Sunny Sunday afternoon, but pleasantly cool in the crowded Engine Shed of Brunel’s Old Station, next to Temple Meads, Bristol. The eclectic throng had gathered for Bespoked - The UK Handmade Bicycle Show - an equally eclectic collection of bike-builders, assembled show off their products, vision, craft, and, to chat about it. Too many, to talk to all. So, here is a selection.
Next to a neat Flying Gate machine stood Liz Colebrook from Beaumont Bicycles (incorporating TJ Cycles and the Flying Gate). One of the growing number of female bespoke bicycle builders, we discussed the builds characteristic lines and structure. A green Beaumont - I happened to bump into the owner later - brought us round to the bespoke bike process. As Liz said, the great thing about this show was that so many of the bikes already belonged to cyclists. It makes a difference; I might not like the look of it, it might not be my sort of bike, but it does not matter, because it is built with love and skill and is just what someone wants.
Iowa University School of Art and Art History is not the first name to jump to mind when thinking “Bespoke Bicycle” but they regularly exhibit at the North American Hand-built Bicycle Show (NAHBS). Students can learn to build a bikes in steel or titanium as part of an Art or Engineering degree. Steve McGuire, Professor of Metal Arts and 3D Design, and Studio Division Coordinator, explained to me. “We are keen to get students to see what is happening around the World, so we bring a bike or two to exhibit at shows like this.” Was he here to poach talent? No, but, frankly maybe some students will want to try their hand somewhere else.
Steve was also exhibiting his own bike. Not my kind of thing at all, but close up my curiosity grew. Fat bikes are currently beyond my ken, but …. Steve told me about its prowess in the snow, and, catching my eye, smiled and added, “We have some real snow in Iowa.” We discussed comfort and speed; lively without extreme speed, but great for trucking over rough stuff. Yet, in my ignorance, what i really wanted to know was, this; with tyres that looked not so much fat as obese, did it float? Stupid question of course. “Well, hit some decent water and the front end will rear up there’s so much air in there,” Steve said. Hypothetically, were he not in the saddle and given other due considerations, would it float across a small river? He laughed, but maybe there’s a PhD thesis for someone. And yes, I now want to try a day out on a fat bike.
The enthusiasm and imagination generated across the board is incredible. Yes, craft bike builders must love what they do, but it is no longer an arcane, semi-fantasy world inhabited by wise old creatures with geometric brains and a blow torch. There are more women and more newcomers - alright, what I want to say, without meaning to be patronising is “young builders” - than ever. What is handsome may be opinion, but what is custom made is both stylish and trendy.
Verity Nichols (Nichols Frameworks) showed off a sleek machine with a beautiful paint job. With a background in making contemporary jewellery making, Verity takes the lead on building the bikes, whilst Matthew works on the design. Next up for Verity was building a road bike for herself. Then came Hamilton Frameworks, displaying a neat black frame - the sign saying to take one referred I believe to the leaflets. And in the far corner stood, Cameron Jarvis of Rakshasa Customs.
Based in south-west London and loving freestyle, I asked him about the bikes he built. “I’ll build anything, but it is great to build the kind of bikes I ride. There’s that bit of extra understanding of what your customer means, knowledge of how the thing works.” This seemed to be an opinion held by most of people I spoke, too.
Chatting to the owner of one of the bikes on the Beaumont stand, we discussed the bespoke process; ideas forming, fitting together and maturing over a long period; changes coming to mind, adding here and there, the nuances of rider requirements, why, though both tourers, we would never have the same bike - though the similarities would be more obvious than the differences. A subtle world is Planet Bespoke.
My bike was on the Swallow stand, along with Bicycles by Design’s new Ironbridge range, two other bespoke Swallows and their new collaboration, Duratec - a high quality carbon monocoque machine from the Czech Republic (lifting the frame neatly caused me to float away). Needless to say, I admired my own machine and wondered if anyone else in the room would buy it. Not because i want to sell, but as an exercise in picturing all the different types of machine that could be built to satisfy every show-goers deepest cycling desires. I do not like the phrase “bike porn” but this was certainly tending to the Freudian.
