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by Matt Wikstrom
August 31, 2018
Photography by Matt Wikstrom & Darrell McCulloch
In this edition of Bikes of the Bunch, Wayne Abel and Darrell McCulloch tell us the story behind the custom road bike that was a centrepiece for Llewellyn Custom Bicycles at the Handmade Bicycle Show Australia earlier this year. In many ways, it’s a familiar story, but in this instance, we hear from both sides of the innovative project — from the customer and the framebuilder.
Wayne Abel was not looking for a new bike when he called Darrell McCulloch at Llewellyn Custom Bicycles. It was an ornate stem that he was after to match his Colnago Master Olympic from the early ‘90s. By that point, Wayne was well aware of Darrell’s reputation and work, however with a drive to fill out his collection of classic steel road bikes, it was not something he could justify in the short term.
It wasn’t the first time that Darrell had been asked to build a stem by a Colnago owner. Over the years, he’s had several requests, and his response has always been the same: “I’ll do a stem for you — it costs this amount — and you get a free frame with it.”
The gentle rebuff normally gets a chuckle from the caller, and in this instance, Wayne shared a laugh before the two men got onto talking about trains. “I don’t know how we got on to it,” said Wayne, “but we got onto my job, and how I am a locomotive engineer. He got a bit excited because of his interest in steam trains. His profession is building bikes while his hobby is steam locomotives and railways.”
Darrell’s interest in heritage railways is far from passing. Aside from the time he has volunteered to restoration projects and local heritage groups, he has a small workshop (his “man-cave”) devoted to creating live steam locomotives in miniature form. “Wayne’s father was involved with heritage railways and steam locomotives in New Zealand, so we made a little connection, and that sparked things off.”
At some point, Wayne mentioned he was a big bloke, and that’s what brought the conversation back to bikes. “I don’t know how we got onto it, but I’m quite a big lad and he said to me, ‘I’ve got something to put to you: instead of just getting a stem, what about a whole bike? I’ve had this build in my mind for two or three years, and I want to build one for a bike show in Melbourne [Handmade Bicycle Show Australia] that’s coming up.’
“It was going to be the centrepiece for his display. Bigger tubes, a stiffer bike, and what would probably be the biggest lugged frame ever built… so, I said, ‘Keep talking.’”
Darrell refers to the Colossus as his “mega-tubed frame”. The front triangle is constructed from Columbus HSS that has a down tube with a 44mm external diameter, while the top tube is 35mm in diameter. Compared to traditional steel tube sets, these proportions are massive. They offer plenty of stiffness for even the largest rider, but they also create a unique problem for a framebuilder like Darrell that prefers to use lugs.
Any frame that is built with HSS tubes must be either fillet-brazed or TIG-welded because there are no lugs available to suit the mega-sized tubes. Darrell opted for fillet-brazing when he built the first Colossus in 2016, and while he’s sold a few more since then (all with fillet-brazing), he wasn’t truly satisfied because it was missing lugs.
“Lugs have structural merit,” said Darrell. “Technically speaking, they are the gentlest, nicest way to join one thin-walled tube to another. Lugs also allow the builder to impart some style and character to add a bit of flavour and distinction to the frame.”
McCulloch’s devotion to lugs inspired him to start designing and manufacturing his own lugs in 2004. At the time, the diameter of steel tubing had been growing and sloping top tubes were becoming popular, so Darrell developed lugs to accommodate both. It was a demanding process, and while his lugs have become universally popular with framebuilders, Darrell has had to wait years to recoup the costs involved.
Trying to do the same thing on a smaller and more affordable scale has proven impossible. Darrell could not find a foundry — anywhere in the world — that could reliably cast thin-walled steel lugs in small batches, so he was left with one choice when it came to creating mega-sized lugs for the Colossus: he would have to fabricate them by hand in his own workshop.
Wayne mulled over Darrell’s proposition for about a week before he accepted it. There was the obligatory conversation with his wife, and while her blessing helped him justify the unplanned purchase, it was the connection that he was able to make with Darrell that sealed the deal.
“If I hadn’t struck up that rapport with Darrell immediately, I doubt I would have gone through with it, to be honest. I just enjoyed his persona without even meeting him and I feel we sort of became friends after one phone call.
