Bikes of the Bunch: Vanilla Bicycles Custom Speedvagen
In this edition of Bikes of the Bunch, Todd Knight tells us all about his custom-built Speedvagen, including what it was like to be fitted by Sacha White and how his first “big boy’s bike” served as inspiration for the colour scheme. The photos in this post appear courtesy of Fyxo.co.
My interest in Vanilla Bicycles goes way back. I’ve been a long-time fan of custom bikes and the North American Handmade Bike Show that showcases some of the weirder and more wonderful handmade bicycles manufacturers from around the world. Vanilla Bicycles and their Speedvagen brand used to exhibit and seeing their steel road and cyclocross bikes in images really struck a chord with me.
After scratching a couple of other itches I had with custom bikes, the time came when I had to put my name down for a Speedvagen (and paid the US$1,000 deposit) because Sacha White – the owner of Vanilla Bicycles – was going to visit Australia for the first Speedvagen Fit Tour in September 2015. Having enjoyed my previous custom bike experiences, I was excited to meet the person behind the brand and have him as part of the total custom experience.
On the day of the fit, I took my favourite Baum to serve as the starting point for the fit and Sacha started by taking measurements while I talked with Jenn Levo (Sacha’s sidekick and timekeeper) about my build list. I was surrounded by several of Speedvagen’s beautiful bikes so there was no shortage of inspiration.
Once I had a brief warm-up on the fit bike, Sacha started the fit process. This included riding under various loads and cadences while he studied my position. There was no laser-light show, just Sacha brandishing a few simple tools as he changed my position — fore and aft, up and down — before stepping back to study me some more.
Sacha paid a lot of attention to my interaction with the contact points as he explained what he hoped to achieve for riders on his bicycles and why he was making each adjustment. The process was reassuring, thorough, and in the end, the bike position felt very comfortable. I had made some minor changes to my Baum over the years — some inadvertently when travelling with it — so I was both surprised and fascinated that Sacha’s final fit was almost identical to my original fit for the Baum.
The communication from the Fit Tour was they could build the bike inside two months — which was very reassuring — but my life was turned upside down during a house renovation, so I put it all on hold. I had other great bikes to ride so I waited until the time was right for me.
Along the way, Jenn updated me on the timeline for builds from other Fit Tours underway around the world to ensure I didn’t fall too far down the line. Each time she updated me, I looked at my initial quote and picked through it to see how I could justify getting it … which meant what started as a complete bike, was whittled down to just a frameset.
When I initially paid my deposit (in US dollars) for the Speedvagen, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the fact that the final price was going to be affected by fluctuations in the currency market. But as the weeks went by and the exchange rate started to change significantly, I was looking at an extra expense that I hadn’t anticipated. It was a new experience for me, and something that anybody should factor in when buying from an overseas framebuilder.
I finally gave Vanilla the go-ahead to build the frame in November 2016. The colours were inspired by my first ever “big kid’s bike”, a Kmart 10-speed mountain bike that was fluorescent pink with a fade through orange to yellow. These colours were used as the backdrop for Speedvagen’s optional Hollatext paint scheme while I chose white for the foreground to match my other white bikes.
The frame was delivered in January 2017 and I set about getting it ready to ride at the Tour Down Under after another project was delayed. I had amassed all the parts over the previous seven months, but before I started, I took a late-night trip to visit Mick Peel at Busyman Bicycles to pick up my custom saddle and bar tape. An important part of building a custom bike is to attend to the little details that compliment the frame, and I’ve found Busyman indispensable for these final touches.
Frame: Speedvagen Road, Hollatext paint scheme
Fork: Enve Road
Headset: Chris King Sotto Voce
Stem: Enve (painted)
Groupset: Campagnolo Super Record
Wheels: Lightweight Obermayer Schwarzed wheels
Tyres: Continental Competition 25mm tubulars with Lightweight branding
Seatpost: Ritchey topper
Saddle: Fizik Arione 00, recovered by Busyman Bicycles
Bar tape: Busyman Bicycles black kangaroo leather
Cages: King Ti
The bike was finished the night before I set off for Adelaide. After a quick once-over and some black Ti bolts from Zak Smiley from Skunkworks (who was on the tools at Treadlie for the afternoon), I headed for the hills.
My initial impression was that the bike was very responsive. Ride quality was sharp with a racier feeling than the titanium Baum I am used to. Heading up through the hills, it all seemed effortless.
My favourite part of riding in the hills is the descent … and this is where I really felt I could enjoy the handling of the bike and have some fun. The Speedvagen ate up the curves and inspired me to go faster.
During the fit, Sacha discussed his love for a lower bottom bracket because it really helps the handling of the bike, yet it’s not something that is found on a lot of mainstream bikes. I don’t know how low the bottom bracket is on the Speedvagen but I was surprised when I measured my Baum — built six years ago — because the bottom bracket was substantially lower. Otherwise, the rest of the geometry is very similar between the two bikes with the only other major difference being the rear chainstays, which are (from memory) 4mm longer.
Side-by-side, the steel Speedvagen is a lot more active than my titanium Baum. The ride is livelier and a lot more road feel is transferred through the frame, which makes it a great racing bike but less of an all-day bike. The steel frame gets the best out of me but it will bite back when I’m not paying attention.
A lot of people have asked about how the Speedvagen compares to my other custom-built bikes. Of them all, Baum has the highest standards for the fit, finish and ride quality of the bike, and when they promise something, they will deliver it. My Speedvagen looks awesome and the ride is sensational but the paint finish and finer details are lacking in comparison. It also turned out to be the most expensive frame I have ever purchased due to the custom options, packaging, shipping, and the import fees.
None of that really matters though because the Speedvagen just excites me like my first “big kid’s bike” did when I got it for my 10th birthday.
This bike wouldn’t have been possible without the help of a few key people, namely Mick for his craftsmanship on the bar tape and saddle, Darren for helping with the build, Glen for the wheels, Fyxo for the great photos, and my wife for believing me when I tell her what she wants to hear: these bikes have given me more than what I have ever had to pay.