Outrageously beautiful, in my opinion anyway, this Saffron Frameworks custom build road bike offers a supreme ride and performance.
There's an exciting resurgence underway in the UK. Away from the glare of the mainstream, where the likes of Cav and Froome are regular fixtures in the sports pages of the national newspapers, there's a thriving bespoke framebuilding industry. There's even a dedicated show that attempts to display the most interesting creations, Bespoked UK, held in Bristol every April.
Saffron Frameworks was founded in 2009 by Matthew Sowter. He is just one of a growing number of framebuilders who specialise in made-to-measure frames, crafted to the exact requirements of each customer and finished with a custom paint job. It's a very different experience to walking into a bike shop and buying an off-the-shelf bike from a large manufacturer. And, like most of these (typically young) framebuilders, he solely works with steel.
The level of quality, for someone who has only been building frames for a handful of years, is exquisite. He has won various awards over the years, testament to the quality of his workmanship. As a result of his growing reputation and the popularity for going custom, there's a long waiting list to get a Saffron frame.
If you want to see the man in action, this nice video adds a bit more background. Wondering where the Saffron name comes from?
A personal build
The Saffron tested here is Matthew's very own personal bike, built up as a dedicated winter bike. Every frame he builds is the result of a collaboration with the customer, but this bike has been assembled to his very own wishlist of requirements. It features colour-matched mudguards, integrated lights, disc brakes, space for 28mm tyres and some smart equipment.
Suffice to say, the bike hasn't been customised for me in any way, but as luck would have it, Matthew and I must be about the same height because the bike – a 56cm frame size – fitted me like a pair of well-worn slippers. All I had to do was set the saddle to the correct height and off I went.
In a world of carbon copies, the Saffron really stands out. Many of the test bikes that pass through the road.cc office turn heads but few receive as many admiring glances and comments as the Saffron. One reason for buying a bespoke bike is the opportunity to get a custom paint job, and the finish on this bike is first class. The custom painted mudguards are the icing on the cake, and lift the aesthetic appearance of the bike into another class. It's probably the nicest looking mudguard-equipped bike I've ever clapped eyes on.
Saffron only works with steel – this one is made from Columbus Zona tubing – but the colour-matched Kinesis Tracer fork is carbon fibre. While the fork has a conventional quick release axle, the rear dropouts accommodate a 142x12mm thru-axle, an emerging standard on disc brake-equipped road bikes.
The bike has been built up as a durable and versatile bike for the winter, but also with an eye on summer riding. It's a year-round bike, effectively, intended to be practical and comfortable, whether it's for winter commuting or summer audaxing.
As a Saffron customer you would choose your own components, but here a Shimano Ultegra Di2 groupset provides the reliability and shifting performance we've grown accustomed to with the Japanese company's electronic drivetrains. There are also Shimano hydraulic disc brakes with 140mm disc rotors at both wheels and the latest flat mount fixings.
The build features Kinesis RaceLight Disc tubeless-ready wheels with Schwalbe Pro One tubeless tyres, in a fashionable 28mm width. The frame will take 30mm tyres with the mudguards removed.
A smart demonstration of the attention to detail offered by Saffron is the neat integration of the Supernova Airstream 2 light and matching Tail Light 2. The front light is fixed to a small bracket mounted to the fork, and houses the battery that powers both lights. The front light projects 205 lumens with a run time between 2.5 and 7 hours, with three brightness modes available.
All the wiring for the Di2 drivetrain and the Supernova lights has very neatly been routed inside the frame.
The complete bike weight is a respectable 9.71kg (21.40lb).
Ride and performance
I've ridden a fair few steel bikes over the years, and the Saffron provided the predictable ride character that I love about a really well-made steel road bike. With the large volume tyres run at a low pressure, the comfort was supreme, the bike taking care of horrible road surfaces and providing much smoothness.
It's a lovely bike to ride at a leisurely pace, taking in the scenery on a longer ride and deciding which pub to stop at for lunch. But there's more to the Saffron than a gentle touring or audax bike. Push a little harder and you can detect a stiffness in the frame that allows you to make rapid progress. The steering is light and it turns into corners with tight control and precision. Short lunchtime rides are fun and exciting on the Saffron.
There's a lovely marriage of frame and equipment that makes it a really practical bike for everyday riding. Each component has been carefully chosen and it all shines individually but comes together really well. There's really nothing I would change about the bike if I were to own it (apart from the fork, see below). The brakes are firm and powerful and the Di2 is quiet and crisp, while the integration of the front and rear lights is beautifully done, the front providing a good beam and brightness for night time country lane cycling.
