I was excited to visit Charlotte for the North American Handbuilt Bicycle Show. I’d last spent time in the beautiful city, also know as the Hornet’s Nest, in the mid 1990s. It was in the early autumn, and I remember very little beyond longing to join my friends on a couple of long rides out of the city. For this trip, I’d be base camping with a handful of fellow #hobocyclists, all determined to explore as much as possible over a long weekend.

For better, or for worse… the show has grown and changed a lot over the years. Most of the master builders no longer attend, or if they do, spend their time chatting with friends rather than showcasing their work. There are very few wild dreamers in the competition: not a lot of top tubes with quarter-sized holes drilled in them, or asymmetrical stays, or wildly esoteric carved lugs. What NAHBS does offer is a pretty accurate snapshot of the types of bicycles that middle aged men who have $10k to spend, but have little or no interest in production carbon. This translates to very refined, if conventional, work from the likes of Moots, Calfee, Holland, Alchemy, Argonaut, and the like.

Which is not to say there weren’t some outliers in attendance. My favorite OG wizard, Stephen Bilenky showed off some rad tandems and sweet t-shirts. Pegoretti and Cherubim, two sides of the same coin, sported booths that seemed exist on another plane, at another time, with work that, more than anything, contained self referential flourishes rather than market-driven features or aesthetics. Geekhouse and Breadwinner presented steel bikes that were at once mature and maybe a little boring, but are bound to sell like hotcakes.

75% of the Tatito contingent grew bored, and so we decided to leave and go for a long ride instead. The riding in and around Charlotte is so lovely that even the most hardened midwesterner, suffering from the deepest seasonal effective disorder, will affect an ear-to-ear grin within minutes of hopping on the bike. I sure did!

We explored doubletrack and singletrack trails, took a side trip to Greenville, South Carolina to climb Paris Mountain, and shredded for every spare minute on what would turn out to be a woefully brief respite from Chicago’s icy grip. It didn’t hurt that all of the folks we encountered in North Carolina turned out to be real nice folks. And even the ones not into bikes themselves seemed generally supportive and excited for us. Even on narrow country roads, drivers were for the most part courteous and gracious as we plugged along in our silly orange wool outfits.

Charlotte is an old city, dating back to the early 18th century, and as such has some amazing urban features and architecture. And while it doesn’t have the density of cool used bookstores and indy cafes as some other southern cities, it had enough to satiate my #hobocyclist needs for a few days. We had quality experiences at Smelly Cat in Charlotte and Summit during the stay.

On our final day in North Carolina, I suggested a quick trip up to Statesville. “We can visit the nuclear power plant,” I said, “and there’s a bike shop in town I’d like to visit.” The others came along, if begrudgingly. First we stopped at The Catawba Nuclear Station run by Duke Energy. It’s a pretty scary and weirdly beautiful place. There were several dozen folks fishing in the man-make lake surrounding the facility, as steam rose off the water. Visibility was very low, and security guards sporting fully automatic rifles were everywhere. Inside, there’s a visitor’s center, where you can do your best Homer Simpson impression at a mock control console.

And then we rolled into Statesville proper, home to First Flight Bicycles and… MOMBAT. “Why did we even go to NAHBS?! We should have just come here instead!” Matt said.

Yeah, pretty much.

If you love bicycles, you must visit Statesville and First Flight and MOMBAT. Budget at least two hours, and spend a bunch of money at the shop before you leave. If you ever want to understand why companies like Ritchey, Ibis, Rock Lobster, Ringle, Specialized, Trimble, J.P. Weigle, Salsa, Klein, Mountain Goat, Breezer, Fisher, Fat Chance, Retrotec, AMP Research, Steve Potts, Otis Guy, Cook Brothers, Moots, and Ted Wojcik matter… the answers can be found at MOMBAT.