10 master craftsmen and their custom mountain bikes
For many small-scale artisan bike makers, who aren't in it for mainstream appeal or profit, what they build is a representation of what mountain biking means to them. Here we take a look at 10 passionate individuals and their 10 very different handmade bikes
Let money do all the talking and it makes total financial sense to go down the route of direct-sale, mass-produced, Taiwanese-made bicycles – but that just doesn't cut it for some people. When you ride a bike, it becomes an extension of yourself. You go on adventures together, have experiences, and both bear the marks of the good and bad times. For this reason, some riders don’t want a frame produced on a faceless assembly line and sporting a multi-digit serial number. They want one built by a craftsman who's painstakingly mitred each tube, held the brazing rod and proudly fixed his maker’s mark on the head tube. The 10 bike makers on these pages aren’t out to make big bucks, or else they wouldn't be in this game. They’re just making bikes how they believe it should be done, in their own unique way – and in some cases, pushing the boundaries of frame design as they do it.
Robert Barr – Arbr Bikes
Motorsport engineer Robert Barr designs bikes that are the equivalent of F1 cars, made with pure performance in mind and with no expense spared. Handmade to order in the UK, this full-carbon prototype (currently named the RB2) is the second bike we've seen from Arbr, following on from the Saker we tested in 2017. While Robert has ditched the high pivot and idler wheel on this 160mm-travel 29er, in favour of friction-free pedalling, he promises that it’s no less aggressive than its forebear. With long, low and slack geometry and a frame that’s been fatigue tested to DH standards, it looks like the ultimate hardcore do-it-all bike. Robert wants it to last too: “You buy one of these because you love it, not to trade it in a year later.” While the Saker’s looks weren’t everyone’s cup of tea, you’d be hard-pushed to say this one is anything but stunning.
Fraser Glass – Shand Cycles
Scotland’s Shand Cycles take their name from founder Steven Shand, who mainly specialised in custom drop-bar frames until 2011, when he partnered with Russell Stout and launched the brand properly. Shand are now a four-man team, with a range spanning the MTB disciplines. Seen here is the Shug (aka Shugmonkey) hardtail, built by Fraser Glass (pictured). Shand describe this as “an animal of a bike”, which is fitting, given that in English folklore a Shug Monkey is a mythical, supernatural creature with both dog- and monkey-like characteristics. Modern geometry and quality pedigree should make this one wild ride.
Mark Hester – Prova Cycles
“Working a conceptual design through to a usable product is why I’m building bikes,” says Prova Cycles’ Mark Hester. It was a four-year stint in the UK that got the Aussie engineer hooked on mountain biking, and this 29er Ripido hardtail is a titanium version of the same frame that won an award at Bristol's Bespoked Bike Show in 2018. Describing it as a “party hardtail”, Mark’s idea with the long 495mm reach has been to achieve the best weight distribution for gravity riding. He believes that geometry is as important as suspension when it comes to handling, and says that “with a long and stable enough bike, it’s amazing what you can get through”. The chainstay yoke and dropouts are 3D-printed, which adds stiffness, and the design can be tweaked for different wheel sizes. The beautiful metallic-fade finish has been achieved with a varied-voltage anodising process.
Matt Bowns – 18 Bikes
Split between the Peak District and Sheffield, 18 Bikes are both a bike shop and frame builders. Chief designer and fabricator Matt has been making custom frames under the 18 banner since 2006, but the Workshop Series of off-the-shelf frames is a recent addition. With just two models, named the 7 and 9 (650b and 29in), the idea is to make the buying process easier for customers. The frames are sized based on reach – which trends towards the ultra-long, the biggest measuring 525mm – but Matt is keen to point out that short seat tubes allow riders to pick the size that’ll work best for their riding. As the frames get longer, the chainstays grow proportionally too, so the weight distribution remains the same. They’re made and finished entirely in the steel city, but the shop's location in the Hope Valley means potential buyers have the perfect place to try out demo bikes.
Tom Sturdy – Sturdy Cycles
With degrees in aeronautical engineering and sports biomechanics, plus experience racing Elite-level triathlon, Somerset-based frame builder Tom Sturdy knows what makes a fast bike. He’s also the head of teaching at The Bicycle Academy in Frome and guided us through the process of making our Great British Hardtail. On his own elegant, titanium creations, Tom uses additive manufacturing (3D printing) in a similar way to Atherton Bikes, but here the lugs are TIG welded to Ti tubes, resulting in beautifully finessed frames like this XC race model.