No connection, but Sven Cycles were showing a bike based - paint job to be precise - on a coral snake. Striking was the word. Multi-coloured, it had lead to almost daily calls from the paint-shop to Darron Sven, who runs the Weymouth based business. You could imagine that it would be a real conversation piece, but I was left incredulous when told that it was used frequently for off-road gravel touring; not just colourful but sturdy - there was not a scratch.
Customising bikes also runs to customising individual components. Snazzy chain-rings, colourful fittings, individualised luggage and, logically that most customisable of things, the saddle. Whilst Brooks seem to rule the roost, but leatherworkers such as Grafton Saddler will take that old saddle a step beyond. Rooted in the fertile cycling soil of Hackney, this was, to my unimaginative eyes, a new world. Re-cover the saddle, hand crafted designs to decorate the new leather and maybe a sparkling under-layer to add that little something extra to what the anatomy had already shaped? Bar tape to match? Why not?
With so much more to cycling than riding a bike, it occurred to me that, surely, some of this is just vanity? Are not some of these machines going to be no more than museum pieces, maybe brought out on high days and holidays? “Depends totally on the rider,” says Peter Bird, from Bicycles by Design. “yours won’t be and I don not know of any others that are.” And there’s the point of bespoke; we may love our off the peg bike and be distraught should it be stolen away, but part of our soul enters the bespoke machine. Sentiment and attachment are replaced by unity. Rather like Flann O’Brien’s theory that prolonged cycling leads to an exchange of atoms between bicycle and rider, bespoke, perhaps, transmits the spirit.
Should not forget, either, that when you are six feet ten tall or have restricted growth syndrome, resort to a specialist custom bike-buildr may well be the only option.
Darrell Llewellyn McCulloch had come a long way. His Llewellyn Custom bicycles are crafted in Queensland. Far enough, but when he got home, one of the machines on display was off to its forever-home in the USA. A multi-national niche business may seem to be a contradiction in terms, but here were some beautiful bikes. Even if you do not ever have a Llewellyn, you may well find some of Darrell’s work - he also makes proprietary frame fittings which are exported around the world.
There’s not time to talk to everyone. Snowdon; whose Paradox has been getting some rave reviews, Shand, whose Stoater, ridden by my mate Mark, accompanied me across Europe (and they always seem to have Tunnock’s tea cakes or caramel bars on the stand); Curtis Bikes - off-road competition specialists (but have also built bikes for children with dwarfism); Rochford custom built cargo bicycles … and more. Should have got a three day ticket. All with enthusiasm, skill, craft, deep-knowledge, vision, drive - much as the word is overused, they have passion - between them they could almost certainly make your wildest bicycle dreams come true.
Ricky Feather, Feather Cycles, builds around thirty bikes a year. His show-guide spiel talked about “all the while adding detail to separate you bike from the masses.” And there in the stand, amongst other beautifully made and finished machines, was a vision in light blue with lights built into the frame, a sporty white saddle and the chain so arranged that pedalling forward turned one gear and pedalling backward maintained forward progress in a different gear. Ricky’s response to my wow-ing? “It isn’t a new idea, think it comes form the 1890s or something like that.”
Old, new, borrowed, and whatever colour you like. Brilliant.
A full list of exhibitors can be found at bespoked.cc
Beaumont Bicycle www.beaumontbicycle.com
Trevor Jarvis Cycles www.tjcycles.co.uk
Curtis Bikes wwww.curtisbikes.co.uk
Feather Cycles www.feathercycles.com
Grafton Saddler www.graftonsaddler.com
Llewellyn Custom Bicycles www.llewellynbikes.com
Nichols Frameworks www.nicholsframeworks.com
Rackshasa Customs www.rackshasacutoms.co.uk
Stand Cycles www.shandcycles.com
Sven Cycles www.svencycles.com
Swallow www.bicycles-by-design.co.uk (Also Ironbridge bikes and Duratec in the UK)
PUBLISHED APRIL 2017