Someone asked me the other day what I would choose if I could replace my quiver with just one bike. It was a tricky question to answer. For me, the joy of riding comes from swinging a leg over different bikes.
There is nothing more exciting than hitting the same piece of familiar road, track, or singletrack on a new bike. Everything is familiar, but wildly different, allowing you to paint a completely different picture of what you thought you knew. That tightening corner? The sharp rise? That fast, flowy section? They all feel new on a different bike.
While I couldn’t (even in my mind) commit to a quiver-killer, I could answer what a “bike for life” looks like.
An heirloom bike
With all of the bikes I’ve owned, loaned, borrowed or tested … plus three that I’ve written off (note: only one involved a garage door) I’ve always been drawn in by equal parts functionality and aesthetics. Every one of these bikes has put a smile on my face and has helped me to see those familiar roads in a new light. But as amazing as each of those bikes is/has been, the reality is that this mixture of carbon and alloy is all somewhat disposable.
It’s something I’ve borrowed from an interest in heirloom woodworking hand tools, but I love the idea that one day after untold countless adventures, something I own will be passed down in the family somewhere (or equally possible: pawned off after my passing for way too little, to the delight of a poker-faced buyer). The reality is that it’s not going to be a high-end carbon frame being handed down. No, the bikes that I own that have the potential to make it to a future generation are constructed of steel (or at least, they were).
The concept of a ‘lifer’ has been on my mind for a long time. Accepting that a bike for life needs to be ridden for its life, I always had it in my head that when I got around to it, it would be a titanium frame.
The appeal of titanium goes beyond the mystique and romance of this exotic material, the carbon-like stiffness and weight, and the unmistakable look. It’s also a very practical material that can take a beating. Scratches can be lightly buffed out, and treated well, it’s not going to go noodley like an alloy frame, or keep you wondering whether there is some unseen crack like some of my much loved (and used/abused) carbon frames.
Over the years I’ve kept an eye on frames and builders, knowing that eventually, something would tug at my heartstrings. And tug it eventually did, although little did I realise that I’d be halfway around the world when it happened.
I’ve been on some amazing adventures over the years with my good friend Shannon Bufton of Serk Cycling, including our attempt at an Everesting on Mt. Everest itself. It was a few years later while riding with him in the barren wilderness of Kyrgyzstan that I first saw in person some of the Serk titanium bikes in his stable. In my mind my ‘lifer’ was always going to be raw titanium, so seeing these bikes that celebrated the material with a traditional(ish!) geometry, simple clean lines, and subtle but meaningful design cues, I was quickly smitten.
I got chatting to Shannon about the manufacturer. The factory he uses boasts more than 30 years experience in building titanium bikes, making it one of the oldest and largest in Asia, with over 50,000 frames built over the decades. They had a huge amount of investment a couple of years ago and built a new factory in a neighbouring province with all the latest high-tech wizz-bangery, while still using the same old lathes and many of the original workers.
Maybe it’s my background at CT where our entire staff lives and breathes cycling, but it was important to me that many of the workers ride. It turns out they also live and breath the sport, and the factory has helped fund many grassroots programs for the local scene.
I’d quickly fallen for Serk, in equal parts because of the simple, beautiful lines, but equally because of the alignment with Shannon’s sense of exploration, creating new frontiers, and seeking adventure in … well, everything.
I can’t quite explain why, but I’ve always found something breathtaking about the aesthetics of steel track bikes. I’ve owned quite a few over the years (I’m currently riding an ex-Kierin-raced Eimei, and have recently finished a full NJS Nagasawa build). One thing that has kept me obsessed with these bikes over the years is the lack of brakes, and therefore super clean-looking rear stays.
When I had my first introduction to disc brakes back in 2013 I distinctly remember being impressed by the improved braking performance, but also the caliper-less stays afforded by running discs. So when I chatted to Shannon about a custom build, it was always going to be about playing to those unblemished lines that the bridgeless rear stays of the A30 conjure.
I also loved the design cues that manifest themselves in every component. There’s the Haçienda-style patterning found on guard rails throughout Tibet which find their way onto the bottom bracket housing. And the easter-egg quotes on their thru axles provide a bit of a smile when they are discovered on the side of some dusty road while changing a tyre. And then there are the iconic passes listed as height markers on the rear of the seatpost (I’m slowly working my way through that bucket list!).
