Thought experiment time: with realistic funds and resources, can you theoretically build an invincible bike? One that could last hundreds of years, used by great-grandparent, grandparent, parent and child? A bike that has all the performance you'll realistically need. A bike that may need love, care and regular maintenance to stay ship shape but that will reward you with ongoing performance and pleasure. No matter how many bearings or tyres you replace, the soul of this imaginary machine would remain. But is this a realistic aim?
This week we spoke to Victor Duchêne of Auguste Handmade, the maker and mender that created Tara's "BuyMeOnce Bike." Auguste specialises in renovating and restoring old bikes, salvaging vintage frames from obscurity and endowing on them a new lease of life. They can transform even the most rickety looking bicycles into magnificent machines, provided the fundamentals are there. They've seen it all and know what's really important.
What's the first thing to look out for when choosing a bike for durability?
Victor Duchêne: Above all else, there's one thing, the frame. And that really influences all other decisions you make afterwards. Titanium is the best material there is: light and solid without the risk of rust. But it's also the most expensive, and you'll find that many shops won't have the tools to adequately repair any problems. Specialised materials like carbon fibre are really strong and light, but they won't last because they lose some of their strength after a few falls. Aluminium is light too but brittle. Most of the time it's impossible to repair.
Steel is heavier than all of the above, but it makes up for that weight in other ways. It's exceptionally strong, widely available second hand, much more flexible than aluminium and about the same price. A well-made steel frame is so repairable and durable that older models can be re-purposed quite easily. It's definitely my favourite frame material.
How easy is it to come across affordable steel frames?
VD: The large scale bicycle manufacturers largely use cheap steel or aluminium to build poor quality machinery. This is the stuff you'll find in supermarkets and larger chains. But great steel frames are out there, and you won't have to look too hard. Steel is used for touring frames because it’s flexible, solid and it can easily be repaired all around the world. Make sure the frame is hand built by a brand that uses good steel – it's a guarantee of a quality frame. Depending on your budget, you can either have a bespoke frame built or reuse a vintage one.
At Auguste we select and recycle good frames that are built to last and mix them with light and efficient parts to fit the need of the customer.
If you were to put a city bike together from different parts, where is it worth splashing the cash?
VD: The most important thing in general is to try and avoid plastic parts. For example, if you need a mudguard you can find aluminium ones which are strong and light. For the transmission parts (derailleurs, shifters, crankset etc.) you can have a look at the “groupset charts." They help you situate the range of the parts from entry-level to professional. Finally don’t skimp on the tyres! Better tyres will last longer and be protected against punctures.
Just a few of Victor's personal choices here - but there's loads of other great brands out there.
Compass Cycle; Grand Bois
How much am I going to have to spend to find quality?
VD: It depends if you're looking to buy new or vintage. With the aforementioned criteria, you'll be paying up to £1000 for a new model. If you're happy with a vintage choice, which would be perfect for most people, I would say around £600. Cheap bikes are not good; good bikes are not cheap.
What are some easy things a bike owner can do to make their bike last longer?
VD: Try to keep it clean. This doesn't mean never go in the mud – quite the opposite – but just wash it sometimes. Do a general check every six months to make sure there's no give and change the brake pads, cable and chain if needed. The more love you put in, the longer it will last.
Are there some early warning signs that your bike needs maintenance ASAP?
VD: A bike in good health shouldn't be noisy and shouldn't have any lateral movement. If you hear or feel something unusual, it is good to check with a professional to stop the problem from escalating. Keeping a bike for a long time involves regular service, and most bike shops will be more than happy to check something over if you're suspicious.
What do you think of the bike industry right now? How has it changed and why?
VD: I think it's like industry in general. It produces a lot of crap because it is good for business. Long lasting products are not welcome in a productivity mindset, but I believe in it and that’s why I was interested in BuyMeOnce. I believe in slowing down the consumption and offering a good maintenance and after sales service on quality products.