Last weekend was the Bespoked UK handbuilt bike show and while I have a variable history with artisan bikes it was only down the road and I knew a bunch of the exhibitors, so it would have been rude not to roll down to have a look. A quick morning walk around turned into most of the first day at the show and then returns on Saturday and Sunday too, so what makes going off-piste from major manufacturers so interesting?
First I think it’s probably best to give you some background on me and handmade bikes. My fourth mountain bike (third if you don’t count the original Peugeot I fished out of a canal) was a custom frame built by renowned North East UK builder Dave Yates. I’d folded the forks on my Giant Escaper after too many crashes and it didn’t take me long to crack the anonymous Taiwanese alloy E-Stay frame that I got offered via the shop I worked at when I was supposed to be in college.
However with my degree done I’d just landed a dream job for a feral, MTB-obsessed archaeologist surveying all the ancient sites in all the Forestry Commission land on the North Yorks Moors and I needed a new bike. And as much as I wanted an Orange Clockwork with its gracile Tange tubes, slim forks and promise of a light, sprightly ride I knew by now that I couldn’t be trusted with nice things.
Chatting to Dave Yates at the York bike show, he literally sized me up immediately, talking me out of a fancy tube set and pointing me towards basic Columbus Nivacrom “because it’s the strongest they do and you need as much steel in your bike as possible”. I also added a longer reach tube to a smaller frame size than I’d get stock. Not because I was some kind of geometry savant back in 1993, but because I liked how that felt on a Pace I’d ridden and because I’ve got a long back and stumpy legs.
At the time I didn’t have money for custom paint, but my red Diablo soon proved itself an indestructible ally for months of fighting through dense forestry and forgotten trails in search of ancient earthworks and medieval rabbit warrens from Sutton Bank to Dalby Forest. When I finally got bored of snapping Gripshift X-Ray gears, I sent it back to Mr Yates for a single-speed conversion and this time I did get it repainted in a specific military khaki (that Dave used as an excuse to head down to Duxford Imperial War Museum to get the tone just right).
That frame took on every race and crash I threw at it for several years and was eventually passed onto a mate, and then his mate, where I lost track of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s still out there somewhere going strong, so if you ever see an old single-speed Dave Yates with ‘Uncle Tufty’ (it’s a long story) on the top tube, please let me know.
So my first experience with a custom, hand-built bike was awesome. Experienced builder, taming an excited customer to create something perfectly fit for purpose and then a truly personalized update later to create a bike that was absolutely mine, and absolutely loved.
My next hand-built experience wasn’t so great though. Having diligently saved 25 percent of my earnings from that first year of archaeology, I shuffled along to the tax office only to be told I’d earned so little money I was still way below the threshold for the government even realizing I existed. Five giddy minutes later I was sprinting through the door of York Cycleworks to buy the Campagnolo (it’s a roadie thing) loaded purple, stiletto fork road bike I’d been in cross-legged lust with ever since it had appeared in the window months before. And that slender, stop-and-stare beautiful road machine (I even dyed my mohawk to match it) was the perfect example of the opposite side of the workhorse practicality of my Dave Yates.
Unfortunately so was the moment I picked myself up — helmet totaled and neck nearly broken — out of a mess of swerving, screeching, emergency avoidance traffic (thanks everyone) on a busy main road. The front wheel was on the far verge, and those pin-thin forks were now touching the bottom bracket shell because the down tube had totally folded in half and the seat tube crimped flat just from clipping a small pothole. Worse still, despite the fact that a quick chat to Dave Yates revealed that he’d given up using that exact same Reynolds 731 OS steel because it was a tubing time bomb, the builder wouldn’t entertain any sort of responsibility, so it was only York Cycleworks being legends that meant I got any compensation towards a new (utterly reliable, largely unremarkable off the shelf Scott) bike.
For the 25 years since I’ve been bike testing for magazines, websites and YouTube, the binary narrative of custom-made bikes and me has continued. I still rank a Greg Fuquay bike I rode around Raasay in 1997 for MBR as one of the most fantastic machines I’ve ever had the pleasure of piloting. But then there was that hand-made carbon bike that was so soft the front wheel pulled back past the down tube if you braked hard while turning. Yes really, I rode it across the park once and my wife refused to let me ever ride it again.
A beautifully custom-painted titanium frame I was lucky enough to be gifted as a long-termer turned out to be a very short-termer when the head tube separated from the rest of the bike, but it still looks lovely on the workshop stairs. The 29er they reluctantly replaced it with (it was a very new wheel size at the time and they weren’t convinced) was a stunning machine too, but even that had to be returned for repair when the dropouts cracked.
Custom definitely had a place though, as even being able to flex publication-based pulling power throughout the bike world, not everything I’ve wanted has been available stock. In particular, the three tandems I’ve had built - a Louis Collela full-suspension rig in 1995, a monster Nicolai ‘Tankdem’ for my daughter and I to race Enduro and short circuit wheel destruction testing on, and my just-arrived Landescape ‘copper chopper’ gravel twin - have all been fantastic and well worth the generally impatient, salivating wait for delivery.
Back to work experiences though, the last group test I did of hand-built enduro bikes underlined the pros and cons of going independent pretty much perfectly. One bike was from a brand whose first full-suspension bike had snapped and nearly mortally wounded me going flat out down some steps alongside a dam in the dark in the Yorkshire Dales, and which I’d only got home by wiring the chainstays roughly back together with some wire cut from a fence. He’d taken the strongly-worded communications afterwards to heart though and has gone on to develop a very successful and significantly stronger brand.
