article by Nicole Davison
Last week marked the 9th edition of Bespoked U.K., the largest handmade bicycle show in Europe. Held annually on a National bank holiday weekend, the show invites makers and creators of bicycle frames, components, accessories and accoutrements. The venue was Brunel’s Old Station, an intimate iron and glass remnant of a bygone era, now supplanted by a much busier and more modern train depot nearby.
This year’s show saw a record turn-out in both exhibitors and attendees, with some framebuilders making the pilgrimage from as far away as Japan and Australia.
One visit to Bristol and you can see why Bespoked has had nine successful shows here. It is a place brimming with bicycles and bike culture. It has all the right ingredients for a proper hipster habitat such as craft beer, a healthy music scene, third-wave coffee, farm-to-table everything and lots and lots of flannel and pencil mustaches. If you’re imagining an English-version of Portland, you wouldn’t be far off the mark. All jests aside, Bristol takes cycling seriously with proper bike lanes forming a safety web from one side of the river to the next. Commuters, families, messengers, roadies, flat-bar, drop-bar and even a bike-share fleet all vie for space in this lively, progressive city.
There were nearly 100 exhibitors who had their wares on display, while the cycling cognoscenti crowded each booth in a perpetual frenzy of excitement that caused a buzz in the air that lasted all weekend. Indeed, what the show lacked in space, it made up for in enthusiasm for all things two-wheeled. Some trends, like disc brakes and 44mm head tubes, came as no surprise. Others, like the overwhelming majority of bike-packing rigs and the popularity of fillet brazing (thanks in part to oversized tubing, standardized geometries and outlandish paint jobs), piqued the curiosity. If you think bike-packing is popular in the States, better hold on to your handlebar bag. It’s absolutely gone bonkers in the U.K. Everybody’s doing it…and not just the new school builders. Some of the biggest names in bicycles on the other side of the pond have made the investment in the industry’s fastest growing sector. Though it wasn’t all racks and bags…there were plenty of traditional road machines and mountain bikes too.
Here’s a recap of some of the stand-out makers and creators at this year’s show.
Condor Cycles knows a thing or two about bikes. From the first time they opened the doors to their London shop in 1948, until this year when they celebrated their 70th anniversary (and the unfortunate passing of their founder, Monty Young), Condor has been crafting handmade bicycles that reflect the good tastes of their customers and the flavor of the particular decade. Nowadays, that’s an extensive stable of modern, disc-brake, any-road steeds. That said, they also continue to produce the classic, timeless frames they are best known for.
Claire Beaumont (one of the frustratingly few women at the show) expertly answered questions about Condor’s current roster. Among them was an aluminum collaboration with PEdALED, complete with racks, fenders and reflective logos. Built for the Silk Mountain Race, the ready-to-ride complete would only set you back a reasonable £2200. Yes, they’ll also build you a made-to-measure frame in high-end carbon or Columbus tubing. If you don’t want to wait the 20 weeks, there are no less than 14 other semi-custom and stock choices in tigged steel construction alone…in every discipline from track to gravel, road racing to city cruising. They even produce their own print newsletter, The Cassette. The latest edition has a two page spread with bike-packing advice from Verity Copland, head of design for Apidura bags. Clearly they have their finger on the pulse of the times.
For those who think Condor is the old guard, then Saffron is the new republic. Calling their bikes beautiful is an understatement. Matthew Sowter, the man behind the London-based marque, has an eye for detail and his frames and finishes are just as flawless up close as they are rolling down the road…paved or otherwise. It was hard to miss this booth of metal eye-candy and not just because it was the nearest to the entry doors. These bikes seem to set the bar by which all the others were judged, as evidenced by the crowd of fans (politely) pressing their way in for a lingering view. Both Matthew and his associates have the confidence that comes with expertise and repeated accolades from customers and contemporaries. At this year’s show alone, Saffron frames won rosettes for Best Finish with their matte geometric scheme (to match the hand-formed geometric Columbus top tube) and Campagolo’s Choice for their nod to a McLaren Senna F1 in Marlboro livery colors.
The lightest bike in this well-bred stable was a mere 1.6kg (3.5 lbs) frame-only or 6.5kg (14.3 lbs) for the full build. Not too shabby for a metal bike. This featherweight was no accident. It was a result of marginal gains like the integrated binder bolt, the well-filed (flawless) fillets and the thinly laid paint. And of course, the careful choice of tubes…expertly mixed and matched for the best combination of weight, performance and road-feel. This carbon-killer was finished in a hypnotizing House of Kolor green metallic.
Frame building, at least in the U.K., may not get any better than this. What will the frames set you back? At least £2500 and 7 months of pacing the floor. (But if you really need to ask, you don’t deserve one.) Lucky for you, Saffron has realized the appeal of a production model and now offers two at a price and production time that should satisfy even the most thrifty (or impatient) of buyers.
La Fraise is the coolest brand you’ve probably never heard of. If that’s the case, you probably also don’t know about the Concours de Machines that takes place every year in the green heart of France.
Except for this year, where the uniquely difficult builder’s challenge is happening along the famous route of the Paris-Brest-Paris. The Concours, in brief is “a technical contest” between handmade bikes from small builders around the world. Part stage race, part technical challenge, the bikes are judged in the most scrutinizing manner…including weight, integration of accessories, even the tracking of material costs and billable hours. Bikes are penalized for deviations from the long list of rules and points are awarded for several different types of contests, including some sort of punishing multi-stage ride. In the end, the winning bike and builder receives the accolade “the best compromise between technical innovation and reliability”.
