In 2013 I got my first proper look at custom hand made bikes. The Bespoked Hand-built Bike Show in Bristol was packed with dozens of unique creations all tailored to the needs and desires of their owners, and each reflecting an immense depth of skill, passion and outright devotion from their creator. Expensive? Yes. Desirable? Very much so. To be in possession of something that is one of a kind, made for you, your specification in terms of geometry but injected with a creative flair that sets it apart from everything else was very compelling.
At that 2013 show, one bike caught my eye – a road bike with a paint finish that paid homage to the Lotus JPS Formula 1 car – a car that I could remember from my childhood. It was a very cool bike and I wanted one. But one exactly the same would not be right. That uniqueness would be lost. I needed to find something else like it, but not like it. And so the seed was sown. (more…)
It was at Bespoked Bristol Bike Show in 2013 that I first met Steven Shand, owner of Shand Cycles. Wildcat Gear supplied Steven with some bags to display at the show, and that marked the beginning of the two companies working together to unite Shand’s superbly crafted frames with the high quality bikepacking luggage creations from Wildcat Gear.
When I first looked at the bikes in their range at the show, two things stood out to me; thoughtful, elegant design that instantly portrayed the true purpose behind each frames intended use and, secondly, a level of craftsmanship in the brazing and quality in the final finish that is best seen in the metal to be fully appreciated. (more…)
Now that I’ve been riding around on the Singular Puffin for a couple of months, I thought it was high time for a review. I have been blessed with an amazing playground upon which to give the bike a really good test – from high level rocky routes and wet moorland tracks to man-made rock-strewn built trails in the South Wales valleys. It’s fair to say that the Puffin has stood up easily to everything I’ve thrown it at and any limitations in ability have usually been with the rider.
I was lucky enough to get a ride on a prototype Singular Puffin when I hooked up with Aidan Harding for a ride in the Brecon Beacons recently. My first proper go on a fat bike. The ride was amazing. I was hooked. Then I heard that Sam had just one frame left from his small consignment of prototypes.
The week following my last ‘cross race, I was invited to join some mates on a Bothy weekend at the end of November, and a Bivvy trip at the beginning of December. Exciting.
Equally exciting was the large box that arrived from Alaska just when we got back from holiday. It was fork: steel, black and wide. Specifically, 135mm wide. It was to go with a special wheel I’d precured from Singletrack World classified the previous month. A 135mm custom Phil Wood hub laces to a Speedway Cycles Uma II 70mm wide rim and shod with a Surly Larry 3.8″ tyre.
After an evening in the garage the fork was on and ready for its first ride on the Bothy trip. We rode out from Rhayader early evening on Saturday and took a winding route around the dams to Cwmystwyth before turing steeply up hill towards the forest and the Nant Rhys bothy. Despite the loaded bike and the singlespeed (32:20) the bike didn’t seem all that hard to pedal. Rolling resistance wasn’t that significant and while the extra weight in the front wheel was noticeable it didn’t detract from the ride.
Sunday’s ride was a fairly easy, if slightly longer than planned fire road based ride designed to link the bothies of Nant Rhys and Nant Syddion. The “it must be this way” strategy to navigation failed amongst the various junction options within the windfarm above Nant Rhys. All was not lost, if you excuse the pun, as we happened to hit upon an excellent fire road descent to the north of the forest. This is where the Larry tyre started to show its benefits: all the smaller rocks and stones didn’t really feature as trail features with the tyre just soaking them up. In the corners, the large tyre footprint yielded so much more traction than I expected that allowed me to carry my speed through the corners very effectively.
Finally, with nearly 35 miles ridden, I was at the top of the Golf Links descent: the final descent back into Rhayader and the final initial test for the fat tyre. Considering I was on a singlespeed with all my Bothy gear strapped to the bike, I found I was able to ride at a much faster pace than with a normal rigid fork and tyre. The Larry tyre functioned as a sort of passive suspension system soaking up the smaller stuff and not being thrown off line with the bigger stuff, and it stuck to off-camber sections of exposed rock.
