When do you start to consider a custom bike build? It’s a question that we’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately as part of our occasional series on the UK hand built bicycle scene. From on-the-go music choices to streaming multi-media recommendations, if so much of our life is personalised, and if so much of our time is spent on two wheels, then why not customise a bicycle to our exact needs and desires?
To my mind, the main impediments are time and cost. For the first, there is no instant gratification with a custom bicycle, no next-day-delivery; instead, there is *the process*. For the second, a hand built bicycle will almost certainly cost more than a well-equipped mass-brand offering, and justifying the expense is not easy. But perhaps there is a third, equally important reason - confidence. From tubing choice to geometry, where do you start, and to whom do you go?
Based only a stone’s throw from the Thames Barrier - that 520m wide moveable flood barrier that stops Londoners from getting wet feet, lives Saffron Frameworks, a builder of fine bespoke bicycles. Bookended by double bass makers and the innumerate small, independent businesses that keep the Big Smoke smoking, Saffron occupy a light, friendly workshop space, heavy on tools, tea, and just the right amount of visible swarf to reassure as to the reason for our visit.
Over in the corner, looking like they were going 100mph at a standstill (the gold-standard for a great bike), stood two beautiful Saffrons recently back from press review.
"Let’s hope they don’t complain about anything”, chuckles a welcoming Matthew Sowter, the man behind the brand and indeed the welding mask at Saffron Bikes, “a custom bike is not an easy thing to review.
Having trained as a welder, before sharpening his chops for two years at Enigma Bikes, Matthew became dissatisfied with the daily routine and in 2009 set out on his own, carrying with him the name Saffron in remembrance of his early days as a chef.
"We take everything the customer tells us about what they want from their bike, and distill that through our knowledge of steel composition, geometry and componentry before settling on a final design” explains Matthew, whilst wielding a tapered headtube to illustrate the process.
“For example, if aesthetically a rider is looking for very thin tubes throughout the bike, but equally, a very stiff ride and a super low-weight, then we have some challenges to deal with. Stiffness is typically found in larger diameter tubing, and in this case, we wouldn’t want to increase the wall thickness because low weight is a priority… But really, that’s all part of the challenge, and exactly why you come to us”, he continues, with a grin.
“One of the main reasons customers order a custom bike is because they are looking for more. Unique - yep, they’re going to get that of course, but along the way, from first chat to frame finish, we keep them in the loop with little updates and milestones, and so when that day finally arrives and their bike is ready, it almost feels like they made the bike themselves, and in a sense, they did.”
Keen to understand the process from the very beginning, I asked: “When you order from people like Columbus or Reynolds - big bike pop culture names, do you just ring them up, tell them what you need, very much like a normal supplier?”
“Yeah, exactly, and all of the bicycle tubes that we use are butted. They’re internally butted, which means that they have a different thickness, so they’ve got a different profile on the inside of the tube”, explains Matthew.
“Like they taper, or they get thinner..?” I venture.
Demonstrating the sort of patience typical of a man used to spending 6 months working on a single bicycle, Michael continued: “So it’s the wall thickness that changes, and the reason they do that is because there are specific stresses on a bicycle, and there are certain areas that don’t have a lot of stress in them, so the wall thickness is a lot thinner in areas where there’s not a lot of tension applied”.
“So you lose the weight without losing strength?” I added.
“Exactly, and if you take the top of the range Reynolds 953 tubing, for example, that can go down to 0.35mm wall thickness at its most butted, which is almost half the thickness of the ends of the tube where stress is greater.”
When that day finally arrives and their bike is ready, it almost feels like they made the bike themselves, and in a sense, they did.
With my steel-101 over, and with Matthew milling over a mid-build stainless-steel frame with plucky workshop assistant Paul, I began to mentally assemble my fantasy tube set - thin yet firm, equal parts approachable and downright mean, with 95% full-on nutcase under the hood; very much like an old girlfriend in fact.
Having been startled out of my reverie by the snap and whir of Drew’s camera as he gorged himself on bottom brackets & braze around the workshop, I asked Matthew what he thought about carbon fibre, and whether steel always trumps this mass-market consumer favourite.
“In many ways, carbon is the perfect material for a race bike. It’s very light and it’s exceptionally strong for its mass. And whilst a steel bike fabricated from modern high-tensile material would still tip under the UCI race weight limit, I’m a firm believer that every type of material has its place, and in the throwaway world of pro-cycling, where stiffness is prized above comfort, it’s hard to beat carbon.”
I have to admit that it was refreshing to hear this from a steel bike manufacturer. But then again, Matthew doesn’t strike you as the type of guy to worry about what anyone else is doing. As he admits, Saffron is a labour of love, a testament to hand-worked steel and the accumulation of knowledge that knows that if you blend a little more chrome with this, cook things a little hotter, you get this metal, and this metal might just be the very best thing for your new bike build.
Like London-based sculpture artist Benedict Radcliffe, albeit a steel-manipulator of a very different sort, Matthew takes raw materials and makes beautiful things, seemingly (at least from the outside) with very little effort. But how do you go from the raw talent to polished finish? How do you even know you have a talent?
“I trained in college to weld, not super formally, but that was my start”, explains Matthew.
“But at that point did you realise you were really good at it?” I asked.
“Well, I was pretty crap after the first week Pete!” exclaims Matthew.
“But like anything, and I really believe this, that if you have a strong desire to do something, I don’t think your ability is that important, and if you apply yourself enough you can get there.”
A proper USA high-five moment and no mistake. But being British, I just muttered something about really liking Hob Nobs, and Matt bustled off to make the tea.
Our visit at an end, we just had time to take a few snaps of one of Matt’s finished Saffrons before hitting the road; a gorgeous spirited utility model complete with PDW mudguards, well-positioned front lighting and smooth as silk finishing.
If you are interested in beginning a hand-built bicycle adventure, then pop along to Saffron Bikes to kick things off with a chat. Matt and the team will also be at Bespoked Bristol, on hand to answer any questions you have and to inspire with a few tasty builds for your perusal.