How to Make a Bike
Darron Sven Coppin wants to make you a bicycle. It will take him about six weeks, and it will last you a lifetime.
He will talk to you about what you’re hoping for, explain what is possible within budget, and then assemble the whole thing in his three-man workshop in Weymouth, U.K., a seaside town on the English Channel about three hours’ drive from London.
“Most people I know who cycle have an idea of their dream bicycle,” Coppin, 47, says. “Not necessarily something you can buy off the shelf, and it may be an evolving idea you’ve got in your head. A lot of people have come to us with sketches, scrapbooks.”
His company, Sven Cycles, has been in business since 2012 and has produced more than 200 bespoke bikes. When possible, it works with such British parts and materials as Reynolds tubing and Brooks saddles. Coppin adds what he calls “modern flair” to traditional bike-building techniques, like using disc brakes, which offer more control and perform better in nasty weather than traditional rim brakes.
Semi-custom bicycles start at 1,700 pounds ($2,270)—meaning customers can request small modifications to the frame, specific colors, tires to suit the terrain, and even a USB charger. A fully bespoke bike can cost more than 10,000 pounds. Customers have had bikes shipped across Europe and to Australia. Recently, a New York chef placed an order. Members of the British Olympic sailing team have been customers.
Coppin uses steel rather than carbon fiber for the frame, the bike’s skeleton, because it lasts longer, is easier to work with, and can be repaired. Carbon fiber may be lighter and great for racing, but the weight isn’t always the most important thing. “That’s where I think people go quite wrong,” he says. “They want the lightest and fastest bike, and actually building a bike with the correct geometry and correct tubing will feel like a really light bike and be fun to ride, even though it might not be as light as you want.”
The most difficult, painstaking part of the process is making sure that the frame aligns correctly after it has been welded. Following heating, parts can move, even a millimeter or two, and there’s an art to building something straight. Sven doesn’t employ high-tech methods to guide the production process: no lasers, just a steel ruler and a marker. The shop make a lot of its tools. “This isn’t sort of aerospace-precision engineering,” Coppin says. “When you look at factories in the past, people smoking a cigarette, whacking them together, dipping them—it is quite an industrial process. What we try to do is add a little bit more finesse to the bike design and finish, just to give it a little bit more of a special feel.”
In other words, it’s important to have a bicycle that not only rides well but looks good, too. Sven offers standard colors, carefully picked out, but customers have sent in personal items to be color-matched: a teapot once, and a classic car or piece of clothing.
Coppin realizes that customers these days have options that include bikes for under $200, produced en masse in a factory halfway across the world. (Most bicycles are made in China and Taiwan, even though the European bike-making industry is flourishing.) He would rather see someone buy a solidly built, second-hand bike for $400.
“In the past, if you bought a top-end bike in the 1930s or ’40s, it would be a few months’ wages,” he says. “But you kept it for 40 years, and you gave it to your kids and things. And now everything’s so disposable. People buy a bike—and two years later, because a new color’s come out, they swap it.”
Building bikes is an obsession for Coppin, whose father was a jeweler. “Every bike we build is my favorite bike at the time, and as soon as it’s done, I want to build another one,” he says, comparing himself to musician friends whose fingers start to get itchy if they haven’t picked up an instrument in a few days. “It’s that fix I get when you take something, you finish it, someone collects it, they’re really happy, and you just move on to the next.”
— With assistance by Leila Hussain