It was a really eye-opening ride and I got much more from the bike than I expected. Looking forward to the rest of the winter with this set up.
When I think back, I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what it was that was “wrong” with square taper cranks. Whatever it was, I was sure that ISIS would deliver the improvement I was looking for. Unfortunately, this revised crank/ bottom bracket interface came at the price of bearing longevity, or rather lack of…
It was a good job then that someone came up with the intergrated crank. Outboard bearings, large axle, improved stiffness and so on. These were the cranks I needed to solve the problems I was having with ISIS. A few years later though, with many miles ridden, my integrated cranks lie worn out on the workbench with play in the spline that makes them unrideable. Looking at the current offerings from various manufacturers, I can’t say I was overly impressed with cost, weight or appearance.
So, I go back to the tried, tested, trusted and British Middleburn RS8 square taper crank. Its forged profile maximises strength, yet its slender form gives it a very purposeful and attractive appearance. Not only that, once I’d fitted them to the bike with a UN73, they spin much more freely then my ISIS or integrated cranks ever did. It’s taken me over 10 years, countless hours in the garage replacing or greasing equally countless sets of bearings to come to the conclusion that a square peg in a square (tapered) hole is the way to go for cranks. You could say that crank development has gone full circle.
As soon as I heard that Singular Cycles were doing a titanium version of their excellent Swift frameset, I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist. There’s no escaping the expense of a quality handmade titanium frame, so after a quick evaluation of the type of riding I prefer, it was time to sell the road bike to make way for something I knew would last me a long time and provide greater enjoyment.
I’ve done a few rides on it now (read as: I’ve ridden nothing else since it arrived…), and continue to be impressed by it. The handling seems sharper than the already swift Swift, and the combination of titanium frame and carbon fork give it a suppleness that belies its otherwise rigid set up. The extra traction that 29″ wheels offer over 26″ wheels makes it great for climbing, yet even when the going gets a bit technical, the spring in the frame and the capacity for the bike to maintain its line makes it very capable of clearing some challenging ascents, provided the rider can keep turning the gear over…
The build quality of the frame is superb, as you might expect, but finished off with the “photo-engraved” Singular on the downtube go give it an extra bit of class. The Phil Wood half-link EBB makes it easy to adjust the chain tension, but I can still drop the rear wheel out easily if I need to. Most importantly though is the weight. It a full 600g lighter than the Swift, which is certainly noticeable when riding. I’ve not built it to be light, per se, but sensible choices like Hope hubs, No Tubes 355 29er rims, Middleburn cranks, USE seatpost and so on contribute to a solid build without any weight penalties.
Oh, and the bars. Everyone says “those a funny looking bars…”. Well, maybe, but they do make a lot of sense. They’re inverted On-One Mary’s, which suit the higher front end of 29er frames. They also give you a very comfortable hand position/ wrist angle, with enough width not to adversely affect handling or control. I’ve tried other bar combinations, but keep coming back to these – they’re ace.
So, they cancelled Spring Polaris, again. Disappointed :(
Putting my (now not so) new tent to some use seems to be cursed, at least in the context of using it for an event. Still, with all the time I’ve spent sorting out bits and pieces of kit to keep me warm, dry and adequately fed for an overnight excursion, it’s high time I got out there and put it to proper use. I used to do a bit of bike camping (or bikepacking as they call it) many years ago, and while I’m not racing seriously just now I’m looking forward to getting out into the hills again with the tent.
The compression bag under the bar contains the sleeping bag. In the frame bag is a tent, sleeping mat, stove, fuel for three days, pan, torch, first aid kit, survival bag, waterproof jacket and trousers, and food for two days. The seat pack contains tools to fix just about anything on the bike. I’d also carry a small rucksack with water, and a few light essentials. Beth made the frame bag up for me, and now that we’ve learnt a thing or two from it, the second version should be a lot better.
Still, I’m pretty pleased so far – touring (albeit singlespeed) with a total set up weight of only 30lbs. Now all I need to do is plan me a nice two day route into Mid Wales :)