I asked Shannon about the inspiration for the surprisingly intricate design detail seen on the lower headset cup. As a former architect it was no surprise that he showed consideration for every design element that goes into his bikes:
“We searched for a meaningful way to represent this motivating force in the design of our bikes and found inspiration in the ancient frontier city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan. Samarkand was one of the largest cities in Central Asia, prospering from its location at a crossroads on the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean.
“In Samarkand, we discovered a series of entrancing motifs on the building facades lining the ancient city square. These types of Square Kulfic motifs are created when Arabic words, most usually representing Divinity, are abstracted, rotated and joined together to form a pattern.
“We took the word ‘frontier’ and translated it before abstracting and rotating in the Square Kulfic tradition to create our own Serk Frontier pattern.
“The pattern is laser engraved in our headsets and stem caps and represents a deep connection to the experience of frontier exploration.”
Playing on the frame’s simple aesthetics, I asked Shannon to remove all braze-ons, wire ports, and to stay stealth with the branding – basically anything possible to retain an unblemished look. To further reduce unnecessary visual clutter, I opted for the wireless system afforded by SRAM Red eTap AXS. The result, I feel, is a bike that is immensely rideable, has a clean uncluttered look, and celebrates the dull beauty of its titanium construction.
I was all set and ready to go with my order, and the intention was to fly over to Beijing, complete a final fit-up, and then hit the road with Shannon for a couple of days to break it in properly before flying back to Melbourne with it. Spoiler alert: 2020 had other plans in store, and after delaying the trip a couple of times to “allow this whole COVID thing to blow over” it soon became apparent that a trip to China would have to wait for another time.
In lieu of the trip, the knowledgeable team at Melbourne’s Jetnikoff completed the build, which also allowed me to add some additional elements, like the ultra-plush and sticky bar tape from Burgh in Tasmania (it’s just made for riding gloveless), a set of titanium King Cages, and I swapped out the WTB Exposure tyres seen in the gallery for a set of Panaracer GravelKings.
While a never-ending stream of lockdowns has provided a slightly dampened introduction to this bike, I’ve still managed to get it out on a number of backyard adventures. With a geo that was immediately familiar to me and a ridiculously comfortable ride, it truly puts the ‘all-day’ in all-road. So while the still-to-come overseas jaunts will have to wait a little longer, the best thing about a bike for life is that there is a lifetime of roads ahead.
A bike is as much about the connection you have with it, as the sum of its parts. It’s about the places it opens up, and the memories it leaves you with. As Shannon puts it:
“For us, cycling is a transcendental experience. From the serenity of witnessing first light flooding a landscape to the invincibility felt on a perfect flowing descent, we are perpetually chasing those moments of nirvana opened up to us by being on a bike.”
This is what riding is to me. With a mantra like this beating through its designer’s veins, this bike for life was always going to be the right fit for me.
Frame: Serk Titanium A30 ‘Captain’ All Road Fork: Seek Carbon All-Road Headset: Serk IS/EC Rims: Serk carbon rims 21 mm wide internal / 35 mm deep Hubs: DT Swiss 350 Spokes: Sapim CX-Ray Front derailleur: SRAM Red eTap AXS Rear derailleur: SRAM Red eTap AXS Shifters: SRAM Red eTap AXS Brakes: SRAM Red AXS Cassette: SRAM Red AXS, 10-33T Chain: SRAM Red AXS Crankset: SRAM Red AXS DUB, 35/48T Bottombracket: SRAM DUB Road Shapes preference: Barbeque Tyres: Panaracer Gravel King 32 mm, sans tubes Handlebar: Enve Aero Road SES, 42 cm Stem: Enve Aero Stem Seatpost: Serk carbon with frontier graphic Cages: King Cage titanium Socks: Worn under leg warmers Bartape: Burgh Hieroglyph Stealth Saddle: Specialized Power Pedals: Shimano Ultegra PD-R8000 Extras: Machined rear hanger cast from a solid piece of titanium block Weight: 7.9 kg