When I was asked to judge the Best Mountain Bike at Bespoked, I had no idea how hard it would be. Last year I’d been along and picked my own favourite bikes of the show, so I figured that repeating the process but handing out an actual award at the end couldn’t be that hard. How wrong I was…
What is a mountain bike?
Bespoked is a hand made bicycle show, so there are bikes of all sorts there. There are bikes there that I can easily eliminate from the ‘Best Mountain Bike’ candidates. Track bikes, road bikes, Ted James’ gorgeous titanium BMX. All are Not Mountain Bikes. I also eliminated anything with drop bars, regardless of tyre size – there was a separate ‘Off Road Bike’ award category, so I figured all the gravel bikes and monster crossers could go in there (which was a relief, because there were a lot of them at the show).
Flat bars, knobbly tyres… what else? You can take almost any bike into somewhat unsuitable terrain and perhaps call it mountain biking, but I felt that for this award I was looking for a bike that would have you seeking out the off road routes rather than breathing a sigh of relief when you hit a gravel tow path or fire road. To my mind, that eliminated one or two more, notably the wonderful BCB and Etoile bikes.
BCB Truss Bike
This bike by BCB was built to go bikepacking, so has room for a frame bag. Like all of BCB’s bikes, it’s made by recycling old frames. The skeleton of this one is an old Peugot, with some other pieces added to create the truss supports for strength off road. The moto/BMX bars were added because they couldn’t source anything else in the Great Pandemic Parts Shortage, but they actually suit the look of the bike well. I love the the chop-shop recycling approach, I’d totally have this as my town or pub bike, but I don’t think it would be my first choice for a big mountain trip – look at those gears!
This stand, with bikes by Elodie, filled me with joy, especially the picnic bike. I want to go and pedal off on it to a clearing in the woods and eat cheese and crackers while lying on a blanket admiring the leaves. Likewise, the hardtail homage to early mountain bikes makes me want to go and wriggle around some classic woodland singletrack. It’s very nearly a mountain bike, or in another time it would have been a mountain bike. Here in the modern day, they’re both just very lovely and joyful, with gorgeous copper details. I would totally ride these bikes, but not into the mountains, so I took my judge’s eyes onwards…
More than paint
I was looking for something that was more than just a pretty paint job. I figured the Best Mountain Bike in the show should have some technically advanced technology type stuff going on in there that offers a rider ride qualities that weren’t available in retro times. But, mountain biking is a broad church and I wanted to reflect that in my choices – it’s not all gnar-core-rad-shred out there. This very nicely built – and even more nicely painted – hardtail from Salitter Cycles nearly turned my head…
Sarah was at the show thanks to the SRAM inclusivity scholarship, that supports builders from under represented groups to attend the show. She’d built this very neat steel hardtail, then added her pick of SRAM components. Quinntessentials Customs Workshop had given it this gorgeous paint job, which was one of two Lucienne Day designed fabric patterns that they’d transposed onto bikes for the show. I especially liked the colour dot selvedge feature on the seat tube. But, skilled as the paint application was, and neat as the build of the bike was, I felt like I’ve seen nice paint and neat building before, so my judgey eye moved on…
… and was caught by this Stayer OMG, which was just too gorgeous to ignore. Now that I’ve seen a copper plated bike with verdigris finish, I wonder why I haven’t seen this many times before – but isn’t that the way with art and innovation? The person that has the original idea gets the accolade, so its creator Lewis Toghill made my Runners Up list.
Stayer OMG by Lewis Toghill (Empress Works)
There were three Stayer OMGs on display as part of a prize draw to support the Ultra Distance Scholarship, which helps riders from under represented groups get to the start line of ultra distance events (it’s not everyone who can afford to put together a bike and take a few weeks off work to ride a few thousand miles). This particular one had been plated in copper, then partially aged with lemon juice, creating a verdigris finish that I have never seen before on a bike. It reminded me a lot of a Barbara Hepworth sculpture, with the deliberately contrasting finish across the surface of the copper. It had been built up in a rigid bike packing style, with a dropper post for practicality and Middleburn Cranks and Paul Components brakes for added lust. If I could have pushed one bike out of the show and taken it home, it would have been this one, earning it a place on my official Runners Up list. I’ve entered the prize draw and live in hope…
Feel the fun
I want a bike to make me look at it and want to get on it and play. I could have applied that criteria to the Howler Raven, but as it was a dirt jump bike I felt it lay outside the parameters of my search. But it was very lovely. If only I were cool enough for dirt jumps.
