Can’t afford expensive bikes? Do yourself an enormous favour by ignoring what follows and reading this instead.
I never imagined I would one day be able to call myself a bike designer. (Or a writer, or a filmmaker, for that matter.)
But now I can – as of today. And here’s how it happened:
Last summer I was enjoying a nice few weeks of bicycle-mounted wandering in central Europe. Germany, France, Switzerland and Austria, to be precise. I was riding with Leon McCarron (with whom I also went adventuring last year in Iran and Patagonia), his wife Clare, and my wife Tenny.
Together we followed the Rhine from Cologne to Basel via castles and vineyards innumerable, skipped over to Lake Constance, and then followed the world’s most popular cycle route, the Donauradweg, along the Danube to Salzburg, where we celebrated the end of our trip with a Sound Of Music-themed bike tour of the city. Yeah, I know. There was singing and everything.
It was just about the most unadventurous bike tour ever, given my (and Leon’s) previous track record. But, by god, was it fun! Europe in the summer really is the cycle tourist’s playground. A fun trip, after all the working I’d been doing, was exactly what I needed.
As usual on trips like this, I spent countless happy hours daydreaming, planning trips that would never happen, imagining how things might go if I did this or that, trying to figure out how to simultaneously achieve world peace and personal contentment, and all that kind of stuff.
Because I’d done no planning other than to book the flights, I’d also grabbed the first bike that came to hand on the day I’d left for the airport. This happened to be my former expedition bike, since dismantled, the frame welded back together and rebuilt as a single-speed city bike before I’d changed my mind and half turned it back into a mountain bike.
So it was a right Frankenstein’s monster, but because I was only going to Europe and only for a few weeks, I figured it wouldn’t matter.
And it didn’t, because (as I’ve written numerous times in the past), you don’t need posh gear to go on a cycling adventure.
But as I rode alongside or slightly ahead of Leon, admiring his now rather world-weary Santos Travelmaster, the thought crossed my mind: if I were to go back in time and rebuild my expedition bike from the ground up for that big round-the-world trip I once began, given everything I’d learned about touring bikes from all the miles I’d pedalled since then… what would such a touring bike look like?
Like I said, cycle touring encourages daydreaming. So, perhaps influenced by the summer I’d spent rebuilding disused bicycles for the Bristol Bike Project – a job in which a good generation’s worth of bicycle technologies had crossed my workstand, along with pretty much every mechanical travesty and hack-bodge-repair technique imaginable – I began building, in my mind, the ‘Ultimate Expedition Touring Bike’.
My first attempt to build such a bike for real had actually been back in 2007, when, armed with a background in casual mountain biking and a year’s worth of Google-based research, my mate Andy and I attempted to reinvent the touring bike altogether for our upcoming adventure. What we were sorely lacking, of course, was any actual experience of cycle touring, though that didn’t stop us trying.
The result was an absolute beast of a bike – think overbuilt cross-country mountain bike with racks, raised handlebars and a variety of questionable component choices (suspension forks and hydraulic disc brakes, anyone?). And of course, when bombing down gravel switchbacks in Ethiopia, it was pretty fun to ride. But it was hardly a sensible, well-balanced expedition touring bike for the other 99.9% of the time I spent on the road.
This time would be different. This time, I’d have 8 years of experience of riding, fixing, rebuilding, researching and writing about touring bikes to go on.
I’d also have the wisdom gleaned by talking to hundreds of experienced cycle travellers, and advising many more new ones about their concerns, worries and needs on long, meandering bicycle journeys.
This time I knew exactly who I was designing a touring bike for, and exactly what their priorities would be. Because I’d been there myself.
The bike was still a daydream when I returned from our hardcore adventure on those European bike routes. I started making a tentative list of the components I’d use to put such a bike together, researching which had stood the test of time and were still available, and which had fallen prey to the ‘upgrade syndrome’ imposed by manufacturers desperate to stay in the arms race.
At the same time, I started researching frames; the essence of the bike, the foundations upon which all else would rest. Back in 2007 I’d used a Kona Explosif frame, which had seemed fine for a bike with suspension forks. Then both Andy and I cracked the rear driveside dropouts, demonstrating that the frame wasn’t really made for carrying luggage at all. And the landscape had changed all over again in the 8 years since: with mountain biking technology even more specialised than ever, an even smaller number of frames fitted the bill.
One of these frames was made by Oxford Bike Works, whose Model 2 road tourer I reviewed on this blog a year or so back.
Then, as I daydreamed:
A cartoon lightbulb appeared above my head. Because not only was the frame perfect for my imaginary ‘Ultimate Expedition Touring Bike’, but the company – well, the company’s owner, Richard Delacour – also specialised in building custom bikes on a one-off basis. Granted, their current range was road-oriented and suited to shorter, lighter tours, but the skills, the workshop facilities, the frame and the component suppliers were all in place.
Maybe Richard would be interested in developing the expedition tourer idea and adding my world touring bike design to his range? Maybe this bike wouldn’t just remain an idle daydream, but become a bike people could actually ride on world-ranging bike trips?
I couldn’t see any reason why these whimsical ideas could not actually become reality. At the same time, I would be putting my money where my mouth was when it came to my critique of sell-out adventurism. A permanently unemployed bicycle traveller getting together with an upstart bike-builder operating out of the workshop next to his house to build one-off bikes to order? How ‘grassroots’ does it get?
So anyway, I dropped Richard a line. He loved the idea.
Together we’ve spent the autumn and winter researching, developing, prototyping and finally riding.
And today, I am pleased to announce that Oxford Bike Works are officially opening up slots in their build schedule for expedition touring bikes.
You can read all about the design and specifications of the resulting bike on this page. And in the event that you are looking for a heavy-duty touring bike for a journey of months or years, you can book yourself in for a consultation with Richard at OxfordBikeWorks.co.uk.
P.S. Can’t afford expensive gear? Then what exactly are you still doing here? Go get a bike out of a dumpster and ride it!