By Emily Chappell
It’s always a memorable day when you add a new bike to your stable, but the days stand out even more when you pick up a bike that’s been specially built for you. Because this is no chance encounter – not just a coincidental coming together of your wallet and any old collection of welded tubes from Taiwan or China. You and this bike have been destined for each other, since the first tube was cut and the first joint braised. It has been created exclusively with you in mind. And, over the next few weeks and months and years, you will almost unconsciously adapt yourself to it, moulding your riding style to its idiosyncracies, learning to trust it on descents and tight corners, your body gradually relaxing and settling into it as your feet will a pair of well-worn leather shoes. You may well be together forever.
When I walked into Shand’s workshop in Livingston a couple of weeks ago, it was immediately apparent that they all felt the same way about this bike. The celebratory – and faintly anxious – atmosphere was as I imagine it must be outside the labour ward, just after the birth of someone’s child. This was their baby, and they had sweated and toiled over it, pouring all of their care and concentration into making it as close to perfect as they possibly could – and now was the moment that it began its life in the world, no longer entirely and exclusively dependent on them. Perhaps it was a little more like handing a child over for adoption, or – to borrow a metaphor I have used elsewhere – an arranged marriage, since this bike and I were committing to a lifetime together without ever having met before.
We looked each other up and down, two well-matched strangers, while Steven and Russ looked on proudly and anxiously, and Fraser, who was responsible for the build, kept coming over to check things he had already checked and double-checked, tightened and re-tightened, polished and straightened and oiled and indexed, fussed and worried over, in anticipation of my arrival.
The bike was beautiful. A rich deep blue, apart from the inside of the forks, which was turquoise, as was the Shand name on the down tube and – what was this? – my own name, painted on on side of the top tube. This really was my bike. We might really be together forever. You’d never sell a bike that was built only for you and had your name on, would you? And if it were ever stolen, surely somehow it would magically find its way back to you.
I kept looking. The frame had been welded together by an Irish genius called Matt, whom I’d met a month previously when I came to Shand’s workshop to be measured up. Matt had been taken on as an apprentice, Steve had told me, but he turned out to be so good at building bikes that, rather than giving him the little jobs, they’d quickly handed over most of the bike-building to him, and now did the little jobs themselves. And indeed, as I crouched next to the bike, eyes at top tube height, I could find no flaw in Matt’s work, and very little sign that the bike had even been built by human hands. His braising looked seamless, and the cable guides along the chainstay were so delicate, and yet so firmly placed, that my chest bubbled with a joy completely inappropriate to an object that (I tried to tell myself) was not alive, and had not spontaneously occurred in nature.
The job of giving the bike life was my own, I realized, as I wheeled it outside for our first ride together – just a couple of circuits of a grey carpark somewhere west of Edinburgh. And as soon as my feet clicked into the pedals and the bike began to roll, I remembered why I was so fond of steel, and why, although I had enjoyed the weightless carbon road bikes I’d been riding for the past year, this was the sort of bike I belonged on. It’s merely a conceit of course – steel is no more alive than any other material you could build a bike from – but somehow it feels more organic, more responsive, more as if you and the bike are forming a relationship in which you’ll work together, guarding each other from harsh road surfaces and slippery corners, adapting to each other’s quirks and inconsistencies (though I could instantly tell that I’d have more of those than the bike ever did), and conspiring towards ever farther, faster, higher rides: joint triumphs of steel and muscle.
Two other cyclists came round the corner at that moment, and I beamed helplessly at them, even before I realized I knew them both. One was the friend who was planning to meet me here anyway, but the other – now, where did I recognize her from? Oh course – it was Paula Regener, the Glasgow woman who’s shortly to make an attempt on the world circumnavigation record that my friend Juliana has held for the past four years. We’d met up the previous month, when I was in Scotland to be measured up for the new bike (and for the incidental matter of the Strathpuffer 24-hour mountain bike race), and she’d picked my brains on long-distance solo cycling, and managed to distil more wisdom than I thought I had into a couple of blog posts (here and here). Now here she was, about to be measured up for the bike that would (hopefully) carry her over 18,000 miles in less than 152 days.
It felt particularly auspicious to be here at Shand with her, each of us contemplating journeys of many thousands of miles, and Lee and I happily stood around drinking coffee as we watched her being measured up and discussing her plans with Steven and Russ, who seemed as excited as we were by all the potential that was crackling through the room like electricity. I attempted to take photographs of my beautiful new bike that included the rather more shy-and-retiring Matt and Fraser, and by the time I rejoined Lee and Steven he had discovered she was planning a big ride of her own, and was earnestly (and persuasively) talking her into doing it on a Shand Drove, extolling the merits of its carbon belt drive.
And then we were off, on my new Stooshie’s maiden voyage, which would take us out to the Berwickshire coast, and then down through the misty Borders towards the knife-edge passes of the Lake District, before turning south for the Chilterns. But first we rode over the Pentlands to Peebles, racing along smooth quiet roads as a glowing sun sank low in the sky and began to set behind the snowy mountains, and marvelled at my incredible fortune, rolling along in the fresh air on this beautiful bicycle, while my former courier colleagues struggled through London traffic breathing in fumes, and many others sat hunched at their desks or in their cars. How lucky I was, I thought; how incredibly lucky.
And then I remembered, quite by chance another maiden voyage, ten years previously, almost to the day. I had bought my first bike – a third-hand Dawes Giro – over the internet for £75, and a few weeks later I plucked up the courage to ride to work on it, after an almost sleepless night and several frantic hours of scanning maps and imagining worst-case scenarios. I allowed over two hours for the seven-mile journey and, despite missing a couple of turns and almost falling off on the cobbles on Storey’s Gate, I arrived an hour early, beaming with endorphins and achievement.
And now here I was, a decade older, many thousands of miles in my legs and wheels, opening a new chapter of my ongoing love story with the bicycle. ‘Who would have thought it,’ I mused, as the sun sank further behind the mountains, the shadows lengthened, and I thought about how far I had come, and marvelled at how much further I had to go.