Written by Michael Drummond
Foreword by Tangwyn Andrews
ADVNTR Contributor and long time volunteer at Bespoked.
Gravel – The accidental brainchild of the custom builders?
As we close up the 10th Bespoked show one conversation that has popped up a lot is that Gravel/Adventure bikes & bags as we know them today were born from the torches and sewing machines of the exhibitors here at Bespoked and our stateside sisters at NAHBS and Philly bike expo.
Now it’s a fair assumption that bikes have actually always been just this right from the beginning and any bike is a gravel bike; modes of transport short and long with adventure the prime option. While that’s certainly true, the now saturated standard profile of the gravel bike and its bike packing bags were first really seen at the shows. Some may say brands like Salsa, Ritchey and designers like Singular have played a big part in the dirty dropped revolution, that’s certainly correct, but delve into their history and they come from the same stock; builders in their shops mitring and welding to create the bikes they want to ride.
I remember Oak cycles exhibiting in 2014 and saying;
“I was going to cycle around the world but I couldn’t find anyone that was making the bike that I wanted for the trip. So, I set about reading a bunch of books and buying tools. And I made a bike frame. That was five years ago now.”
This story is not uncommon, many builder’s personal projects and commissions were, and still are, gravel bikes or bikes to head out and adventure. Their advantage being the ability to create something not available off the peg, unencumbered by marketing trends or manufacturing processes planned a year or three in advance. Road was serious with steel a thing of the past, and MTB had found Enduro, while touring bikes were a different breed altogether.
So maybe, like me, you loved CX but want to run those weird NOS early narrow 29r tyres outside of the barriers & up the valleys with a little luggage.
…The only direction really was custom.
That feeling of being untethered to a genre sold to us became more and more appealing, bikes to take you around with watts and drops not being the primary objective, and in among all this by chance hit a vein hard that it seems a lot of cyclists really chimed with.
Fundamentally Gravel is all about choice and reducing the need for too much bike either way of the route, and that’s a hard sell for the industry, but the bread and butter of the custom builder. Our friends at The Bicycle Academy, the place where they will help you build your own frame echo this, Gravel and Adventure make up the majority when it comes to the choice of the students.
And that, is at heart, what the shows are about; for most bikes built, the customer is in it for the craft and the relationship to a person making, a relationship to something directly personal that is going to hopefully be a great friend that connects us to the beautiful outdoors taking the old/long/bumpy way, and to do that well we need 40c plus right?
Bespoked 2021 : The Show
Arriving mid afternoon on the Saturday to the 10th Bespoked show I managed to drop into the backend of a panel discussion in a tap room hosted by Jon Woodruff of Two Tone Amsterdam who was speaking to two frame builders with vast experience in not only making bikes but also riding them long distances, London based Rob Quirk of Quirk Cycles and builder Sebastian Klein of France based Brevet Cycles.
It really was a brilliant way to start the show, a great opportunity to hear more wild tales from long distance Audax’s and the endurance races that have brought this trio to the show, mentions of wild packs of dogs in the desert, shotgun wielding drunk locals in the mountains and questionable decisions while battling with tiredness to hint at a few stories to ask them if you do cross paths.
The room was buzzing with keen endurance cyclists and builders hawk eyed with twitchy hands ready to throw them up as soon as the floor opened up for questions, following the raft of enquiry and knowledge sharing the room slowly dispersed and all that remain were empty chairs and glasses while the hall across the road would fill up again with chatter and wide eyed joy at the gleaming two wheeled masterpieces that populate the show floor.
The empty tap room now laying in wait for more talks to draw in a different crowd with different questions.
What would follow is a discussion between famed British frame builder Ted James, and Peter Georgallou of Dear Susan cycles; two celebrated builders in their own right making creations like no other.
From wild tall bikes, full suspension BMX’s and custom expedition bikes that are reminiscent of a psychedelic era of mad max after the last of the petrol dries up.
….Now whilst Bespoked is of course all about custom bike builders and their dramatic creations that all serve to whisk us away to the shops, the forest or far flung hairpins on the other side of the world.
