My latest road bike is the most outrageously flexible bike I have ever ridden – when climbing out of the saddle on it, it feels like I’m straddling a wet baguette filled with cooked pasta.
It’s also got a broken left-hand shifter and I’ve managed to do an accidental Lance Armstrong tribute with my down tube front shifter. The DIY paint job is also chipped, the derailleur hanger is knackered and there’s a crack at the bottom of the seat tube slot.
Ever the contrarian, though, I wouldn’t change a thing about it.
My beloved Sapphire Darling is one of the most characterful bikes I’ve ever ridden and is quickly cementing itself as one of my favourite ever bikes, too.
Welcome to BikeRadar Builds
BikeRadar Builds is our occasional look at the team’s personal bikes, including custom rigs, commuters, dream builds, component testbeds and more.
This is our chance to geek out about the bikes we’re riding day-to-day, and explore the thinking (or lack of it!) behind our equipment choices.
- Alex’s Marin Alpine Trail custom test bike
- Simon’s Planet X Exocet 2 time trial bike
- Simon’s 2009 TCR Advanced SL
- Jack’s refurbished touring tandem, Cecil
- George’s Mason Bokeh gravel bike
- Matthew’s Genesis Croix de Fer 853
- Tom’s Santa Cruz Chameleon mullet singlespeed
Earlier this year, I decided I wanted a go-fast(ish) road bike of my own to complement my All-City Mr Pink.
After a call out to my beloved Instagram followers, I ended up picking up this Lee Cooper Reynolds 653-tubed frameset from 1994 (all for the price of three beers and some gravel tyres – thanks Tom!).
I got in touch with Cooper to find out what I could about the origins of the bike. Unfortunately, he couldn’t supply any specific details because his build logs were lost in 2003, but he suggested the frameset was most likely built for a local shop.
That might sound unusual today, but it wasn’t that long ago that many well-established bike shops worked with local builders (or in-house builders) to supply customers with bikes – if you were a serious rider, you were as likely to order your new bike in this manner as you were through a traditional distributor.
Cooper was able to confirm that, according to the serial number stamped onto the bottom bracket shell of the bike, this particular frame was the seventh he built in August 1994.
In the years since it was originally made, the frameset has done the rounds via various London Fixed Gear And Single Speed forum members. Trawling threads on the forum has revealed some of its history.
It appears the frame was originally painted red before getting a black respray around seven years ago. The frame was then resprayed the resplendent blue you see now in 2020, at which point it was also ridden with a colour-matched carbon fork for some time. It then ended up with the aforementioned Tom, before finally landing with me.
The frameset is beautiful – much like me, it is elegant, simple and skinny.
The top tube is a diminutive 25.4mm in diameter. The down tube is similarly slender at just 28.6mm in diameter.
Such skinny tubes were the norm for many years, but these days, it’s unusual to see something quite so narrow on a production steel bike.
By way of comparison, the top tube on my Columbus Zona-tubed All-City Mr Pink is a comparatively porky 31.7mm and the down tube a veritably expansive 35mm.
(As a fun aside, Reynolds 653 is a bit of an odd 531-adjacent tubeset with a fuzzy origin story that no one can quite settle on. If you’re a tragic steel bike nerd like me, this interesting thread and blog post give some insight into it.)
Reynolds offered 653 tubes with domed ends (as opposed to standard slotted ends) and these have been specced on the bike. This creates a lovely smooth transition from the tube to the dropouts that I absolutely love.
The stunning straight-legged ‘stiletto’ fork is the real highlight of the frameset. Its willowy blades are a perfect visual match for the frame and I love the semi-sloping crown.
As well as looking great, the fork is more flexible than a flexy thing.
You can see the blades wildly fluttering fore and aft as it skips across chattery ground, which is really quite unnerving at first.
In practice, the fork is absolutely fine under even heavy braking. It’s perhaps a little bit vague on fast descents with lots of braking, but it’s not a huge problem. The flex also adds a pleasant degree of additional comfort on rough roads, which is welcome.
The frame isn’t absolutely perfect and it’s showing its age in some places.
To start, there’s a small crack at the base of the seat tube slot (a common issue on bikes this age) that I’ll need to keep an eye on.
The threads on the derailleur hanger have also been chewed up at some point, but a clever Problem Solver dropout saver is doing a fine job of holding everything in place for now.
The brake cable stops are also old-school Campagnolo ‘diver’s helmet’ style stops, which require a step-down ferrule to work with modern brake cables.
