Just before I flew out to Bangkok for my current trip, I paid a visit to Richard Delacour at Oxford Bike Works to collect Tenny’s newly upgraded tourer. Based on a vintage steel Trek frame, the lovingly recycled bike is a tidy piece of work, naturally – but it got me reflecting on the story of my acquaintance with Richard and his company; a tale of serendipity and good timing that still elicits a smile.
I first met Richard in 2014 when he wrote to me asking if I’d promote a new range of touring bikes he was launching. At that time I was publishing a lot of gear reviews, so I suggested he lend me one for a write-up, to which he responded by promptly driving a hundred miles from Oxfordshire with an early version of the Oxford Bike Works Model 2 in the boot. We had a cup of tea, did a quick fitting session in the basement, and off he went. I spent the next month pootling around the backroads of the Midlands, putting the bike through its paces, before he came back to pick it up. (The resulting review is here.)
Beyond the bike itself, which had impressed me with its thoughtful, unorthodox design choices, my curiosity had been piqued by Richard’s story. Previously a schoolteacher with a passion for cycling and bike-building in his free time, he’d taken what must have been a daunting leap of faith, especially with a young family to support: quitting his career, designing his first touring frameset, and investing a hefty sum in the manufacture and shipping of a first batch of frames, which he stored in his garage while seeking out a local paint shop to do the coating. The Model 2 was one of three initial offers launched under his new Oxford Bike Works brand, each one built to order in an outbuilding behind his house repurposed as a workshop. Now Richard was doing all he could to get the word out with a marketing budget of precisely zero.
A while later, as I was riding the delightful riverside trails of Germany and Austria on a cumbersome Frankenstein’s monster of a bike, dreaming of the perfect do-everything tourer I wished I’d been riding all these years, I had a lightbulb moment. What if…?
That evening I fired off an email to Richard with the idea of actually prototyping “Tom’s Expedition Bike” with his frameset as the starting point. He liked the idea, so I drafted a brief and a spec, went over to his workshop, and spent a day bouncing around ideas for component combinations, fitting options for different riders, and extra touches that would make the most of Richard’s ability to customise each bike to order. The goal would be a bike built ground-up for long-haul expedition touring, customised for each rider, and at an accessible price point. No small ask.
A little over three years later, the slightly less narcissistically-named “Oxford Bike Works Expedition” has not just debuted but matured and carved out its very own niche, with a veritable fleet of happy riders now doing the rounds. Of course, the spec has been tweaked in line with the ever-shifting bike industry (excuse the pun), and the pricing and options have been tuned until they work consistently for both Richard and his customers, but the package as a whole remains as we originally envisaged, and it’s now a core part of the OBW line-up.
Critically, these bikes have now been inching their way across the globe for long enough to be scattered far and wide and prove that they’re up to the job. Time and miles: the only test of a expedition touring bike that really matters to a buyer with a journey of several years ahead of them. Ironically, most of the road-testing hasn’t been on my watch, instead on that of riders like Renee Rowland and Adam Sultan – not to mention the effervescent Anna McNuff – who have put many more thousands of far more arduous miles under their wheels than I have. No transcontinental tour is without its mechanicals, of course, but the reports Richard’s been getting back from his customers indicate that they’re inevitably of the predictable, easily fixable kind we anticipated in the design from the word go. Phew!
Here in Thailand, where the going is rarely that tough, I’m still riding the original “Tom’s Expedition Bike” prototype. My only issue so far is no fault of the bike: a bent front fork as the result of an abrupt and unhappy fusion of dog and bicycle while riding across Burgess Park in South London last year (the red replacement fork adds a nice splash of colour to the original beige). Otherwise, it’s a total dream. As I ride the thing, I still catch myself thinking on an almost daily basis:
“Man, this really is the bike I wish I’d been riding all those years…!”
(Which probably says as much about my bad first choice of bike as anything else.)
Richard reckons he’ll hand-build around a hundred bikes in the coming year, of which a dozen or so will be Expedition spec, and while there’s constant pressure to scale up, he’s deliberately resisting doing so. Bike building is what he loves, he says; he didn’t start this to end up as a business manager, and as long as he can pay the bills, he’ll be happy. It takes courage to stick to principles like that, and I have a huge amount of respect for him for doing so.
Staying small doesn’t mean stagnating. Richard’s proactive with his obsession, enthusiastically showing off a prototype disc-equipped adventure bike, born in response to growing demand and being put through its paces right now. And he talked me through some of the smaller components he was fitting to test models for research purposes, including new generator hubs priced to appeal to those who want on-the-go power but without the Schmidt price-tag, and some Microshift 3×8 thumbshifters that would – if durable enough – bypass the current Shimano bar-end shifter hack, and add barrel adjusters to boot.
So that’s the story so far. And I’m proud to have played a tiny part in helping a fellow idealist and lover of all things cycle touring to get a dream off the ground and make it a sustainable reality, beating the big players at their own game, and helping more people see the world from the seat of a bicycle.
Speaking of which, I’m off to ride mine…