Tag Archives: hand-built bicycles

A Sweet Simple Beauty

I went for a spin this morning on the Elgar – my own name for the one-off bespoke randonneur built for me by Mark Reilly at Enigma – and once again I was struck by just how well this bicycle fits me, and what a remarkable difference a truly perfect fit on a bicycle can make to the pleasure of a ride. I know I have mentioned this before, but even after owning this bicycle for a while now this curious, almost organic, feeling of having a bicycle feel like an extension of yourself continues to amaze and delight me.

It is almost as though the bicycle has become invisible, even forgettable. For a bit under two hours this morning, and a bit over thirty miles, I flew over the Sussex countryside not at any particularly dazzling speed, but effortlessly. It was as though I sprouted wings rather than wheels. My other bikes are also beautifully made and fit me well, and I love them to bits, especially the Pegoretti, but I have never ridden a bicycle that has this bicycle’s particular organic quality.

I wish it was something I was better able to express or share or, better still, was more readily obtained in the market. If it was I can’t help but think the automobile would be doomed, or consigned to mere work horse status – the salted-roads winter ride, perhaps. But it’s not. And more’s the pity. Too many could-have-been cyclists will go on judging the bicycle by the standards of the clunky, heavy, ill-fitting impulse buy or rental thing they sweated up a hill for a lark one sunny weekend, dismiss it as ‘impractical’ and never experience the sense of aerial liberation and the simple, sweet beauty of a bicycle in full flower.

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An Aston Martin Bicycle?

I see that Aston Martin has joined the growing list of automobile manufacturers who are seeking to cash-in on the new-age bicycle boom. The legendary sports car maker, purveyor of fast stylish transport to the likes of James Bond, has launched its own super-high-tech, limited edition, high-performance bicycle – the One-77 Cycle – yours to pedal home for just £25,000 (that’s about forty grand if you think in US dollars). By any reckoning that is a fair chunk of coin for a bicycle. And what do you get for your money you ask?

Well, you get what is claimed to be the world’s most technologically advanced carbon-framed racing bicycle, each one individually designed and built in Britain by Factor Bikes (whose parent company makes components for F1 motor racing) with input from Aston Martin. Naturally it has electronic Di2 shifting and to slow you down for those tight curves a custom-built hydraulic disc-braking system. An integrated computerised performance feedback system with a 100 channels of data – everything from speed and cadence, compass bearing and elevation to a welter of medical-quality biometric data such as heart rate, respiration rate, left leg power, right leg power, and even core body temperature according to one report I read. You get a hand-stitched leather saddle and hand-stitched leather bar tape and your choice of seven different finishes. You get an invitation to come to the factory, to watch your bicycle being built and involve yourself in the process. And of course you get exclusivity – only seventy-seven of these machines will ever be built, worldwide.

“The One-77 Cycle is a fitting partner for the Aston Martin One-77, the most elegant, sophisticated and powerful road car the company has ever built,” the company says on its webpage. “Both machines have much in common; a clean sheet design, developed from the ground up to showcase the most extraordinary potential of modern design, craft and engineering.”

Stirring stuff.

Aside from my peasant curiosity about where the probe goes for those ‘core body temperature’ readings, I find myself wondering to whom this bicycle is meant to be marketed. Certainly not to me; I prefer steel for one thing. And I’d say it’s probably a safe bet that the general run of cyclo-tourists and commuters are not in the picture either. That leaves the sporty, speedy set, if it is going to be ridden at all and put through its paces. But are even these guys going to be slathering over it? I wonder. High-tech though it be, with its touch screen monitor set seamlessly into the headset, and oozing all that Aston Martin cachet, in the final analysis the One-77 Cycle weighs in at 9.5 kilograms – or about 21 pounds – making it a fairly hefty bicycle by modern road bike standards. I would have thought that most serious road cyclists who were willing even to consider dropping that much money (or even half that much!) on high-tech carbon would be wanting something rather nearer the UCI racing limit of 6.8 kilograms, or 14.96 pounds. On that front Colnago’s C59 Ottanta, a limited edition (only 80 to be made) brought earlier this year out to mark Ernesto Colnago’s 80th birthday, would seem a better bet. Not only does the Colnago have oodles of road-racing history, pedigree and credibility behind it, but at 15.51 pounds it is considerably lighter and at a mere $US19,000 it is considerably cheaper as well, although I suppose such vulgar considerations as money are out the window at this end of the price spectrum.

