It’s easy to get carried away with the excitement of modern bike technology. Only the other day I had the pleasure of a wonderful ride on a 6kg machine. That’s a fully-built bike, pedals and all, weighing a shade over 13lb. Amazing to think how far we’ve come in only a couple of decades.
The unrelenting march of technological progress is surely a great thing, but there’s something missing with modern bikes. Everybody knows it, but people are either unwilling to accept it, or more likely, they just don’t care to look beyond the sheer thrill of owning something contemporary and box-fresh.
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I very much enjoyed my six-kilo carbon-fibre experience. Who wouldn’t? I enjoyed it a dozen times, and the feeling of instant responsiveness from a rigid, race-ready carbon-fibre machine doesn’t wear off easily. But at the end of the day, that was all it would ever be to me, a machine. A lack of character in a bike has become a real concern, and when I complete an epic ride and still fail to connect in any way with the bike that got me to the finish, I’m left feeling unsatisfied, short changed.
And the older I get, the harder I find it to part with my hard-earned money to buy a bike I might never fall in love with. The solution? I did what any self-respecting man should do; I bought the love of my life.
At least I hope I did. The long and scary process of custom bike creation doesn’t actually guarantee I’ll end up owning a bike I’m going to love, but considering it’s a way to create exactly the type of bike I really want, rather than an ‘off-the-shelf’ compromise, it should come pretty close.
The customisation process is almost infinite. Nailing down those vague ideas of a ‘dream bike’ into a seamless package, one that makes sense as a whole, and will ride and respond to your input in the way you’d always dreamed, is a difficult dance.
Any dream will do
That’s why you bring your ideas to a man like Tom Donhou. It’s an art form, an act of invention, and he’s my bike-building Da Vinci. He knows how these things are done. “It’s really important for me to make the design and build process as enjoyable and engaging as I can for the customer, it’s all part of the experience of having a frame built,” Tom enthuses.
After making the decision to ‘go custom’ an explosion of options left me feeling dizzy. The main things to consider are what type of bike, what material, and who is going to make it. The last decision first then, though with the award-winning master of steel Tom Donhou already enlisted, I had my maker and material conundrum solved in one fell swoop.
I met Tom back at Bespoked Bristol, the UK’s custom bicycle show, in 2011. He won the Best in Show award for his urban commuter.
A simple-looking design with a collection of inspirational elements, such as a stem lock and belt drive. Things that made me sit up and take notice. When he won the Peer Award at the same show the following year, Donhou became a name I wouldn’t forget.
“Not everyone is very good at articulating their ideas or indeed even visualising them for themselves, so it’s my job to read between the lines and extract what the customer really wants and then show them”
First things last then. What type of bike? With the approach of winter, I was having dirty thoughts, literally, of creating a winter steed that would be suitable for riding in any condition, all year round. Something that would take a chunky mudguard and be able to handle Audax duties, while still being animated and nimble enough to make those rides exciting. The custom process is a funny thing though, and as conversations between Tom and I moved back and forth, he started to tease from me the dream bike I really wanted to create. It’s a process he’s clearly well versed in.
“Not everyone is very good at articulating their ideas or indeed even visualising them for themselves, so it’s my job to read between the lines sometimes and extract what the customer really wants and then show them. It’s an exciting process and the customer gets a lot out of it.”
I was having fun, but I was having a hard time commissioning a ‘dream bike’ that I would realistically feel happy about riding in the worst our British weather has to offer. So instead, I skipped eyelets and clearance in favour of a no-nonsense road bike. A bike that will sing in the summer sunshine and one that will be hung up and cosseted during the harsh winter months, leaving something slightly more mass-produced to cope with the detritus of our salt-strewn winter roads.
I already had a good idea of the frame geometry, something copied from a very comfortable titanium frame I recently rode. With that hurdle safely cleared, the next job was to meet Tom at his Hackney workshop and talk through the nitty gritty. We eventually decided on Reynolds 853 Pro Team tubes for the main frame, with a full carbon ENVE fork at the front. The idea, already well established, is to cover comfort and longevity in the steel frame, while the rigid fork keeps handling in check up front and hopefully leaves the bike feeling frisky.
