On a brisk Thursday morning last week, we were paid a visit by a man with a van called Dan. Dan (that’s his name, not the van’s name) drove up from Sheffield in his trusty white VW, with two bikes in the back that he had been eager to show us for some time. Following a few rounds of email tennis between us, we finally found some mutually free time for Dan to come up to Singletrack Towers for a brew, and to show us his pride and joy.
I hadn’t had the pleasure of meeting Dan prior to his visit. Turns out that Dan runs a bike workshop in Sheffield called Cycles In Motion. He’s owned the business for about six years, where he and his mechanics perform all sorts of different repairs on all sorts of different bikes. It’s sort of like a bike shop, but without the retail side. Dan says that bicycle retail is dead anyway, so rather than spending his time trying to price-match Shimano XT groupsets when wholesale prices are actually more expensive than what consumers can buy it online for, he focusses on service instead.
Along with run-of-the-mill servicing, Dan also performs specialist repair work, including alterations to existing bikes, fixing cracked frames, and repairing general dints and dings to varying degrees. His workshop will respray frames, modify them to take disc brakes, and machine one-off parts when nothing else will do. Turns out that Dan is pretty handy on the tools, but is equally as passionate about engineering solutions and taking on board those tricky jobs that most bike shops would turn away. After all, why throw it away if you can fix it?
About three years ago, Dan decided to take his frame repairing skills to the next level, and built his very own frame. Apparently it was rubbish, and it now occupies a space hanging on a wall. Dan then built more frames, and through first-hand experience, got better and better at it. Since then, he’s built a load of custom frames for mountain bikers, road racers, triathletes, bikepackers and cycle tourers. And he wants to build more.
Before we got stuck into looking at Dan’s handiwork, I asked him how he’d ended up building bike frames in the first place. Prior to opening Cycles In Motion and building custom frames, Dan ran a mobile workshop out the back of ‘Vanny’ (that’s the name of the van). Before that though, Dan was a landscaper professionally, and a mountain climber recreationally. A real hands-on type with a desire for the outdoors. An unfortunate accident whilst out climbing one day saw Dan lose his footing on a cliff face. He took a long fall to the ground, where the impact busted up his back and broke numerous ribs, while also shattering his elbow. Dan doesn’t dwell on the accident though. He’s convinced that the rock gods were pissed off at him for some reason, possibly because he’d accidentally broken a full wine bottle the night before. Whatever the cause, he bore the full wrath of the rock gods’s karma the next day when he fell hard to the ground.
Like a lot of people who suffer such serious accidents, Dan took the opportunity during the recovery process to readdress his priorities. After some deliberation, Dan decided he didn’t want to work for other people. He wanted to do his own thing and set his own agenda, without having to answer to anyone else. So he quit his job and packed up his whole life into the van before launching his mobile wrenching business. According to Dan, he downsized all of his possessions in the process so that everything he owned would fit into the van, meaning he could travel anywhere he wanted, whenever he wanted at the drop of a hat. Sounds like the dream eh?
Since that decision, Dan has never looked back. He’s a passionate mountain biker, and he’s even more passionate about building frames. Having always designed bikes and other contraptions since he was a child, it was a natural progression for Dan to move into frame building after honing his skills with fillet brazed frame repairs.
Dan came to us with the third frame he ever built. It’s a 26in hardtail that he made for himself in his Sheffield workshop three years ago, and it uses fillet brazed joins to bring the separate steel tubes together into the final form you see here. While Dan has made other mountain bike frames since then, he admits that most of the people coming to him are wanting road and touring frames. He loves building those too, but I could tell from the grin on his face that it’s knobbly tyres that gets Dan’s heart thumping.
The frames are manufactured under the ‘DOS’ brand, which is a simple abbreviation of Dan’s initials (Daniel Owen Smith). All of his frames are fillet brazed from steel, and all of them feature a flat colour for the whole frame, with only a 3D metal headbadge giving away the bike’s origin.
On that note, Dan finds it bizarre how most other bikes on the market use huge logos on the downtubes and top tubes to identify the brand. “You don’t see Ferrari plastering the sides of its cars with logos do you?” he asks me in his hybrid Brummie-Yorkshire accent. “All they have is a tiny badge at the front of the car, and that’s it!”. And he’s got a point really. “The way I think about it is like an interior decorator”, he continues. “After they’ve done a kitchen fit-out for you, and it looks all lovely and like, they don’t just go and paint JAMES all over your lovely new cabinets do they?”.