“It was strange. I was almost convinced after the first phone call, but he told me to go away and think about it.”
With a career that now spans decades, Darrell has had plenty of time to learn how to sell his wares, but he learned an important lesson at an early stage. “It was 1990-91 when I saw a Richard Sachs advert in VeloNews,” he said. “What struck me at the time was seeing that he was advertising and marketing himself as, ‘I am your builder: I answer the phone, I build the frame, I build your wheels, I pack the bike, I send it to you’. I realised then that it was really important to ensure that the customer understands who is the person behind the bike.
“When a customer comes to a bespoke builder, they are getting as much of the person who creates the item, whether it’s a bicycle, piece of furniture, wedding dress, or even a cake. They end up making a relationship with that person. It’s not like a corporation, where you’re being marketed a design, an idea, or a vision. The customer is making a connection with the builder.
“You’ve also got to appreciate the customer’s hard-earned gold coins. They are not a life-support system for a wallet. You’ve got to be prepared to devote the time to meet their needs.”
It’s a facet of the craft that Darrell has seen some framebuilders struggle with. “This is not a hobby, it’s our chosen path of professional expression. It doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy it. But we have to market ourselves, we have to be personable, and we need a story.
“Some builders can’t do that … they might be very good technical artisans, but the other side of the business, they struggle. Sometimes, customers can take hours and hours, and that’s why it’s hard to make a living out of it, because there’s not enough cream in it these days.”
Darrell’s approach to running his business is not so much shrewd as it is a frank acknowledgement of the importance of customers to his profession. Without Wayne, Darrell could have created a lugged version of the Colossus that he might have been able to sell off at the Melbourne show, but it was always going to be more meaningful if he was able to make that effort in the name of a living, breathing person.
“If I’m genuinely honest, Wayne’s was one of the nicest projects I’ve done for a while. Sometimes you make very special connections with customers, and they can last for a long time,” he said. “I’ve had some come back to me 20 years later, 25 years even, and say, ‘Build me another frame! I’m back on my bike. I know I’ve still got the old one but I want a new one.’ Isn’t that fantastic?”
One of the benefits of the impromptu purchase was that Wayne suddenly found himself at the head of Llewellyn’s build queue. It was December 2017 and the bike had to be ready for the Melbourne show just a few months later (April 2018). Darrell knew that he was going to need a lot of time to build the lugs, so he wanted to get started before the new year.
That Wayne was located on the other side of the country in Western Australia wasn’t a problem for Darrell when it came to deciding the dimensions for the frame. “What he told me to do,” explained Wayne, “was select my favourite bike — a Lynskey Helix — and get on a wind trainer so somebody could photograph me and collect some video of me pedalling. He wanted photos from every direction while I was on the hoods, drops, and tops. I think in the end we took something like 64 photos and about three videos.”
Darrell normally relies on his own eye when it comes to fitting his clients. He seems to have a natural talent for it, though when asked about it, he is quick to ascribe it to the amount of time that he has spent looking at frames as a craftsman and athletes as a coach. He also has a history (as team mechanic) with the Australian Institute of Sport that dates back to the ‘90s that led to him working closely with Dr Brian MacLean, an esteemed biomechanist that has positioned a multitude of elite cyclists.
The photos and videos were all that he needed to refine Wayne’s position on the bike, and from there, he was able to quickly produce a CAD drawing to start building the frame. The only major decision that Wayne had to contend with was the choice of stays, Columbus or Dedacciai. With the promise of a little extra compliance — and more importantly, a unique aesthetic — he opted for the latter.
“I’m not a racer,” said Wayne, “so the thing’s got to look nice. And different, you know. I have to say, since I’ve had the bike, most people notice the seat stays and the chain stays. They’re drawn to them like a bloody magnet. They just want to touch them all the time, like they can’t believe it.”
As for the other decisions, such as the choice of braking system and mechanical versus electronic groupsets, Wayne was very decisive. “I didn’t want disc brakes. I hammer down the hills but rim brakes stop me fine, so I didn’t see the need to go for anything else. I didn’t want a modern electronic groupset on it, either — I wanted it to be mechanical.
