Review by Alaric Lester
I have been creating a dream crit bike for at least six months. It is a long way from taking physical form. Very few off-the-peg crit frames are on the market, justifying – necessitating – a custom build. It will have tight angles and aggressive geometry. Not needing to climb steep hills, stiffness will take priority over weight. Disc brakes and a 1x drivetrain will make the build. Most importantly, it will have the ride comfort and crash resistance that can only come from a well-made steel or titanium frame.
A little research was in order, so I headed to Bespoked 2019 in Bristol over the bank holiday weekend for some inspiration. British frame builders predominate. Italian, German, Swiss, US, Spanish and even Australian offerings were also present. As well as the bikes, components and clothing on offer, there were three days of talks, from the mental exertions of cycling to India, through the technical quirks of 12-speed Campagnolo, to the things that compel framebuilders to practise their art.
Even more valuable than seeing frames up close was the chance to talk in depth to a range of framebuilders. A builder’s philosophy and ability to understand different riders’ needs are just as important as craftsmanship and design expertise. Kudos to all for their inspiration and knowledge. Extra kudos to the ones who managed to stay interested at my sometimes obtuse questioning.
Even Odysseus had distractions from his quest. There were Sirens aplenty to divert me from my research. Here are a few:
Beamz uses coppiced hardwood to create unique wooden offerings. Much as I wanted to explore further, there is no place in my racing stable for one of these!
The Flying Gate design has been around for more than eighty years. They are now made exlcusively by Liz Colebrook of Beaumont Bicycle. The vertical seat tube allows much shorter rear stays which, proponents claim, makes for a lively and fast frame. Aside from the highly unusual tubing arrangement, they are notable for their ornate lugs. I like the history behind the concept and really get the benefit of short stays, but the ugly injections are a step too far for me in an age of aero and carbon.
I pressed on the right-hand pedal of this wooden offering from Flat Frame Systems. The frame flexed – a lot. Great for comfort, great for individuality, not great for bunch sprints.
The MacKenzie Cyclone is designed to command attention and give a comfortable ride. I can vouch for the former. It will be winning me no crits, though.
I have little need for an MTB with drop bars, but I had to feature this Sturdy Cycles machine. If you can drag your eyes from the copper-finish water bottles, there are plenty of other fine touches to admire.
Componentry and Accessories
Component and accessory manufacturers were also well represented. At the Chris King stand, I spent some time studying the cassette clutch system of a cutaway rear hub. A man on the stand talked to me about various components of its design – from the choice of materials to the low-tension springs and easy hex-wrench maintenance. Who was the tour guide? Mr Chris King. A privilege to understand some of the design philosophy from the eponymous designer himself.
Moskito Watches had an analogue cycle watch collection. The classic Swiss watch design can easily be switched between the wrist and a handlebar mount. The watch pairs with a smartphone, using the latter’s GPS to display speed and distance travelled. Having the GPS separate from the watch means a long battery life of six months or more. The watch even announces when you have text messages. As required by the modern cyclist, rides can of course be uploaded to Strava. Aside from the style advantages, there is a simple elegance in an analogue display for speed: think Smiths Instruments meets the tech age.
I have used the Silca Hiro track pump adapter for over a season now. For pressures up to 15 bar (220 psi), it is the most reliable connector on the market. I visited the Silca stand to play with their new tools. The HX1 contains eight hex wrenches and ten tool heads, beautifully finished and nicely balanced. A textured red polymer coating gives sensuous satisfaction. The package is completed with a machined wooden box. They have made even the lowly hex wrench a thing of desire.
Reynolds tubing have branched out into 3D-printed metal dropouts and frame lugs. Modern technology allows these to be made to highly precise tolerances. There was also a prototype 3D-printed bottom bracket shell, although this is unlikely to move to commercial production in the near future.
Winston Vaz has been building and repairing steel frames for more than 35 years. He spent nine years with Holdsworth, then 27 years with Roberts Cycles, before setting up Varonha Frameworks. His brother Mario, who resprayed a frame for me back in 1987, does all his paintwork. In pride of place on his stand was a Reynolds 953 road bike with a Campagnolo EPS groupset. Winston spent hours polishing the stainless tubes to a chrome-like finish, finishing with 2,000 grit sandpaper (most people stop at 1,000). Painted fancy lugs and wraparound seat stays complete the classic look.
Cicli Barco was a new name to me. For many years, they built for other brands. Barco now specialise in custom steel builds with meticulous lugs and fine detail. I liked the round steel forks on their track/ fixed-wheel machine, reminiscent of the old Columbus track forks. Note also the embossed Italian flag on the top tube.
The Saffron Frameworks offerings had clean, modern lines. Founder Matthew Sowter was a chef before building frames, hence the company name. Sumptuous paintwork and elegant detail epitomise the brand. Particularly easy on the eye was a grey steel creation with a half-hidden seat binder and internal brake cables through the down tube, bottom bracket and chainstays. They also offer a steel frame with an integrated carbon seat tube.
The signature look on Barbastelle bikes (from the West Country, not Southern Europe as I first assumed) is the low seat stays, creating a tight rear triangle. I have yet to see these on other steel bikes. Seat stay clearances are very tight. As a sprinter, I would want a little more clearance there to allow for some wheel flex. Another steel first for me was the front end on their track bike, formed from parallel brazed head tubes, one for the fork steerer, the other joining the main triangle. This creates a savagely aero look for a steel frame. The various profiles of the Columbus Life tubeset work well for close clearances.
Finally to the understated and outstanding Prova Cycles, all the way from Australia. I wandered past this stand many times, almost missing one of the show’s highlights. Only up close did I appreciate the finish and attention to detail. Mark Hester, the founder, came from an automotive and motorsport background. The frames incorporate 3D-printed lugs and structures, often combining Columbus, Reynolds and carbon fibre in the same frame. Small wonder that they won the best-in-show award. Stunning, yet restrained, exuberance.
Beyond the Show
Show departed, my beard was longer, my love of steel even greater, my eye more attuned to the minutiae that can make a good frame great.
Against the ride quality of a 1993 Eddy Merckx Corsa Extra, even a bespoke creation could fall short. With this in mind, perhaps the classic lines of a Varonha would win against an oh-so-contemporary Saffron. Or maybe I might take a chance with a younger framebuilder like Tom Skinner of Barbastelle. Perhaps there will be no future comparison, lest I discover the truth.
My crit bike may take form one day. It may not. Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination – especially when it involves detours to the West Country. In the meantime, the quest for knowledge continues – and the ride is sweet.
This article first appeared on Strava in May 2019