Disclosure: This is a fully impartial review of Oxford Bike Works‘ Model 2 touring bike, based on real-world testing of a demo bike on temporary loan from Oxford Bike Works at my request. I am not affilated with or sponsored by Oxford Bike Works in any way.
As bike touring has grown in popularity, major bicycle manufacturers have made more and more capable, well-designed touring bikes available at affordable prices. I’ve reviewed a few in this popular article.
When it comes to buying a new touring bike, big brands are not the only option. Tons of independent bicycle builders are also producing top quality touring bikes. It’s just that without that mainstream marketing clout, you’re a lot less likely to have heard of them.
Sometimes these indies are fully-fledged companies. Take the Edinburgh Bicycle Co-operative, for example, whose Revolution line of touring bikes weigh in as some of the best value-for-money starter bikes on the market in the UK (£323 for a brand new fully-fledged tourer, anyone?).
Or, at the other end of the scale, there’s Thorn, who specialise in building utterly invincible steeds for those who desire – and can afford to pay for – the “least possible chance of mechanical failure” on tour (as quoted from their brochure).
Introducing Oxford Bike Works
Sometimes, though, they’re dedicated individuals with a passion for bicycle travel. Richard Delacour is such a bloke, having recently started a one-man company called Oxford Bike Works.
Richard is a passionate cyclist turned bicycle builder with a deep belief in the benefits of bicycle travel. And so he has set himself up to deal exclusively in building and supplying hand-built touring bikes on an individual basis.
From his workshop and fitting studio in Oxfordshire, Richard offers three pre-configured bicycle specifications, all based on his own custom-designed frame, which in my opinion is one of his range’s biggest strengths.
It’s a steel Reynolds 525 frame, based on the 26-inch wheel size, with a distinct nod to the ’90s mountain bikes that often used to be repurposed for touring. This is matched up with a heavy duty steel touring fork. Throughout the frameset you’ll find all of the reinforced rack-mounts, braze-ons and bottle-cage mounts you’d expect from an expedition touring bike.
Because of the frame’s mountain-bike leaning, the riding position is upright and spacious, rather than the racey dropped position of some British tourers, and in my opinion this is far more appropriate for most types of touring.
In terms of handling during my many loaded and unloaded test rides, the frame provided exactly the kind of stability, comfort and reassurance I’d be looking for in a bike for long-distance adventure touring.
I rode the Model 2, which is the most highly-specified (and therefore expensive) of the three stock models, with 10-speed components from the upper end of Shimano’s mountain bike drivetrain range.
The lower-end models share the same excellent frame, but are built up with cheaper components. Across the range, the choice of components is simple, sensible and forgettable, just as it should be – no risks taken, none needed.
Richard’s choice of 26″ wheels and frame geometry is a brave one, but it gets a big thumbs-up from me, as it places his models firmly in the realm of bikes on which you’d happily head off on a trans-continental tour, safe in the knowledge that the vast majority of bicycle tyres, tubes, spokes and rims you’d come across would be compatible with your bike.
This quality alone really elevates the bike above the majority of the UK’s mainstream offerings in terms of suitability for long-haul adventures in distant lands; few but the Surly LHT and Disc Trucker and the new Ridgeback Expedition share this advantage, and even these are priced significantly higher than Richard’s entry level model, the Model 1E – making it (to my knowledge) the best value 26-inch-wheel expedition bike on the market in the UK at the time of writing.
Richard offers the Model 1E at £900, the Model 1 at £1100 and the Model 2 at £1600; prices which are easily comparable to those of similarly specified mainstream bikes — perhaps even a little lower. He also offers the Model 1R; a recycled and reconditioned frame given a brand new paint job and built up to the same mid-range touring specification as the Model 1.
You can find more about the specifications of these bikes, as well as the other models in Richard’s range, in Oxford Bike Works’ PDF brochure.
The advantage of going independent
The real advantage of patronising someone like Richard is the personal service he offers. This is something that few companies can match, least of all the big guns, and it’s a strong argument in favour of buying a touring bike built by an independent builder like Richard.
Why does personal service matter?
Well, bicycle touring in particular is an inherently personal experience, and for many of us, our choice of bike setup is equally personal. If you’ve done any amount of cycling before, you are likely to have very specific preferences, both in terms of the style of touring you do and the way you like a bicycle set up for touring.
(I, for example, favour flat pedals and mountain bike style riser bars, and I’ll be transplanting my Brooks Flyer to whatever bike I own for the rest of my days. 8 or 9 speed drivetrains and fat 26″ tyres are the sensible option for the roads I tend to travel.)
