Bowman Cycles Layhams frameset review: Classy and versatile stainless steel all-roader
The Bowman Cycles Layhams isn’t a hardcore racer, nor is it a rough-and-tumble gravel machine. Rather, it occupies the space in between with clearance for tires up to 30mm-wide, long-reach rim-brake calipers, and modern stainless steel tubing arranged in a classic all-day geometry. Ultralight, fast, and edgy the Layhams is not. But then again, it isn’t meant to be, and that’s perfectly fine.
A rethink of what a winter training bike should be
Neil Webb has worn many hats during his nine years in the cycling industry, including three years as a brand manager for two different UK-based companies, two years as a reviewer for British magazine Cycling Weekly, and then another three years as a product and design director for Worx Bikes. Webb eventually decided to strike out on his own, however, founding Bowman Cycles in 2014 with the aim of producing bikes that filled niches he felt weren’t being served as well as they could be, with a level of detail usually only found from high-end bespoke brands.
Three years on, Bowman Cycles’ streamlined catalog includes just three models in total, all with distinctly British personalities — the budget-friendly Palace:R criterium racer, the disc-equipped Pilgrims Project X adventure bike, and the Layhams all-road machine. All three are reasonably priced for what they offer, and at least for now, Bowman Cycles is working exclusively in metal; aside from the forks, there’s no carbon fiber to be found here.
Bowman Cycles pegs the Layhams as “a contemporary take on the classic winter training frame.” Historically, winter training bikes in the UK have comprised whatever could be cobbled together on a shoestring budget to tackle the typically miserable conditions. With the Layhams, though, Webb suggests that there is no good reason why a winter bike couldn’t be nice enough to use year-round, provided it could survive repeated thrashings through persistent rain and nasty British road grime.
To that end, the Layhams is built with triple-butted stainless steel tubing to resist corrosion, but with modestly oversized dimensions and the type of shaping usually reserved for higher-end racers. The top tube is flattened to resist front-end twist, the down tube is ovalized at the bottom bracket to help minimize frame flex under power, and the S-bend chainstays repeatedly adjust their size and profile from end to end. Up front, the tapered head tube envelops a 1 1/8-to-1 1/2-inch steerer on the thoroughly modern, full-carbon fork.
Mounts for proper full-length fenders are discretely included at both ends, and there’s room underneath them for 28mm-wide tires; 30mm-wide ones will fit otherwise. Either way, speed is kept in check by conventional rim-brake calipers, and Bowman has opted for the long-reach variety to provide more breathing room for higher-volume rubber.
Webb prides himself on the details, and he’s clearly put plenty of thought into the minutiae on the Layhams.
Cable routing is external throughout for ease of service, for example, but the derailleur housing stops can be easily removed and replaced with guides for internal wiring (or blanks, in the case of SRAM Red eTap) should someone prefer an electronic drivetrain — a feature rarely seen on steel frames at any price point.
Up front, the Layhams relies on a standard clamp-on front derailleur, leaving the area pleasantly devoid of vestigial stubs should someone build theirs up with a single-chainring setup.
Having dealt with more than his fair share of creaking, Webb also fitted the Layhams with a standard threaded bottom bracket; with a panoply of modern adapter setups now available it can accept virtually any crankset aside from ones with a narrow-format, 30mm-diameter spindle (such as from Specialized and Cannondale). Out back, the replaceable derailleur hanger is reassuringly stout.
Geometry-wise, the Layhams is about what you’d expect from something with this sort of all-road, all-seasons purpose, including 420mm-long chainstays, a fairly slack front end, and a very low bottom bracket (75-80mm of drop, depending on size) for a confident feel and stable manners. In terms of fit, the numbers fall roughly in between what you’d find in a Trek Madone and Domane, or Specialized’s Tarmac and Roubaix, with the 54cm frame I tested featuring a 553mm stack and 371mm reach — not nearly as aggressive as most race bikes, but also not as upright as most endurance-type offerings.
All of this is wrapped in a tasteful high-gloss finish (in red or black) with a fully masked-off rear end, a neat see-through logo on the underside of the down tube, and etched details on the seat tube — not exactly the flashiest setup around, but perhaps more in keeping with the sort of aesthetic someone seeking this type of bike is likely to appreciate.
Actual weight for a 54cm frame is 1,832g (including seatpost collar, derailleur hanger, and cable hardware). The matching fork comes in at 416g, and the included Token headset tacks on another 105g.
Retail price for the Layhams frameset is £1,333/USD$1,763. Bowman Cycles has a handful of retail partners in the UK, but primarily deals consumer-direct with a surprisingly modest international flat-rate shipping fee of just £55. Either way, Bowman Cycles only sells the Layhams as a bare chassis, so you’ll have to decide for yourself how you’d like to build it up.