Be that as it may five of the One-77 Cycles have apparently already been snapped up; clearly the marketing chaps at Aston Martin have a much better grasp of their millionaire and billionaire clientele than I do.

And that’s probably the way it will stay, a garlic-and-onions fellow like me. I don’t suppose I shall ever see one of these Aston Martins flashing past me on my early morning rides across the Pevensey marshes, but if I ever do spot one I reckon I might at least have a niggling idea why the rider is riding out of the saddle.

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The Fine Art of Framebuilding

It seems to me I read somewhere that Picasso once described the bicycle as humanity’s highest and purest form of sculpture. I can’t remember now where it was I read that quote, or the context, and when I’ve tried looking it up I’ve not been able to find any reference to it or indeed any evidence that the man ever really did say such a thing, although he himself certainly made at least one famous sculpture out of bicycle parts and therefore presumably had been down to his local bike shop once or twice full of artistic intent.

If Picasso didn’t actually utter those words, he should have. On the chance that he didn’t, and left the field open, I’ll grab the line myself: the bicycle is humanity’s highest and purest form of sculpture. Says me.

It’s true, too. Anyone who has ever attended a hand-made bicycle show, and seen the beautifully crafted machines on display, and felt the restless stirrings and childhood longings they impart, knows exactly what I mean. Art is meant to transport us, and what form of sculpture can you think of that accomplishes this better than a bicycle? Literally, emotionally, metaphorically, we are moved, and with an almost effortless grace.

But what you see on display at these shows are merely the end results of an unseen creative process that is itself surprisingly beautiful and involving. I was privileged to be able to watch Mark Reilly, the master frame-builder at Enigma build the frame of my classic touring bicycle – eight lengths of Columbus Spirit tubing, cut and mitred by hand, joined with pretty lugwork and brazed with silver.

I’ve always loved the ideal of a hand-made steel frame, and, like many another aficionado, felt I possessed a deeper understanding and connoisseurship of these things than I really did. It wasn’t until I had this opportunity to watch a master frame-maker hand-craft a frame before my eyes that I came to have any real inkling of the degree of artistry and artisanship all this involves, let alone an idea of the visual beauty of the frame-building process itself.

Mark kindly allowed me to photograph him while he built my bicycle. Here is a selection of those images:

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My (New) Bicycle and I

Not so very long ago I took delivery of my dream bicycle: a classic old-style steel-framed tourer, custom built with a quill stem and stylish Rene Herse-inspired lugwork, stainless Gilles Berthoud fenders painted to match the frame, cream-coloured touring tyres, and a French-made front rack and decaleur with one of those traditional canvas-and-leather Continental-style handlebar bags; all in all, very much like the sort of thing they used to call a randonneur back in the golden days of hand-built bicycles, when art and function lived happily side by side.

It was built by Mark Reilly, master frame-builder at Enigma, a small family-run firm of bicycle makers whose workshop is just over in Pevensey. That’s a leafy little village not far from where I live  down here along the Sussex coast. I can hardly believe it’s mine. I’d been daydreaming about doing something like this for ages: putting together my ideal bike, something that would be a personal and philosophical statement as much a bicycle, reflecting everything I loved about cycling and the sheer joy of being out and about in the world on two skinny wheels.

About a year ago I took the plunge, and on a soft, hazy mid-summer afternoon I pedalled over to Pevensey on my old expedition bike with a hard-cover notebook in my handlebar bag billed with sketches and jottings, all rubber-banded together with money for a deposit. It was a particularly nice feeling in this age of mass production and factories in the Far East to be having your bicycle made for you by a frame-builder whose workshop was so local that going there meant a pleasant ride across the Sussex marshes on a fine summer’s day. It was nicer still, of course, that said local frame-builder also ranks high on anybody’s shortlist of the finest in Britain.