Sometimes.. Just sometimes you are going to want to take a few items with you that won’t fit in your pockets, enter bike luggage, bikepacking bags, stowage!
And at this years show there was a select amount of bag makers on hand to talk too, with topics covering everything from their businesses, their origins and whats next for fabrics, bag making and the industry in general.
A very exciting curation of makers, each at different stages of their journeys made for an excellent talk, with Nathan Hughes of long established Yorkshire factory Restrap, now with a workforce of nearly 70 staff, they have seen an incredible growth since the humble beginnings of recycling car seat belts to create the now famous toe straps which have changed very little indeed since their creation.
New offerings on show came in the form of the latest collaboration that dropped during October with Italian brand Look. This stylish, eye-catching and rather pioneering collection of bags makes use of a uniquely developed fabric that was created solely for this collaboration, part material part glass bead and reflecting a great deal of light back in a rather lovely spectrum of colours, glimpsed at the right angle the colours of the rainbow are on show and thats in any lighting condition, whether enjoying blue skies above Italian gravel or moodier moments while ripping through rural Yorkshire.
Included in the collection of three limited edition bags are a Long and spacious top tube bag, classic handlebar bag and a rather neat saddlebag somewhere in the middle of a full pack and large tool roll all utilising the iridescent reflective material that matches the decals on the Look 765 Gravel RS.
Restrap are continually pushing ways to ensure they adapt to the needs of the rider and wider environment with a focus on reducing their impact and recycling as much of the waste material from production. An effort that was documented when we were lucky enough to pop along to their factory, which you can read all about here.
Peter Rutherford of Aravis Bag Works bag also made an appearance on the bag makers panel, he shared his story of evolving from creating backpacks in the beginning and then developing this skillset into making bespoke bike-packing bags for all manner of rider.
Working solo in the hours around his full time teaching role he somehow has the ability to not only create a line of staples in his collection all made of Cordura that are great for shorter trips or throwing on the bike for day rides; but then also has time to develop a new line of prototypes that are designed to act as holsters for drybags, one up front mounted to the bars, includes a tidy and infinitely useful bungee lattice for snacks, jackets or even extra bags (who knows) and with the second holster attaching to the seatpost and rails, both to be refined over the coming weeks ready for sale in the not too distant future.
The suite of bags shown are attached to a very nice build by Copenhagen based Red Fox cycles who’s site you can visit here.
Lastly on the bag making panel was Harry Major of Wizard Works, another London based maker who along with with partner Ve has grown from strength to strength in recent years to evolve their range of products into a party filled roster of uniquely practical and funky bike luggage solutions.
Making use of all manner of fabrics in all sorts of colours, the options seem limitless and this has drawn all sorts of attention from Riders looking to really accessorise their bikes with matching palettes of bags for the most aesthetic of rides.
Their long list of custom and off the shelf options has not only brought riders to their website but also brands looking for one off designs and quirky collaborations with an aesthetic all their own, on display was a full stand showcasing all bags past and present along with two bikes setup in different configurations.
First up was a Stayer UG, their lightweight gravel bikepacking ride donned with a hot pink Teeny Houdini under the saddle with a splatter half frame bag that uses a bungee cord rather than velcro tabs on the toptube; both a big aesthetic and functional win. Up front on the bars is the rather sought after Mini Shazam, in a pretty tidy looking splatter candy colour combo, these cavernous contemporary evolutions of the traditional canvas saddle bag are now a big seller in both custom and off the shelf colourways too.
Strapped on to Harry’s own Clandestine build is a slightly more earthy looking set of bags, configured for a slightly more loaded up kind of adventure, utilising the ‘Shazam’ on there rear, with a supporting rack and up front the basket bag known as the Alakazam; recently infact the ‘wizards’ have introduced the Pelagazam an evolution of the Alakazam, designed to fit seamlessly in a Pelago basket which is worth checking out.
To see and hear from each of the manufacturers was really insightful, the challenges met and overcome in order to grow as not only makers but also businesses were entirely relatable and the ways in which they are looking to develop their making practice to use less harmful coatings on waterproof fabrics and utilise materials that are inherently better for the environment is an exciting insight to how they are trying to make the small differences that will eventually lead to a bigger change.
