Paul Villiers Custom (frame and fork) £3373

Handbuilt dream bike

BikeRadar score 5/5

Paul Smith, Cycling Plus magazine's resident boffin, designed his ideal bike himself, and specced it from the ground up. He then got Kent-based master craftsman Paul Villiers to make it, and ended up with the bike he had always wanted.

  • Frame: Comfortable and the perfect size, so good it’s going to be with me for a very, very long time (10/10)
  • Handling: On the slightly sporty side of relaxed, it rides perfectly whether laden up with kit or unladen (10/10)
  • Equipment: It’s all well proven and durable equipment that doesn’t weigh much (10/10)
  • Wheels: Light, stiff and dependable wheels with outstanding build quality (10/10)

Growing up in South Leeds gave me three options when it came to bike shops when I was young. I either stared into the window of Watson and Cairns at motorbikes and bicycles, or I stared longingly into the window of Woodrup Cycles, after drooling up against the window at Bob Jackson’s.

I grew up wanting a steel tubed, lugged, handcrafted frame. A little later on in life BMX bit me hard, and road bikes took a back seat. Today, at the ripe old age of 38, BMX hasn’t let go, and I’m more than proud to say that it never will. But that traditional steel frame no longer eludes me thanks to a little known framebuilder, and long time friend of mine, Kent-based Paul Villiers.

I first met him when I was having problems with a 1967 Honda RA300 Grand Prix car, and his experience and methodical approach along with my systematic view of all things mechanical eventually sorted the problems out, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. So when I heard mutterings about this feature in the Plus office I stuck my misshapen nose into office ramblings and agreed to join in – it was the perfect chance to sort out the bike I have always wanted.

Choices, choices…

After a grand total of 20 minutes I had a drawing of the frame geometry, and a long list of components. Five minutes later and I faced two major dilemmas. I wanted Paul Villiers to build the frame and fork, but at the same time I wanted life-long friend Dave Yates to build it. The other quandary was colour and paint scheme.

The first dilemma was sorted by remembering that I’d promised Paul one day that I’d get him to make a frame for me. The second dilemma took longer, but the ideas came from two things I’ve always wanted and will never have: an original Breezer Lightning mountain bike gave me the idea for the paint scheme, and the very first shade of blue paint that was used on a racing Bugatti solved the colour choice.

At this point, in my head, I had a bike. And in my head, I knew how it would ride, which is when the fear of it not living up to my expectations crept into my head like a twisted imaginary friend.

Pushing that fear aside, I picked up the phone and called Mr Villiers… It went to answering machine, and there was no way that I was going to leave a message for something so important to me. So I kept calling like an unhinged stalker until he answered.

The conversation was much longer than I expected, and even though he knew I knew what I wanted, he insisted on making sure. To be fair, he asked all the right questions, and more. And in the end he changed my mind on a couple of small things before we talked tube choice and discussed bendy back ends for a while.

After talking to Paul I called up Poshbikes – which is also based in Kent – to sort out the Tune parts and the wheel building. Poshbikes is run by Andy and ‘Wally’ Wallis, whose family have been in bicycle engineering since the 1920.

Andy steered me away from a slightly too exotic path down the wheel building route, and would even include a set of one-off stickers in blue for the DT rims; everything was sorted quickly and very easily. I put the phone down after just two calls and felt something I’ve not felt in a long time: I was excited about a bike. Genuine, proper, childlike excitement, the likes of which you remember getting at Christmas when you’re five.

Going straight

A few weeks later I made the trip down to Paul to pick up the frame and fork. Which is when Christmas morning happened for me. It was fantastic, everything I expected it to be. The paint was wonderful (lugs lined by hand without masking gives a personal touch you rarely see nowadays), and after staring at it for half an hour I set about measuring it up – which is when I discovered something quite odd.

It’s straight. I don’t mean it’s really quite straight. It’s straight to within 0.3mm. For an old-school steel frame built in an old-school jig (Paul hadn’t received his new one), I’ve never seen anything this straight. He certainly knows how to make ’em properly that Villiers chap.

When I made tracks towards the car to drive the 10 minutes down the road to Poshbikes I could see in his eye the same thing I feel when I hand over a race engine to a mate. That almost hidden look of sorrow at parting with something you know is not yours, but something you put a lot of yourself into – all that work, being taken away in someone else’s hands… it’s an odd feeling.

Ten minutes later the guys at Poshbikes were doing what I had just done. Inspecting it very closely, measuring it, and then praising Paul’s work when they discovered how straight it was. That didn’t last long though. It went into the frame stand to be coated inside with Dinitrol, so it’ll never rust, before we started bolting bits on.

The headset didn’t need facing (exactly parallel already), and the seat tube was the perfect size with a lightly honed finish to the top half internally. There are very few modern bikes that are this well made, and as such the build went easy. It took a while though, as Andy and Wally at Posh are like me when it comes to building bikes.

Logos on cables have to face the right way, and be the same distance along the cable from side to side, a torque wrench is used at all times, threads are checked with a thread gauge, bolts are trimmed to the correct length, washers fitted which are the correct material for the fastener, bar tape wound with the same number of wraps per side… They build all their bikes that way, and every step of the way they made notes (I thought I was the only geek who did that).

Several hours later I lifted the bike from the stand. My bike… The bike I’ve always wanted. One thought was running through my head: "I hope it’s not shit, I hope it’s not shit…"

Something special

I remember riding a Bob Jackson built bike when I was young. It was three sizes too big, and it was owned by Bob Jackson, who’d sent me out on it to buy tea bags. The only reason I remember it is because that bike felt fantastic. It had something that no other bike had, and something no other bike I’ve ridden since has had. It’s that certain something that can probably never be quantified, just one of those special bikes I’ll never forget.

It was all I could think about as I pedalled my Villiers away from the Poshbikes workshop door, because at that moment I had found another bike that had that special something – my bike. Paul Villiers and the Poshbikes crew were faultless throughout the whole project, and I could not have hoped for such outstanding service and craftsmanship from them all.

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