It's a really good all-rounder. It was right at home in the steeper Cotswolds hills, though the weight does rob you of some pace when the gradient increases. On the descents, it tracks sharply with a precision from the frame that allows you to move the bike around the road, such as lining up for a hairpin corner, with great confidence. It filters out much of the harsher bumps and retains composure even at higher speeds.
My only real grumble about the bike is the rotor rub from the front disc brake, most detectable when climbing out of the saddle. I'm not a heavy rider by any means, but a switch to a fork with a thru-axle might reduce this symptom.
The bike is a fine expression of Matthew's skills and attention to detail, and the finish is stunning. Let Matthew build you a bike and you certainly won't be disappointed. I really liked riding the Saffron and could quite happily have kept riding it into the spring. Now, where's my wallet...
Beautifully made and finished bespoke steel bike with a fabulous riding quality
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Saffron Frameworks frame
Size tested: 56cm
Tell us what the frameset is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about the bike?
Cyclists living in the UK tend to get most of their miles in wet weather and low light on road surfaces that are not always perfect. For this reason I wanted to construct myself a 'winter' bike which would also showcase some new technologies that have recently found their way into road cycling from other disciplines. This bike will also see regular mileage on my new commute, as I'm moving further away from the workshop.
Shimano's new flat-mount road specific disc brake calipers were the first must have for the project, the body is so small it will allow for far more creative use of disc brakes in the slightly constrained spaces on road bikes. The power and modulation disc brakes offer in all riding conditions is hard to argue with. UK company Kinesis provided a tubeless compatible disc wheelset which was used in conjunction with Schwalbe's supple Pro One tyres which should give miles of grippy puncture free riding, with the 28c width soaking up the worst of what the UK roads have to offer. More comfort was added by using a full carbon 27.2mm post, allow for some flexibility – this was topped with Brooks' new c13 carbon railed Cambium saddle.
For a bike that's going to be ridden in the worst conditions Di2 really comes into it's own; no cables to gunk up means shifting is crisp and clean all the time. Lighting on a bike like this should not be an afterthought or an eyesore, and whilst we didn't want to go for a dynamo system Supernova still offered us the best option. The front light is powerful with a road specific lens to avoid dazzling drivers, and the rear light is so small and powerful we managed to neatly mount it on the offside dropout for maximum visibility on UK roads. Our intention with this off-centre placement was to fool an approaching driver that the centreline of the bike is in fact further toward the middle of the road than it is, hopefully encouraging them to allow more room when passing. All cables or hoses for the the lighting, gear shifting and brakes run internally on the frame. The mudguards are designed to be left in place in normal use on this bike and as such were painted to match the frame and fork – strong colours in a bold, classic pattern. Specifying a 142x12mm thru axle serves to stiffen the rear end of the bike, removing the flex that would normally occur by the slight lengthening of the chainstays and keeping the handling and acceleration snappy.
Now comes the interesting part, with the geometry and specification of this bike it really is a jack-of-all trades. We can remove the mudguards (leaving the mounts hidden on the inside of the stays and forks) and lights, if needed. Up the tyre size to it's maximum 30c with a little tread, and take it off-road on to explore more of the countryside. Alternatively pop on a pair of fast rolling 25s and the front end geometry and stiff stays will mean you're on a great handling race bike.
State the frame and fork material and method of construction
Tubeset Columbus Zona
Fork Kinesis Tracer
Headset Chris King
Wheelset Kinesis Racelight Disc
Finishing Kit Fizik
Saddle Brooks C13 Cambium
Groupset Shimano Ultegra Di2 Flatmout
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
An exemplary showcase for Saffron's workmanship.
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
It's a custom bike so you can tune the details just the way you want it - this build provided a sporty ride.
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
Luckily Saffron founder Matthew's personal bike fitted me really well, allowing me to ride the bike.
Riding the bike
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
Yes, extremely comfortable with the 28mm tyres providing plenty of cushioning.
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so, was it a problem?
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
Quite sporty with engaging handling and comfort over long distances.
How did the build components work with the frame? Was there anything you would have changed?
Every part of the build complemented the frameset nicely.
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes
Would you consider buying the bike? If I could afford it.
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your score
A custom build isn't for everyone, but if you are in the market for a bespoke build, Saffron needs to be on your shortlist.
About the tester
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: 10-20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, time trialling, cyclo-cross, commuting, touring, mountain biking
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.