Andrew stops mid-sentence, pauses, “ooooooh!…….. Oooooh…. oooooh!” his pitch rises to a maniacal school child giggle of surprise and wild childlike delight, like a two-year-olds first taste of cake. Visceral and uncontrollable joy. “Tom!?! Is this a prototype or is this a FUCKING!…. ok…. That’ll do it!” a long pause of wild-eyed observation glancing desperately around the room, eyes hungry for an affirming reaction but forced to settle for Tom’s grinning but nonchalant response of “yea, they’ve gotten lighter as well”. Another longer pause as dust from Tom’s stoic “yogi bear” response settles, a mumbled and affectionate “asshole.” The recording tapers off into minor expletives, mumblings, and the low noises people make to indicate affection for bits of metal when they’re together in sheds.
As an antidote to a challenging few weeks, and to boost morale I had driven to Frome to visit Tom Sturdy of Sturdy Cycles and see what he was up to in his new workshop. As I paced up and down the quiet residential road on which I’d parked searching for the place, I happily bumped into Andrew from the Bicycle Academy who led me in to Tom’s secret lair. I’m pleased to have recorded Andrew’s response because what Tom makes in his miniscule and oppressive, light starved garden shed is enough to shatter the mind of any sane person literate in making. It was useful in describing what I’d call a “normal reaction” to the contents of three little shuttering ply boxes on the floor.
3D printing feels like a buzz phrase at the moment and induces me (against my will) to roll my eyes in cynical despair for a process that I only understand enough to know that it’s not being used to its full potential, and is also very much in its adolescence as far as manufacturing techniques go. It goes hand in hand with the aesthetic of freaky space alien scaffolding “generative design”, a lazy automated ode to H.R. Geiger’s sculptural works. Titanium is great, there’s nothing new to report there and so I was much less interested in a story about titanium and 3D printing than perhaps I should have been. I suppose I already understand why you would make bikes in this way; so instead I asked Tom “why are you doing this?” because what Tom makes is a personal affront to making and makers. These three austere plywood boxes containing things that could equally be the exoskeletons of massive prehistoric insects or shards from space found in a military exclusion zone in a desert in new Mexico, artefacts from a lost civilisation dredged from the bottom of the Marianas trench, or the physical embodiment of some impossible liquid metal amorphous ideal spinning on a screen at some trendy art show in a warehouse in Peckham.
It seemed like I met Tom at the bottom of a very slippery slope, further down the rabbit hole than I’ve ever been. He started explaining how he’d got there in the matter of fact way that someone might describe a haunting or how they had failed to realise that their quiet and polite neighbour was actually a serial killer. “I was building relatively conventional fillet brazed steel bikes and then I started using titanium because of lots of things really. I like the purity of it, you don’t have to paint it and I enjoy the type of bike that it builds, the ride quality and its really versatile. So I really wanted to do that, and it took me a little while to learn how to weld well enough and deal with all of the difficulties of working with titanium. I started 3d printing because it kind of interested me and I just had a gut feeling that there was something in it. I didn’t really know what but I felt like I should try and find out. I started looking into additive manufacturing to see what it could do for me in terms of how it could improve my process and whether there are any advantages for a customer and what it could do for them, so I developed this approach and now I use it quite a lot.”
Until recently I didn’t know that Hannah-Barbera’s cartoon character “Yogi bear” was based on real life baseball player “Yogi Berra” whose real name was in fact Lawrence. Lawrence Berra, a star catcher for the New York Yankees was nicknamed Yogi, partly for the way he sat cross legged during practice, and partly due to his yogi like press snippets characterised by a humorous tautology as a surface for underlaying wisdom. The most famous of which “it ain’t over till it’s over” has penetrated so deep into the English language that it’s used as a pre-fab phrase in describing almost anything with a competitive spirit. That’s what it’s like listening to Tom talk about his masterful execution of internally and externally tapered and butted 3D printed titanium forks which can be dialled in at the design stage to suit their particular rider. “when you come to a fork in the road, take it”. Toms anxious grin, crawling with all the discomfort of “being interviewed” is almost the only thing that gives away the fact that if you peeled his face off there wouldn’t just be circuit boards underneath.