Hopefully inspiring others do the same.
Builds from the show (Part 01)
Now of course Bespoked as the brilliant foreword from Tangwyn eluded to is all about the custom bikes that makers from up and down the country and even outside our borders have been working on, whether for their own customers or meeting specific needs that they might have conjured up in adventure plotting dreamscapes.
The builders and bikes below are the first of a selection from some of the most standout creations at the show that would happily fulfil the greatest wawnderlust in any of us, allowing those travels to be as far from the beaten track as possible. I spoke to some of the builders and people behind the bikes not only about their builds but also their process and what its like to attend shows where like minded creators can come together to showcase their efforts.
Pi Manson @ Clandestine.
Year on year since attending the Bespoked show Pi Manson of Clandestine has seemingly mirrored his tally of attendance with the number of bikes on show.
I.e. Year one, one bike, year two, two bikes and this being the third year.
…Thats right, three bikes.
Along with an incidental fourth courtesy of stand neighbours Wizard Works, donned with some of their mighty fine bags, but you already know that so…..
Amongst the three that Pi brought this year there was one bike in particular which was just mesmerizing to look at and well I can only imagine just what a wonder it would be to ride.
The Long Tail as it has been coined is a reflection of the incredible ability that Pi possesses to undertake more and more challenging commissions than the previous and all the while still weave his unique aesthetics that result in such unique builds that are so distinct from the other builders out there.
“there is an ambition behind each build and with each build the confidence in my craft develops naturally” Pi says, adding “I wouldn’t say my work has changed radically, but it has become refined, and one of the most key things i have found over the number of builds is my style and my approach – and i’m comfortable with that.”
To rewind back to earlier builds there are obvious hints at the direction which Clandestine builds were to evolve into over time, in each project this evolution is present and now less and less readily available components are utilised in the bikes produced; with custom solutions to very specific needs all being fabricated in house.
“The long tail adventure bike had more important requests and input from the customer than normal, and that’s not to suggest others don’t per say – but there were some very particular features listed”
These numerous features crop up all over the build, some of which hail back to the days of mid school BMX such as the wishbones featured on not only the chainstay and seatstays but also rear rack, all inspired by US BMX brand Terrible one; further celebrating the customers love of BMX there are adaptations like the cranks, built in the workshop with 853 Reynolds steel they use a 19mm 48 spline Profile spindle (A legendary piece of BMX history) all finished with a capped pedal boss end in copper.
Racks are something that Clandestine builds are renowned for and rightly so, at first glance the rear rack may seem overbuilt and compromise the overall weight but this really isnt the case, using T45 steel it remains light enough to keep the bike feeling balanced and strong enough to pile luggage on the rig for some serious loads to be taken across some serious terrain. This being just one of the materials used in amongst a medley of steels like Reynolds 853 and Columbus Zona on the rest of the bike,
Taking a step back and moving to the front of the bike a Truss fork was also a specific request from the customer, and Pi made it his mission to infuse it with his own distinct Bi Plane fork design, constructed from dropout to steerer it was not without its challenges but the final result is a striking and beautifully crafted custom piece, finished off so very nicely with the compact rack including built in dynamo light mount.
“While in some ways it’s less so uniquely mine in comparison to other builds, the way it was a super collaborative project and came out great has me feeling pretty stoked.”
Pi tells me the Longtail was specced to a very scientific “Fuck-Tonne of clearance” (3 inches but with the ability to creep upto 3.5 no problem)
Stepping away from the specifics of this build and into the wider custom bike world, Pi remarked on one of the whys maybe there are more requests for unique bikes in recent years, hinting that there has been a weird distortion in cycling for decades, a kind of delusion that has taken people away from the bikes that they actually want, or at least made available to them.
