This article was first published in Issue 127 of Singletrack Magazine. Three contemporary steel hardtails made by hand in the UK from 18 Bikes, Shand and Stanton. And we mean made, not just assembled.
Something interesting is happening to the UK’s bicycle manufacturing industry. Rewind a few years and it seemed to be on its last legs, as iconic British brands hung up their welding torches and moved production offshore. A few small builders kept the flame burning, tapping out very small quantities of frames for riders who wanted something really special. Then came the launch of Bespoked, the UK’s own handmade bike show. The first edition had barely enough exhibitors to fill a Transit van, but the mix of craft and customisation was enough to rekindle interest in the idea of making mountain bikes in the UK.
Bespoked has since gone from strength to strength and on the way it’s convinced many enthusiastic and talented people to pick up a half moon file and start building frames. And at the same time, UK frame building has upped its game. Companies are investing in the tooling and resources to increase production volumes, making 11-month waiting lists for small-batch artisan frames a thing of the past. Politics has played a part too, with trade tariffs and currency fluctuations tipping the economics back towards UK manufacturing. None of the frames reviewed here are cheap, but some of them are the same or less than a Far Eastern equivalent.
All three of the frames we tested are 29ers designed around 130mm forks (give or take a few mm, in the Stanton’s case), and all have geometry tailored for more aggressive riding. Doing full-on mountain biking on an expensive handmade frame might seem a bit like playing golf with a Fabergé egg. But you could say the same about your costly full suspension frame and you’ll never find yourself buying a slide hammer to get the main pivot bearings out of these. They’re all quite capable of keeping up with a full susser with the right pilot, and none of them will feel like hard work to drag round a longer loop than your usual two-hour blast. Put aside your preconceptions of rigid singlespeeds with lugs in the shape of the frame builder’s beard and join me on a tour of thoroughly modern British-made hardtails.
18 Bikes No 9
- Price: £900.00 (frame only)
- From: 18 Bikes, 18bikes.co.uk
18 Bikes is a well-loved bike shop in the tranquil Derbyshire town of Hope, run by a two-man band. Si Bowns is the business brain of the outfit and is very active in local trail advocacy. Si’s brother Matt is the other half of the 18 equation, and has been building custom frames for over a decade. While previously concentrating on full custom bikes (with Pinion gearbox frames being a particular speciality), this year 18 Bikes has introduced the Workshop Series frames, of which the No 9 is the 29in-wheeled version. (There’s also a 27.5in frame called, unsurprisingly, the No 7.) These off-the-peg frames come at a lower price than a full custom build, but still embody Matt’s ideas about what a hardtail should be. If you happened to see Matt’s ‘Project Stupid’ full suspension bike that was exhibited at Bespoked a couple of years ago, which sported a 525mm reach and a 62° head angle, you’ll know that he’s happy to push the geometry envelope until it rips – in the good sense of the word….click for the full review
- Price: £995.00 (frame only)
- From: Shand, shandcycles.com
Shand has been building custom steel frames in Scotland since 2003, but in the last few years it has stepped up a gear, adding a bunch of off-the-peg models to the range, and becoming a relatively big name in the long-distance adventure cycling world, thanks to its sponsorship of riders like members of the Adventure Syndicate. When Jenny Graham broke the unsupported round-the-world cycling record last year, it was on a Shand, and the brand is still best known for road and gravel bikes which look smart, but not too Gucci for a winter club run or a bikepacking adventure….click for the full review.
- Price: £699.00 (frame only)
- From: Stanton, stantonbikes.com
Dan Stanton launched his namesake company back in 2012, with the aim of making hardtails fun again. Taking design cues from 4X and dirt jump frames, the original Stanton Slackline was well received, particularly by downhillers who wanted a simple, tough bike that could crank out some miles. Wheel sizes grew, and Stanton in 2015 followed the Slackline up with the Switchback, which boasted the sort of progressive geometry that was only just starting to catch on back then. I still remember seeing my mate piloting his through the big set of doubles at our local downhill trails, and feeling decidedly impressed that he was bossing them on what looked, to the untrained eye anyway, like a skinny steel cross-country bike….click for the full review.
As someone who’s followed the development of Stanton’s bikes since the beginning, the spot-on performance and quality of the Switch9er is no surprise. What’s more astonishing is that a frame of this calibre is being fabricated in the UK, just a couple of years after the company decided to take the plunge and shift to domestic production. Other frame manufacturers have previously tried to go back to British building and encountered intractable issues, so credit is due to Stanton for an audacious move that seems to be paying off.
The pricing of the Switch9er is pretty keen too, and I’d expect this to creep up in line with demand. So if you want one, you’d be well advised not to dawdle. Admittedly it’s made of slightly less rarified materials than the other bikes in the test, with a minor weight penalty. But it gives up very little in terms of comfort and fun.
Riders looking for a frame that feels radically different may come away disappointed. The Switch9er has familiar handling and feedback, which for me is a plus. The only big difference you notice with this bike is that you’re riding technical trails much faster than you would expect to on a hardtail.
You might want to get your tiny violins ready at this point, because this has been a pretty tough review to write. What do you say about three excellent frames, all guaranteed to make even the most hand-wringing Guardian reader feel a surge of patriotism, and all extremely well suited to their intended purpose, without typing a load of gushy nonsense? One thing I can say is that while they’re all very good, they would all favour a slightly different type of rider and terrain.
The 18 Bikes No 9 is the most thrashable frame in the test, and not just because it has a paint job that wouldn’t make you cry if you scratched it. While 18 Bikes is keen to play down its geometry, it’s still the type of design that some bike companies are only just starting to catch up with. It also manages to be a hoot to ride, instead of slowing everything down to bullet time. There are some issues with the size of frame I tested, mainly the clearance at the seat tube and the harshness of the rear triangle, but a longer model might be a taller person’s dream hooning machine.
The Shand Shug looks like a bike designed to keep you shredding after the apocalypse has hit, and you’d need some quite extreme local riding to justify having it – although it has to be said, that logic doesn’t seem to influence the purchasing of many full suspension bikes. The Shug wears its big shoes extremely well, and feels more like a show pony than a Shire horse on the trail. With few manufacturers embracing both bigger tyres and slacker head angles, it occupies an interesting niche, and then pushes things even further, with even more rubber room. The way that it manages to do this while eschewing any tube contortionism is a very elegant statement of craftsmanship.
Finally, the Stanton Switch9er is a frame that rides just like you’d expect a steel hardtail to – but much better. It’s a touch heavier than the other frames in this test, but more wallet-friendly, and the build quality is as good as I’ve seen on any steel frame.
All three bikes point to a bright future for UK frame building, and a well-overdue revival for the trusty hardtail. Sure, they’re an investment, but you’ll be getting something very special for your money, even before you consider that all three brands have an excellent reputation for customer experience. A bike that reduces the amount of time you have to spend fettling in the garage, climbs hills without wasting an ounce of leg energy, and gives you a big grin when you clean that horrible bit of trail – how can you put a price on that?