Tom doesn’t need to be a computer because he uses computer-aided design practically to far greater effect than any other builder I know of. Not only do his lugs vary in wall thickness imperceptibly to the human eye internally in response to various stresses teased out by both physical and computer testing, but they are altered from frame to frame to match the rider’s bike fit perfectly. The design is such that tubes don’t need to be mitred, just cut to length, and give a virtually airtight seal internally so that the frame can be better back purged during the welding process. In addition, no filler is used in the welding process, the material is built into the lug saving weight, cost, and time. Tom’s frames are at the mind-bending cutting edge of manufacture of anything let alone bicycles. This cuts out enough building time and manufacturing cost that a completely bespoke one-off titanium frame, fork, crankset, stem and seat post (Tom makes all these things) all made to measure to tighter tolerances than otherwise possible, in house, retails for around £8000 including tax so as Yogi Bear might say The future doesn’t cost what it used to.
In the context of Tom Sturdy I don’t feel like it’s at all crass to talk money, because his frames feel like serious bits of industrial design. As such the care and consideration that has gone into the process of making to keep the cost of the final product with in the realms of reality, is a part of what makes it so genius. Tom talks about his process in such simple terms, as if it were one foot in front of the other on an infinite road towards the betterment his design. At this point that design is SO DIALLED and dialled around the idea of being cost effective while also being the best possible, that its very competitively priced in comparison to a top of the range, off the peg bike from the likes of Cervelo or even Specialized, or Cannondale, while being made to measure and designed around the rider in a way that no other manufacturing process affords. It actually makes me a bit angry just thinking about how holistically excellent Tom’s bikes are. “you’re just a guy in a £1200 shed with no windows if it’s so perfect, why aren’t Specialized and other companies with all their comparatively limitless resources making bikes in this way?” “because there’s no meaningful advantage in scale, and the margins wouldn’t make sense.” Checkmate.
In Victorian times it was thought that male pattern baldness was caused by the heating of the head due to intensity of thought. While that theory has long since been disproven, I was ready to get out of the claustrophobic windowless hellscape of Toms workshop just in case. We headed out into the damp and hostile gloom of typical British autumn. It was 4:00PM and already more or less dark making it impossible to photograph the bike in the way that I’d have liked to. I probed tom further about his approach and what kind of riding lead him on such a singular design path while fumbling around with a camera that I was acutely aware of as weighing more than Tom’s bike. Tom was a professional triathlete and also raced time trials “I cringe at saying I was professional because I had a license to race but I wasn’t sponsored or anything” “but you were good at it?” “I won a few national championships” he adds casually.
Now that we were out in the wet air and getting about our business surrounded by trees, we both felt more at ease. “triathlon is pretty insane, what did you enjoy about triathlon?” “I liked the training more than the racing, and I was at Loughborough at the time where all the good triathletes were so there was always someone better than you to train with, so you just have to turn up to the training and then you get really good. It’s a ridiculous sport. You have to have all of the shit possible. So much shit to do something that is supposed to be fun and you have to do it at three o clock in the morning, in the dark, with speedos on and shopping bags on your hands and feet so you can slide into your wetsuit. It’s quite funny but I’m not sure many of the other triathletes found it as funny as I did.” “that’s a shame.” “It is a shame. I didn’t really fit in,” we giggle “that and all the drugs that supposedly you have to take to do it. That was quite bad in Europe at the time when I was racing”. Now I’m confident that Tom isn’t a terminator from the future I can relax a little more. “how do you get the shopping bags off once you’re in the wetsuit?” “just pull them, they slide.”
Visiting Tom made me realise two things: That no matter how small, all buildings should have many windows, and that there really is no limit to what is possible in the tiny sphere of building bicycles. Tom has effectively bridged the gap between making and manufacturing in a way that no one else has, he’s able to offer a unique product which has many quantifiable benefits beyond being a 1200g titanium road frame with 36mm of tyre clearance that passes both road racing and MTB load testing. Controlling every part of the process and bringing everything inhouse has afforded a cost-effective and ultra-desirable alternative to both; high end off the peg bikes and handmade frames. Tom is truly a pioneer of his craft. With limited space and time, he has a strong, considered, and unique, textural aesthetic centered around necessary materials and processes. With a super minimal no-frills design, Sturdy Cycles (the name itself could be a “yogi-ism”) builds bicycles that I’m confident will still look both futuristic and classic in 20 years.