We’re in the 'between' season - post Tour and pre Vuelta, many of us feeling bereft having devoted so many hours glued to the telly for the best part of July. For us, the only diversion to compete with the tussle for the yellow jersey, is pipe dreams about cycling touring, or bike-packing as the serious aficionados call it.
So gripping is this fantasy that it actually took us into the wilds of Oxfordshire to meet the owner of Oxford Bike Works, Richard Delacour. For those not hooked on adventure cycling blogs, Oxford Bike Works is literally the only serious provider of proper, hardcore bikepacking steeds, favoured by legends such as Tom Allen and Anna McNuff (look them up if you’re not in the know!)
So what can OBW offer that the major players such as Trek, Surly and Kona can’t provide, I hear you cry…? Well if you do your research (and believe me I have) what you need to tour the world on two wheels is something seriously basic and old fashioned. Steel, rim brakes, a Brooks leather saddle and 26” wheels are de rigueur - but with a 21st century price tag. What you pay for is the reliability of a VW Golf, the indestructibility of a Toyota HiLux and a good old fashioned proper bike fit.
I remember at the Bespoked Cycle Show last year I fell in love with Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s Foraging Bike by Sven. What OBW produce is actually very similar although Sven managed to squirrel a barbecue into the package. Small wheels for mountain-bike manoeuvrability and plenty of racks and panniers for fresh berries and mushrooms. OBW’s Expedition Bike is pretty similar and you can customise it in very much the same way - Richard even offered to inscribe the frame with our website address and logo!
When he offered us a fit, we jumped at the chance. Never having been measured for a bike before, it was an enlightening experience. Richard was very easy going about the whole thing, not taking umbrage when Robbie asked to exchange the padded saddle for his beloved Brooks C16. We enjoyed his low-tech approach, using a builder’s style plumb line to measure the correct line between knee and toe and having a huge range of spacers and handlebar stems to create the perfect and most comfortable ride.
Fit completed, it was time to try out the touring trail-blazers on tarmac and farm tracks. It was a perfect summer’s afternoon as we peddled our way through idyllic fields testing out the tourer on smooth tarmac and rough farm gravel tracks around the village of Steventon. The Shimano Deore XT triple chainset was not exactly challenged on the flat so I had to imagine how they’d really come into their own carrying kilos of kit through the Andes!
The bike I was riding was the Model 2 tourer, based on the original Model 1 design which Richard created back in 2013. Having quit his job as a teacher, with the dream of cycling round the world, Richard was disappointed to discover that he couldn’t find the right touring bike anywhere. Manufacturers didn’t care about fit, and they were charging about £1,300 for components that cost about £600 - so he decided to have a go at building the perfect touring bike for himself. The Model 1 was based on his favourite mid-90s Kona mountain bike. That was the starting point, tinkering a bit and lowering the bottom bracket, “I enjoyed putting bikes together more than riding them!” he confesses.
Taking fistfuls of diagrams along to local bike builder Lee Cooper, they produced a prototype, “We did a pretty good job the first time. Ultimately there were only three changes to make.” He lengthened the chainstays, and upgraded the bottom bracket after the Model 1 broke down:
“I spent two weeks touring Sri Lanka, doing a circuit of the island when I had a bottom bracket failure. A local guy towed me to the next village and found me the equivalent of a blacksmith. Luckily I’d used an international standard which was easily replaced. I came away £2 poorer and the job took 15 minutes!”
This experience sums up Richard’s philosophy for bike building - his cycles must be strong, simple and work properly. “I want bikes that work without any problems that can be fixed easily anywhere in the world, and to use sustainable technology wherever possible. At the moment I’m resisting disc brakes…” However, Richard does supply his top of the range Expedition bike with an optional Rohloff hub.
The Expedition bike was a bit of a breakthrough for Oxford Bike Works. It was created when Richard approached legendary cycle tourer Tom Allen and suggested they collaborate on the toughest, most up-to-date bike yet. Tom borrowed an OBW for 3 weeks and loved it. After that they worked together, building Tom the bike he’d always wanted - he rode it for a year around Australia. That was 4 years ago, but 35% of Richard's business still comes via Tom Allen's blog and website.
Nowadays the standard Model 1 and 2 frames are made in Taiwan but Lee Cooper still builds custom bikes, step-throughs and prototypes- the pair have just released a 700c wheel version for commuting. OBW currently builds about 120 bikes a year but demand is growing all the time. “Customers go in waves; last August I had lots of enquiries from people wanting to tour South America. It’s interesting, from a development point of view, customers put my bikes through their paces and feed back to me after their trips. 10 years ago I couldn’t have existed but there's such a buzz around bike packing now.”
So what advice can Richard give us for our first cycle tour next week? “Pack light; people have a terrible tendency to think that everything you need can’t be sourced where you’re going. Tools are quite important - even if you don’t know how to use them, you can either learn from YouTube or someone else will be able to help you. Cone spanners...” he muses.
And I’ve always wondered, what happens to people once they return home from cycle expeditions? “It’s difficult to adjust. People tweet and blog constantly when they’re away, then you hear nothing for six months. Coming back is always hard. Some people, like Tom Allen, decide they’re just going to keep going.”
Thanks Richard, we’re only going from Brighton to Exeter so I don’t think the readjustment should be too tough. But when we finally get to tour the Americas, Japan, New Zealand... well the world’s a big place and we’d like to see it from the saddle of an Oxford Bike Works tourer. Next week we'll be reviewing a Darwin D Tour bike from The Light Blue on our journey along the south coast of England.