There was another bike with a BMX background and probably the most beautiful naked welds I’d ever seen, and which rode with equal delight aside from slightly dated angles. When I asked the builder how much extra it was to have a custom tube set or geometry compared to the surprisingly reasonable cost of what I thought was a ‘stock bike’ he answered “We don’t do a stock bike mate, they’re all custom - tubes, shapes, geometry, shock tunes, suspension - all individual to each customer after a good long chat or it won’t be the best I can make them, will it?” In other words, pretty much the perfect answer you’d want to hear.
In utter contrast, another of the bikes had the steering accuracy of a toddler using chopsticks and the frightening front-to-rear flex was compounded with horrific shock choke from a damper that the builder hadn’t even bothered to test ride before sending the bike in for test. Not only did the month I tried to get that (and other shocks) to work result in more terror and violent crashes than any other testing process I can remember, but it also ended up with one of the most sour back and forth between me, my editor and the builder I’ve been part of. Part of my testing due diligence revealed I certainly wasn’t alone in that experience either.
The Bespoked show revealed the same breadth of diligent, time-served experience and fresh, experimental excitement to choose from if you’ve had enough of mass-market machinery too. The first stands through the doors were London legends Condor cycles whose glorious road bikes I’ve tested and loved and where other builders who’ve gone on to build some of the most progressive and thrilling hardtails I've ridden started their craft. Premium builder Ricky Feather had a stunning stand including some builds he’d only finished at 3 am on the morning of the show after picking up frames from painters in car parks at 1 am like a dodgy drug dealer. Pete from Swallow/Bicycles by Design is a trained goldsmith who’s been building bikes since the early 80s and Enigma had added a very tasty-looking hardtail to its delicious established menu of steel and titanium drop bar bikes. Even my old ex Cycling Weekly testing comrade Richard Hallett was there with the beautiful touring bikes he now crafts into life with epic attention to detail in his small Welsh workshop.
It wasn’t all just steel and traditional lugs either. Hope was showing its incredible Olympic aero bikes and the latest incarnation of its Lancashire hand-laid carbon, high pivot enduro bike. Sturdy Cycles had a stunning bike using 3D-printed titanium sections, including a complete one-piece cockpit and Italian carbon specialists Cybro Industries showed a Pinion gearbox-ready softail frame with an Intend upside-down fork to follow up the 180mm travel e-bike it showed at Eurobike. At the younger end of the spectrum, Rafi Richardson was there with his radical Ra bikes, bred from his own racing experience (he was fastest through the speed trap at Fort William on a homemade 29er DH bike in 2013, and he’s the chief course builder for the Ard Moors and Ard Rock events). Billy from Howler was showing his prototype high pivot enduro bike on the SRAM stand and the gorgeous Coal bikes, Rideworks componentry and Black Cat Custom paint collaboration was rightly getting tons of attention.
Coming back on successive days dug out all sorts of eclectic and ingenious features including double biplane truss forks, anodized derailleur bodies, penetrated tube joints, BMX forked track bikes, interwar French audax bike-inspired racks and even a Moss gravel bike with a whisky flask built into the down tube as well as paint work and finishes inspired by everything from wedding suits to Hot Wheels car colours. John from Bike Academy also talked me through the state of the art laser guided frame jigs they use in their workshops where you can build your own frame under their expert guidance.
And at this point - where many of the builders who have now started their own frame businesses actually started their craft - we’re back to the eternal conflict of going with a custom frame from a small builder. While everyone at the show had to start tacking tubes together for the first time somewhere, the results - and the level of responsibility, third-party liability insurance cover and safety checking - can vary.
So while it’s great to hear that Howler has done extensive FEA analysis on its frame, and Rafi learned a lot about building when that 29er he ran at Fort William stretched longer and slacker on every run, and most smaller companies have a fantastic reputation for personal customer service, you’ve got to remember that innovation is always experimentation. Plus while joining tubes together as a gas engineer needs a CORGI qualification, CEN and other standards might not be so diligently followed in the world of small-batch building. The trend towards wanting the work of the latest, craziest, Zeitgeist hipster brand also means that some of the best, most experienced builders like Ricky Feather or Dave Yates have struggled to fill order books for their proven and perfected artistry in recent years. Perhaps because they’ve been working harder on their immaculate tube mitering game than they have on their Insta campaigns and ambassador stoking.
But while I’ve been bitten by bespoke bikes in the past, I’ve also had plenty of mainstream brands crack or fail underneath me, probably because a hand-builder in Taiwan wasn’t quite paying the same attention to the 200th frame they’d laid up that week as they did to the other 199. And having drooled over the detailing, chatted to the devoted designers and generally got sucked into the wonderfully eclectic, esoteric experience of Bespoked over the weekend, the next bike I actually buy will almost certainly be something custom from a small builder who I really chime with and want to join on a really exciting engineering and artistic journey.
But it’ll also probably have an Eagle cassette with a shifting algorithm designed by an arithmetic genius whose sole job at SRAM is to guide chain and cassette cog interaction. Because when you look closely at what even the biggest brands are doing, there’s some incredible artistry and personal investment going on there too. But that’s a whole other story that’s probably worth going into at some point.