These are fine, but the ferrule moves a little bit inside the stop as pressure is applied, which makes the brakes feel a bit spongy. I would likely replace these with modern cable stops if I was having other work done.
Finally, the DIY rattle-can paint job is fairly fragile and I’d love to have the frame powder-coated in a fabulous shade of fuchsia.
The fanciest parts bin on earth
I am spoiled with an outrageously posh parts bin and most of the build has come from the depths of my Shed of Stress.
For me, the key spec highlight is the gutted left-hand Shimano 105 R7000 shifter.
A small spring inside this shifter broke, which I spent a lot of time trying to repair to no avail. I ended up blowing a whopping £5 on a pair of Shimano 105 SL-1050 down tube shifters and fitted the left-hand shifter to operate the front derailleur.
Lance Armstrong was famed for running a similar setup, though he did so in pursuit of weight savings rather than impecuniousness.
The cable pull ratio of the shifter isn’t a perfect match for the Ultegra R6800 front derailleur but it’s absolutely workable for day-to-day riding – particularly as I’m an absolute legend and just smash about in the big ring at all times anyway.
Up front, I’m running a Rotor Aldhu crankset fitted with the brand’s matching Q-Rings in a 52/36 ratio.
Rotor’s slender alloy cranks are a much better visual match for a skinny steel frame than Shimano’s cranksets and I think they look really great on this frame.
Though I’m not usually one for a #murderedout bike, there is something deeply satisfying about the gloss black finish of the Tange Falcon headset and the way in which it elegantly flows into the 3T Quid quill stem.
I am narrow-bodied but anything other than narrow-minded, so I was keen to see how I got on with a narrower handlebar on this bike.
In the end, I settled on a 38cm Deda Piega bar (that’s actually closer to 36cm when measured centre-to-centre).
As much as I loathe to admit it, I think he’s been right all along.
I’m a total convert and can’t see myself ever moving back to 40cm+ bars on a road bike. A narrower bar simply fits me better and is more aero to boot – what’s not to like?
The Cane Creek eeBrakes have been nicked from my fixed gear hill climb bike. As well as being fabulously light, these brakes have an excellent lever feel and loads of power… if you set them up right.
I have set up a fair few brakes in my time and, of course, I completely disregarded the brakes’ instruction manual the first time I used these.
This was a mistake, and 30 seconds spent reading the notes on cable length made a big difference to their overall performance.
The bike rolls on a Light Bicycle R35 wheelset, which is fitted with 25mm-wide Continental GP5000 TL tyres set up tubeless.
The frameset has surprisingly generous clearances for its age and, at a push, I can fit a 32mm slick in there. I may swap to a set of alloy wheels for the winter months ahead, where I will also switch to 28mm tyres – I fear a 32mm tyre may touch the down tube if I brake too heavily with that flexible fork.
Compromised but utterly my own
As is probably clear, I’ve really enjoyed riding the Sapphire Darling over the last few months. It’s been great to press some unloved parts back into service and riding the frame highlights how much bikes – even steel ones – have changed since 1994.
This sounds like an exaggeration, but the difference in ride quality between it and my All-City is chasmic – even with 30mm tyres, the Mr Pink feels much more surefooted and stable than the Lee Cooper. It’s a fun reminder of how far things have come.
That doesn’t mean my new bike is bad, though.
For fast-ish days spent churning it out at a steady pace, it’s a deliciously cosseting ride that leaves me feeling surprisingly fresh.
It’s also just very me – I like fixing stuff and, as a chronic attention seeker, riding a boring old stock bike just won’t do. This bike definitely reflects both of these aspects of my personality and I’m sure we’re going to get on charmingly in the years to come.
Jack’s 1994 Lee Cooper full spec
- Frameset: 1994 Lee Cooper, Reynolds 653 tubing
- Rear derailleur: Shimano 105 R7000 GS
- Front derailleur: Shimano Ultegra 6800
- Crankset: Rotor Aldhu, 52/36 Q-Rings
- Cassette: Shimano 105 R7000, 11-28
- Shifters: Shimano 105 R7000 (rear), Shimano 105 SL-1050 (front)
- Pedals: Shimano Ultegra PD-6800
- Brakes: Cane Creek eeBrakes
- Handlebar: Deda Piega
- Stem: 3T Quid, 110mm
- Saddle: Specialized S-Works Romin Evo with Mirror
- Seatpost: Thomson Elite inline
- Wheelset: Light Bicycle R35
- Tyres: Continental GP5000 TL, 25mm
- Weight: 8.57kg (with pedals, cages, a Garmin mount and a small rear light)