TECH NEWS

Interview with Saffron’s Matthew Sowter, and a first look at his new personal race bike

We speak to Saffron founder about favourite steel tubesets, disc brakes and winning awards

Custom framebuilding  has been enjoying a surge in popularity over the past few years, with the Bespoked show, which brings together some of the best framebuilders under one roof, providing a celebration of UK handcrafted artisan bicycles that are proving a popular alternative to moulded carbon fibre bicycles with discerning cyclists.

Saffron Frameworks has been a regular at the show, always turning heads with some beautiful creations, and this year was no exception. So swayed were the judges by Matthew’s latest creation, a personal project to build himself a race bike dubbed the ‘Line Bike,' due to its very special paint job, that it scooped the Outstanding Finish Award.

- Review: Saffron Frameworks frame

Matthew Sowter founded Saffron Frameworks in 2011 in Camberwell, south London, and specialises in steel frames made to a customer's precise requirements.  Following the Bespoked show we caught up with Matthew and asked him some questions about framebuilding and the inspiration for his new race bike, pictured above.

What was behind the design of this bike? What were you trying to achieve?

Whilst I no longer race I often feel nostalgic for the feeling of the bikes I used to ride and race as an amateur in South Africa. This feeling was the start of this project; to build a bike as a present to myself with no compromises from my preferred material, steel.

How is it different to other bikes you've built?

I suppose it's not often that I get a request to build a bike right at this end of the spectrum, so really pushing the limits of how stiff and aggressive I can make a steel frame made it a unique project

How much do you steer the direction of a customer's bike or do you build exactly what they request?

I always say it's a collaboration between the rider and myself. So the answer to that question depends on the customer, some need more help than others to really decide on exactly what they want from their new bike. The skill I think is more digging down and really getting to the bottom of what the rider needs and how I can help make their time on the bike more enjoyable.

You've built a lot of disc road bikes for customers. What's your personal view on disc brakes?

We have been asked to make disc braked bikes a lot more in the last 12 months. With the introduction of flat mount brakes, smaller rotors and the integration of hydraulics into the shifters, it lends itself to a cleaner aesthetic. Is it a necessity to have disc brakes on road bikes? The simple answer is no!  

For the last 15 years, pro riders have been doing long descents on carbon rims in wet conditions successfully. Though for most of us who are not paid to be in the saddle disc brakes really come into their own in wet and muddy weather which can give you greater confidence when riding. But at the end of the day, it is still your tyre that is connecting your bike to the road.

Bespoke steel frames are very popular in the UK at the moment, what do you think is pushing this demand?

Cycling, in general, is more popular than ever, and riders are more and more knowledgeable about gear and what they want from it. As much as I think people are drawn to the "craft" element of what I do for many it's as much about the practicality of getting a bike that exactly fits their needs and wants. This can range from frame material to geometry, to parts choice and even paint colour!

There have been some interesting advances in steel tubesets in recent years - do you think there's scope for more improvements?

I would never say never, but I think we're getting close to what's possible with the material. The modern tubesets, like the Columbus one this bike is constructed from, are so light and stiff with such thin walls. The tubing is just part of the package though and there are developments in design from myself and other builders, along with development in other parts of the frames such as dropouts... there's always room for improvement. 

Do you have a favourite tubeset? Is there a material you'd like to work with one day that you don't currently, or is it all about steel?

I love working with stainless steel as the material is so pure, and is brazed at a lower temperature with silver. I also like the flexibility it gives us with paint design and the options to leave parts of the frame exposed for either aesthetic or practical reasons. As you can see from some previous builds I love adding other materials such as carbon fibre to my frames, and I suppose there're ways to develop what I do with that material. Watch this space!

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Getting the Bespoked award must have been very satisfying? Does it mean a lot to win these awards?

It's always great to have your work recognised, especially amongst such incredible competition as at Bespoked. The awards are excellent but the real satisfaction comes from seeing the customers ride off on their new bikes when the show is over! I avoid building bikes just for the show, so each one on the stand is now with its new owner being ridden or raced. 

Matthew’s Race Bike is made from Columbus Spirit HSS tubing with an emphasis on oversized profiles, including a tapered head tube with a 1.5in lower headset bearing, into which is plugged a Deda EDG carbon fibre fork. 

The seatpost is similarly oversized - no concessions to comfort here. The seatclamp bolt is concealed inside the top of the seatstays, where they meet the seat tube, to keep the lines unfussy. Breezer dropouts with a replaceable hanger have been overbuilt to ramp up the frame stiffness, and all cables are externally routed.

A custom paint job was inspired by tattoo artist Chaim Machlev of Dots to Lines was produced. Such a good looking frame deserves some high-end components, so it’s a Campagnolo Super Record groupset with Bora Ultra wheels and Deda Superleggera finishing kit. 

Related: 15 of the best steel road bikes

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.