It just so happens that Andreas Behrens has what it takes to build a winning machine. He did just that in 2018 and this was the bike he has on display at Bespoked Bristol. A finely-tuned race bike isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and neither is a Concours randonnéur, but if you like this particular style of cycling, this bike is perhaps the best example of what works and what wins when the rubber meets the actual road and stays there for mile after mile after mile.
To prove this point, La Fraise was awarded the Grit CX Choice and Cycling UK Choice rosettes. If you think “French Rando” is just a fancy term for old technology, you should take a closer look at this build. Thoughtful innovations include a simple but sturdy slide on/off front rack, a 3-phase rim charging system (that runs lights and a USB charger…at the same time), a smart phone app that shows your remaining battery life and a specially designed tent that uses the upside-down bike as a frame. If you prefer the low-tech simplicity of a traditional build, Andreas will certainly deliver. Want to learn how to build your own frame? He’ll do that too.
There was a refreshing trend at this year’s show for builders to display their “road tested” machines in the “raw”. At shows we tend to only see bikes in showroom perfection, as opposed to seeing them plucked from their natural environment and placed on display bruises and all.
Such was the story of Sean Conway’s Stanforth, a bike he rode 3,890 miles from Lisbon, Portugal to Ufa in Russia to claim the world record for cycling across Europe. This Reynolds 853 fillet-brazed frame with a Whiskey carbon fork and dynamo hub, weighed 8kg (17.6 lbs) complete and just 15kg (33 lbs) fully loaded for the remarkable journey.
Simon Stanforth could not be a kinder man, politely ignoring any interruptions to patiently explain his approach to conceptualizing a bike that needed to safely and reliably ferry its pilot to the literal ends of the earth. It is the same calm, systematic approach to building his bikes that makes them so popular with “expedition cyclists”. Somewhat differing from other marques at the show, Stanforth is more of a brand than a builder and hires other top UK builders to do the high-quality brazing or welding of both his “stock” and made-to-measure frames.
As the recipient of the Touring Bike Choice Award in both 2018 and 2019, clearly there is a winning system of trust, expertise and passion to create a brand that goes the distance.
Is there really one bike that rules them all? Pi Manson of Clandestine thinks there is. Spend any time at all with him and his nifty little 650b and you might be convinced. Like a favorite pair of handmade boots, that perfect cast-iron cooking pot or an heirloom quality knife, a Clandestine frame is built to wear-in not out and become better with use and more cherished with age. Each frame set is sold as a cohesive system and comes with a custom fork (with a crown specially designed by Pi), set of handmade racks, fenders, lights, stem and a beautiful brass bell which compliments the fine, simple touches like a handmade copper logo on the head tube and all internal cabling.
Preferring function over beauty, Pi leaves his fillets unfinished. It saves him time to focus on other rider-friendly details and saves his customers valuable dough. But that doesn’t mean his bikes are built to be strictly utilitarian. They can be dressed up as race bikes, dressed down as city-cruisers or dressed like all the cool kids (one award-winning maroon powder-coated frame was outfitted with White Industry 1X and a Brooks saddle). Room for knobbies? No problem. Made-to-measure? Of course. Off-the-rack options? Yes indeed. If you’ve ever been bothered by the progression of the modern, buy-it-cheap-use-it-up-quickly-then-throw-it-away mentality, Clandestine is a refreshing approach. Why not have it built right the first time, use it (even abuse it) for a lifetime, then pass it on to the next generation? This Bristol-based builder wants you to believe that’s possible.
Not your Average Accessory
There aren’t many cycling brands these days trying to re-invent the wheel (maybe just the size). It’s round and it works. Full stop. But there’s one person trying to re-invent the watch and make it a must-have-accessory for any discerning cyclist.
Beat Baumgartner’s MOSKITO brand is one of almost a thousand watch-related businesses in Switzerland. What makes MOSKITO special is that this watch doubles as a timepiece for use both on and off the bike and in one quick twist, goes from your handlebars to your wrist and back again with ease. On the bike, it offers most of the typical functions riders’ expect from a data device like speed, distance and direction – it even connects to GPS via Bluetooth and has a 6-month battery life.
The face is simple and stylish, looking far more like a fashion accessory than a sporting device. It took Beat three years to develop a proto-type, having assembled the final product one microscopic piece at a time (and each of those from a separate family-run business specializing in just that one piece).
Of the more than 25 billion watches coming out of Switzerland, MOSKITO is the only truly functional watch designed solely for cyclists. This small, but highly-driven company hopes to make improvements as the brand grows, offering exactly what the discerning user needs and nothing more. For now, there’s no slimmer “women’s model”, but that might change soon.
This high-quality, handmade timepiece might just go perfectly with that handbuilt frame of yours.
These builders and makers and dream-bike creators are only a few of the stories from the 2019 Bespoked U.K. show. If you missed all the double-butted, tan-walled fun, don’t fret. The show comes around again next year in May and every year after that, as long as handmade bikes draw a crowd.
For now at least, it seems like the future of bespoke bicycles is safe. The day we stop being moved by the simple beauty of a well-made machine will be a sad day indeed.
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