The framebuilder’s art: Kevin Sayles

The bicycle frame, especially in steel, is a thing of beauty and simplicity.  Most times, we will only encounter a ‘proper’ handbuilt frame when browsing around a decent bike shop.  The range of frame geometries, the presence or absence of lugs, all conspire to tell us that we are in the presence of a special piece of machinery.  I’m going to discount the materials that are now commonly used, such as carbon fibre, aluminum and titanium simply because in my personal opinion there is nothing as special as a steel bike frame – forks and all.

My prejudices, or luddite tendencies if you care to call them that, have translated themselves into the bicycle I ride.  As you will know if you are a regular reader of this missive, I have a steel framed Thorn Audax which serves me beautifully.  I think it is almost the perfect machine.

Few materials can provide the translation of the road’s surface into the rider’s senses as accurately and pleasantly as steel; springy and comfortable on a long ride, but strong enough to know when to cease flexing when ridden hard – and of course it is steeped in history and when painted by somebody with the right ideas, it is a truly beautiful thing to behold.

You may also know that until very recently, Thorn used to offer an ‘under the counter’ range of bicycles known as ‘xtc’ – the difference being that instead of coming from their stock of Taiwan-made frames, these bikes were the cycle equivalent of a bespoke suit – they were made from scratch by Thorn’s resdient frame builder and long-time cyclist Kevin Sayles, based upon your individual specification and measurements.

The Thorn Audax when it was still just a frame

My Thorn Audax when it was still just a frame

I don’t personally have the budget for a bespoke frame, and quite honestly mine does more than I could ever wish for (the Mk3 Audax being an amalgam of the qualities, some would say DNA, of its two forbears the Classic and the 853).  Its heritage is something of a combination of comfort and predictability crossed with ‘kick hard’ robustness, as designer Andy Blance would no doubt say.  I have seen a few examples of Thorn’s bespoke bikes on their forum, but have never ridden one.

And so it was that I recently came across the news that Thorn have taken the decision to close their frame shop and discontinue the ‘bespoke’ frame range due to a drop off in business (no doubt it’s the recession, which I thought was meant to increase cycle sales??).  This has meant the inevitable departure of Mr Sayles, although he has his own range of frames and will presumably go ‘out on his own’ now.

He has a very interesting Flickr page with not only some great photos of frames he has built, but also something of a scrapbook of British cycling through the last generation.

A rather gorgeous handmade lugged steel frame

Sayles is a man with something of a history in cycle frame building.  He worked at hitherto forgotten builders (they are still trading but make frames to order as opposed to the mass marketS M Woodrup of Leeds in the late 1970s prior to joining Thorn.

Some of his bikes then were works of art; these were classic racers as opposed to the heavier touring machines made by Thorn.  If money were no object, imagine owning something as lovely as this bike, pictured below.

A truly gorgeous Woodrup frame

Researching the subject makes you realise that, even in our post-manufacturing reverie. the British Isles still has an enviable number of bike builders who can rustle up a bespoke frame for you if you have the cash and the inclination.  Just take a look at the Classic Rendezvous listings to see what I mean.

So it is that another bit of (Thorn-related) history is made by the passing of their bespokes; we must after all, if you will pardon a little Savile Row-related pun, cut our cloth according to our means.  But it will be interesting to see the future output of Mr Sayles and his photo pages are a good way to keep track of this.


5 responses

  1. kevin sayles

    Hi..I’m assuming it’s Paul?
    I just stumbled upon this by chance, and feel I ought to thankyou!…I’m not sure what to say, bit speechless to be honest…however, what I can tell you is I have returned to my old workbench at Woodrup cycles in Leeds, and fully intend to continue to make steel frames to the best of my ability….meantime do keep checking out my flickr site.
    Best regards…Kevin Sayles

    August 30, 2010 at 5:44 pm

  2. paulmor

    Hi Kevin, thanks for your comment. Yes, being the owner of my second Thorn, I thought it would be a fitting tribute – and good to see you’re back behind the torch again in Leeds!

    August 30, 2010 at 6:37 pm

  3. John Cox

    Hello Kevin: I am the happy recipient of the first Woodrup you built since rejoining them, received just today, and unpacked it prior to heading in to work. I stumbled on your Flickr page to see the frame pictured there! Beautiful work – I am truly excited to build this up.

    Best, and thanks,
    John Cox
    Cheyenne, WY USA

    September 2, 2010 at 5:53 pm

  4. Pingback: Bike porn - Page 1020 - London Fixed-gear and Single-speed

  5. northernwalker

    I too am a happy owner of a Thorn Audax Mk3, but would love to have one Kevin’s frames. Woodrup’s is not too far from me… one day, I hope!

    July 28, 2011 at 1:36 pm

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