The seasons have made a full circle since then and now at long last my new bicycle has arrived – just in time to form the topic of one of my inaugural essays on my new blog, and a fitting one too since it was the hours of thoughtful introspection that went into the conjuring up of this perfect (for me) bicycle and the creative joy in bringing it to life that focused so much of my cycling thoughts this past year and inspired me to start writing this blog.

I should start out by saying in fairness that the thirteen-month time lag between the commissioning of my frame and the arrival of the completed bicycle on my doorstep in no way reflects Enigma’s usual delivery time. They are really very prompt. The delays were my doing. Right from the get-go the story-teller in me had loved the idea of following the creation of my dream bike from start to finish, and so I’d asked Jim Walker, the founder of Enigma, and Mark Reilly himself if it would be okay for me to hang around the workshop and photograph my frame being made – a big ask, really, when I think about it; I’m not sure I’d want anybody hovering over my shoulder with a camera while I tried to write a story. They not only agreed, however, they did so with incredible graciousness, generosity and patience – and many a congenial cup of workshop coffee as we talked about the ins-and-outs of the bicycle trade.

This alone would have been wonderful, but Mark even went a step further, jumping into the spirit of the thing, and, with the enthusiasm of a craftsman at the very top of his game, suggested that if I wanted to see and photograph the very essence of the frame-builder’s art he could build my old-school tourer for me in true old-school fashion – with his doing all the cutting and mitring by hand, with hacksaw and file, and shrewdness of eye, just the way the legendary builders of the past did it back in the day.

It was a generous offer, more generous in fact than I realized at the time. Stepping back sixty years and hand-crafting a frame the old-fashioned way, purely for the sake of artistic unity, meant his putting in a lot of extra hours and much additional effort. All I knew was that I was delighted that he was willing to do such a thing for me and pedaled home that first afternoon full of jaunty expectancy, my head full of visions and swirling with the colours from the paint chart I’d borrowed from the workshop.

I couldn’t wait to get started.

But of course I had to wait. Like all the rest of the world’s top artisan frame builders these days, Enigma has a thriving order book. Bicycles are a booming business, right across the range, but particularly in the bespoke, hand-crafted-steel end of the market, where those of us of the Baby Boomer demographic are indulging our passions for life’s (and cycling’s!) finer things. The autumn leaves had fallen and winter was in the air by the time my order came up to the head of the queue.

Happily enough by then too the pace of life in the workshop had slowed sufficiently for Mark to be able to spare the time for such a slow, old-fashioned quixotic build as mine, and for my part I was between assignments and able to come along and take pictures over the several sessions it would take to build this frame. Work began on a frosty morning, mid-December, with fresh snow on the ground and Christmas carols playing cheerily on the workshop radio. I drove over bright and early with my cameras and tripod and found Mark already in the workshop, laying out the loose assortment of tubing and lugs that was going to become my dream bicycle.

Nothing can give you a greater sense of connectedness with your bicycle that to be picking up and examining the raw materials that are going into it, sighting down the tubes, turning the lugs over in your hand and feeling their heft, while having a cup of coffee with the craftsman who is going build it and listening him explain some of the workshop alchemy that goes into transforming eight lengths of steel tubing and a handful of lugs into one of the most beautiful and efficient means of transportation ever devised.

And then he got down to business, with hacksaw and file and measuring tape. Mine was a trickier than usual build, fiddly and time-consuming, and not just because Mark was doing everything old-school. He had a hand-crafted steel fork to make as well, itself a marvel of craftsmanship that took a whole morning session to fashion. And then of course there was all that elaborate lugwork. Each of the many tiny crescents and fleurs-de-lys on the stainless steel Newvex lugs I’d chosen had to be buffed and sanded and sharpened to heighten their artistic presence on the frame, and then meticulously brazed with silver – a costly material to work with but the very best you could use, since its lower melting point meant less stress on the tubes.

Watching Mark work his magic with the torch, skillfully finessing molten silver into every nook and crevice around those beautiful fleurs-de-lys on the lugs, I had a sense that what was being created here wasn’t so much a bicycle frame as a piece of fine art, a sculpture in Columbus Spirit tubing.

