by Jim Cunningham, CyclArtist
I've been restoring old bicycles and helping create new ones professionally for 21 years now. I learn at least one new thing every day. Some days I forget two.
My father used to build racecars. Car shows were always exciting events for us, the best of them were judged events called "Concours d' Elegance" filled with a wide range of race, show and classics. We'd go and I'd almost touch the cars I had admired in the stacks of magazines at home. In those days, I could identify the make, model and year of thousands of cars, each from a single photo. Still, to actually stand next to the real thing, to study it at close range, to absorb it's lines and proportions while walking around it, eclipsed all the glossy prints Frequently, the owner was with his machine, eager to answer questions; things the books left unsaid. At the best events, old rivals shook hands, swapped stories and maybe signed an autograph for a young fan.
My immersion in the world of bicycles helped me to realize that the machines themselves were a repository of history, ingenuity, craft and artistry. In school, history was often told through the artifacts of past societies, especially the tools of the victors and their vanquished. That too, is apparent in cycling's race weaponry, it's balloon tired Trojan horses, it's highwheel cavalry. The machines are the embodiment of corporate strategies, lone visionary's breakthroughs and martyr's crosses. Their past as distant as last century or close as our own youth.
I believe that the bicycle, that noblest of machines, deserves a portion of the attention and care given to automobiles, the greediest of machines. So, since 1984 CyclArt has produced bicycle concours.
Designing & judging such events is full of challenging paradoxes.
If the category is "Most Beautiful", how can one objectively compare an ornately lugged Hetchins to the classic lines of a Schwinn Auto cycle? Having a first, second and third allows recognition of each, but forces placement of one over the other. Of course, judicial gnashing of teeth can be dodged completely by giving all attendees a ballot and scoring by popular vote. This democratic approach works if the attendees are mostly knowledgeable enthusiasts, but if the event has a majority of casual cyclists, the results can be exasperating to those who made the effort to prepare and display worthy bikes. I remember for example, an event that had 10 entries in the "Most Unusual" category. First place was given to a "Swing bike", a gimmick bike mass produced in Taiwan and available in hundreds of shops for under $200. An innovative, one of a kind, back to back recumbent tandem and it's enthusiastic owner/inventor went unrecognized without even a second or third place!
The idea is to reward as many of the entrants as appropriate.
But how to judge? Some events simply trust that a conscientious judge will do his best and leave it at that. I think that is unfair to the judges. Human nature is competitive and suspicious. Some exhibitors pride in their bikes is immense and many put consider able effort into preparation. Leaving judging informal invites accusations of bias or incompetence.
More organized events give a scorecard so judges can arrive at a numeric score for all bikes. One approach, derived from auto concours, is to start at 100 points and deduct for any flaws in condition or specification. I have judged events where each component of each bike was scored for condition and "correctness". For example, in one system, the saddle is worth 5 points. When judging a seventies Cinelli, one would score 5 points for a new condition Unicanitor Model 3 in buffalo leather, as this was the catalog spec. If showing signs of wear, 4 points. If the bike is fitted with a new-condition Brooks Professional with the 1970's era nameplate, one might score it well, as the saddle was a "period" option that many riders might have chosen when the bike was purchased, perhaps a 4. A recent production Brooks perhaps 2 and saddle in poor condition or inappropriate, 1. I'm not comfortable with this system for several reasons. First, there are very few people who are confident of this level of detailed knowledge on whatever shows up on event day. In the auto world, such things are better documented, and required pre-registration and tight categorization, often by brand, aids judging. For bicycles, at least at this stage of collector/event maturity, this system poses several problems. First, no authoritative documentation exists for vintage bicycles. Anyone in the trade can tell you that product literature or magazine articles are often incorrect. Further, unless carefully isolated into tiny categories, this system can cause unused, boring production bikes to beat rare, historic actual race winners! Bicycles are made to be ridden, and the emphasis here is too heavy on unused equipment. Finally, I want my events to be positive and the focus on fault finding here seems to work against that.
Having tried several systems and after participating as a judge in several large auto and motorcycle concours, I have developed a system for Concours d' CyclArt that seems to get the balances right. It uses a mix of numerical scoring, judges and popular votes and flexible categories. Here's how it works:
All show bike entries are given an event pin and are eligible for door prize. Numbered cards are provided to write bike description and history. Entrants mark categories they wish to enter, as many as the bike seems to fit. Categories include:
Selected by Judges: Best: antique, replica, vintage racer, Italian, British, French, American, custom, touring, commuter, pre-war balloon, post-war balloon, original, restored, tandem, motorized, muscle bike, hot rod, low rider, pre-1900, pre-balloon, pre-W.W.II, 1950's, 1960's, 1970's, 1980's, The Braslow/CyclArt best of show award.
The most subjective categories are voted by entrants themselves: Most: historic, unusual, creative, beautiful, rare, cool, rusted. Best: Custom bike, lugs, paint, crash damage, new design, concept bike, bike art.
Voted by spectators: People's choice.
Sometimes not all categories are awarded and I have been known to make up awards for a deserving, but unexpected bike.
Over the years, some have commented that the range of categories is too wide at my events that there should be a focus limiting the event to balloon classics or racers or whatever. Prestigious, long running & successful motorcycle & car events often include very diverse interests. Meanwhile, I see a bit of cross-pollination between otherwise isolated interest groups as a good thing. I think until the event outgrows our locations ability to handle it, there is no reason to split. Typically, we get about 100 entrants but could accommodate 200 or more. If we overflow that, it will be time to do more than an annual event and tighten the focus.