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Sean Doyle is a relatively new name in the custom framebuilding scene, but those who have seen our coverage from (or attended) the past two editions of the Handmade Bicycle Show Australia (HBSA) may be familiar with his fast-improving work. Devlin Custom Cycles is the name that appears on Doyle’s frames, and given he’s a longtime reader, commenter and supporter of CyclingTips, it’s quite likely you’ve seen mention of his lugged steel frames in the comments section before.
Here, Doyle writes about how he got his start, some of his struggles along the way, and shares one of his newly completed frames — a bike he made for himself and something we had a brief look at in our recent HBSA coverage.
“Toil, toil, toil!”
It’s something that Darrell McCulloch, aka Dazza, of Llewellyn Custom Cycles repeated to me every time we spoke. I’d bothered Dazza plenty since first getting the idea of framebuilding in 2009. He probably thought I was another person with all the intentions but no real drive to actually do anything about it.
With a lifelong passion for all things bikes, and a professional background in engineering design and machine shop experience, the concept of making my own frames came so naturally. I poked around the internet for a long time looking for and reading everything I could and absorbed it all like a sponge. Books, magazine articles, email lists, forums, videos, you name it.
A lot of procrastination occurred. Decision paralysis is another way of putting it. I didn’t just want to make one frame and call it a day. In me was a desire to build many frames and it was becoming a frustrating itch.
In 2013, I managed to get some tubes and lugs off eBay, a few files and a cheap brazing torch. I had a go at making my first frame. It wasn’t pretty. Not even close. I had no jigs or alignment table but I chose to build a bike-like-shape and just worry about the joints first time around. Lots of mistakes were made and I cut that frame up immediately.
But the itch was now a bite, and it wasn’t long until I bought a proper tubeset, lugs and fittings from Dazza. He guided me on a few things and that was the start of the mentorship that I don’t think either of us had intended. Dazza is incredibly generous with his time and his extensive knowledge. I know other prominent builders have benefitted from his guidance and something he has instilled in all of us is to build with better care and attention to detail.
It was late 2014 that I started on this second frame. In amongst caring for a family of four kids, commuting to Adelaide (a three-hour flight each way) for work every week, and what was thought to be chronic fatigue at the time, I somehow got the frame built. I still had no jig or alignment table. No fancy tube-cutting machines. Just a bench vice, a handful of basic tools and the early stages of understanding how hard building can be. I was super proud of that frame. I still am.
Using string lines, lines of sight, files, mitre templates and just winging it I managed to make a frame that I still ride to this day. It’s not at all perfect, I always knew that, but it wasn’t until I finally bought an alignment table that I realised how far the rear triangle was out.
The next stage
Life took an unexpected turn not long after the purchase of the alignment table at the end of 2014. In the space of a month my marriage broke down and I lost the job I’d worn myself thin over.
With no home, no job and a devastating sense of loss, I put myself out there and asked if anyone wanted a custom frame built. It was an attempt to claw back some sense of purpose and to earn some money.
Now, if you’ve spent any time around the framebuilding community you will know that the masters and veterans of the industry will always tell you to build a stack of frames before offering to take someone’s money. Build for family, friends, yourself. Design, build, make mistakes, learn, repeat. And I would agree with them, especially if you don’t have a design or fabrication background. What I did goes very much against the grain in that respect and I don’t know if it was brave or foolhardy but I had the confidence that I could do it. Perhaps I was driven by desperation.
I was surprised that a friend saw my post on Facebook and offered to pay for a frame in full and that I could take my time to build it while I found my feet. Another friend saw his reply to my post and offered the same deal. I was blown away. It gave me some money to get by with and the time to build when I was ready.
I immediately bought all the materials for both frames and Ben Wallis of Wallis Paints offered a deal of two paint jobs in return for a frame for himself. So, with the incredible generosity of these three amazing people, Devlin Custom Cycles was born.
My luck was turning around. I soon found a place to live with a workshop space and I was able to build my first customer’s bike. And what a first bike to build! My friend is 193cm (6’4”) and 110kg. It was a farm gate of a bike and I was proud as punch when, after delivery, I received a phone call from him to say it was incredible. My sense of satisfaction and overwhelming relief was huge.
Unfortunately, my life didn’t stay on its rails for long. It turns out the chronic fatigue was actually B Cell Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. To be honest I wasn’t surprised. Having been pretty fit and knocking on the door of elite level racing when I was younger, I was pretty in tune with my body. I knew the doctors had missed something in my earlier diagnosis; I hadn’t felt right since.
What followed was an intense course of chemo and radiation to reduce the 10cm wide tumour at the top of my lungs. Fortunately, the incredible doctors were able to cure me of the disease so I could continue to be a dad and pursue my new-found passion for building frames.
Fast forward to now and I’ve built a total of 13 frames. All of them lugged, save for the last. I’ve been poking around and trying a few things to see what really floats my boat and what I want to build. I’ve been learning new techniques from the likes of Dazza and bike fitter Peter Spencer, and gathering better equipment as I go along.
My preference for steel is purely about ride quality. In my experience steel gives that spritely, smooth road feel that other materials seem to lack. Modern steel tubing gives the ability to build frames that are light enough for me, but I honestly couldn’t tell you how much my bikes weigh.
In my mind custom frames are a necessity if anyone is going to spend any amount of time riding regularly. Especially anyone who makes sacrifices to train and race. I honestly do not see the point of putting all that in and not having a bike that fits you perfectly. Of course, the vast majority of people can eventually find a production bike that they can massage close to the right position for them.
