an ex-chef, I’ve worked in bike shops off and on since 1975, I can weld and blacksmith, I’ve brazed bicycle frames, and we’ve been doing the bike company since 1999. I guess the impression I’d like people to have is that we’re both been around bicycles for a long time, we love riding, and we’re thrilled to be doing what we’re doing—I love my job.
How would you describe the philosophy of Hampsten Cycles? What experiences shaped it?
SH – Maybe it wasn’t thinking that we could do better, but that no one was doing it quite the way we thought it could be done.
Some of this goes back to when Andy started Cinghiale Cycling Tours, his marketing was basically: hey, come over, ride with us, we think you’ll be blown away by what great roads we have, what great food there is, and what nice people you’ll get to ride with. And so many of his customers seemed to show up on bikes that maybe didn’t fit them well as they did 20 years ago or weren’t as well-suited to riding in Italy as they could have been.
At the same time I was working at Match Bicycle Company, building Schwinn Paramounts, and working with some pretty good framebuilders; Martin Tweedy, Curt Goodrich, Kirk Pacenti, Mark Bulgier, Tim Isaac, et. al. I looked at what we were doing with the Paramounts and so much of it seemed market-driven and involved heavy/oversized tubing and geometry that could have been improved upon. And at Match we’d have these long conversations on how frames could be better built and what geometry would make sense if we were designing them for ourselves and our friends. And we sneered at all the aluminum frames coming from China and carbon was still pretty uncommon and titanium was what rich people rode.
Then at some point the coin dropped and we started talking about putting the family name on a down tube and having them built at Match for folks like us who were a little older and not racing anymore and where should we retire to when we got rich off this gig?
Our philosophy, if we have one, is that we build the bikes we ride and we do them the way we think they should be done. So that rules out cyclocross bikes, track bikes, TT bikes—we have built these in the past but we don’t now because we don’t ride them anymore. And others far smarter than us make mountain bikes so we don’t go there.
But interestingly, while you might rule out certain types of bikes, as a builder you embrace many different materials. Why so diverse? Do you have one material you prefer over the rest?
SH – I’ve ridden bikes from all the materials we build and it seems pretty obvious that one can build a good bicycle from anything currently being used. Steel we like for the sweet ride, ease of construction, and reasonable price. Ti is great for the comfortable ride over big hits, light weight, and general bombproof-ness. Aluminum I like for the race-like feel, relative ease of working, and overall stiffness; carbon is good for those wanting a quieter ride and a light frame. We’re not currently selling carbon frames but I still feel it’s a good material in this application.
As to having a material preference…not so much. For me it’s usually about do I want to ride a light bike with skinny tires or maybe something comfy with fenders and bigger tires? Or a light stiff bike with skinny tires and fenders? So many choices…and what to wear?
With so many options, I imagine it’s hard for some customers to choose what they want—or they have something in mind that just doesn’t make sense. How do you handle situations in which the customer might not be right? What happens when the experience of the builder comes into conflict with the desire of the buyer?
SH – When I’m dealing with a customer I’m pretty good about letting them know what I think will work and what won’t. If it comes down to aesthetics – color, say, or choice of decals—I realize that I’m on less firm ground than, say, discussing geometry and gearing or equipment. So I make my recommendations, I hope they listen, and at some point I may have to just shut up and make the sale. Or, if I feel that the customer is being a big PIA or that my principles are being compromised, I may have to fire them—or they may fire me. I’ve seen all these scenarios and while the un-fun ones have happened, they are rare; they happen less as I get better at this, and I’m sorry to anyone reading this that I’ve been rude to—probably.
Come back Thursday for Part 2 of our chat with Steve. And if you’re lucky enough to be heading to NAHBS, stop-by and take a look at his beautiful bikes.