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June 22, 2012
One of the hidden gems of Melbourne’s cycling culture is Busyman Bicycles who is renowned for designing elegant saddle covers and bar tape. Owner Mick Peel took some time to chat with CyclingTips so we could learn more about his craft.
Who is Mick Peel and what is his fascination with fashion?
My background and my fulltime job are in fashion design education. I am a lecturer at RMIT University in fashion design. For a short while I was the head of department for five years. All my training has been in the fashion area including pattern making, garment construction, sewing and materials. This mixture of fashion skills is easily applicable to designing and creating custom saddle covers.
My interest in fashion grew through my teenage years. As a teenager I was very much into surfing even though I didn’t live near a beach. Although I didn’t get many opportunities to go surfing, I was very interested in surf clothing. The interest in clothing arose through my family’s background; both my parents are art teachers and in particular my mum was a textile teacher.
As a result our home had a studio with all the necessary equipment to produce art. It was only a natural extension that I would spend time in the studio making things. For example, I made clothes(included pants and t-shirts.) amongst other pieces of work including wooden guns and knives.
About the age of 15, I had produced my first range of hand painted surfing themed t-shirts that were sold to a local surf shop in town. For me this was my first foray into fashion.
Currently, I am in the process of completing a PhD having completed a masters degree previously. My Masters degree was about surface decoration particularly on fabrics and integrating it with experimental pattern cutting, which is very applicable to designing custom saddle covers.
With respect to my PhD, I am getting pretty close to the end. In a nutshell the PhD is about designing through making rather than designing and drawing and telling someone else to make it. The core focus of the PhD project is “Busyman Bicycles”.
A basic set of commonly used tools by Mick when he is designing a saddle cover.
What was the catalyst that started Busyman Bicycles?
I started my PhD in 2007 not really knowing what I was going to do. My initial proposal for my dissertation was a critique on the practice of design or the lack of design in mainstream fashion industry in Australia. As I had noticed that there was a lot of copying going in the local fashion industry.
After six months of my investigation I discovered it was uninteresting. Furthermore, I didn’t want to spend eight years (completing a PhD on a part time basis) of my life working on that, as it would be dull and unexciting.
During this period I was commuting to RMIT by bike. I was observing a lot of nice single speed commuter bikers riding around and I thought to myself I want one of those. I bought an old steel rode bike from eBay and modified it as a fixie. Initially, it was going to be a rough bike eventually I caved in and got it powered coated and ensured everything else on the bike had to look right. One of the first accessories I got for my fixie was a Brooks saddle.
The Brooks saddle that started it all.
This process of rebuilding an old bike into a fixie gave me the excitement and a bug for the need to do another one. I ended up building bikes for my wife, my sister and brother then I ran out of people to build bikes for.
My next step was to attempt at covering a saddle with leather and it turned out terrible and it was a failure. The saddle was a Taiwanese manufactured generic brand, which you would normally find on a comfort style bicycle. The saddle itself was quite round and had a cutaway at the back. It was a tricky shape to work with and to keep my costs down I had used leather scraps. . I used contact glue to glue the leather on to the saddle. The only problem with contact glue is that once it touches its stuck. If you don’t stick it on correctly and have to pull it off again it tears apart the foam. I had to reposition and reapply the cover causing the foam to tear away and saddle felt very bumpy.
However, I kept trying and the process kept improving as I slowly learnt the intricacies of this new art form. Most importantly learning how the key materials involved worked in conjunction with each other.
To answer your question the catalyst was my first fixie. I have always loved building whether its clothes, or home renovations; I am just a very hands on type of individual.
Is this now becoming a viable business from a PhD project?
In a way this is a hobby that pays me pocket money. In reality my prices does not reflect the amount of work that goes into making a custom cover for a saddle because each saddle is unique. I do some saddles which are similar to each other but there is something personal about it even If its just color.
Since the inception of Busyman Bicycles I never looked at it from a business perspective. I always got excited whenever I got an email enquiry about it. Initially, about 1-2 emails a week would come and now I get 1-2 enquires a day. On average I turn out maybe two saddles a week and a bit of bar tape.
Since making saddles you are now offering custom bar tapes as well. How did this start?
I was doing stitched on leather bar wraps. You grab one piece and stitch it on. I wasn’t doing the tape because the piece needs to be really long. You need between 2.5 to 2.7m for each side of the drop bar. Therefore you need a long cow to produce a long piece of leather. Additionally, you need to thin the edges, which is called skiving. I didn’t have the machine nor the technique for that. Whenever I got enquiries for custom bar tapes, I said no.
Eventually, more and more people started enquiring about custom bar tape and I thought I would try it out. I did a few and my technique improved. I tried a skiving machine but I didn’t like the results they produced so I did it by hand using a scalpel. Even though it took much longer but it gave a very custom handmade feel to it.