“I guess there is a new realisation of what people really want to ride and what bikes they need to do that, in some ways waking up to how beautiful it is to own a bike which enables you to be free enough, to liberate you from one distinct riding style or discipline and that’s not to say that bike wont be fun if it has a certain geometry and a basket on the front – its just about your approach “
From the sounds of it this approach has opened up a wider dialogue around custom builds and the uses for them, and with that conversation “The bespoke frame building world has grown away from the traditional road cycling norm and it’s become so exciting”
So any last notes about the show and what it’s like to attend?…
“Its a real pleasure being a frame builder, its creative and interesting, and the show offers countless opportunities to meet and interact with amazing people from all over an incredible community and Its just a lovely bit of the world to be in.”
Chris Lord @ Lord Cycles
In a slightly different vain of build process and response to needs, Chris Lord of Cardiff based Lord Cycles brought his own all terrain exploration bike in the form of his Nomad, a rigid mountain bike designed to put in the miles and well I asked him more about it below..
Read on and see if the Nomad is the bike you didn’t realise you were looking for…
1- The aesthetics and purpose around the the Nomad seems quite different from previous builds, can you summarize what it was in response to and maybe what inspired it?
Yeah, so the Nomad has been an idea in the back of my mind for a while, pretty much all the riding I do is done on the rough stuff around South Wales using a gravel bike which is super fun but also can be pretty sketchy at times especially when the bike is fully loaded for multi day trips.
I just found that my riding style completely changed for the worse when the bike was laden and felt really restricted to what I was able to ride.
The whole idea of the Nomad was to have a bike that can be fully loaded for multi day trips but still be capable and able to be ridden on whatever you may come across without feeling underbiked.
When I was accepted to build for Grinduro Wales earlier in the year I used the opportunity to build the Nomad to test the idea out.
“If you have a smile on your face when you are on your bike then who cares what you ride.”
2- It seems alot of endurance mountain bikes these days are running rigid forks and larger tires, why do you feel that is, and do you prefer this over suspension forks up front?
I guess manufacturers are pairing larger tyres with rigid forks on endurance mountain bikes in response to the type of riding people are doing where suspension is not necessarily needed. Riding on gravel roads, bridleways and double track can be pretty rough at times and a rigid fork with a chunky tyre is a great and much lighter option in my experience compared to a squishy fork.
Personally I love a rigid fork paired with chunky soft tires. It makes the ride alot more involved and spices up technical sections plus I love the simplicity as not much can go wrong with a rigid fork.
However, I guess it all depends on where and how you like to ride. If I were to ride the Silk Road Mountain Race I would definitely want some suspension up front but if you spend most of your time riding bridleways and double track then I would say it’s a bit overkill but each to their own, if you have a smile on your face when you are on your bike then who cares what you ride.
3- With your builds where do you draw inspiration from? Are you working with clients quite closely or do they offer an idea of what they want and then they leave you to build in your own way?
So I offer Custom and Semi-Custom build options.
The custom builds are very much inspired by the customers idea where we work closely together to bring that idea to life, it’s a very involved process and is for people who are looking for a build with a specific purpose whether its a lo pro track bike with the bars coming off the fork or an Audax bike with a bi-laminated head tube and internal dynamo routing or a cargo fork that fits a 20″ disc wheel and is built for carrying your dog around the streets of Bristol. All the builds are varied and unique which keep things exciting.
The semi-custom aka ‘Adventure Collection’ is a range of made to measure base models that are inspired by the riding, adventures and experience found in Wales. These are for people who are after a particular type of bike but don’t need to go down the fully custom route. The bikes are still made to measure and you get to choose your colour and optional extras such as internal routing, mudguard mounts and extra bottle cage mounts but its a much smoother and simpler process.
4- What does a show like bespoke do for your as a business and the frame building community?
Bespoked is an amazing opportunity for the frame building community as it allows builders from all over the country and abroad to network and actually meet each other to share tips, tricks and to ask for advice but it’s also amazing to see that the craft of frame building is still so strong and I feel that it’s a celebration of the artisans to demonstrate and show to the world what they can do.
As a business it’s a chance to meet and chat to customers in person and it is also a way to reach out to a wider audience as the exposure and coverage is huge which is crucial for small businesses who typically operate within their local areas.
It was my first time exhibiting at Bespoked and it was an amazing experience to meet and chat to customers and to get to know genuine and passionate builders who love what they do.
