Wheel art: bespoke bikes

RoyalAuto magazine

Custom-made bicycles – for art or pure practicality – are part of a flourishing new market on Victoria’s cycling scene.

Story: Peter Barrett. Photos: Eamon Gallagher.
July 2018


Steve Gardner is standing next to a futuristic-looking bicycle, fixed on a plinth and illuminated by dramatic downlighting. The bike’s paint scheme is elaborate: angular lines of electric blue, black, yellow and red vibrate across its chunky frame, reminiscent of intricate, high-end graffiti.

This is not the kind of pushie you’d use to pedal to the corner shops for a litre of milk. It’s an object of art. And Steve painted it.

“People just want individuality,” says the man behind Melbourne custom bike painting business, Bikes By Steve. “They want something that nobody else has.”  

A year ago Steve, 41, used to spraypaint cars for a living but now, thanks in part to a “midlife crisis” and burgeoning demand, he attends exclusively to two wheels. In this case the design was inspired to match the owner’s (let’s be honest) garish-looking racing kit. The complex design, says Steve, took him about “a million” hours to complete and cost his client more than $2500.  

‘People love riding bikes but they actually love the object as an object of design or of art.’

But business is thriving for Steve, who estimates he’s painted hundreds of bikes in these first 12 months. Indeed, the event we are both attending today – the Handmade Bicycle Show Australia at the Meat Market in North Melbourne – is proof that interest in bespoke bicycles is more than alive and well. By close of the three-day event, 48 builders representing 22 workshops from around Australia will have talked bikes with more than 1500 bicycle-obsessed punters.  

Steve Gardner at work on a child’s bike and spraying a custom frame.

It’s difficult to be certain exactly how many bikes are handmade or custom built in Australia each year, says Peter Bourke, the general manager of Bicycle Industries of Australia. He estimates two-thirds of the 1.2 million bikes imported into the country each year are sold through big stores such as Kmart, with the rest, about 400,000, sold through bicycle shops. 

“The biggest bespoke bike manufacturers in Australia are Baum in Geelong and Bastion in Kensington – they make about 100 bikes a year each,” he says. Also in the mix are businesses that build bikes to order for customers from parts gleaned on the internet; others buy off-the-rack rides and then customise certain parts, most commonly wheels, gears and saddles. 

‘If you get a bike like this it’s just way easier to ride.’

Mick Peel, 48, threw in a career lecturing in fashion design at RMIT to make custom leather saddle covers and handlebar tape a decade ago. He earns about a third of his previous salary but has no regrets. 

“I’d been in academia for 21 years and I just needed a change,” says the man behind Busyman Bicycles. 

“I wasn’t getting any joy out of it and I get a lot of satisfaction out of making stuff.” Working in his backyard studio in Carlton, Mick estimates he’s made more than 2000 saddle covers, at around $350 each.  

When he first started, waiting lists were nine months; today it’s six weeks. The more unusual saddles he’s made include a wallaby pelt cover for an old-school BMX (the customer supplied the fur via eBay) and an ostrich-leg-leather saddle for a bike painted to resemble snakeskin. 

“People love riding bikes but they actually love the object as an object of design or of art. And they just like having special stuff, I think,” he says. 

‘Victoria has a long history of making its own bike frames, dating back to 1903.’

Beck Roy takes her cat Ralph for a spin on her Lekker bike.

For cyclist Beck Roy, 31, customisation is about something else. The town planner sold her car nearly two years ago and now rides around town on her red Lekker step-through bicycle. 

Having studied in the Netherlands and visited other great bike-friendly cities around Europe, she is on a mission to encourage more people to ride bikes in everyday life. “You can make do with some bikes … but if you get a bike like this it’s just way easier to ride,” she says of her personal pride and joy.  

Her favourite custom features include the Dutch wheel lock with inbuilt key and chain (no more lost keys), double kickstand (park your bike wherever you like), and front grille (for strapping her five-year-old cat Ralph in for trips to the vet – safely tucked away in a cat backpack, of course). Beck’s bike modifications are less about standing out from the crowd than simply making life easier and more practical. 

Beck Roy with Ralph safely on board.

Other riders have specific custom requirements. Canadian tourist Alysen BarronWright, 26, arrived here in April dreaming of touring Downunder on two wheels. The long distances didn’t daunt her, but she knew she needed a comfortable and durable touring bike to make it happen. Brand-new bikes were out of her price league (and the right second-hand wheels just didn’t come along), so she approached Mottainai Cycles in Collingwood, who built her a bike from scratch for $1700, using a recycled Bianchi frame.  

“Things have been great,” she reports, from the side of a road between Bonnie Doon and Benalla, four days into her three-month tour. “I’ve taken it on some pretty gnarly roads so far and it’s held up just fine.” Mottainai specialises in breathing new life into vintage-steel lugged bikes and parts, with customers involved in the building process.    

Victoria has a long history of making its own bike frames, dating back to 1903, when Tom Finnigan established the Malvern Star brand. In Geelong, Ken Evans, 72, has been making custom steel frames since 1976. 

‘The bike’s made to suit the rider rather than the other way round.’

Geelong bike-builder Ken Evans in his workshop and with a bespoke bike.

 

“You’d measure up whoever wanted a frame and you’d make the frame to suit them. There was no such thing as carbon fibre back then and most of the bikes were custom made anyway.”  

When he started he made one or two frames a week – now he makes 10 to 12 a year for a “wide and varied” mix of (mostly male) clientele including doctors, tradies and solicitors.

But what’s the allure? “It’s actually made to fit them – you can alter the angle on the seat tube, the head tube, different-length top tubes – so you’re not buying a bike that’s mass produced, trying to make the position fit them; the bike’s made to suit (the rider) rather than the other way round.” Ken’s frames typically cost $2000, with finished bikes selling for up to $5000. 

Back in North Melbourne at the Handmade Bicycle Show, a new generation of bicycle maker, Darren Baum of Baum Cycles in Geelong, is holding court. He says his custom titanium bikes start at $6500 but it’s not unusual for these hand-painted, biomechanically matched machines to edge over $20,000.

A hand-painted saddle at Baum Cycles; Darren Baum gives one of his hand-made bikes a final polish; painter Shaun Bradley suited up to spray a Baum Cycle.

Darren began making bikes to suit his own uniquely shaped (slightly longer in the torso) frame, but now he gets a kick out of making them for other people.  

A career turning point came, he says, when he found himself making a bike for then world champion Cadel Evans in the same week as a grandmother with a hip reconstruction. The grandmother wanted a front rack to carry wine in order to woo a gentleman in her street; Cadel wanted to win the Tour de France.  

“Don’t get me wrong, Cadel was using me as a tool to meet his goals, (but) the other person, I was changing their life. Which one is actually more powerful, once you take the ego out of it? Cadel won the Tour but I don’t know about how the bottle of plonk went.”