VIDEO Brand Day Out: Donhou Bicycles & Why Bikes Should be for Life
December 15th, 2016
December 15th, 2016
Anna is a jack-of-all-bikes, and has been riding and racing in a myriad of genres for over seven years; from World Cup level cross-country, to grass roots coaching kids on the road.
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It's not often that I visit a bike store or a cycling brand and come away wanting their products. Despite being a reviewer of new things, I often make do with what I've got, most of the time, and you'll have noticed that my reviews tend to be more oriented towards how something rides rather than the latest bit of "technology" hanging off of it. Despite Thomas "Donny" Donhou saying very little about his bikes during my visit, or how they are made, or why he makes them the way he does, and with X build kit on it and Y technology, I left Donny's modest workshop with a strong desire to take one home for myself. Here's why...
The Man from Donhou
Donny has a quiet demeanour far removed from pushy salesmanship. He is softly spoken behind a gruff beard that was probably grown before it was hipster to have one. He has a hint of cockney about his accent and is reminiscent of a time when Hackney was fashionable by accident; artistic and cultured without trying to be, and with no pretence. He works in a cold unit on Hackney Wick, far from showroom chic, and crafts works of engineering art with gruff, weathered and oil-stained hands amidst debris and steel shavings. As Donny files his steel head badge on a recently mastered frame, he harks back to 'the good old days', despite only being in his mid-thirties. Though young, Donny has a wealth of knowledge about bikes, and about riding them, acquired from years of mucking around on anything and everything, not to mention travelling the world by bicycle. Donny also has a background in design, which clearly keeps a good problem-solving mindset with him when creating the perfect bikes for individual needs, not to mention attention to creative detail and artistic flair. You will find a number of unique oddities about his work that aren't there to be different, they are functional solutions tailored to a rider's needs that just so happen to be rather wonderful as well. More on that later.
I figured out that I wanted to start building frames ... up in the north of China whilst I lay in my tent at the side of the road
What I like the most about Donny is that he doesn't just make bikes, he rides them. Properly. He grew up riding BMX, then was sure he would win the Tour de France on an old Peugeot his dad got him. He won the first UK national downhill race he entered, and he's toured many parts of the globe on a road bike. He is a true old-school cyclist; one that simply loves riding, no matter what it's on. I think this is a dying breed. Lest we forget that that's what it's all about; the ride. "I figured out that I wanted to start building frames ... up in the north of China whilst I lay in my tent at the side of the road" says Donny's "About" page "kind of like when you realise that that cute girl you’ve grown up best friends with, you actually love". And so Donhou Bicycles was born, and many a unique stead thereafter. Check out the Custom Gallery of past works.
"We weren't doing it for the record... we wouldn't have got a record in my Zephyr. "
Although Donny appears to be in it for the love of riding, he still appreciates that inner desire to better yourself on a bike. During his 'Experiments in Speed', Donny tried to break the landspeed record by bicycle, years before Guy Martin. "We weren't doing it for the record" says Donny "we wouldn't have got a record in my Zephyr. I think the only time I got a tonne out of it was going down a hill in Wales, and I think I bent a valve". Donny did manage to get his custom built bike up over 100kph on the rollers afterwards though, proving it was his Mk 3 Ford Zephyr that didn't have the legs, not Donny. That being said, if he had done it 'properly', it just wouldn't have been very Donhou. I like that.
Oddities that Aren't So Odd
Earlier I mentioned Donny's problem-solving skills. When something like a bicycle is so personal to its user, it should be a given that each bike would have a personality to match its owner, and yet, so many of us take off-the-shelf bikes and mould our needs to them, not the other way round. Now, there's nothing wrong with pre-made bikes, but what a wonderful process it must be to talk through with someone exactly how you want a bike to ride and function, as well as look. "The first town bike I did was with the locking seat post" explains Donny, "the Labyrinth seat post was like a puzzle you get as a kid. You had to know the combination to get it out, like 'pull up, turn 90 degrees, push back down...'". Donny's first custom bike was a city bike where the owner wanted everything to be as unappealing to thieves as possible. Donny came up with the Labyrinth Post himself, braising a pin in the frame and a slot in the seat post so that you couldn't pull it out without knowing the combination. He also braised the handlebars to the stem, retro-fitted locking squewers for the wheels, and even found a locking top cap with a set of keys required to get it off. This bike understandably won Best in Show at the Bespoked Handmade Bicycle Show for being beautiful as well as functional, and totally on point for its owner.
"the Labyrinth seat post was like a puzzle you get as a kid. You had to know the combination to get it out"
Clearly thinking outside the box is a talent of Donny's, but admits "for a road bike, there's not much you can do with it, because it's still got to be light and fast, but with a town bike, you can put personality into it". On asking Donny what he would love to build the most, if he had the opportunity, he admitted he'd want to build a Transcontinental bike. Well, that seemed an anti-climax at first, with so many bike companies doing touring and bike-packing road bikes, but then he explained; "I would want to see what the route was, like how much dirt track there is compared to how much road there is. I'd like to see the route and design the bike round that". Donny had the ride itself in mind as a problem, rather than simply the things attached to the bike or the basics of a set-up. Designing a bike for a race as well as a rider? That's next-level custom biking right there.
