Darrell McCulloch: The many markers of an evolving industry
Veteran Australian builder Darrell McCulloch of Llewellyn Custom Bicycles gives his views on changes in the ways people learn to build bikes, in the finished product, and to the ways customers find the framebuilders.
Making nice bikes in today’s environment is vastly different compared to when I started work as a teenager learning to build frames in Australia. In the days before offshore production filled the bike shops we learned the skills of design and frame construction in progressive and repetitive steps while working for an established bike maker in a very local market, far away from the rest of the world.
The bikes that we made were ridden hard, trained on daily by riders with harsh grunt; they were raced on rough Aussie roads, banged around the banked boards, ridden daily to work, and trekked through the unpaved roads of South America. But for a few exceptions there were never funky constructions created to attract the attention of the cool kids on the street, or the coffee shop parade. It was an era of utilitarian need to keep the bikes affordable to the majority of cyclists. Some file marks did not matter, alignments were not to the tenths of a millimetre, and the paint did the job but was not the detailed perfectionist glamour we see today. They had to be reliable, affordable bikes using proven construction methods along with sensible working geometry. It was the hard-earned reputation of the maker that was the deciding factor for the buyer.
It was in the back-room frame workshops where the motivated workers who persisted with the toil over the years were forging their reputations through the repetitive work of filing, brazing, painting and –most importantly– understanding reliable rational design and construction methods while working for a master builder. Then after 5, 10, or more years, their inner calling rose up and could not be ignored, so they would set off on their own independent journey, setting up their own workshop and presenting to the cycling market what they had to offer. Behind the new name on the down tube they offered their experience and knowledge from their apprenticeship under the seasoned master. They used only a few magazine adverts and word of mouth to get their message out.
Today, those who are traveling down the path of making bicycles for a living have scarce opportunities to be paid while learning quality skills on a master builder’s time. New builders often have the opportunity to take classes at frame building schools and then often build a few frames for friends before hanging out their shingle to the general public. Frame building schools can give one a taste of making a bicycle frame, but as these schools rightfully insist to their attendees: They cannot impart in a few weeks what must be learned and experienced through many years of repetitive toil to become a professional frame builder.
Today’s bespoke bicycle does not resemble the ubiquitous product of the last century, because it is generally aimed at the high end of discretionary consumption. Without doubt, over the past few decades the bespoke bicycle’s quality of construction details, finish and paint work have evolved, and now the standards are much higher. Also we now see a far greater variety of interesting road and mountain bike options as an alternative to the corporate bike product.
The range of materials available to the builder has never been so good, be it steel, carbon, or titanium. In addition, today’s experienced builder pays more attention to, and has to have a better understanding of, the rider’s biomechanics. (Rider biomechanics is a subject that has always been of great interest to me due to my own racing background and my work with the Australian national cycling team as a mechanic.) This upwards movement of quality and detail is very obvious over the last 20 years and is a natural evolution by the niche bespoke industry to remain relevant. Providing quality and detail beyond what is available from corporations allows the bespoke maker to offer a product to the client that the corporations can never match.
A bicycle is a transport vehicle, be it for work, sport, adventure or pastime. I believe it needs to work at a high level of functionality and it should give many years of good service in return to one’s hard earned gold coin invested in it. The purchaser of a bespoke bicycle needs to have his or her discernment respected and needs to take care when seeking his or her next bicycle’s maker and their choice of details.
A discerning visitor walking down the aisles of recent NAHBS or Bespoke Bristol shows would see an abundance of good quality product; however one can notice builders are at different points in their building experience timelines, and in some cases, the inexperience shows. There are some new builders who insert funky construction, resurrect past design monsters, and add funky paint to attract attention which does not necessarily result in a reliable, quality product. There are also obvious and not-so-obvious alignment problems, brazing quality issues, and troublesome design elements evident in the aisles that an experienced eye can see will result in problems for the client (and it’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’). Unfortunately, the show-going public may not be aware of past history and may be enamoured of the funky bits and may not recognize the signs of poor construction.
Making bikes as a chosen path of professional expression is not a hobby, is not quaint, is not about nostalgia. It is work, and a lot of hard constant toil. We independent frame builders believe in the products that we make, and we can look the client straight in the eye because we make something that is not compromised by having to produce one thousand bicycles every month to suit a statistical population norm and appease investors. We frame builders make bicycles one at a time with our hands, with care and attention, and with a touch of affection. This current era of hand-built bicycle shows is exciting. Under one roof a client can see, touch and appreciate the many kinds of independent builders’ bikes, inspect the quality of the build and meet many of us in person: All to find the right builder to create his or her next bicycle.