As a veteran bike tourer, film maker, well-known blogger and avid adventurer, you might be forgiven for thinking that Tom Allen had already taken on most projects imaginable.
Earlier this year, however, the list got longer when Tom launched his very own expedition touring bike.
The ethos is simple, durable and timeless. No fancy gadgets or high tech anything, just ultra-robust components which will last for ages and eventually be repaired or replaced with standard, easily found parts.
We were intrigued about what inspired Tom to go from simply riding bikes to designing one, so we asked him for an interview.
Before building this bike, you were on the other side of the equation: a bike tourer. How did your interest in touring evolve from simply travelling to actually wanting to build your own bike and sell it to others?
Although I’ve worked my way through quite a fleet of bikes over the last few years, I’m not a bike nerd – I see the bicycle as little more than a tool to facilitate a (hopefully awesome) experience. I’m also increasingly minimalist when it comes to possessions and increasingly I’ve wanted a single touring bike to do everything I might ask of it, with as little fuss as possible.
The bike I designed reflects all of this. It’s utilitarian and designed to be ultra reliable, inherently easy to fix and maintain, and to work on simple and time-tested principles. But it’s also a definitive answer to all the questions I get through my blog about choosing or building an expedition bike for a really long trip. Now, when people ask my advice on what a bike for a round-the-world trip should look like, I can point to it and say, “here’s one I made earlier!”
Selling it was never part of the plan. It was only later that I realised that Richard from Oxford Bike Works, who makes the frameset I chose, already had a business building custom bikes on a one-off basis. So many readers took an interest in the idea when I posted it on my blog last year that it made complete sense to talk to him about adding it to his existing line-up.
Building it must have been quite a process. What was your favourite part of creating the bike, and what proved the most challenging?
Like touring itself, the fun part was dreaming it up in the first place! I’d spent the summer working in a bicycle repair workshop and was on a tour of central Europe with lots of thinking time when the idea floated into my head. I drew on all my previous touring experiences and those I’d heard about from other cycle tourists when coming up with the design. All that knowledge had been bubbling away in the background for years and it was really satisfying to bring it all together into a single vision.
The challenges came in the workshop when we sat down to finalise the specification and build the first prototype. Components that were perfect on paper didn’t always play well together. We spent a lot of time trying out different options and combinations in order to get things working optimally. It was a speculative exercise and we knew that every component change was costing us money, but we wanted to get it right.
What are the most distinguishing features of your bike, and what makes it different from other expedition touring bikes already on the market such as those made by Santos, Surly, Thorn and other major brands?
On paper, it’s actually very similar to many of these bikes. It’d be strange if it didn’t, to be honest. When designing a bike for real long-haul travel, designers tend to end up drawing very similar conclusions. I guess that’s because travellers’ needs average out in the long term.
So I suppose the biggest difference is the way in which they’re built and the way the customer participates in this process. We start from a basic specification but Richard builds each bike individually to the requirements and measurements of the rider and only after a consultation, which we strongly encourage to be done in person in his Oxfordshire workshop.
In theory, therefore, no two bikes will ever be the same because everyone will have a slightly different set of preferences and priorities. It might be nothing more than the length of handlebars, the rise of the stem or the type of pedals but these things affect comfort so much on a long tour. You’d expect this from a fully bespoke framebuilder, of course, but that’s out of most people’s price range.
By starting from small-batch production framesets, we’re offering the same attention to detail and comfort, but without the premium price-tag.
I’ve been doing this for long enough to know that most of the problems people have with touring bikes are due to not getting them fitted properly, or buying the wrong bike for the job. So I’d be betraying my own beliefs if the bikes were mass-produced, which, to my mind, doesn’t match what matters most when choosing a touring bike for the long haul.
I guess the other difference is that we’ve not tried to build the most high-spec bike on Earth, as some of the premium touring bike manufacturers do. Richard and I both think that simplicity is key, and that everything should be easy to fix or replace on the road, as you never know what’s going to happen (or where!).
While we could have offered infinite upgrades to every component, we’ve steered things towards simplicity, reliability, and standard, easily-sourced parts, which has the added bonus of keeping the bikes as affordable as possible.
Yes, people can specify a Rohloff or a generator hub if they like, but we won’t be pressuring people to go down that route.
Since this bike is a relatively new creation, how much have you tested it and how does it ride compared with your original vision?
I’ve ridden the prototype practically every day since we first built it, both with and without luggage. It matches my original vision almost exactly – as it should, of course! But yes, we’re aware that it’s yet to be truly field-tested on tour.
That said, there is nothing about the specification that should surprise anyone with an interest in expedition touring. A bike is really a collection of parts put together on a set of principles, and the parts and principles we’re using have been chosen exactly because of their time-tested nature.
As for Richard’s frameset, it’s guaranteed for 10 years, and he’s been building other types of touring bike on it for long enough now to be confident in their suitability for the job.
Other than your own bike, which touring bikes do you most admire and why?
I admire the utilitarian nature of the Surly Long Haul Trucker – I just wish we, as bespoke builders, could match the price! Most of the expedition bike manufacturers are, I think, aware that the market is small, and so I admire all of them for the passion that you need to have to work in this kind of scene.
But to be honest, I most of all admire the people who don’t have the money for high-end bikes like these and just set off on any old wreck, using their ingenuity and initiative to keep their bikes on the road.
These are the kind of adventures from which there is the most to learn. I’m slightly envious, in a way, that I’m in my thirties, making a semi-decent living, and that those days of cobbling adventures together on a shoestring are slipping behind me!