Custom Bicycles: A Passionate Pursuit
By Christine Elliott and David Jablonka (Images Publishing, 2009)
Review by Jeffrey Morseburg
In periods of great technological change, there have often been movements where people reach back to the past for inspiration, to a time where men made things one at a time and the objects that they made were built to last. These were eras where utility and beauty were combined, when useful objects were still beautiful to look at. At the end of the 19th century, when utilitarian objects were being mass-produced in massive quantities and workers began to work on giant assembly lines, the arts and crafts movement was born in order to create furnishings that both the worker and the homeowner could take pride in. The utopians behind the movement also hoped their simple, heartfelt designs could be enjoyed by the common man, but in order to pay the carpenter a living wage, it meant craftsman furniture was already too expensive for the working man. Well, movements are full of ironies, aren’t they?
Now that almost everything in our culture can be made in China and shipped here on ships the size of cities, almost every object we use has become disposable. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas does these studies where they show how the number of labor-hours it takes to buy common objects, even the food we eat, has fallen dramatically over the years, leaving many people the discretionary income to indulge in expensive pastimes like cycling. And, even a middle class person – a letter carrier, an engineer, a teacher – can now afford the best in bicycles. Many people have come to realize that by driving a five-year-old car, they can afford to buy a bicycle every bit as nice as the one a billionaire can own. The wealthy chap may be able to buy a fleet of bikes, but the beauty of it is that you can only ride one at a time. So, ironically, some the same things that drive many of us nuts about the modern world – huge factories; mass-production; ugly, utilitarian objects; the throwaway culture – have lowered costs in other areas, allowing craftsmen of many different stripes have a large enough market to be able to make a living doing something they love.
One of the most interesting developments in contemporary design is the handmade bicycle movement. All over the western world, young craftsmen are picking up files and torches, the way bicycle builders did more than a century ago, and are building bikes. Most of these builders combine an appreciation for efficient engineering with an artist’s eye, so they want to create bicycles that not only work well, but look interesting, if not beautiful, while they are being ridden. At the same time, there are millions of people who are locked in their cars every day for hours at a time, who are stuck fuming in traffic… for whom the bicycle – the simple, lowly bicycle – becomes a object to escape on, something that provides a release from the pressures of modern life. So at the same time the bicycle builder is looking for creative fulfillment, there are consumers who see the bicycle as a fantasy object that is at the same time eminently practical. This is why there is now a nice cottage industry in hand-crafted, made-to-order bicycles.
Now that publishers are finally stepping up to the plate and producing some really attractive bicycle books, several of them have been released that feature handmade bicycles. Custom Bicycles: A Passionate Pursuit is an overview of this new movement, featuring a wide range of builders from all over the globe. This book, conceived in Australia and printed in China, is well laid out, with entries on more than forty different bicycle builders, each consisting of a short summary of the maker’s career, philosophy and focus and then a photo-essay with a number of finished bicycles. There are old, familiar names like Bruce Gordon, Richard Sachs, Columbine, France’s immortal Alex Singer, and Bill Davidson, but also many of the innovative new craftsmen like Jeff Jones, Naked, Roark, Robin Mather and Sacha White’s Vanilla. The bike builders featured – and today, many of these companies build much more than framesets – hail from Australia, Great Britain, Italy and France as well as across the United States, showing just how widespread the interest in custom bicycles is.
There is no real narrative to Custom Bicycles, as it essentially serves as a lavish catalog for the handmade-bicycle movement. The entries are well written and as insightful as a single-page devoted to a bicycle builder can be. With this concept of a catalog in mind, I think some advice as to what considerations a cyclist should have when he or she is going to order a bicycle could have been included. What about some advice on frame geometry? Or what type of lead-time is typical? I think this book could have been made more functional with some additional features, but if you are looking for a well-assembled guide to the variety of custom bicycles that is available, or are thinking of having a bike made just for you, this volume is still well worth the investment.
Rating: 4 Stars