by Our Bicycle Lives

I am not an advocate of capitalism and consumer culture but when I fell into cycling, I became fascinated by makes and models, by the technical and aesthetics details – a dual colour scheme or a belt drive instead of a chain – that distinguish brands. As I came across more and more bikes, I prided myself in being able to tell one brand from another just by the outline of the frame: Specialized’s sleek and slightly curved crossbar, the ubiquitous grey and black Ridgebacks and Treks, the distinct retro frame livery and contrasting panels of Condor – aka the Rolls-Royce of bicycles. I enjoyed reviewing my mental wishlist, which for a long time was headed by a Dawes Galaxy tourer, and delighted in reeling off names like Fuji, Cannondale and Pashley.

Cycle manufacturers are experts at creating strong identities, starting with the brand name and its distinctive font, size and colour painted all over the frame. By a natural metonymy (like Pavlov’s dog who salivated at the sound of a bell that had been associated with food availability, whether food was present or not), brands and their image, rather than product specifications, have become objects of desire in themselves. But built-in obsolescence means that quality is not a given, even with well-known brands. Most bicycle companies do not manufacture their own products and have outsourced mass production to China or Taiwan.

My fascination for brands, though, originated elsewhere. To quote a LFGSS forum thread on great cycling brands, ‘I like any business that does something real. In our society, where craft and manual skills aren’t valued highly enough, such enterprises are all too rare.’ Years before I started cycling, I would cut photos of bikes out of magazines: even for the non-convert, these machines looked like works of art. In seeking out brands that had made cycling history, like Peugeot or Raleigh with their beautiful lugged steel frames, I would buy a piece of history, and reputable brands would buy me experience, craftsmanship, reliability and durability. In our disposable culture, I sought timelessness.

But wishes and wants pass and fade away and when the time came to treat myself, the self-styled ‘brand expert’, to a second bike, it turns out these were mere fantasies. I scoured the Internet for, funnily enough, something different. My first bike purchase had been a practical half-hour affair: local bike shop, cheapest bike, test ride, done. I didn’t give it too much thought: after all, one bike was much like another. The next time round, I didn’t look for a brand either but for style: not prestige associated with a make but actual visible style. So I fell for a bike by a small Nottingham company I’d never heard of, Onza, simply because I thought it looked fabulous. What bike nut could have resisted the cut-out head tube revealing a steerer tube the colour of a barber’s pole? Not me. Maybe I went for the emotional choice, the irrational, must-have response that all brands aspire to because then money is no object. Or maybe I simply followed the best criteria: a bike which fitted my needs, that is, which looked great and was great to ride.

Today, I would probably think laterally: handmade bikes, custom-made to your own requirements by frame builders such as Roberts Cycles in Croydon or Brian Rourke in Stoke-on-Trent. Their uniqueness is a luxury and very real value for money. Or even better, a bicycle that is home-made,  assembled by the owner herself. I don’t mean so much the personalised bikes which, riding on the single-speed and fixed-gear trend, sport colourful hubs, chains and wheels, although a lot of love has obviously gone into them: they may be customised machines but their carbon footprint is still high. No, I mean the sort of bike that my environmentally conscious friend Nicole put together, after asking a second-hand shop to source a pre-loved frame and parts: a bike that is ‘brand new’ in the true sense of the word, in that it has never existed before with these specifications. I can still be temporarily dazzled by a shiny new frame but the writing on the down tube isn’t now as attractive as the patina of a Brooks leather saddle that comes from a lifetime of use and enjoyment.