We Made It: Bespoke bike-builder Jake Rusby

I’m standing in a workshop in South London, surrounded by lumbering machinery, racks of tools and heavy, gas cylinders. There are mallets, clamps and tweezers, more varieties of file than I knew existed and in a jig in front of me is the glistening stainless steel frame of a bicycle.

Spurred on by Olympic glory and British wins in the Tour de France, the popularity of cycling has grown exponentially over the past few years and the UK cycling industry is now thought to be worth in excess of £2bn. It’s boom time for retailers of factory-made bicycles, like Halfords, who sold 1.3 million bikes last year, but that’s only half the story. In the past decade, the UK has also become a world leader in hand-built, bespoke bicycles, home to a crop of independent frame-builders who are elevating bicycle manufacture to an art form.

One of the most highly regarded is Jake Rusby, who left behind a career as a sculptor and spent two years honing his craft before setting up one-man operation Rusby Cycles in 2013. “I started in an artist friend’s studio and tried making that rusty thing up there,” he says, pointing to an old frame hanging from a beam in the middle of his East Dulwich workshop. “I’ve always loved cycling and loved making things so it seemed like a natural way to combine the two… It’s a personal process,” he explains, “it usually takes about six months from someone coming to me to them actually getting the bike. There are lots of emails over that time and you get to know them quite well.”

The first step is a bike fitting and using those measurements Rusby designs the frame on the computer. Construction begins with a box of ultra-light steel tubing, typically British-made Reynolds or Italian Columbus. The joints are mitred to the correct shape using a milling machine before being brazed together, while making frequent checks to the alignment. “You have to be super precise,” says Rusby. “If there are any gaps in the mitre when you start brazing, the molten metal pulls the two tubes together and it can twist the frame.”

So he’s a perfectionist? “You have to be. It’s about making things that are absolutely flawless and beautifully made. I could easily make a frame a lot quicker and it would ride fine, but that’s not really part of the experience you get when you come to someone like me. It’s super high-end stuff. Everything has to be perfect.”

From there the joints are filed down to silky smoothness and the frame is painted before being built up into a complete bike using wheels and other parts sourced from trusted suppliers. Unsurprisingly, a bike from Rusby doesn’t come cheap, but given the cost of the components and the hours that go into each build (Rusby makes one frame a month on average), they’re perhaps not as expensive as you might think.

“This one is just over four grand for the complete bike,” he says pointing to the stainless steel frame in the jig. “That one up there – and that really is top spec – the complete bike is about nine grand. It’s stainless steel again and all those stripes,” he indicates the finely detailed paintwork on the underside of the frame, “that’s all polished metal – it takes a long time to do that. Other than that it’s the components on it. The group set’s about two grand. The wheels are three grand. It all adds up!”

Yet Rusby has had no shortage of interest and now has a waiting list of six to seven months, bolstered by the UK’s international frame-building reputation and by his ogle-worthy instagram page on which he documents the progress of each bike. “I’ve made one for a guy in Finland and one for a guy in Singapore. There are two people in Australia who might be interested and a guy in the States… I just make bikes for the road at the moment but I’d like to do some mountain bikes and I often get asked about tandems.

“I don’t see cycling getting less popular anytime soon and it seems like the more people ride these nice steel frames the more people are buying them. It’s still not as well known as it could be. People are quite willing to spend up to 10 grand on a frame that just comes from a factory. They don’t realise that they can get something handmade for them for the same money.

“I’ve been incredibly lucky with my customers,” he continues. “They’ve all been such nice people. Mostly they’ve come to me because they’ve seen stuff I’ve done before and they like it, so they trust me to do something good. They have a vague brief for the bike and then they get me to put my stamp on it.”

So what is his stamp? “A lot of it is about aesthetics,” he explains. “I like bikes that are a little bit classic and a little bit modern. They tend to be relatively understated, with muted colours and little details that you discover as you look more closely.” Along with the Rusby head-badge and the intricate paint jobs for which he’s renowned, those details include the addition of quotes or mottos of personal significance to the customer. But there are also flourishes in the metalwork that hark back to his days as a sculptor.

“Some of them have slightly sculptural bits,” he says, taking the frame in the jig as an example. “Above the rear brake on this one there’s a curved bridge which is purely aesthetic… that’s where the brake cable goes through that tube,” he continues, pointing to a hole in the crossbar with a lip that curls back on itself like a leaf, “that’s a little sculptural thing.”

So it’s very much an artistic process? “Yes, but what I find really satisfying about this is that you’re left with something that someone uses and something they’ll have for the rest of their lives. They absolutely love them whereas a lot of the sculptures I was making no one was even interested!”

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