For this review, I opted for a Shimano Dura-Ace R9100 mechanical groupset, Easton EA90SL aluminum clincher wheels with 27mm-wide Challenge open tubular tires, Velo Orange Grand Cru brake calipers, and a mix of carbon fiber and aluminum cockpit components from fi’zi:k and Ritchey. Total weight as pictured is 7.94kg (17.50lb), without pedals or accessories.
Exploring the roads less-traveled with the Layhams
Nestled in the foothills on the eastern edge of the Colorado Rocky Mountains, Boulder’s predominantly dry climate admittedly didn’t provide me with much opportunity to test the Layhams’ wet-weather prowess. That said, there are almost as many dirt and gravel roads here as ones that are properly paved — not to mention copious amounts of elevation change — so I nevertheless had ample terrain to explore the bike’s capabilities.
On either tarmac or pavement, the Layhams may wholly embrace its more classic and traditional aesthetic, but the ride experience is 100% modern steel.
Where steel frames with more traditionally small tube diameters are comfortable to ride but soft under power, the Layhams’ modestly oversized and mildly shaped tubing lend a more solid and stout backbone. The rear end displays just a hint of wag when you really get on the gas, and the front end is pleasantly reactive to handlebar inputs under hard cornering. There’s still just that slight bit of give that many expect from a steel machine, but only just a little; this thing is no noodle.
With little inherent damping capabilities from the material itself, there’s plenty of that trademark “zing” and springiness that’s usually associated with steel frames. Feedback from the road surface that’s usually filtered out with newer composite bikes instead comes through here as a steady ticker tape of information, constantly updating the rider on what’s going on at the tire patches.
In fact, it’s a good thing the Layhams is built with more generous tire clearances, as I would even go so far as to say that the frame itself offers little in terms of comfort on poorly finished road surfaces. Smaller-amplitude features like chip-seal and good-quality gravel roads are ably muted by those two cushions of air in between the rims and the ground, but those upsized pipes that provide the Layhams with such a responsive personality don’t seem to yield much at all otherwise.
Washboarded stretches of dirt roads are met with teeth-rattling vibration, and bigger bumps do their best to boost you out of the saddle if you don’t prepare yourself beforehand.
I did most of my testing with the tires inflated to around 50psi (I weigh 70kg), and it was only for the sake of curiosity that I went substantially higher than that. With plenty of space around the fork crown and stays, any Layhams rider would be well-served to max out on the tire size — preferably using something with a soft and supple casing — and experiment with pressure.
On the plus side, though, such a setup lends the Layhams a truly sublime ride quality on roads that are of even decent quality. Bowman Cycles doesn’t portray the Layhams as a gravel machine, after all, and provided you don’t stray too far off the (semi-) beaten path, few riders will likely complain about the bike’s comfort levels.
Handling-wise, the Layhams drifts heavily toward the stable end of the spectrum with its low bottom bracket, long wheelbase, and slack front end. It’s calm and composed almost to a fault, and all-day cruising demands just the slightest amount of attention to stay on the desired path of travel; feel free to let your mind wander. When the corners do come fast and heavy, however, the heavy-feeling steering requires a strong input at the bars and a deliberate lean to keep from drifting toward the edge of the road.
In many ways, the Layhams’ sturdy chassis is well suited to climbing, that stiff backbone making good use of whatever power your legs can muster when the road turns skyward — and indeed, it’s quite an efficient companion on longer ascents when you’re able to establish a steady rhythm. That said, even with the rather lightweight build I put together here for this test, there’s little disguising the Layhams’ additional heft as compared to a modern carbon fiber or aluminum bike. At well over 2kg for the frame and fork, the Layhams is solid but weighty.
Aesthetically, the Layhams is more classic and timeless than bold and brash. The two-tone paint scheme is very well executed with an even and ultra-glossy finish, the bounty of masked-off logos and tube sections looks far more elegant than what you normally see from more generic machines. The more hidden aspects of the finish work are well done, too, with cleanly cut threads throughout and head tube and bottom bracket shell faces that were refreshingly free of paint.
As much attention to detail as there is on the Layhams, though, I still found some room for improvement.
For example, rear tire clearance is even slightly better than stated with room for 32mm-wide rubber, but the front end only just barely accepts the 30mm-wide tires that Bowman Cycles says are okay to run. There’s plenty of room underneath the fork crown, but a curiously low mounting hole places the front brake much further down than it should be.
On my test sample, the top of the tire actually sits closer to the bottom of the brake caliper than the fork crown, and I had to slide the pad holders all the way up in the slots in order to line them up properly with the rim sidewalls. According to Webb, though, this is something that has since been corrected, so potential Layhams buyers will want to make sure to receive an updated fork.
Likewise, the Layhams’ convertible cable routing setup is nicely executed for the most part, but externally routed derailleur housing will quickly mar the paint on the head tube unless you take some precautions such as clear vinyl tape. And out back, opting for either a Shimano or Campagnolo electronic group will leave the rear derailleur wire hanging out in the breeze more than I’d like; an exit location closer to the rear dropout would be preferable.