Bikes of the Bunch: Yamaguchi custom and a self-built ‘Oukan’

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In today’s edition of Bikes of the Bunch we feature not one, but two interesting builds, both belonging to Douglas Low. As Douglas explains, one is a frame he built himself under the auspices of legendary framebuilder Koichi Yamaguchi, and the other is one Yamaguchi built for him.

I didn’t grow up in a handy family. If anything needed to be repaired, we’d get the local handyman in. So it was with a certain amount of nervousness that, for my 30th birthday five years ago, I enrolled in the Yamaguchi Framebuilding School in Rifle, Colorado.

Prior to this, the only tools I had touched were a drill and hammer at high school. But in the space of two weeks I had been taught to weld and had built my own frame using both fillet brazing and also a hand-cut seat lug. The whole process was done by hand, from cutting and mitring the tubes, to sanding down the fillets.

As cyclists, it’s easy for us to pick apart and make judgements on frames, but the process gave me a new appreciation for the amount of work that goes into building a frame from scratch and how dedicated artisan framebuilders are.

Learning from Koichi Yamaguchi was a treat in itself. He has such broad experience, from building more than 4,000 (yes, that is correct) frames for iconic NJS framebuilder 3Rensho in Japan, to designing tubesets for True Temper, to working as a team mechanic for the USA National and Olympic team in the late 1980s. He was also one of the last steel framebuilders to have his bike ridden to a World Championship.

Going to his house and workshop is like visiting a museum of the frames he has built or collected over time, from track bikes, to road bikes; from funny designs he’s put together, to tandems. One bike that was developed for Lance Armstrong was even built out of a material that was used for space satellites; material that NASA donated to Koichi to use for the Olympics.

It was while I was at framebuilding school I decided I wanted a frame built by Koichi. He had shown us a lot of frames that he’d developed, which the UCI had later banned because of various features he had included. I thought it would be interesting to give him the brief of building me a race bike that didn’t have any UCI restrictions.

He didn’t let me know what he was going to do and the only input I gave was that I wanted it to be the same colour as the Cinelli Laser. A year later I received something better than I imagined which included an aero fin tucked under the bottom bracket, a tiny headtube (so the bike tilts forward) and a vented, aero fork.

Yamaguchi custom build specs

Frame and stem tubing: True Temper heat treated “Bioconic-RCX” tube set
Groupset: Campagnolo Chorus
Bars: Zipp SL-80 40cm
Wheels: Campagnolo Bora ultra Two
Headset: Chris King
Seatpost: Thomson Masterpiece
Saddle: Selle Italia SLR
Cages: Arundel Dave-O
Pedals: Look Blade

Yamaguchi custom photo gallery

Meanwhile I had rushed home to sand down the fillets on the frame I built so I could ride it. I rushed the paint job and it never felt quite right. It rode well (and didn’t fall apart), but I didn’t have as strong an emotional connection to it as I thought I should.

Midway through last year I finally decided to give the frame the love it deserved. I had been admiring the work of Canadian custom paint shop Vélocolour from afar and decided to get in touch with them about creating a design for me. I loved the work they did with a lot of Above Category’s bikes and loved their subtle detailing. Suzanne from Vélocolour is a jewellery maker so she was also able to create a custom headbadge for me.

In Japan it’s not taboo for people to copy things they admire. For Yamaguchi, he was proud to tell us that when 3Rensho started they dismantled a Cinelli frame and looked at how it was built, then recreated it. His headbadge was also borrowed from another cycling brand. I thought I would follow this tradition and pay homage to him, by appropriating his headbadge.

One of my favourite artists is Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist who paid homage to people through his work by using a crown symbol. Thus the pewter crown head badge on my frame. It’s also where the name for the bike came from — ‘oukan’ is Japanese for ‘crown’.

I tossed around a lot of different colours with Vélocolour, but eventually settled on a scheme that would match the bike I made with the one Yamaguchi made for me. In the end, shipping a frame to Canada to get the paintwork done was too expensive, so I went with Paint My Bike in Queensland to apply Vélocolour’s design. Greg from Wheelhaus in Sydney was patient in making sure the finished build was perfect.

In the end it’s exactly what I wanted. It may not be the lightest, stiffest or the best for long days in the saddle, but there’s a real pleasure in knowing it’s something that I built myself.

‘Oukan’ custom build specs

Frame and stem tubing: True Temper custom drawn tube set
Groupset: Campagnolo Record
Bars: Zipp SL-80 40cm
Wheels: Campagnolo Hyperon Ultra Two
Headset: Chris King
Seatpost: Thomson Masterpiece
Saddle: Selle Italia SLR
Cages: Arundel Mandible
Pedals: Look Keo2Max

‘Oukan’ custom photo gallery

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