The combination of Dazza’s influence and the fact I started racing in the mid-80s meant lugs were always going to be on the menu. I love the clean aesthetic of the other joining methods but the lower heat and the chance to add a bit of flare to a frame is the main reason for using lugs. It also allows me to build the frames in sections which gives me total control over the accuracy of the frames.
I’ve used Darrell’s lugs for the most part. Dazza has an incredible product in the fittings he has designed and lots of experience, knowledge and consideration has gone into each part. As I’ve progressed I’ve started to have needs and desires for little tweaks that suit the way I build. It’s a goal to have my own lugs produced, ideally to reduce the toil I put into Dazzas lugs to make them a product of Devlin Custom with the shapes and lines I’ve cultivated to define my look.
Gifting myself something new
All of this has brought me to the pinnacle of my building so far. The Devlin Kinship. A BiLam (faux-lugged) tapered road frame. A bike I built for myself and a bike that showcases everything I knew about framebuilding.
I knew it was time to create something unique; something that would carry me forward. It had to be distinctive but not a gimmick and also a design I could repeat. The loop lug shoreline was a look I had in my mind for a while but I was unsure how to achieve it. If I’m honest, I was scared to try it. But what would I lose in trying? Oh yeah: material, money, time … my mind. Oh well.
I literally left it to the last minute, too. With HBSA only weeks away it had to be painted as well. I sketched out some lines on a tube, and using a computer I was able to scale them up and down for each diameter so they are all exactly the same shape.
The intricate chainstays proved the most difficult to do. These were hand-cut from plain 4130 tubing — shaped, cleaned up and silver brazed to the ends of the tubes. Once that was done, I hand-mitred the tubes and the whole frame is fillet-brazed in silver. Silver brazing is great for its lower required heat and has the necessary strength when you have the correct size fillets.
The beauty of using this style of tube joining is I can vary the length of both the lug and the loops to very subtly affect the stiffness of the bike. This can also be achieved by correct selection of tube diameter and wall thicknesses for the application, but it’s nice to have that extra level of adjustment available to me.
The main features of this frame are the tapered head tube with custom machined headset. The tapered top and seat tubes go from 31.8mm at the head tube and bottom bracket to 28.6mm at the seat cluster. The frame has a 35mm down tube, long tapered chainstays and 16mm single-tapered seat stays. All tubes are from the Columbus catalogue except the seat tube which is a Reynolds item.
There were a couple of reasons for going with tapered tubes. The head tube is an obvious one in that it allows for the use of modern carbon forks. Ironically, I still used a carbon fork with a straight steerer on this bike. This allowed me to use a fork with a smaller crown volume and take some of the visual bulk away from the front of the bike.
I intended to develop a steel crown that fits in neatly with the tapered head tube and use Columbus MAX blades. My opinion is that MAX forks provide the best ride of any fork available. Stiff enough and with a beautiful ride, but only a small weight penalty over carbon forks. Unfortunately, time didn’t allow.
The tapered top and seat tubes allow me to build a frame that has great torsional stiffness, so it steers predictably and provides a reactive pedalling platform. It also allows a smaller diameter seat post to be used which adds to the smooth ride, especially when combined with a sloping top tube.
I put a lot of consideration into future component choice, specifically allowing for either mechanical or electronic derailleurs. The down tube cable stop is removable; so too is the chainstay stop. There are electronic cable ports underneath the down tube cable stop, at the front derailleur mount and at the rear drop out. Obviously, SRAM’s wireless groupsets don’t need any of those details. Future models will see 3D-printed stops in these locations to achieve a really refined look and product.
The rear dropouts are Llewellyn with my own shape to reflect the lug loops. I’ve eschewed using a chainstay bridge, with the modern view being that it’s unnecessary unless you want to mount a fender. There is some measure of adding to frame stiffness and strength but the gains are small and a much cleaner frame can be achieved without them.
A ride I’m proud of
I had the idea of presenting this frame at the show with a classic look. I was fortunate to find a near-perfect-condition nine-speed alloy Campagnolo Chorus groupset, although aficionados will be able to point out the little concessions. Along with Ben Wallis’ amazing paint, I was able to come up with the current build.
Of course, I am biased, but the result is the best-riding bike I have ever had the pleasure of swinging a leg over. It glides along the rough roads around my home and feels perfectly balanced front to rear.
I am fairly conservative when it comes to geometry. To me, current production bikes are all too reactive and full of balance compromises. Too-short rear ends and short trails result in nervous bikes that don’t do any favours to riders. This bike has 415mm-long chain stays with a front-centre of 594mm and a trail of 56mm.
Out on the road it reacts beautifully when you push on the pedals with any anger and dances delightfully when you stand up. The steering is light but not nervous and has a beautiful turn in with a light push of the inside hand. It’s easy to aim at and hit an apex before standing up without fuss, the bike being ready to surge forward again. On long days it isn’t going to be a handful to ride when I’m tired.
This is the reason I build. To create bikes like what I’ve created for myself. I’ve been lucky so far to have clients that know what they want and I’ve been able to deliver bikes they were immediately comfortable on.
I am immensely proud of that and it drives me to keep designing and building. I must say a huge thanks to all the people who have helped me along the way. From customers having faith in me, to family and friends who have given up their time and sometimes their money to see me achieve my dream of becoming a full-time builder. It’s not something I’ve done on my own at all and I certainly wouldn’t have arrived at this point without them.