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If you’re hardcore into cycling you can take a look at a ‘made to measure bike.’ Just like a suit made just for you will always feel and fit better than anything you just wandered into a shop and bought, this bike will offer far more comfort and pleasure than any stock model ever will.
There was once a time where all bikes were made like this. Welding steel and pinpoint precision.
The made to measure bike serves a very particular type of rider… someone who sees their bike as an extension of their own being, their personality and who appreciates the skill and craftsmanship of traditional bike building.
“If you come to me for a bike I can pretty much build you what you want,” explains Ricky Feather, one of a new breed of frame makers revitalising the hand-built side of the industry. He works in steel, once regarded as an obsolete material, from a workshop near Leeds. “It will fit you absolutely perfectly and I can build bikes with a modern look and feel and geometry or I can go completely traditional.”
The process of buying bespoke will, however, test anyone’s commitment. These are not frames built in increments of 2cm and available off the shelf. They are unique to the individual and as such require all manner of consultations, to determine physical characteristics, history, riding style and requirements. “We look at how we can make the bike fit the rider rather than the rider fitting the bike,” explains James Hewitt of Cyclefit, the Covent Garden-based company which offers a full bespoke bike fitting service. Only when all the relevant data is collated will the rider move on to actually choosing a bike.
North American brands are held in high esteem, with companies such as Seven Cycles, Independent Fabrication, Parlee and Serotta regarded particularly highly. Italy, always a stronghold of cycling passions, also has its bespoke frame-makers, such as Pegerotti and Passoni.
Then there are the UK framebuilders. Britain has always had a reputation when it comes to framebuilding, and a lot of the US names, such as Ben Serotta, learned their craft on these shores. With multiple awards from the annual Bespoked bicycle festival in Bristol between them, Ricky Feather and Tom Donhou are regarded as among the best the industry has to offer. All the same, they will readily tip their hats to long-established UK companies such as Mercian, which has been building in Derby since 1946, and framebuilders who have become legends in their own right, such as Brian Rourke, who has worked on the Rapha Continental project.
“I had the most amazing morning with Brian,” says Graeme Raeburn, designer for Rapha, the cycle clothing brand. “He is in his seventies, an ex Royal Marine Commando and he has this museum of cycling history in his workshop. His son welds the frames and paints them and another son runs the store. It was incredible to talk to him and go through the process.”
The Rapha Continental was set up by Rapha to celebrate the spirit of cycling. It is not about racing or time trials but more about the feeling of adventure, and sets a team of riders off to explore a particularly scenic route of a given country. Each Rapha Continental project brings frame builders local to the country it is travelling through to construct bikes for the ride.
“It makes sense to use bikes that have been hand-built and from the local area,” says Kati Jagger from Rapha. “It is an extension of the Continental’s ethos that every journey is different, and every single bike used is unique.”
Tom Donhou was already making a name on the bespoke scene when he was asked to build a Rapha Continental bike. “I see myself along the lines of a hot rod shop rather than a traditional frame builder,” he says. While his Rapha offering was styled as a traditional cycle tourer, he once built a bike for some who required that it “would make it across the Alps with a crate of Amstel strapped to the back. Another customer sent through sounds as inspiration. It is up to me to read between the lines and build something for them.”
It is these creations that have helped Tom make his name, and led to his “twelve-month build queue” – the sort of waiting list usually associated with a new Ferrari.
This type of wait is not unusual in bespoke frame building. Ricky Feather, a fellow Rapha Continental builder – also has a one-year build queue. This is more a consequence of high demand than any relation to the time it actually takes to build a frame. When it comes to actually constructing the bike, Ricky says he can turn one around in “eight or nine days, unless I need to do anything intricate. Then it goes to the painter’s and that’s two or three weeks.” The biggest wait is by far the lead-time, due mainly to both Ricky and Tom’s preference to remain one-man operations. Their maximum output is about 30 bikes a year each. The wait simply fuels demand.
The US framebuilders are larger operations and are therefore able to fulfill orders in six to eight weeks. But while the bespoke service they offer is no different to the likes of Donhou or Feather, many customers prefer to wait for their machine to be built by an individual craftsman.
Prices compare favourably with top-end, off-the-shelf machines but vary widely according to choice of components. A frame and forks starts at around £1,800 for a Feather, and complete bikes come in at between £4,500 and £11,000 for a top-spec machine. Donhou prices are similar, with complete bike prices starting at £3,500.
Imported bikes cost more, sometimes because manufacturers work with pricier materials such as titanium and custom-made carbon, but also because of import duties. A Seven Axiom SLX frame and forks starts at £4,040, while a carbon and titanium Serotta Ottrot frame and forks will set you back £6,499. Wheels and other components will double that figure, at the most conservative estimate.
Whether you choose the British frame builders or opt for an exotic American creation, the ideology is the same – when it comes to hand-crafted works of art, price is immaterial, and the best things come to those who wait.