It’s not long now until Bespoked – the UK’s biggest handmade bike show, held annually in Bristol in early April (www.bespoked.cc). Running since 2011, I’ve been to every one apart from the very first and have always had a good time. I’m still amazed at how approachable all of the frame builders are – just stood next to their creations and happy to answer questions and share their knowledge. I suppose we’re just lucky that cycling is still of a scale that many of the people frequenting the upper echelons of this world are still incredibly accessible.
A stroll around the hall is always a welcome reminder for me of just how elegant the bicycle can be and an inspiration to both ride more and to try to do it with a bit more style. But each year, as I travel back home, I have always been left with a similar, nagging feeling. Much is made of the numerous awards that are on offer, handed out to the best bicycles. They get reported in the magazines and, understandably, the frame builders themselves use them to promote their work. But what do these awards really stand for? The crux of the issue is that no-one handing out these accolades has ever actually ridden any of the bikes. Essentially, it is a competition to see who has the neatest welds and the spangliest paint job. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it does seem to rather miss the point in a way that no-one wants to acknowledge out loud.
It reminds me all those gardeners who, each year, try to grow the largest vegetables that they can. For most of us the primary requirement from our vegetables is that they should taste good. But this doesn’t stop a few keen gardeners from trying to grow enormous pumpkins, leeks and tomatoes, and then displaying them at country shows in the hope that they might get a rosette (it might just be a UK thing, if you’re wondering what I’m talking about). The difference is that everyone knows and embraces the aim of the game when it comes to vegetables – no-one goes away thinking that a 30kg marrow or a 50cm long carrot represents the very best that our taste buds could hope for. However, when it comes to handmade bikes, it never gets mentioned that the ‘Best Road/Town/Mountain/CX Bike’ has never actually been ridden by any of the judging panel.
Imagine if you read a group test in a bike magazine or on a website to find out about this year’s best aero road bike or enduro mountain bike. A dozen bikes get tested, the group is whittled down, a winner is eventually selected and they’re all scored out of 10. What if the basis for this selection was based purely on a visual inspection without a single pedal ever being turned in anger? It would be a pretty ludicrous exercise. In fact, it doesn’t really amount to much more than a glossy version of an internet forum where everyone chips in on how amazing / rubbish a new bike is going to ride based on a quick look at some press photos. I suspect that there must be some pretty frustrated frame builders out there who have agonised over the ride quality of their bikes, only to be overlooked by the judging panel for something that is the bicycle equivalent of a sequinned ball gown.
I understand that the whole point of a bespoke bicycle is that it is tailor-made for an individual. As a result, it’s pretty pointless to criticise a bike if you think that the head angle is too slack, the wheelbase too short or the ride too stiff, if this is exactly what the intended owner wanted. So, trying to evaluate a bespoke bicycle is always going to be difficult. But at the very least we should all acknowledge that this year’s best bikes at Bespoke will only be judged as being the best based on a fairly narrow, subjective and relatively incidental set of criteria.
Having said all that, I’ve got my ticket booked for this year’s event already and I’m really looking forward to it! Hopefully I'll see you there.