My love for and interest in steel bikes started back in 2008 when I did a local Namibian race on a second hand steel bike to help promote BEN (Bicycle Empowerment Network), a charity that imports second hand bikes to Africa, teaches locals how to fix them and open up shops using the containers that the bikes were sent in.
Bottom line was, I could not believe how good the bike was, even though it was well over 20 years old.
Once I joined the Rapha-Condor team in the UK I saw all the lovely Condor steel bikes and became even more interested. I was lucky enough to receive a early version of the Condor Super Acciaio, their steel race frame, in 2010 and I still have that bike and use it often when back in Namibia. Accaiao is the italian word for steel. and the frame was a fantastic blend of Italian romanticism and English practicality. What more could I ask for?
It was then that I started looking into the framebuilding world with some more interest. Like a machinist wants to know his tools, a cyclist wants to understand his as well. In 2012 signed up for the AMAZING “Bicycle Academy” framebuilding school in Frome (near Bath). I built a ‘Qhubeka’ style bicycle under the motto of “you get the skill, they get the bike” (150+ of these bikes, including mine are currently being shipped to Namibia for distribution – obviously it’s taken a while to send them as there is no point sending smaller quantities).
From then I was hooked. A few weeks later I built myself a MTB under the expert guidance of Robin Mather in Bristol (best town in the UK, no contest) and took that home with me to use for base training in the offseason. It was around about then that I started working on the Monstercross concept.
So, after dreaming of this bike for over two and a half years, the concept in my head that seemed to have been a natural progression in the cycling world as a few other brands brought out similar bikes (Open U.P and Cannondale Slate) this year. As much as its great to see these other bikes and show that I’m not entirely crazy, naturally I was also a bit peeved as they beat me to the post.
That said, the reason I took so long between dreaming, planning and doing was because there was no suitable fork on the market that fit all my requirements. I’ll admit, I was being pedantic and really wanted a fork that not only worked correctly by taking a MTB wheel/tire but also looked very much like a carbon road fork. ENVE finally brought out the CX Through axle fork this year and I think I was lucky enough to get the first one in the UK (thanks Saddleback!)
Another technical development that didn’t exist when I started planning the bike was the SRAM CX1 Groupset (which I got in the Rival format). It allows me to have road levers with MTB gears. This is now finally on the market and so the concept was finally able to become a reality.
Considering that I had waited for so long for the correct components to become available it would have been unbearable for me to wait another year before building this bike. So I started, dedicating my off season to fabricating by hand, my dream.
I’ve been absolutely blown away by the frame-building community. It appears there are two types of people in it though. Those who treat it as a secret art, and those who see it as something beautiful that needs sharing. Obviously I am dependant on the sharing types and am constantly stumped by how amazing the people are that I get to meet through framebuilding. Andrew Denham (of the Bicycle Academy), Robin Mather (of Robin Mather Cycles) and Matthew Sowter (of Saffron Frameworks) have been my biggest influencers for obvious reasons, as I’ve built my three frames with them. Mike Pearson of Munin Bikeworks also helped me out quite a lot with my last build, especially the rear end of the bike – and as much as I was working in the Saffron workshop, I was actually working on Mike’s work bench! It’s not only that these guys are amazing at what they do, it’s their personalities and perspective on life (and the world) that I just love. I’m gushing, I know. But seriously. Multiple man crush…
I’ve been very fortunate that they let me into their worlds (aka workshops) as each workshop has its nuances and slight differences and it’s been very educational. Even though I have to admit that the three year gap between bike two and three did make me rather rusty.
With my third frame the biggest challenge was definitely the fact that I spent over four weeks in London building my bike – as I had expected it to be easily done in two weeks. Matthew Sowter’s level of precision caught me off guard. Partially as this was the first bike that I actually filed the brazes into smooth transitions between tubes, making the bike look almost as if it were made of carbon (in the previous two bikes the brazes remained lumpy). I had no idea how much work went into the process. I’m still not sure if my fingers have recovered.
But of course, the challanges are far outweighed by the rewards. There is nothing quite like picking up your handy work and remembering what it looked like just a few hours/days/weeks ago. The progress is amazing to be a part of. I suppose it’s got similarities to watching a child grow? (but what do I know, I’m not a father.)
So now, at long last the bike is complete and I am loving it!
The bike is a mix between a road and a mountain bike. It looks like a road bike and has SRAM road levers, drop bars and a road width BottomBracket but alongside the road wheels it can take 650B 2.1 inch MTB wheels and has MTB gearing (42 front tooth and SRAM’s awesome 10-42 cassette). This means I can ride off-road but it still feels very much like my road bike. I just did a five day adventure ride in the Namibian desert with it (and my girlfriend) and it really rides just as I had hoped. This morning I went out on a road ride with some other pro’s; I was still running the MTB tires and I didn’t feel out of place at all.
I’m hoping to do many more adventures with this bike in the future – but that also depends somewhat on what my bike sponsors in the coming years have to say….
Words: Dan Craven
Images: Selim Korycki & Laura Fletcher