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Me and my bike: Shamrock Cycles

James Spender
1 Mar 2018

Indianapolis-based Shamrock Cycles takes gravel road bikes to a new level with this intricately detailed steel masterpiece

Photography Danny Bird

‘I told her if that’s a genuine concern then we need to take this right out into the alley, push it over and get that out the way.

‘If you’re not going to ride it in the way it’s intended, what’s the point?’

Tim O’Donnell, the man behind Shamrock Cycles and one of the fastest-talking, wisest-cracking framebuilders in the business, is responding to the question of whether or not his latest steel creation is too nice to ride.

It seems the woman who commissioned it is worried about spoiling the bike’s beautiful finish by using it for its intended purpose: gravel racing.

O’Donnell explains that, thanks to her diminutive size, he has been able to build this frame from standard, rather than oversized, steel tubes while keeping things stiff enough for racing.

The head tube is custom-made by US metal experts Paragon Machine Works, the dropouts come from British distributor Ceeway, the seatstays are True Temper, the top eyes – the pointed ends of the seatstays – are from Japanese Keirin brand Samson, the main tubes are Columbus Life and the lugs are Nuovo Ritchie. Of that list the last two in particular are not your ordinary components.

‘The lugs are bi-laminate. They started as Nuovo but I went at them with a mill and files and they’re a long way from that now,’ says O’Donnell.

‘The bi-lam bit means I chopped off one of the ends and brazed it to a tube so that it looks like a solid tube with half a lug at the end, unlike a regular lug that has two separate joint areas.

‘The tubes are Columbus Life For Lugs, but they’re covered in stainless steel shamrocks that I brazed on before building the bike.

Each one is laser-cut from sheet metal by a friend of mine, then I put it on a pre-form with the same diameter as the tube and press it into shape before brazing it on.’

In total, this frame is adorned with 54 shamrocks, including one on the underside of the down tube engraved with the owner’s initials.

O’Donnell estimates that these mechanically superfluous accoutrements took the total build time from around 18 hours to nearly 30.

‘The forming and brazing probably took four hours, but the polishing took the rest,’ he says.

‘The whole bike gets painted, then you have to mask everything off around each shamrock so you don’t scratch the paint when you go at them with a sand-stick to reveal the stainless steel beneath the paint. Then you’ve got to polish them.’

It could have been even more trying had the paint covering the shamrocks not been as thin as it was.

Luckily for O’Donnell, his painter specialises in painting helmets for the likes of Formula One drivers, where ‘if you’re driving at 200mph, 50g of paint on top of your head makes a huge difference’. Still, a lot of hard graft was necessary.

‘You can’t watch TV and do it. You have to concentrate because the paint’s metallic so, if you catch it, it’s very hard to touch up without being able to see that it has been touched up,’ O’Donnell adds.

‘And so as much as I hate polishing – it’s nasty, dirty work – I just have to rein that in and remember it’s going to take however long it takes and someone’s paying for it.’ 

Getting better all the time

To its gravel racing end, the 54-shamrock Shamrock has been built with an entirely hydraulic groupset from Rotor, the Uno, which means there are no shifting cables to gunk up.

‘Having all those hydraulic hoses did prove challenging when it came to safely and tidily routing them through the frame, but it looks really clean.’

It’s true, there is barely a hose in sight, and while the shamrocks are decorative there is one that serves as a reinforced hose-entry point in a wonderful flourish that blends function with fashion.

So how did O’Donnell arrive at such a highly nuanced appreciation for the crafting of bicycles?

‘Well, this was a career that just kind of happened when I wasn’t looking,’ he says. ‘I did a lot of motorcycle restoration for fun, mainly old BSAs and Nortons. Then I thought, “I wonder if I can build a bike?” So I did, and it was as crooked as polio!

But I have this mantra: embrace the f*** up. So I just tried to learn from my mistakes and did another, got a little better, then another, got a little better.

‘Then someone asked me to build them one, and now 10 years and counting I’ve been Shamrock. And even now each time I’m still trying to get a little better. You never just “complete” framebuilding.’

And why Shamrock? ‘Well, I’m Irish and there’s a “Shamrock” everything, so I figured why the hell not a Shamrock bikes? And if it had been a bigger flower, imagine how long this bike would have taken.’

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