The Donhou Look
While being a functional problem-solver, Donny has a real flare for design. His paintwork is truly the icing on a cake, often being works of subtle art that are made to stand the test of time. That being said, I can't help but be lured into a recent project involving all the colours of a rainbow laid out in an impressionistic format, with bare and brash paint-strokes that become more and more intricate the closer you get. "I like it when I have input from the customer, but I like it when that input is just inspiration for me to do a Donhou bike, rather than just manufacture a bike for them" says Donny. One of the toughest paint jobs was the Rapha Liberty cyclocross bike; "we used vinyl, but lots of the polkadots were hand painted on", he continues, "there were a few things thrown across the workshop that day!". It never occurred to me before meeting Rapha, the very same week, that Donhou seemed a somewhat perfect match - a brand with all the face of a luxury product, but all the desires of bringing back long-lasting quality that's sustainable, and priced honestly. Perhaps I'm getting old, but it's something I'm becoming more in tune with.
"we used vinyl, but lots of the polkadots were hand painted on", he continues, "there were a few things thrown across the workshop that day!"
"I picked the swallows because it was a symbol of safe return" says Donny about the head badge and Donhou logo, a reference to when sailors would know they were soon to be home on dry land when they saw swallows in the sky, "it's also the bird that flies the furthest out to sea". The theme fits well with Donny's clientele. Though he admits they're a "mixed bag" when it comes to a stereotype, there does seem to be a theme of adventurous road bikers, presumably built up from when Donny started putting disc brakes on road bikes, way before the industry had fully taken it on board. "After the Rapha Continental build, that's what we got known for, disc road bikes... you couldn't get a disc road bike anywhere and that's what we were doing, people came just for that" says Donny, "it was our thing, but now it's everybody's thing".
A Bike For Life
"Everyone's used to everything being so quick and accessible", Donny explains, "I want our bikes to be passed down through generations". His masterpieces are not just for wealthy cyclists with a penchant for personalised products, they are for riders who want something that is so right for them, and so well loved, that it will never become out of date or out of fashion. Suddenly the two-year waiting list (yep!) seems not only justified due to the popularity of Donny's work, but it seems almost right. Gone are the days that we wait years for films to come out on VHS after seeing it in the cinema, and saving up all our pennies for an album on vinyl that we have only read about and not previewed on iPlayer. Times have changed; sometimes for the good, but sometimes for the bad. If something is easily obtained, does it become more easily disposed? That's debatable. All I know is that bikes are heading down the throw-away-fashion route, and I'm not on board with that, and clearly neither is Donny. Donny's belief of sustainability, or more specifically; holding on to things of value regardless of the constant reinvention of cycle technology, doesn't just reside on the ground floor of his workshop. In the rafters above us lies a precarious pile of bikes that (sorry Donny) looks like an auction lot of unclaimed bikes from a railway station. Look closer and you may find a few diamonds in the rough; a Kona Stab (circa 1998), beaten up and covered in dirt from a downhill race only a few months ago. Hidden behind a clean and shiny DSS2 was a mid-nineties Orange P7 with the mirrored Nickel finish and a large dent in the side of the down-tube, which Donny is still racing cross-country on. "I build these bikes, but there's no way I can afford to own a bike I build" laughs Donny. That P7 may have been made out of old filing cabinets, but it still works, so why throw it out?
"I want our bikes to be passed down through generations"
Donny is exactly the sort of person you don't want to be next to on a start-line. He could probably rock up to races in jeans and skate shoes and still kick half the field's butt. Donny chuckles under his breath with a certain amount of pride as he tells us about the time he went to do the Megavalanche, one of the toughest mass-participant downhill races in the world, on his (at the time) 15 year old Kona Stab with an old motocross helmet. I wish I had been there to see the other riders' faces, sat astride their £3k+ carbon bikes.
The Future of Donhou Bicycles
With two hours worth of filing, and roughly two bikes a month created, it's understandable that bikes can take up to two years for delivery after making the first enquiry. Dad helps out with bits and pieces here and there, but the business is really a solo mission. "I like building frames, these are nice to do" says Donny, "I have aspirations for the Signature Steel, but that's more from a design point of view". At this point, there is no desire to expand the business, and certainly not to outsource welding to a foreign company; "I'm not about UK manufacturing, but I'm about responsible manufacturing".
"I'm not about UK manufacturing, I'm about responsible manufacturing".
Donny always said that he would revisit the Experiments in Speed, but work is taking over, time for training is dwindling, and it seems he's fallen in love with making bikes as much as riding them. That being said, rumour has it he has a new design for a land-speed bike just waiting to be cut from steel. There are two DSS (Donhou Signature Steel) bikes on offer at the moment if you can't stomach the waiting list, each collecting common themes from past creations. The DSS1 is a comfortable, fast, all-day performance road bike sporting Reynolds 853 Pro Team tubing, externally mounted cables and a rear rim brake mounted on the underside of the bike giving a nice clean look (although it will take discs and Di2). It also won Best Road Bike at the Bespoked Show in 2015. The DSS2 is built to be tough rather than fast; it's more of an all-rounder, the do-it-all tourer that can stomach cyclocross and gravel on demand, which is what Donny used to ride across Iceland. Currently in the making is the DSS3 (a cyclocross bike), and even a hint of a DSS4 in the planning stages; a rigid 650b plus bike, based on a rigid mountain bike frame, but aimed at proper all-terrain expeditions. Each comes with a standard paint job that is no less special than a Donhou custom, and well worth a look if you want a mix of personal and off-the-shelf. The price of a Signature Steel won't be for everyone, but it is a fair price outside of the buying power beheld by larger companies, and it is in fact still competitive among other UK frame builders. So the question is, what would you build?