“I’m not a traditionalist, but I sort of wanted the bike to look traditional, if you know what I mean. To me, less is more. Less is better.”
As Wayne signed-off on the final drawing, he made one small request: “I said that I would like a head badge, something basic that denoted the bike as a Llewellyn without the paintwork. So, Daz went away to have a think about it for a couple of weeks, and he came up with a simple stainless steel cut-out that he would braze on and polish. I liked it straight away.”
From the outset, Darrell understood that the lugged Colossus was going to be one of his “big jobs” that would leave him drained. “They take a lot of emotion,” he said. “I say emotion because it’s what David Pye calls high-risk workmanship. Anywhere along the salt line you can drop the frame and dent it, or, it twists after you braze it, and you’ve got to scrap it. It’s that constant risk of ruining your work that leaves you feeling quite drained emotionally, but you’ve got to keep compensating to get the job done.”
The lugs started life as various lengths of chromoly tubing that were brazed together in the same way that all of the joints of a fillet-brazed frame are formed. The only difference was that each tube had to be machined to suit the frame member that would eventually be inserted into the finished lug. “I think there was only one size I didn’t have to bore with a machine, only one dimension of all the tubes, if I remember right.”
Once machined, the tubes were cut and mitred so that Darrell could start brazing them together. After that, there was the time-consuming chore of filing each fillet to provide a pleasing transition from one socket to the next. “It’s not a unique process. People have done it before, but it’s hard work. The bottom bracket shell was a week’s work. A solid week of absolute pain.”
Brass was used for what would be the first round of brazing. It’s a common choice for fillet-brazing that requires high temperatures. As for the second round, when each frame member was bonded with the lugs, Darrell used silver. “The critical joint of the tube is best done, in my opinion, using silver-brazing methods because it’s so gentle on the frame. Silver brazing doesn’t affect the brass brazing either, because you’re working at much lower temperatures.”
Before he could start the final round of brazing, the shorelines of each lug had to be cut and shaped. This was a relatively quick and painless process compared to the arduous process of finishing the joints. At face value, the array of arcs and points that Darrell crafted may appear to be merely decorative, but they were designed to contend with the stresses that would be placed on each joint of the frame. In this regard, Darrell had to allow for the extra size of the mega-tubes that he was planning to use.
“You don’t just scale up a traditional lug to the bigger tube,” said Darrell, “because if you did that, the lug becomes huge with too much surface area on the inside for brazing. You’ve got to shorten the shoreline from one to the other, but if you just leave it like a constant-changing sine curve from the top point to the bottom area of the lug, it wouldn’t look right, unless the lug is very deep, but that doesn’t look right, either.
“So that’s why I introduced the extra point. It’s not a new idea — French builders were doing similar things with much smaller lugs before the Second World War — it’s just my take on it.”
Throughout it all, Darrell kept Wayne apprised of his progress via regular emails. “I distinctly remember the first photo I got,” said Wayne, “it was three round tubes that had the message: the start of your frame. And I thought, what? Three round tubes? Watching the lugs come together, that was something special to see. How a bloke could do that, it just amazed me. The dedication to his craft must be crazy.”
“The paint was the last thing that we discussed,” said Wayne, “and it was one of the hardest things to think about. It really was. I’m actually a bit of a fan of blue — most of my bikes are blue — but after talking to Daz, he had me thinking about red. Candy apple red, to be specific, because that’s what stands out at shows.”
As Wayne slowly warmed to the idea of a red bike, he started considering some of Darrell’s other finished bikes, eventually deciding to add a white head tube and a band on the seatpost. “I asked Daz what he thought it would look like, and he said that it would look quite smart, especially with the Llewellyn head badge.”
Wayne still found it hard to visualise the final product, and if it wasn’t for the upcoming deadline, he might have ruminated on the possibilities for much longer.
“To be honest, I was not 100% sure what it was going to look like, and whether I was going to like it,” he said. “Even a friend of mine, who is a bit of a bike critic, was worried about the white bits. But once he saw it, he reckoned it was the best thing I could have done. And I have to agree, the colour might not have been my first choice, but I’m extremely happy with the paint job.”
