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Colours, Colours Everywhere

When I think back on all the hours I spent in pleasurable anticipation of the hand-built touring bicycle I was having made-to-order, I find the most enjoyable – and the most exasperating – were the ones I spent perusing the big, tattered fold-out colour chart I’d borrowed from the frame-makers’ shop, trying to pick put a colour scheme.

One of the great joys of having a frame custom made for you is that you can have everything precisely the way you want it – from your choice of tubing and frame geometry to the carving on the lugwork. Most particularly though, you have your choice of colour scheme, a chance to make a statement, have your own personal livery on your own personal bicycle.

And nothing could be more delightfully perplexing than picking it out.

The options are limitless. For once, you’re not bound by any factory’s production runs, but can take your pick from literally hundreds, nay thousands, of colours, shades, hues and tints right across the visible spectrum. Everything is on the table, and if you can imagine something that you don’t see on the chart – the exact colour of a Jacaranda bloom, say, or a peculiar hue in an evocative old French postage stamp – you just bring in the article and the paint shop can mix up just the right colour for you.

It’s a heady prospect – think kid-in-the-candy-store – and if you’re anything like me you’ll discover lots of colours and combinations you really, really like and before you know it you’ll find yourself sighing and fidgeting, unable to make up your mind and wishing idly that you could afford to build yourself lots of custom bicycles, so you could have one of each of your favourites; a bicycle for every mood and occasion, just so you didn’t have to let any of these potentially beautiful liveries and colour schemes go.

Alas, you can’t have them all, or even very many of them, or at least I can’t, not on my meagre income and with only a small shed in which to park bicycles. Which means you have to pare down all these delicious kid-in-a-candy-shop possibilities and pick one – the one. Here’s where you take your artistic stand, make your statement, and having invested so much time, money, emotion and sense of self into this project, you’re naturally keen to get this highly personal part of it just right.

I sure was at any rate.   I sweated over those colour charts until I had spots before my eyes. I mixed and matched, envisioning all sorts of interesting possibilities in complementary or contrasting shades, and then too to pestering those around me to see what they thought too. I bought boxes of crayons and coloured pencils and sketched bicycle frames on heavyweight drawing paper, to see what these colour squares might look like on a bike. I did the same with a large pan of Winsor Newton watercolours, using lighter and darker washes to try out some of the same tints and combinations I saw on the colour chart and a good many new ones besides. I even got my two artistically minded little girls involved – say, let’s draw/paint pictures of Daddy’s new bicycle, shall we? – and marveled at the surprisingly tasteful and sophisticated colour schemes they came up with.

I trawled the internet looking for inspiration, browsed through heavy coffee-table books full of lovingly photographed vintage tourers and golden-age-of-cycling road bikes, and studied the image galleries on the websites of every artisan frame-builders and lug carver I could find; I bought the illustrated catalogue of an exhibition of hand-built bicycles-as-art held last summer at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, and wrote to artist friends in Australia and America, sending colour samples and seeking advice and guidance and enlightenment.

Two shades fascinated me above all others: a rich greyish mauve called ‘sable’ on the BS-4800 paint chart, paired with a warm and pleasing ‘Parisian pink’ which I envisioned on the panels and head tube. Why I happened to fancy those two colours, I just can’t say, unless perhaps it was because they remind me of the tints I often see in the clouds on my early morning rides. I do know they both caught my imagination very early on in my quest and they simply never went away. Every time I picked up that colour chart, my eye invariably went straight to those two pretty little squares up in the heathery-grey-pink portion of the table and somewhere in the back of my mind I knew that those were my colours – that is, if I dared to make them so.

But did I? I wanted something distinctive, yes, and uniquely mine, but I wasn’t keen on risk, either. I’d never seen a bicycle done up in these colours and I had no idea how they would work. On the one hand, they might ooze Bohemian sophistication. On the other, they might well embarrass me. In fact, if I was really unlucky my dream tourer could end up looking like a little girl’s bike, all violet and Barbie pink.