After the last of the brazing was finished the raw frame was sent over to Hove to be shot-blasted and cleaned of any residual flux. Next, the lugwork on the head tube, drop outs and fork crown were polished to a mirror finish. Finally at long last the frame was taken up to Dartford to be painted. They held off on that trip until I was free to tag along. It was spring by then, and the hawthorn was in bloom along the lanes. We went up in Mark’s car, sixty-odd miles crammed in with the latest batch of Enigma frames that were being taken up to be sprayed.

The paint shop was in an old storehouse tucked away on a back street and impossible to find unless you knew the way. It was run by a character named Dave who’d sprayed thousands of frames in his time and was clearly the man to see if you lived in southeast England and needed a frame painted. He and Mark greeted each other like old friends, which they were, and Dave kindly showed me around the place and talked me through the process of painting a bicycle frame.

I’d long ago chosen my colours: a rich grey-mauve called ‘sable’ on the BSA colour chart, which I’d paired with a warm soft Parisian pink for the head tube and seat tube panels.

I can’t for the life of me explain how I happened to settle on those colours. When I first set out to build my dream tourer I’d imagined it’s being a sort of pale buttery yellow, livened up with a sparkle of stainless steel and with a honey-coloured Brooks leather saddle. That was the early vision, anyway. Once I’d seen the colour chart and became aware of all the dozens of kaleidoscopic possibilities available to me, I went on a toot, trying them all on for size, and thinking I’d need to build a dozen bikes just to satisfy my various artistic impulses. I was still leaning towards a creamy yellow when I happened to notice these two pretty little squares side-by-side and in perfect counterpoint up at the heathery-grey end of the colour-chart spectrum – and I knew in an instant, intuitively, that those were my colours; that the classic touring bike of my dreams looked exactly likethat. I locked onto them and from then on never seriously entertained any other possibility.

That’s not to say I didn’t have a few qualms; it occurred to me more than once that if the printer who’d made that paint chart had done a dodgy job of reproducing those colours, there was every chance my frame could end up looking like a little girl’s Barbie bike, all violet and bubble-gum pink. I even tried to sell myself on other less risky tones, reliable old stand-byes such as British Racing green and cream, but it didn’t work. My eye was always drawn to those same two risqué coloured squares, every time. In the end my inclination was so strong for the sable and Parisian pink combination that I decided I’d simply pony-up the money for a re-spray if it all went pear-shaped. I knew that if I chickened out and went for a safer option I’d always regret it.

Seeking last minute reassurance I asked Dave, with his twenty-odd years experience, how my particular colour choices were likely to come up in real life. He shrugged and shook his head: “I don’t know, mate. I’ve never sprayed anything those colours.”

Perhaps he’ll use them more often in the future. The result was stunning, so much so that Mark asked me if they could hang on to the frame for a while and display it at Enigma’s stand at the Bespoked Bicycle Show in Bristol later that summer. I was more than happy to oblige. They’d been awfully good to me. Besides which it was flattering to think of the frame of my dream bicycle being so proudly displayed, and at such a venue. I went along myself to mingle, admire it on the stand, and buff my nails in self-congratulation.

The remainder of the summer passed in a kind of blur, with my being out of town on a series of magazine assignments and the final assembly of my bicycle put on hold until I returned. It was completed just the other day. I’d had the idea that I would catch a train over to Pevensey and ride the new bicycle home for the shop, but the fickle English weather didn’t cooperate. A week of cold hard rain and gusty September gales set in, and I shrank from the idea of getting my new bicycle all wet and muddy on its very first outing. So did the guys at Enigma, who by then had taken a proprietary interest in the bicycle that had been developing in their shop for the past year. Greg, the mechanic, who built-up the bike, and who lives near me, put it in the shop van and dropped it off on his way home from work.