What sort of leathers do you use?
I primarily use kangaroo leather unless I can’t get the color I want that a customer is requiring. In that situation I would use cowhide or goat or kid leather. Generally if possible I will use kangaroo. Probably kangaroo leather costs twice as much as the other leathers but at the same time it is more durable and stronger in contrast to other types of leathers.
One of Mick's early saddle designs.
Which is your favorite saddle to work with?
Some saddles are great because they are simple to work on such as the Fizik range including Antares or the Arione. Since they are of a flat shape and not very rounded. Also it has a nice big surface area to work with and you can do different kinds of applications or apply different decorative elements.
I also like working on the San Marco Concore saddles. Something about the back of the Concore range of saddles I have always found it very appealing since you can mold the leather very easily.
My highest price point saddles would be the Selle SMP saddles as you covering two saddles due to the split in the middle as well as the amount of work involved.
What are the steps involved in your process? Say from consultation to design to production?
Firstly, people usually contact me via email through my blog profile. They enquire about price and are surprised to find out its not as expensive as they initially thought it would be. The customer will tell me what sort of saddle they have, give me a rough idea as to what they are interested in. Or they maybe very specific of what they are after and will reference my previous work. Either they will post the saddle to me or if they are local they will drop the saddle in.
Once the saddle is in my hand, I will figure out the design and the finer details. This could be a further discussion with the customer or could also involve building up some mock sketches and sending them off for approval. Some customers say “Mick I trust your judgment do whatever you think would be right” and some customers are very highly specific.
For example, I did one for Malachi Moxon (Northside Wheelers) he suggested the Swift Swallow bird and he knew the colors he had wanted. He left the implementation details to me based on his requirements.
Once the design is determined and finalized, I don’t take a deposit. I take the saddle as a deposit. I make the cover, I mold the cover to shape, glue it on and its pretty much done.
I used to quote two weeks as standard but sometimes the workload increases it becomes a three-week wait. I have considered offering a quicker service for a higher rate if a customer can’t wait that long without their saddle.
Sometimes a customer will ask me to design a saddle cover but the design is an open slate. In this situation I will ask the customer to send a picture of their bike. This allows me to get a sense of what they do and don’t like. For example, it would have something to do with color. Often I will refer to my previous jobs because certain things do and do not work with certain saddles.
If I am having a designer’s block I will often go to my wife and ask her for her opinion on the design. Since she has a fantastic sense of color and often her suggestions help significantly.
What are the demographics of customers who come to you for a custom saddle cover?
The demographics vary and have shifted since the inception of Busyman Bicycles. When I first started I imagined it would be the fixie crowd. It wasn’t the young hipster crowd because they were more into Japanese frames etc. At that stage the demographics were primarily designers with men in their late 20s to late 30s.
Things changed when I did a saddle for a Lynskey bike that was featured in Ride Review Magazine. This exposed Busyman Bicycles to new range of demographics; those involved in road riding and competitive cyclists. I started getting enquiries from the new range of customers. Customers who were slightly older and were interested in repairing a saddle because it got scratched rather than doing developing an icon saddle cover that matched the color of their road bike.
At some stage and I’m not sure how it happened but I started getting enquiries from the customers who were ordering road bikes built with custom frames. Then there are the restoration projects or even customized restoration rather than period correct restoration.
Lately, there has been a lot of custom work especially from customers who are getting their new Baum road bikes. Darren Baum refers some of his clients to me. Probably when they are enquiring about what saddle color they can or cannot get.
I’m designing now saddles for stock road bikes as well to match their paint schemes.
"Its all about the bike" a book Mick recommends anyone to read who is on the quest of getting a custom bike made.
Who are your most famous customers?
My most famous customer would have to be Richard Sachs. I remember the email from Richard about an enquiry on whether or not I could make a batch of tape for him for the bikes he was building. I saw the email and it was from a Google Mail address and I thought it was so cool then ten minutes later I thought is this my mates playing a prank on me. No it was genuine.
I also did a saddle for British fashion designer, Paul Smith as well.
What is your all time favourite saddle cover design?
It might be the saddle I did six months ago for a customer’s Arione saddle. It featured a series of perforations along the side, which diminished in size as they moved out towards the edge of the saddle. It was in a charcoal gray with orange highlights. Also made matching bar tape for it as well. It was for his beautiful Hampsten steel frame road bike. A lot of people have requested a similar design to that with slight variations.
What would be your ideal ride?
At this stage it would have to be a Baum though I’m not sure which model but most likely the top of the line. So that’s my dream at the moment with a Campagnolo groupset.
Made from reclaimed leather salvaged from a basketball.
Honey brown Specialized Romin - one of my favorite fitting saddles