Maybe I should go enduro instead? Billy’s Howler Fenrir had the kind of beefy looks that make you think of a big day out with your eyeballs on stalks, and Gav’s Coal Bike is beautifully welded – and his hardtail on the Fat Cat Customs booth was beautifully painted too. But neither quite had me reaching for knee pads and looking for a trail.
The bike that screamed ‘come to the park and play’ to me was the Dawley Activist. Not that I’m much of a freerider, but I can dream, right? Its stance just looked right – something of a surprise to me as I’d seen Instagram teases and hadn’t been convinced by the aesthetic of the join in the downtube. But seen as a whole, I think it works. Its builder, Thom, explained that the join in the downtube is there so that he can build the bike from straight tubes and more easily customise the geometry. This bike makes me want to be able to whip, and it defied my expectations, earning itself a place on my official Runner Up list.
Techno techno techno
In case you haven’t been paying attention, 3D printing – or additive manufacturing – is where it’s at in the bike world, or so it seems. If you’re going to make a Bike From The Future, it seems like printed components is where its at. In many instances I found this all very impressive, sort of in the way that someone might memorise pi to a thousand places. Very clever, yes, but what’s the point? The Prova Ripido overcame my ennui with 3D printing by putting it to truly useful use, and then packaging it all up in an exquisitely finished package. I spent a substantial part of my judging day agonising over whether to make this bike my Best In Show, so let’s take a closer look.
The key thing for me here was that there’s a real point to 3D printing the Pinion shell. Machining this part is incredibly wasteful – you have to start with a fairly large block and then remove most of it, creating a huge amount of waste swarf. By additive manufacturing this instead, there’s almost no waste. Prova has also been able to design in some ‘funnels’ for routing the brake and dropper cables easily through the frame – a detail you’d miss just casting an eye over the frame.
You might also miss the fact that the bottle bosses are attached externally to the downtube – keeping the inside of the tube completely clear for as much seat post insertion as you could ever want. You’d probably notice the dropouts, also additive manufactured from titanium, and designed to look as close to a normal drop out as possible while still allowing for a belt drive and chainstay adjustment for tensioning a chain or belt.
You’d definitely notice the handlebars – made specially by Mark to give himself the shortest stem length possible at 25mm. He tig welded the main handlebar to a 3D printed mini stem – he wouldn’t sell it to anyone at the show, despite enquiries, so we guess he likes it!
It’s a gloriously finished bike with loads of thought put into it. Despite its enduro intentions, I couldn’t help feel like it looked like something more speedy and cross country – it just seems too refined and beautiful to throw down a steep and rocky chute on a hillside. Plus, though there were many of them on display at the show, I’m not a fan of the upside down fork. I agonised long and hard, but these little personal biases ultimately knocked the Prova off the top spot, and relegated it to my official Runner Up list.
And the winner is…
I figured I owe it to the builders who have put all the investment and effort into getting to the show to take the judging seriously, so I debated long and hard over my final decision. In the end, I decided that judging the Best Mountain Bike was a little like a round of the Great British Bake Off. There’s the design brief – is it delivering something for the modern mountain bike rider? The technical challenge – how much skill is there in the manufacturing process, are there multiple skills and techniques on display? The aesthetic – does it look good? And finally, the taste challenge… in the absence of being able to actually ride these bikes and see how they perform, I opted instead for the desire to see how they perform. One that made my mouth water a little and had me wondering what flavour it would leave on the palate. The bike that just pipped the Prova Ripido to the post was the Rå-12.
This newest addition to the Rå family brings more travel to the table, 165mm rear and 170-180mm front. You also get two flip chips – one that allows you to run a 27.5in rear wheel, and one to allow you to change the leverage ratio. These seemed to me like features you might normally expect of a production bike from a much larger company.
The bike at the show had a straight headtube, but in future it will be tapered – Ralph just hadn’t had time to build it up with a tapered headtube. Which is no wonder, as the build is very complex. There is only one straight round tube – a small support across the seat stays. Every other tube is manipulated in some way. The yoke alone is made of nine different parts, all made in house then welded together. There’s very little of this bike that’s not made in house, which is an impressive amount of machining and cutting.
All of that is put together neatly, and in this instance wrapped up in what is surely a ‘sweetie wrapper red’ finish. Ralph was a little tired an emotional after the night before by the time I took his picture. Usually he’s a little more spritely…
And there we have it, a judge’s eye view of Bespoked. What criteria would you have used? Would you have chosen differently? Perhaps you were there and I’ve totally passed over your preferred bike. Head to the comments…