Even if you haven’t done enough riding to know where your preferences lie, you’ll undoubtedly have specific plans for the tour you’ll be undertaking – and so your bike’s optimal setup will vary as a result.
If you buy an off-the-peg touring bike right now, you will be forced either to use it as specified by the manufacturer or to spend a fair bit of extra cash buying and changing out components to suit your preferences.
With a custom bike builder, however, very little is set in stone. While there are stock bikes in Richard’s range, such as the Model 2 I rode, these are really a guideline; something to help you see what you’ll get for a given price.
At the end of the day, he’s got the frames, the components, and a workshop. You, the buyer, can be as picky as you like in how it all gets put together.
Individual bike fitting
Richard’s workshop also doubles as a fitting studio, which I visited myself. Being located slap bang in the middle of England, the ability to visit him in person for an in-depth discussion about your particular needs and for a bicycle fitting session (included in his prices) is something you certainly won’t get with online retailers.
Even with big bike-store chains, you’ll still be taking a gamble on whether the person doing the fitting is familiar with the slight differences that touring places upon the interaction between bike and rider, and given that the vast majority of cyclists are not tourers, that’s another gamble.
All of this means that being fitted by a builder or a store who specialises in touring, given how important it is and how easily a bad fit can cause overuse or repetitive strain injuries on tour, is a very real benefit.
The trend towards ‘going local’
And there’s another big reason I’d buy from Richard. (Where’s my soapbox?)
Someone wise once said that every time you open your wallet you cast a vote for the kind of world you want to live in.
As we begin to grasp the consequences of our participation in the economy beyond acquiring the newest stuff as quickly and cheaply as possible, the spending of money becomes more than a mere financial operation and starts to regain its truer meaning: a show of support. (It took starting of a couple of ‘microbusinesses’ of my own for me to fully appreciate this.)
We’ve been trained from birth to adhere to the competitive principles of the free market and to seek out the bottom line. That’s why big brands are always having a ‘sale’ and offering ‘massive discounts’. That’s how Tesco put your local butcher out of business. That’s why we drive everywhere and tolerate traffic jams, lack of parking and shite one-way systems instead of taking quicker, greener, more convenient, much more expensive trains. We’re a society addicted to bottom-line spending.
The avoidance of McJob creation is a big part of the argument for supporting small businesses like Richard’s – i.e. to allow those doing meaningful work to continue to do so.
Independent, yet still affordable
Usually, buying local and independent means spending considerably more money, and this is likely what puts people off shelling out (for example) four grand for a Roberts Roughstuff.
But the funny thing is that Oxford Bike Works’ touring bikes still compete on price with the mainstream.
One way in which Richard has achieved this is to have the frames themselves handmade in Taiwan before being shipped to the UK for painting and assembling.
I’d have had a few grandstanding ethical reservations about this – until I actually visited a few bicycle factories in Taiwan and realised that the people involved are just as passionate about making quality bicycles as folk like Richard.
So by combining a thoughful frame design, a production line that results in high-quality product without being extortionately expensive, and doing all of the specification, assembly and fitting by hand and in person in Oxfordshire, what Richard has done is to actually remove bottom-line thinking from the equation, and make the choice all about choosing the benefits of an individually fitted and specified touring bike instead of a big-box factory model.
Short version: you don’t have to pay him more for the increased level of personal service.
His sales policy also includes a 10-year frame guarantee, and — in keeping with the theme of unique, personal service — a 1-year exchange offer on all ‘fitting’ components, including saddle, handlebars, stem and seatpost. So if you find you need to adjust the fit of your bike after a few rides, swapping out the relevant components is included in the price upfront.
Like a lot of small business owners, Richard needs all the help he can get with spreading the word about the offer he’s introduced to the touring bicycle market. His business is relatively new and he does not yet have the reputation of the big brands or the UK’s other well-known touring specialists.
So I’m really happy to be able to showcase Richard’s work here. The bikes are fantastic, he cares a ton about what he does and does it well, and he’s the first bike builder I’ve come across who’s pricing model puts custom-built touring bikes in competition with the mainstream tourers.
All of this makes Oxford Bike Works a prime example of why — if you care about where your money goes — it makes a lot of sense to look beyond the big brands and consider the many benefits of a individually fitted and locally built adventure touring bike.
You can see the details of what Richard has to offer on the Oxford Bike Works website, where you can download the PDF brochure or get in touch for a personal consultation.