As for the build, Darrell was able to assemble the bike in time for the show with parts that Wayne had selected. They were all practical choices based on brands that he was familiar with. He has only ever used Shimano’s groupsets, so the latest mechanical iteration for Dura-Ace was his first and only choice for the bike. With a body weight of 115kg, he wasn’t tempted by carbon parts to save weight, hence the alloy Fizik seatpost and bars, and stainless steel King cages.
Darrell dressed the bike up with a set of Zipp wheels for the show while Wayne had a custom alloy wheelset (White Industries hubs, DT Swiss 511 rims) with a high spoke count and Schwalbe’s tubeless Pro One tyres waiting for the bike at home.
Darrell travelled to Melbourne with the lugged Colossus at the end of April for the Handmade Bicycles Show Australia. As promised, it was the centrepiece of Llewellyn’s stand, supported by another two of Darrell’s recent projects, a bright green gravel machine, and a classic blue “tuxedo” build.
Wayne and a mate had booked their flights from Perth weeks earlier and arrived for the opening night. Not many customers have to share the first moments with their new bike in a roomful of onlookers, yet that’s how it played out. Wayne had already seen a few shots of the completed bike, so he had some idea of what to expect, however he was still overwhelmed by how stunning his new bike was in the flesh.
“When I walked in the door, the room was full — you could hardly see the bikes because there was that many people,” he said. “I didn’t know where Darrell’s stand was, so we just started making our way into the room. There was a bike at the first stand by the door that caught our eye, so my mate and I started chatting to the builder about it.
“After about 10 minutes of that, I happened to look over my shoulder, and bang, there it was. Darrell was about two or three stands down from where we were standing, and it just hit me. It just lit up the room. It was quite amazing.”
It had been a busy night for Darrell and his wife, Mary Ann, addressing the interest of show-goers, but he happened to catch that moment. “Wayne arrived at the show, and I saw him spot the bike … and you could see it … the lust was gone and he’d fallen in love with it.
“I caught his eye and gave a little wink, a nod and a smile, too, and I thought, that’s great … that’s always the point when I know that I’ve done a good job. To see that satisfaction … that’s when I can let go of it and enjoy the bike.”
Needless to say, the two men had a warm welcome for each other as they met face-to-face before the lugged Colossus. Wayne remembers that there were a lot of people gathered around the bike and that Mary Ann was kept busy wiping fingerprints off the frame. He was also aware that Darrell had a job to do, so he saved his conversation for later. He was staying the whole weekend until the show closed.
As an experiment of sorts, Darrell could not count the lugged Colossus as a success until he knew how it performed for Wayne on familiar roads. So once Wayne had returned home with the bike, he was keen to hear what he had to say about it. “The proof is in the pudding; it is in the riding,” said Darrell. “You can make something pretty, but if it handles like crap … if it doesn’t do the job… [blows raspberry].”
Wayne’s biggest hope was that the lugged Colossus could match the comfort of his long-serving Lynskey Helix. “In my own mind, and I might have said it to a couple of people, if that bike turns out to be as enjoyable to ride as the Lynskey, I would be more than happy. Now that I’ve ridden it a fair bit, I actually think it exceeds the Lynskey. It is actually a more comfortable bike to ride.
“I was worried it was going to be noodly because it was so comfortable for my first few rides. I hadn’t really given it a push on the hills, but when I did, when I got up and put in an effort, it didn’t dive at all, it just carried on and picked up. So let’s just say she climbs better than me.”
In the aftermath, Darrell is satisfied with the lugged Colossus, and it is now part of Llewellyn’s catalogue. However, he does hesitate at the extra effort, and emotion, that it demands.
“I feel fine about doing another one, but it’s not a rush job and the price, unfortunately, has to reflect that,” he said. “If you look at the accounting, it really should be double that — I’m not kidding — but my market won’t stand that until I’m dead. I might not sell another one unless I get the casting sorted out, which I’d like to do, but that isn’t possible at the moment.
“If a person shows up and wants to buy it, I’ll say ‘here’s the price, this is the reason why, and they can take it from there.’”