For years, as Lance Armstrong ruled the Tour de France and carbon fiber became the material of choice for racers and recreational riders alike, high-end bikes got lighter, marginally faster and more mass-produced than ever.
Steel bikes built by hand were for a dwindling number of stubborn old dudes, artisans and aesthetes.
Then something happened a convergence of folks in recent years that has transformed a segment of the bike industry and helped return style, substance and soul to cycling.
To see it firsthand, look no further than the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, where thousands of men and women began roaming the Sacramento Convention Center on Friday. The three-day show, which is expected to attract 10,000-plus visitors, is open to the public and runs through Sunday.
Attendees arrived en masse to ogle bikes and meet the craftsmen who made them. They took pictures. They asked questions. They stooped over, kneeled down and moved in close. They ran their fingers across everything from custom-made frames to wooden wheels built by craftsmen in the mountains of Italy.
Steel lugs, once considered out of fashion and nearly obsolete, are eye candy at this show. Steel frames get cool points and bamboo bikes turn heads. There are racks, cargo bags, leather saddles of all sizes and shapes.
At this show, perhaps the nexus of bike-geek-meets-bike-stylist could be found in the myriad ways to mount a headlight to a bike frame. Even fenders, once considered clunky and nerdy, are now a fashion statement, if not an artistic one.
What's happened since 1999, when every cyclist seemed to be wearing a U.S. Postal jersey and began demanding lighter and lighter carbon fiber bikes?
Those attending the show suggest it's a dynamic convergence of several groups: young people in urban areas riding fixed-gear bikes and seeking clothing with street functionality but without the clingy Lycra; folks who enjoy long-distance bike touring where strong, well-made frames are more important than lightweight ones; a growing number of commuters who claim the bike as a major transportation option; the old-guard riders and curmudgeons who never gave up on the heavier but more compliant ride of steel frames; and those who see the well-made bike as something to covet and show off, whether it's on a speedy road bike or during a slow-down-and-socialize "tweed ride."
"If you're looking for something beyond the ordinary, something unexpected, you'll come to a show like this," said Ric Hjertberg of Wheel Fanatyk, standing in front of the wooden-rim bike wheels he imports from Italy and distributes to the American market. Such wheels were common 100 years ago and have returned as a niche product. The rims alone cost $185 each. A set of fully built wheels costs about $900.
"The bike culture has become much richer and deeper in the past 10 years," he added.
Ivan Harms, who works for Full Speed Ahead, which makes components such as cranks and handlebars, says the company has a presence at the show because the market for handmade artisanal products has taken off.
"It's been growing for us," he said. "This is the non-technology side of the industry. This is the passion side. They don't want the lightest and greatest bike. They want the coolest and most fun."
The 158 exhibitors at NAHBS showed off many aspects of the bike industry, with a major emphasis on commuter bikes, touring bikes equipped with a variety of racks, as well as extra-sturdy cargo bikes designed to carry heavy loads. Racing bikes and urban casual bikes could also be found throughout the convention hall.
"This show is a reflection of the growing enthusiasm around biking, this growing sense that the bicycle is a viable transportation tool," said Jeffery Rosenhall, a board member of Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates.
Sacramento frame builder Steve Rex is displaying several of his bikes in the crowded Convention Center. Rex began building custom steel bikes years before they were considered fashionable, toiling in a shop without heat or air conditioning.
Now he is seen as something of a hometown hero and this week has been the focus of several tributes and parties.
"I'm really happy it's here," Rex said of the show as he scanned the crowd, "so people will see how cool Sacramento is and maybe they'll go for a ride on the bike trail."