With an industrial grey paint job, Dan’s personal hardtail perfectly encompasses his function over form attitude. He’s all about building bikes that will be used to within an inch of their life. Beaten, scratched and thrown around on the trail, then tossed into the back of a car and hosed down every weekend before being pulled out of the shed for the next adventure. And he certainly walks the walk. His personal bike was covered in all sorts of scars and wear marks that likely all came with their own personal story. Worn tyre tread and a buffed saddle provided clues to the many hundreds of hours this bike has spent in the wilderness.
Built from Colombus Zona tubing, Dan estimates the frame weighs 1.9kg. “Or thereabouts, I’m not really sure”.
It uses 26in wheels, because Dan said he’s not allowed to build a 27.5in or 29in mountain bike until he’s used up all of his leftover 26in components. It’s a refreshingly restrained approach that highlights Dan’s modest ethos. Regardless, I’m not sure he want’s to ride anything else – he clearly has quite the bond with this machine.
Built around a 120mm travel fork, Dan’s hardtail features a slack 65° head angle, compact 410mm chainstays, and an enormous 1200mm wheelbase. Given he put the frame together three years ago, those are quite progressive numbers for a short travel hardtail, and Dan is absolutely stoked with how it rides and how it encourages him to go faster and faster. The small wheels and compact rear end make it accelerate and corner like nothing else, while the extended front-end gives it a runaway speed that continually surprises its pilot.
As you can probably gather, Dan is a bit of a hardtail fan. He likes that they make you do silly things, and he believes that their engaging ride quality is what provides them their personality. And I’m sure many hardtail owners will agree. He’s owned plush full suspension rigs in the past that have allowed him to travel faster and smoother downhill, but he doesn’t necessarily want to get back down the hill as quickly as possible. Instead, he’d rather savour those descents he worked so hard to get to in the first place.
“If you spend two hours climbing up a bloody mountain, don’t you want to enjoy and experience the riding on the way back down?” he asks me. “If all you need to do is sit back, get off the brakes and whoosh your way down, you blink and you miss it don’t you?”
For each one of his frames, Dan builds with the fillet brazing technique. In the simplest of terms, fillet brazing is about using an additional heated liquid metal to join two tubes together, with the hot metal cooling to form a bond between those two tubes. Fillet brazing isn’t so common in frame building as it used to be, as most frames nowadays are TIG welded. In comparison, TIG welding is also about joining two tubes together, but rather than an additional material that bonds the two together, the ends of each tube are heated to a liquid state before they are then joined together.
There are pros and cons to each method, but in general, TIG welding is much faster. Dan reckons he can TIG weld a frame in a day, whereas a fillet brazed frame will take him a whole week. There’s a lot more filing and finishing that goes into smoothing over a fillet brazed join, but that’s part of what makes the join look so smooth and fluid.
Financially, Dan would be much better off TIG welding frames. But he prefers fillet brazing. He believes it creates a stronger frame, and in his experience, he believes it creates a bike that has a more lively ride quality with true character and spirit. He then admits to me that it’s “probably just wanky framebuilding bullshit”, but regardless, he likes to think that handmade machines possess some kind of soul. That all of the care, attention and sweat that goes into creating something can manifest itself in a particular way that only the owner can truly understand. A bond between man and machine. It’s a romantic ideal and one that I’d normally pass off as bullshit myself, but listening to the way that Dan talks about bikes with so much enthusiasm, I can’t help but find myself agreeing.
While Dan’s hardtail might not possess any intricate suspension linkages or space-age carbon fibre, it is no doubt a work of tireless art that is very special in its own regard. He’s also proud of punch of every other frame he’s made, and he’s visibly energised when relaying some of the feedback he’s had from his customers. Being a small part of that person’s riding enjoyment and riding adventures is what it’s all about for Dan, and it’s what drives him to continue building frames.
Although Dan doesn’t list any standard frame pricing, he reckons most mountain bike frames work out to be around £1500. He’ll build a frame around whatever wheelsize you want, with whatever geometry you want. But whatever that might be, it’ll definitely be built from steel and it’ll be fillet brazed like this one. Just don’t expect him to paint his name all over the downtube.
For more information, head to the Cycles In Motion website.