You would think that after so much visualising and such regular involvement the sight of the end product wouldn’t come a such a surprise, but it did. It was a delightful surprise. It was like coming downstairs on Christmas morning. The colour scheme that I’d liked so well on the stand-alone frame looked more stylish still on the completed bicycle, and, taken in concert with the cream tyres, mirror-polished fleur-de-lys lugwork and the vintage stainless-steel bottle cages, gave the whole thing a delightful art nouveau flavour that, hand-on-heart, I wish I could say I’d seen in my mind’s eye on all along and had planned for.

It was so beautiful, so perfect, that I was actually hesitant to ride it at first, but kept it in the kitchen for a few days, propped against the sideboard so I could stand and stare and admire it in its pristine state, and come to terms with the fact that after all these years of daydreaming this marvel, my Platonic ideal of a bicycle, was really, truly mine.

Bicycles, though, however beautiful, are made to be ridden not gawped at – this is, after all, functional art, not gallery stuff – and so, early on the morning of the third day, I wheeled it carefully out the side gate, and, with my heart in my mouth, slung myself into the saddle and pushed off down the street.

It was still dark at that hour. A murky sea fog had rolled in during the night, and was clinging to everything, blurring the lines of houses, putting halos around the streetlamps and adding to the overall dreamlike quality of being out and about on my new bicycle while all the rest of the world was asleep. I spun along the seafront for a ways, then headed up into the weald, to test the new ride’s handling qualities and responsiveness amongst the narrow winding lanes.

It is a curious feeling to be riding a bicycle whose frame you recall as a jumble of steel tubes and investment cast lugs scattered on a bench top – but it’s a good feeling too. Recollections of those pleasant days in the workshop, the bustle and banter, the mugs of coffee and songs on the radio and the industrious rasp-rasp-rasp of a file, endowed the steel with human warmth, a sense of soul.

As I spun along through the countryside near Brightling that morning I found myself taking a side trip down memory lane, back to a wintry December afternoon, just before Christmas, when Mark was putting the final touches on the fork and how he’d remembered the way Ron Cooper and the other great British frame builders back in the day used to like to seal-off their steerer tubes with a silver shilling – for luck.

On such an old-school build as mine he thought it might be fun to follow tradition and do the same. Shillings are long gone of course; these days the equivalent coin would be a 10p piece. Mark wasn’t interested in using any old 10p piece, though. He wanted a shiny new one dated 2010 to mark the year the frame had been built. This idea caught on and soon everybody in the shop was turning out their pockets, rummaging through their change, searching desks and glove boxes of cars, scrambling to find just the right coin.

I don’t remember who it was that – eureka! – finally came up with the one we used and it doesn’t really matter. As I pedaled through the weald that morning I realised that everybody there in that little family-run workshop, very welcoming and inclusive people whom I’d come to know these past few months- Jim Walker, who’d founded Enigma out of a passion to rekindle the fine art of British frame-building; his wife Christine who kept the books and ran the office; Joe, their son, who did all the immaculate TIG welding in the shop and was always happy to share his expertise; Greg the in-house mechanic who built my bike; Matthew, a qualified chef from South Africa who gave it all away and came to England to pursue his dream of being a frame builder – they’d all had their ten pence in the building of my bicycle, and of course Mark Reilly himself, who aside from designing, cutting, mitring, filing and silver-brazing everything else on that frame, took that lucky 10p coin, fired up his torch and brazed it in place.

The sun was shining and the mists had vanished by the time I coasted up to the curb in front of our house a couple of hours later, having put breezy forty miles on my new bicycle. So how did it ride? Buttery smooth. Swift too, startlingly so for a tourer, and as responsive as any road bike, even with that boxy French handlebar bag on front. It soared over the Wealden hills like a bird. And it cornered on a dime – almost literally so, I smiled to myself, thinking of that lucky 10p coin in the steerer – and the fit was perfect. No Saville Row tailor could have done a better job in that department. When I leaned forward in the saddle, gripped the handlebars and pushed down on the pedals, the bike felt like an extension of myself.

But it wasn’t these splendid qualities that made me smile as I wheeled it up the walk and back through the side gate. It was its companionableness. Riding it for the first time was like catching up with an old friend, one I hadn’t seen for a while and with whom I had a lot of agreeable catching up to do.

 

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