It’s already been over a month since Eroica Britannia which, I have to say, was one of the best weekends of my life. Seeing thousands of classic British bikes in the one place at the one time opened my eyes to the extent of the British custom frame building scene, and also to the enthusiasm for cycling that currently exists within the United Kingdom.
Building steel bicycle frames is just a small part of the English engineering tradition, one that extends from Brooks saddles to Claud Butler, from Reynolds to Raleigh. The exposure to the classics over the Eroica weekend made for a positive contrast when I picked up the Signature Steel test bike from Tom Donhou, a modern builder who is continuing this esteemed tradition.
On my journey back to Fenchurch Street Station from Tom’s workshop in Hackney Wick, I was stopped in the street by a complete stranger who said excitedly, “I recognise that bike from Cycle EXIF!” It was a profound experience for me but, in retrospect, not surprising, as the Donhou Signature Steel One is a very striking bike, thanks in no small part to the paint, which Tom applies in-house.
It’s said that behind every good frame builder is a great painter; point being that many frames carry an amount of untidiness in their construction that are hidden by a slick lick of paint. The DSS1 frames are a production offering from Donhou for those who don’t want to wait for a completely personal and tailored bike — they come in stock sizes and are TIG welded, rather than brazed by Tom.
The tubes are mitered and tacked together by Tom, and then welded by someone who he “believes to be the best guy in the country to zip the frames up”. With credentials from Tom like that, you can be assured that the construction is still going to be refined and solid enough, even underneath the beautiful paint work — Tom also happens to be the ‘great painter behind the good frame builder’.
Once they’re TIG’ed together, they go back to Hackney Wick for braze-ons, paint, and finishing. The DSS1 is available as a complete bike or a custom component package. As a frameset, with Chris King Inset 8 headset and ENVE Disc Road fork, the till rings in at £2295. The complete hydro/Chris King build comes in at £4395. That converts to AUD$9253.80, but look at what that package includes.
• ENVE 2.0 tapered steerer disc fork
• Chris King Inset 8 headset
• Chris King R45/Sapim CX Ray/ H+Son Archetype hand built wheels by August Wheelworks
• Continental Grand Prix (25c) tyres.
• Shimano Ultegra 6800 group set*
• Shimano RS685 hydraulic disc brakes
• Fizik Cyrano finishing kit
• Fizik Ardea Versus saddle
* Chain set and cassette ratio, crank length, stem length and bar width/drop/reach are all custom spec’d for each build.
The complete bike comes with Shimano RS685 hydraulic disc brakes as standard. Coupled with the ENVE fork — detailed with a dash of pink, corresponding with the gradient on the down tube — the DSS1 climbed, descended and cornered with confidence. I really wished I could’ve taken this bike back to Bakewell, up the Peaks and down some gravel trails. That’s the terrain it was designed for.
The paint scheme is inspired. The silhouette of the DSS1 is solid, summed up by the predominantly dark granite coat, but felt surprisingly lithe and agile. The frame is all Reynolds 853, tipped with Donhou dropouts and brazed on stainless faces — read: quality — and its nimble nature is reflected by the contrasting pink-to-lime fade.
Details like the stainless faces, the paint and the bridge on the seat stays are what sets the DSS1 at a higher level than comparable bikes. I asked myself whether I could still look at it in 10 years time with the same admiration, and I replied in the affirmative. It’s compatible with electronic systems too, so it’ll still be current in a decade. Or two.
Naturally, you can select your own preference for bar width, stem length, cassette and chain set ratio and crank length. And if you’ve been measured up, Tom uses the same biometrics software to attain the best possible fit with frame size, stem length and saddle position. Another plus: you’re more than welcome to drop into the workshop and meet the makers.
You’d be hard pressed to find better value for a complete bike from a custom builder — production frame or otherwise. Let’s keep this in perspective: the DSS1 is no custom wooden vessel from Van Dam, it’s more like a stock model from Fairline. So what’s going to push you over the line? Apart from an award for Best Road Bike at Bespoked UKHBS 2015? Maybe you should take it for a test ride.
PS: The Donhou Bicycles Summer Sale is on until the 8th of August 2015. 15% off everything in the online store, including the DSS1.
Location notes: I took the DSS1 for a good belt along the Thames, down in Essex. Climbed steep hills, played with traffic along A-roads, and shredded some dodgy descents — paved and not. London commuting? Brilliant. John o’ Groats to Land’s End? Why not. After riding to Shoebury, I ended up back at Hadleigh Castle, built after 1215, and the site of the London 2012 Olympic MTB track.