Gary Woodhouse – Curtis Bikes
The phrase ‘practice makes perfect’ seems apt here, as Curtis Bikes – one of the UK’s longest-established frame builders – produce some of the most beautiful brazing seen anywhere. Originating in Wiltshire in 1972, founder Brian Curtis has now stepped aside to let his former apprentice Gary Woodhouse take the reins. Gary brings a modern twist to this classic company, and this Thumpercross DH rig is the latest iteration of a bike you may once have seen Jim Davage slinging about on the pages of our mag back in the day.
Mathias Scherer – Mawis Bikes
This bespoke titanium creation from Germany has been made for a very niche purpose – mountain bike orienteering! The client – a huge fan of ’90s Cannondales – requested a frame that had a Pinion gearbox and a Fatty Headshok fork. Given the rider’s tall height and preference for 26in wheels, this would have created a very low front end, so Mathias took the Fatty internals and integrated them into a custom Ti 29er fork. The unusual build kit “mirrors the owner’s fondness for all things out-of-the-ordinary!” says Mathias. It’s one of around 35 fully-custom bikes that leave the Mawis workshop annually. “Quite a lot for a one-man show,” says Mathias, with a smile.
Ted James – Ted James Design
Nicknamed ‘Superted’, thanks to his knack for being able to fix just about any bike, Ted James’s bike-building portfolio is as varied as the bikes he rides himself. “This is something I wouldn’t do if I couldn’t envision how they’d ride,” he tells us. Over the years, Ted’s done everything from XC racing to BMX, and was even a sponsored fixie rider living in London at one point. Since 2013 he's been based in Stroud, Gloucestershire, where his larger workshop has simply allowed space for more bikes. Ted specialises in one-offs and custom frames, and recently built a 22in-wheeled BMX for Dan Atherton. When we spoke to him, he also hinted at a potential dirt jump project in the pipeline with the Athertons. No stranger to working with titanium, Ted has butchered old Ti frames to make a bling-yet-affordable 16-incher for his son. The well-laden bikepacking machine seen here is also made from Ti. It was built for avid adventurer Tracey Slade, aged 60, who had just returned from a bothy trip in Scotland when we shot it, so her steed was still bearing the mud and grease of a well-used and much-loved mountain bike.
Vlad Yordanov – VY Works Limited
“My childhood dream to make a bike started through modifying, messing with and breaking stuff,” says Vlad, a custom-bike-making one-man band out of Bulgaria, but now living in Stoke-on-Trent. Most of Vlad’s work has been on road, track and triathlon frames, but not being a roadie himself, this DH rig is his personal project. Taking what he’d learned from other bikes, Vlad knew the exact leverage ratio and geometry he was after, so wasn’t afraid to commit to carbon moulds from the off (which he also made himself). The same day this first prototype was finished, Vlad flew to Morzine in France to test it. After 20 days of successful riding, his trip ended early when he broke his sternum. Vlad’s since made prototype number two, with a carbon linkage.
Chris Yeomans – Smithy Frameworks
Hailing from Mid Wales, Smithy Frameworks are relative newcomers to the world of bike building. This snappy and playful 650b frame is the work of Chris Yeomans, whose son Dan was a super-fast 4X racer back in the day. Apparently, Dan’s been a very useful asset here, test-riding the bike and piloting it to a win in the hardtail category at the Welsh Gravity Enduro. It can’t be too shabby then, eh?
An edited version of this article was originally published in MBUK 370 (Summer 2019)
Former Mountain Biking UK features editor Ed Thomsett is a downhiller at heart but has been riding bikes of all types since a young age. He's raced both nationally and internationally in downhill and enduro, and has spent several summers living in the Alps and Canada, riding, roadtripping and living the dirtbag lifestyle. Now Ed calls upon his years of experience riding bikes to the limit as a writer and reviewer for MBUK and BikeRadar. He's also an avid trail builder and has scraped out numerous steep and technical lines in the woodlands of his native North Yorkshire. These days Ed will happily turn his hand to any discipline and believes the sign of a good week is when every bike in his shed ends up muddy by the end of it.