caren hartley: one half of isen bicycles

isen workshop

it may be that there is a publication schedule for the world's magazines, but other than the majority appearing at my newsagents pretty much always on a thursday, if such a schedule exists, i've no idea what it is. i have a number of magazines on order, few of which are on subscription, because i like to support the existence of bricks and mortar. you just never know when you might need them. so when i popped in on thursday past to collect my daily newspaper and two home-made pancakes, the weight of the bag advertised that one of those monthly publications may have arrived.

it was, in fact, the latest copy of ed pickering's excellent procycling, the cover advertising to all his competitors, that simon yates explains inside just how he plans to take victory in next year's tour de france. he might well race to regret saying so.

isen workshop

however, open the cover and immediately inside is what those of us involved in printed media would refer to as a dps or double-page-spread. in this particular case, it advertised a specific carbon model from a well-known italian brand of bicycle. far from the diamond frame's ancestry of round metal tubes, this particular model displayed an almost entirely square down tube, married to some swoopingly curved seatstays and chainstays, the former apparently bolted in place about three-quarter way up the seat tube. at the front of the square top tube, towards its juncture with the sculpted head tube can be seen a black panel, featuring another couple of bolts flush with its top surface.

isen workshop

i am presuming this has some notional connection with the shimano electronic groupset with which it is fitted.

not having any expertise in carbon frame design, i've no idea if these apparently functional frame cross-sections offer any advantage over the steel tubing of yore, or whether they have been deemed necessary to provide carbon monocoque with the same properties as its metallic predecessor. it is nice to see later in the same publication a reynolds 531 cotton t-shirt; but then, that's probably me and not necessarily you.

isen workshop

despite the ubiquity of carbon fibre in the world of the velocipede, i need hardly remind you that there are still plenty of folks convinced of the joys of steel, happy to continue pushing the boundaries, so to speak, and provde a worthy alternative to resin-bonded plastic. caren hartley is one such individual, a young lady who has produced frames under the downtube moniker of hartley cycles, but has recently teamed up with matt mcdonough of talbot frameworks to offer prospective connoisseurs with frames under the isen badge.

unusually, ms hartley originall specialised in silverware, jewellery and sculpture, hardly the traditional background for someone keen to enter the world of bicycle building. does she, therefore, find that the bicycle frame embodies all or some of those interests?

isen workshop

"I think working in the design and art field for long time has developed and influenced my way of looking at things and analyzing them. This has given me a different approach to making bikes and also the concept of what I want my bikes to be: desirable, tactile and ultimately useful objects. So I think this continues to have an effect on the way I design bikes and the visual and practical decisions I make."

each material employed in the production of bicycle frames, tautologically requires a relevant expertise. carbon is predominantly concerned with carbon mat layup to provide strength where required and minimise weight where practicable, none of which are particularly relevant to joining steel tubes together. prior to the advent of tig welding, the latter was mostly achieved via fillet brazing or lugged construction, the more esoteric of which required silver brazing, surely a technique that would have played straight into the expert hands of caren hartley. which method of conjoining have caren and matt chosen?

"The Isen frames are tig welded, as this is the production method that we feel makes most sense for a production frame and it keeps the look of the bike clean and sleek."

isen workshop

isen are hardly alone in their choice of this method. the ritchey logic which has seen me through those 500 festive kilometres has felt the benefit of tungsten inert gas, as did the late lamented cielo cycles from portland, while former aficionados of fillet-brazing, shand cycles, have also recently opted for the welding torch.

while the iconic connecticut framebuilder, richard sachs, prefers his own company in the solitary act of constructing impeccable steel frames, not everyone harbours regular solitude in the course of their daily travail. as mentioned in my introduction, caren hartley was already etsablished as a builder of quality via her own hartley cycles, but leaving aside any considerations of potential loneliness on the shop floor, whay the collaboration with matthew?

"We had both been chatting to each other about wanting to make an off-the-peg bike within our own businesses, as a way to bring bikes to customers more quickly and in a refined build that we felt would well meet the needs of a lot of our customers. But we recognised the potential conflict this might cause with the bespoke part of our businesses and also the massive amount of work it would be if we wanted to do it properly. Creating Isen Workshop as a stand-alone brand was the perfect answer, as it meant we could combine our diverse skillsets and time, while creating a unique brand identity which fuses our own distinct house styles."

isen workshop

it's nice to have at least some mechanical skills when it comes to the bicycle, particularly living on the outer edge, where the concept of a local bike shop is an alien one. being able to figure out what's wrong and fix it comes in very handy from time to time. but after visiting several framebuilders in portland, oregon, i am more than well aware of my severe restrictions in this milieu. i can easily visualise stepping back to admire the construct hanging on the workstand and put the torch flame through one or other hose leading from the gas bottles.

a very short-lived career indeed.

i can, however, build a perfectly acceptable set of wheels; definitely not in the expert manner of the likes of derek mclay at wheelsmith or jude gerace at sugar wheelworks, but a decent attempt nonetheless. however, i see this as merely a notional gesture towards the mechanical and practical nature of the bicycle; definitely not a vocation or career. caren hartley, however, has the benefit of skill in silversmithing and sculpture, two aspects of an art college education that never made it past my reading of the syllabus. did her early metalwork experience lead caren to the bicycle, or was she already suitably obsessed in the early years?

isen workshop

"I was pretty late to cycling, but my love of it started when I moved to London to study Metalwork and Jewellery at the Royal College of Art. Commuting, the gateway drug, gradually led me to road cycling at the weekends and wearing lycra, but it wasn't until a few years later when I wanted a career change, that the idea of making bikes came up.
"I had been doing a lot more riding and was enjoying getting to know the London cycling community as a way of putting off making career decisions. Building bespoke bikes was a pragmatic answer to how I could continue to make things and use the skills I had spent the last twelve years obtaining, but get out of the art industry in which I was no longer happy. That bikes were the perfect answer was more of a lucky coincidence than a grand plan!"

i can wholly sympathise with caren's view of the art industry, one that seems far more content with its insularity and navel-gazing, than it is with true dialectic progress. it could, no doubt, be argued that building bicycle frames from steel is hardly one identified with progress, particularly when there are individual, non-corporate builders experimenting with carbon. however, there is a sizeable number of the cognoscenti who still regard steel as having been blind-sided and usurped by the black stuff, when steel still has so much more to give, to say nothing of its testifiable longevity.

ask most of those building with steel where they see their future heading and you'll rarely garner a convincingly adventurous reply. after all, richard sachs has been building essentially the same beautiful bike from steel tubing for a considerable number of years and sees no real need to do otherwise. a full order book would seem to confirm his unshakeable faith. so, what are caren's cunning plans for the future?

"Aside from world domination?"

isen workshop

friday 29 december 2017

twmp ..........................................................................................................................................................................................................