Rob Quirk @ Quirk Cycles
Quirk cycles of London is no stranger to scenario specific builds, with each line of frames built in response to and tested on endurance cycling races across the world; from endurance road bikes like the ‘Durmitor’ raced during the Transcontinental, the ‘Kegety’ that was put to use on the infamous Silk Road Mountain Race and then there is the ‘Overland’ which Rob raced and finished the Atlas Mountain Race on last year.
For Bespoked this year the ‘Superchub’ was born; a lightweight steel XC mountain bike that shone bright as a single golden build on his stand, full of well considered aesthetic choices in finish along with some technical touches that really made for an impressively lightweight steel hardtail.
Rob mentions there are subtle differences to the geometry which in turn make for a completely different ride feel than last years slightly more burly and expedition focused flat bar bike “The overland last year was inspired heavily by 4×4 off roading, in essence what is basically bikepacking using trucks, sharing the same ideals of getting closer to nature and being self sufficient and so on, even the paint schemes were all colours used in classic 4×4’s,”
At its core the Superchub is an xc race bike through and through, designed to offer a bit more trail handling and cornering confidence than the last mountain bike from Quirk cycles and in choosing to run a slightly slacker head angle of 68 degrees along with a shorter fork rake the steering is more progressive and has less wheel flop**, all in all making for a more fun and lively ride.
**Wheel flop is the sensation of the wheel turning more than expected when the bars are rotated, often making the ride feel erratic at slower speeds.
While on paper the Superchub stands to be a pretty dialled in xc bike there are some well considered features that will see it excel as an endurance mountain bike, but the tyre clearances don’t seem to be quite as beefy as what we’ve seen on some of the other bikes featured in this list and we couldn’t help but ask why, as there is still a strong cohort looking to push the plus size tyres of 2.6 – 3 and beyond, however Rob hints that “they are starting to pull back a little bit… perhaps on realising there is an upper limit to their advantage. Most people will be racing xc on a 2.1 and then long distance racing you are looking at 2.4, as soon as you go above that they become so heavy, Which is part of the reason i chose to setup 2.35 tyres on the Superchub,”
“One thing people talk about is grip, but when a tyre gets to big in wet conditions it begins to lose grip and to be honest a 2.2inch gravel bike is the limit in my opinion”
As the eyes begin to wander around the rest of the build there are some obviously unique elements which really stand out, and these are the seat cluster (where seat tube, top tube and seats stays meet) and rear dropouts both of which have been 3D printed, something which has been part of an ongoing thought process for Rob “There is all sorts possible now, there have been 3d printed ti cranks, ti seatposts….. which is preeeetty cool and In the future the intention is to have a few parts printed on the bike that are unique to me”
Unique is right and the clean lines that come off the back of this additive process add to the overall look of the bike, further accentuated by the choice of colours that were a huge draw for many wandering admirers at the show. A whole bunch of individual components on the bike have been stripped down anodised in a metallic green, a custom modification which again has been simmering away in the back of Robs mind.
“I was getting bored of this or that getting put on a bike as an off the shelf option, anodising wasn’t just because of the lacking in parts, but it was something i have been wanting to do for a long time. I don’t think i’ve seen anyone else strip down parts and anodise them so it was a great opportunity to add something that no one else had, and while yes there is a sustainability element around it to re use parts, the idea stems from the layer of adding that extra level of customisation to a build.”
We certainly feel that this flare and attention to detail is up there with some of our favourite from the show and we asked what Rob felt was the best bit of his own build and here is what he had to say.
“its difficult to pick out just one thing about a bike as when you are building one you are thinking as holistically as possible, you have to really consider material and that then affects the paint choice… But if it had to be one thing I think the dropouts compliment the Columbus chainstays so well, they are so unique to me and just so aesthetically pleasing…. It’s just sweet!”
That concludes the first long read from this years Bespoked show – below is a list of the instagram handles of each maker mentioned in the article to stay upto date with their creations and offerings.
Hope you enjoyed the read and keep an eye out for the next one.
Last modified: 28th November 2021