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Me and my bike: Custom frame builder Tom Donhou

James Spender
23 May 2017

British custom frame builder Tom Donhou talks us through the Donhou x Kibosh Racing team bike

Alongside the rows of hand-files and hacksaws that adorn the walls of Tom Donhou’s workshop hangs a picture of a legend. Yet, surprisingly for a man who has surrendered his life to all things bike, it’s not of Eddy Merckx, Fausto Coppi or Jacques Anquetil, but of 1970s Formula One ace James Hunt.

The playboy driver is sat on his car after a Grand Prix, smoking a fag, with a can of beer in one hand and a redhead in a gold jumpsuit next to him.

‘The picture was taken moments after he had won the 1977 United States Grand Prix,’ says Donhou. The girl on his arm was a now painfully anachronistic ‘Penthouse Pet’, and while the beer label is obscured, the cigarette is most certainly a Marlboro, the main sponsor of Hunt’s red and white McLaren.

‘For me that photograph kind of sums up Kibosh Racing, which is the team I now sponsor with this bike,’ Donhou adds. ‘It’s the same kind of deal; the boys are dedicated racers, but their tagline is “You ain’t pro bro!”, a message to themselves and sometimes others not to take bike racing too seriously.’

The cigarettes are (probably) out of the question for Kibosh – although lest we forget Merckx, Coppi and Anquetil were all known to enjoy a puff – but the Hunt ethos is reflected in not just the team but the bike’s livery. Look at the fork and you may have seen that logo somewhere before, possibly in red…

Building dreams

Tom Donhou might just be the envy of most cyclists. In 2009 he jacked in his job as a product designer, got in a ‘beat up old Skoda’ with a couple of mates and drove from London to the capital of Mongolia as part of a charity banger rally. At the end his friends flew home, but Donhou carried on, this time on an old Marin bike, east across the Gobi Desert with a vague notion of reaching Singapore. It was during this time that Donhou had something of an epiphany. 

‘I was a designer and bikes were my life,’ he says. ‘I was camped up by a roadside in north China, unable to sleep, just thinking. And then the penny dropped: I should be making my own bikes, and I could do it in the UK in steel.’

Seven years on and Donhou has won countless awards, and been featured in the London Design Museum. Yet, curiously for a man seemingly obsessed with speed – in 2013 he undertook a land-speed record on a custom built, 104-tooth chainring machine, reaching 129.4kmh behind his 1960s Ford Zephyr – the bike here is actually Donhou’s first foray into ‘thoroughbred race bikes’. 

‘My usual bikes are all-day bikes with a bit of give built into the frame,’ he says. ‘This is different – it’s built to be raced. The tubing is Columbus HSS – High Speed Steel – the kind of oversized tubes necessary to build stiffness into the frame but keep the weight down. The ovalised top tube is key for attaching the seatstays wider for a bigger bracing angle to give a stiffer rear end. The full build is under 8kg.’

Chipping in to help with the weight is Columbus’s new Futura fork, carbon Ritchey finishing kit and wheels and Shimano Dura-Ace 9000 groupset, whose polished silver and black aesthetic hangs off the bike like exposed engine parts on a race car.

‘I do all the paint myself. I wanted it to reflect those old F1 cars – that bold simplicity with the repeat logo. On the back of the seat tube is the team’s tagline, and on the inside of the chainstay is painted “Stay Lit”, a reminder to the guys to keep on the gas. But my favourite part of the whole bike is the Kibosh bit on the fork.’  

The overall effect is classic yet racy. The ride feel, says Donhou, is stiff and nimble. Yet it’s not the finished article that he’s enjoyed the most, but the process. ‘The guys came to my workshop to help build the bikes, which all adds to the fun of this project. The important thing for me, though, was to be able to support riders in this way. It’s not something independent framebuilders can normally do. That’s not just down to marketing budgets, but time. I’ve made five of these bikes and that’s meant 16-hour days for a few weeks now. It will be worth it to see them being raced, but hopefully they won’t go crashing them as I haven’t got the time to do anything about it!’

For now this bike is exclusive to the team, but Donhou reckons he can build a frameset like this for around £2,500. 

If you can wait, he lets slip that this racer might wind up in his Donhou Signature Steel range as a stock model. In the meantime, there’s racing to be done. 

donhoubicycles.com

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