And so I began playing devil’s advocate, testing my subliminal favourites against all comers; trying hard to sell myself on something ‘safer’ but with just as much flair, and asking leading questions of my artist friends in the hope that one of them would pipe up and say – hey, wow, look at that, have you thought of sable and Parisian pink? That would be brilliant! Or alternatively: Jesus, look at that; imagine anyone picking that ghastly combination – whereupon I could nod my head sententiously in agreement, and quietly drop the suspect colours from further consideration.

But nobody said any such thing.

What I did get back though, from an Australian artist named Richard Baxter whose surrealist oil paintings fetch some pretty fancy money in galleries in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, was a letter containing some useful thoughts that gave me the confidence to stay the course, take the risk and go with the colours I really wanted to go with all along. Here’s what he wrote:

“… I believe the absolute best way for you to choose the colours for your bike is to go with your instinct, and probably your first choice. Then you will be happy, as long as you can not care about what anyone else thinks.

“If a person says that ‘these colours don’t work together’ they are simply expressing a personal opinion which has no validity outside of their own head. Colours are vibrations in the visible electromagnetic spectrum of energy, and other than possibly ‘clashing’ in a mathematical way, I really do believe that there are no such ideals in what works and what doesn’t. Even if one looked at which wavelengths resonated with a kind of dissonance mathematically, this would still be using a human bias to decide what is dissonance and what isn’t.

“This used to be a question in music hundreds of years ago, especially in middle ages Christian music when dissonance was sometimes thought to be the work of the devil. However those theories didn’t hold for too long with too many people, and dissonance came to be embraced and enjoyed. In your love of blues you will often hear a major note and it’s minor note played at the same time. On the one hand this is a kind of ‘clash’ and creates an audible ‘beat’ as the two waves resonate alternately with each other, and you could say the two notes don’t ‘go’ together. On the other hand it sounds great once you are trained to accept it, and today we are exposed to it so much, we rarely even realize it was a question once.

“Having said all that, the way music works on the brain is still a mystery, and why we find a minor third melancholy and a major third happy, is still really open to debate. Is it just what we have learnt through association, or is it something deeper?

“Colour may be the same, and thus colour combinations. It may get very complex, because other factors like your history and memories will alter how you feel about certain colours too. I know I have a love of bright orange, and a certain kind of metallic blue/green, because two of my favourite toys as a child were in those colours. It may also be deeply genetic and related to how we have evolved, as to how we respond to various combinations of colours.

“So if the bike was mine (and by the way I love the idea of a two-toned old style bike) I would by instinct without thinking about it, choose the mellow apricot on your chart and ice-plant green? Why? Just because. So there you go, a long winded way of being no help at all.”

And yet being very helpful indeed.

When the time came I took a deep breath and ticked the boxes for ‘sable’ and ‘Parisian pink’, having made up my mind that if worse came to worst and it all went pear-shaped I’d just stump up the cash for a re-spray and chalk it up to experience. I knew that deep down I’d always regret it if I didn’t at least take the chance.

I am so glad I did.

To be sure, ‘sable’ did in fact come out a bit more violet than the warm greyish-mauve I’d envisioned from the chart. On the other hand the combination of these risqué colours worked beautifully with the mirror-polished fleur-de-lys lugs and the spoked elegance of the wheels, and gave the completed bicycle a glorious art nouveau flavour that I also hadn’t expected but really liked when I saw it.

No, I more than liked. I loved it. I recognized it. This elegant, confectionary-like, fin-de-siecle note was precisely what I’d been wanting all along but without ever quite being able to put my finger on it. I was happier than ever that I had stayed the course.

I may well be the only person out there with these particular colours on his bike, maybe even the only person who will ever have those colours on his bike, but I’ll bet I am not the only one to have their heart secretly set on something a bit risky and off beam, but wonder if they dare. To them I pass on these excerpts from this thoughtful letter.

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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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