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Saffron Frameworks

9 May 2016
Verdict:

A greatly enjoyable bike to ride, and with a few personal tweaks one I'd happily spend my own money on

Cyclist Rating: 
Price: 
£2,000 frame only, paint from £350, £8,200 as tested

What is it about a bike that first draws your gaze? Wheels? Cranks? I don’t think so. It’s the colour. I think most of us are suckers for a stunning paint scheme and in that regard this steel Saffron is right up there with the most extravagant I’ve ever seen.

It’s a highly glossy piece of intricate artistry that certainly turns heads, and even our close-up shots cannot fully do it justice.

Only taking it outside on a bright sunny day truly reveals the depth and lustre of its paint. That’s not to say everyone who saw it loved it – far from it. In fact, it proved quite a divisive talking point, but no one could deny it was the first thing that got their attention. 

The owner of this bike is the man who created it, company founder and framebuilder Matthew Sowter.

His story is a familiar one among a gaggle of start-up UK steel framebuilders – a classic case of losing patience with an overly routine way of life, throwing the towel in and following a dream to build bikes instead. He honed his skills at Enigma bikes in Sussex before going it alone in the East End of London.

Saffron Frameworks paint

All Saffron frames are entirely bespoke, as you’d expect from a one-man production line, but surely the best perk of being the man holding the TIG welder is that you can really go to town on something for yourself.

In Sowter’s case he tells me he wanted to reflect his racing past and achieve a stiff, punchy ride, and that while he wasn’t chasing a carbon sprinter bike’s level of stiffness, he did want this build to be at the stiffest end of steel’s capabilities.

The paint scheme is inspired by his favourite tattoo artist, Chaim Machlev, whose work often contains a lot of line patterns and symmetry.

And turning Matt’s vision into reality on the tubes was the job of Tom Armstrong from Yorkshire-based Custom Frame Painting, Saffron’s spray shop of choice. 

Creativity on this level comes at a price, though, as Sowter estimates the materials and man-hours for this frame’s finish would cost around a grand. Luckily for me, Sowter and I size up almost identically in terms of preferred geometry.

What’s more, the spec he’d chosen was about as top-of-the-shop as it comes. I almost couldn’t believe he was willing to let me have his new pride and joy to test before he’d even turned the cranks himself, but not being one to look a gift horse in the mouth I whisked it away to give it the Cyclist once-over.

Of course it would have to do more than just look shiny to win my praise.

With triple butting and predominantly oversized tubes – including a tapered head tube with 1.5 inch lower bearing to add rigidity to the front end and brace the Deda EDG carbon fork – this build was unlikely to ride like a noodle, and the weight came in at a very reasonable 7.7kg.

I salute Sowter for sticking with a good old-fashioned threaded bottom bracket shell, resisting any nasty press-fit plastic cups. Steel can be threaded – so thread it. But enough of the nuts and bolts, let’s get to the ride.

All guns blazing

Saffron Frameworks seatpost

It quickly becomes clear that Sowter is on point with delivering his sought-after ride characteristics. Riding deep in the drops and with a good number of watts shoving the cranks round – à la Boonen in the Arenberg Forest – is where this bike is most enjoyable.

The nature of the steel tubes seems to ease you up to speed rather more than the sort of urgent ‘Kapow’ that lighter and stiffer carbon frames can deliver, but it gets there nonetheless and with a great deal of finesse to boot.

The unyielding feel of the 35mm diameter Deda Superleggero bars and corresponding oversized stem interface give an added sense of sturdiness in your hands to leverage every last ounce of speed out of the bike.

The Campagnolo Bora Ultra 50 wheels are hard to fault too, adding more solidity to the build - at times they seem to roll almost effortlessly. 

To enjoy it at its very best, I found I needed that slight ‘lift’ off the saddle you get when you’re really driving hard. Not enough to break contact with your perch, but just enough to un-weight yourself slightly and in this scenario the Saffron delivers a swift yet stable feel. No wheel chatter, no white knuckles. If bikes could have a poker face, the Saffron’s would be unflappable. 

It’s less at ease with a steady-paced spin in the lanes. One memorable ride was a 160km winter reliability trial earlier this year and several hours in the saddle certainly left my sit bones tender, but even on that day I still rather enjoyed the bike.

Twice on that ride I’d punctured. As it was quite chilly, I’d suggested both times that the group I was with not stop and get cold, but instead just ride on steadily for a while and hopefully I’d catch up.

Rejoining the road and pounding the pedals, I really enjoyed the way the Saffron felt at pace when I hunkered down. It played its part in delivering me back to my group, feeling dependable on the flatter, rolling roads while plenty stiff enough to hold its poise up short, sharp inclines, plus smooth and obedient to my line choice on descents.

I wouldn’t make a single change to its geometry. But of course you could, if you were the customer. 

Saffron Frameworks ride

As always with testing a bespoke build that’s not been made for me, there’s that potential get-out clause for its creator. Had I not found it to my liking, the argument would likely have been that it wasn’t built to meet my preferences in the first place.

It’s fortunate, to a degree, that I bonded so well with a bike built for someone else. But bond I did. I really enjoyed my time on this Saffron.

Sowter’s skills as a framebuilder and keen eye for detail are clearly evident. If I was in the market for a custom steel bike I’d be sorely tempted simply to ask him to make me a duplicate, all except the paintwork, that is – personal touches like that deserve to remain a one-off forever.

Spec

Saffron Frameworks £8200 as tested
Frame Saffron Frameworks
Groupset Campagnolo Super Record
Bars Deda Superleggero
Stem Deda Trentacinque (35)
Seatpost Deda Superleggero
Wheels Campagnolo Bora Ultra 50 clincher
Saddle Specialized Toupe Pro Carbon
Weight 7.77kg
Contact saffronframeworks.com

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