I wanted my bike to stand the test of time. To that end, I decided on keeping things simple — a straight-up road bike, without the bells and whistles. No internal cable routing, no electronics… no needless complication. Good metal and quality components: that’s the way you make a bike that will last. That seems to sit well with Tom’s ethos too. “Donhou Bicycles is about building the best bikes I possibly can, responsibly and ethically. Carbon is an amazing material and it has its place, but riding custom steel that has had a craftsperson spend two weeks building it is something else, the bike feels almost alive with you, it really is an extension of you. To get spiritual about it, it has soul, it’s part of the life cycle.”
Painting by numbers
It’s all happening so fast. I go to meet Tom and see my tubes first-hand. With the excuse of needing photos for the magazine, I’m lucky enough to see my frame being fillet brazed before my very eyes. It’s not something available for every customer, but it’d be a crime to miss out on such an opportunity.
After the excitement of seeing the steel tubes come together there’s some downtime while I think about the paint finish. Looking through the Donhou Bicycles website (www.donhoubicycles.com) it’s easy to see that Tom enjoys his paint. Next to his workshop is a small paint room where he hand-finishes all his bikes in an array of colours and designs.
This filled me with confidence when the time came to thrash out some paint ideas. I sent him paint schemes, and he sent back several ideas for me to consider. We discuss them a little before more ideas come my way. He’s prolific, and you can tell this build, his 53rd, still excites him. It’s obviously a thrilling process for me, my first custom bike. But it’s really pleasing to know that the man creating it is having fun, too.
Looking around his paint room at his Hackney-based workshop, Tom’s background in design soon becomes apparent. All of his bikes are built here, and the designs are wonderful. Sometimes left to his own devices, on the trust of the customer, and other times with heavy input from the buyer, each bike has a divine finish.
The paint job took a little while to decide upon but I’m more than pleased with the final result and it’s certainly unique. To finish the build I went for the all-new Shimano Ultegra 11-speed groupset and Zipp finishing kit — that’s seatpost, stem and handlebar.
I collected my bike from Tom at his workshop once the whole process was complete. After seeing the frame coming together in the workshop, having boxes of components sitting around at home, and having finally settled on a paint design, collection day was an exciting time. “There’s satisfaction at all stages of the process, but the most satisfying moment is always collection. Getting to see the customer with a bike that really resonates with them and how made up they are with their new bicycle is always a great moment,” Tom says with a smile. I was very made up indeed.
It was bike love at first sight. If it weren’t for having to keep it clean for a visit to Cycling Active’s photographic studio, I would have ridden it home in the horrible winter weather right there and then.
So, would I recommend it? How could I not. I know that a custom bike isn’t within the reach of every rider’s budget, but it’s no penthouse in the City either. I see hundreds of expensive bikes on sportives every weekend; it seems clear to me that a lot of people could afford something like this — more than likely with change for a spare pair of wheels.
The whole process was some of the most bike related fun I’ve had, and that’s before I even had a ride.
I waited desperately for the recent floods to pass before daring to grace the local lanes in their best dry state. But the wait was well worth it. It rides exactly how I was expecting. Forgiving but agile, light but stable. It’s everything a steel frame should be, but so much more too. It’s actually a relief, after so much time (and money) to know that it was all worthwhile. I’m looking forward to a very happy relationship, one that should last until I pedal my final stroke.
Frameset: Reynolds 853 Pro Team with ENVE 2.0 carbon fork
Gears: Shimano Ultegra 6800 11-speed shifters and mechs
Chainset: Shimano Ultegra 6800
Brakes: Shimano Ultegra 6800
Wheels: Shimano Ultegra
Tyres: Continental GP4000S
Bar/stem: Zipp Service Course SL
Saddle: An ongoing search for perfection.
Seatpost: Zipp Service Course SL
Prices: Frame-only from £1,425; fully built road bike from £3,750