Bath-based Robin Mather, a young framebuilder and keen tourer with a growing reputation for building unique bikes, is flying the custom flag. This model showcases a personalised frame with hand-picked components, at a cost of £2,515.
Being fully custom, each Mather frame will fit its rider to a tee, with a choice of tubesets to suit. Our test bike was built for Mather himself, and features Reynolds 725 tubing, Columbus Zona stays and Reynolds blades, linked by a fit-and-forget Chris King headset. The tubes are oversized in a bid to provide a precise ride when fully laden, with comfort gained by bigger-volume tyres - there's clearance for the tourer's favourite, Marathon XR 2.0s.
We've rarely seen a frame with such an exquisite finish, with simple, elegant Pacenti lugs adding a sense of understated decoration. Indeed, each Mather frame is carefully considered, both practically and aesthetically. Smaller frames can create space issues with cantilever bosses and carrier mounts, so the solution here is to neatly integrate them. A frame and fork-only option is available for a remarkably reasonable £750, given the workmanship and individuality that's gone into this bike, right down to its custom decals. Sliding dropouts, eccentric bottom brackets and internal brake cables are also available. All good things come to those who wait - and in the case of the Mather, that will be a build time of four to five months.
The Mather wears Mavic D521s (now rebranded as EX721s) with a ceramic finish, offering powerful and long-lasting braking performance. However, we have heard several reports of splitting around the eyelets on the standard versions of this model, so we wouldn't recommend them for the long haul. The front wheel gets a Schmidt dynamo hub, which boasts excellent rolling efficiency, while the back is built up with a super-smooth Royce hub.
Mather has opted for a two-cross lacing pattern at the front, which should be amply strong given the larger Schmidt flange. Tyres are the seasoned tourer's classic: Marathon XRs. The 1.6 version's are fitted here over the more popular 2.0s, offering lighter weight at the cost of a little comfort.
Many small frames suffer from unduly slack head angles and steeper seat-tubes in an effort to solve toe overlap issues. But rather than compromise handling, Mather has worked in a small amount of overlap - only with mudguards - to maintain a lively feel, even with its relatively heavy wheels. This is particularly noticeable when riding the bike unladen - it's far more engaging than some rock-steady but rather staid traditional tourers.
than some rock-steady
but rather staid traditional tourers
Add a full complement of panniers, and steering takes on a more predictable role, though it still retains enough of a sporty edge for the more experienced rider.
Nitto's super-stylish Moustache handlebars are worth commenting on with regard to their effect on handling. Essentially a flattened drop bar, the day to day riding position is particularly open and comfortable, with excellent leverage for out-of-the-saddle climbing and quick access to the bar levers. However, the bars mean that there's more of a reach to the brakes and we found the narrow grip slightly too close when riding laden through traffic or on roughstuff descents.
There's a word to describe the Mather: un-upgradeable. Indeed, £2,515 buys you a list of top-notch, hand-picked kit. This includes TA Specialities's Carmina cranks, an elegant, dependable square-taper crankset with a vast range of spiders and hardwearing chainring options. Dura-Ace bar-end levers are easily set up and low in maintenance.
Gleaming front and rear mechs are also courtesy of DA, offering crisp gear changes. While no less hard-wearing than Shimano XT - the benchmark for expedition kit - it's an unusual choice due to the smaller gear range, though this is balanced by tighter jumps between gears. A matter of personal preference, I'd have to opt for the extra gears in reserve if I were tackling hilly, unsurfaced terrain.
We've discussed Nitto's Moustache bars previously; teamed with the 3w Schmidt light, they lend the Mather something of the low-slung stance of a 1950s motorbike. The light bracket is custom made, as is the matching fillet-brazed stem to which it's fixed, complete with its own braze-ons - another lovely feature. Shimano levers work efficiently with Paul Component's beautifully machined Neo Retro cantilever brakes, though at the back, the Touring Cantis are a bit spongy. Again, there's a Brooks saddle - this time a Team Pro - atop a satin-finished seatpost.
A change from the usual SKS fare, Giles Berthoud's stainless steel guards, complete with a leather front flap, are expertly fitted, so no rattle whatsoever. Even more eye catching are the fully custom racks, which make up £250 of the price tag. The same seamless stainless steel tubes are used in the hydraulic systems on offshore oil platforms, so no corrosion worries there. Like the mudguards, they are rock solid to ride with. While you're never going to get the same value for money offered by brands that buy in bulk, what you're getting is built to last.