Birds in flight: building the Rapha + Liberty bikes

Tom Donhou is an independent frame builder based in Hackney Wick, with a workshop just a stone’s throw from the Olympic velodrome in east London. First asked by Rapha to build a bike for the Rapha Continental – a series of rides focused on discovery over organised racing – Tom was ultimately invited to take part, riding the frames he built in their intended habitat. The two black swallows of the Donhou logo became a regular sight in the films and photographs coming out of the UK Continental rides, and when the idea to create a bike to accompany the Rapha + Liberty launch was first suggested, Tom’s name was top of the list. Building two bespoke bikes, one for road riding and one for the city, Tom painstakingly incorporated the distinctive Rapha + Liberty print into each frame’s paintwork. Evoking the image of starlings in flight, the 1930s print from the Liberty archive is the perfect match for both Tom’s craftsmanship and the bikes themselves. He spoke to Rapha about his experience working on such a unique project.

Where did the inspiration for the bikes come from? When I first discussed the range with Rapha, there were clearly two distinct purposes for the collection – the city riding pieces, and the road riding and racing pieces. With this in mind, we decided to create both a road and town bike to match.

The road riding products in the Rapha + Liberty collection are technical and designed for fast riding. I wanted the bike to reflect that. It has the highest quality components available, and the geometry is race-led, with oversize Columbus tubing, and an Enve fork. It’s a really responsive bike.

For the town bike, I took inspiration from the casual nature of the City products in the collection. The bike is a typical Donhou town bike, with a step through frame, designed to be a fast little ‘about-towner’. It’s perfect for the different tasks you use a bike for – whether it’s a commute to work or a roll down the towpath on a Sunday. There’s also a belt-drive system, which doesn’t use oil, protecting your trousers or leggings.

You paint all your own frames. How did you find working with the 1930s print that features in the collection? The frame construction on the road bike – with its oversized head tube – really lends itself to the pattern in the print, providing a lot of surface area to work with. After I sat down with the designers at Rapha and discussed the print itself, I came up with a few options. One of which I was in two minds whether to show them or not, because I knew how much work was involved. But in the end, I knew it would come out great, and it was the obvious choice. Fading from front to back, the paint gives a sense of movement just like the pattern itself, evoking speed, grace, and also, birds in flight.

You also added some references to Liberty’s cycling heritage.Rapha garments all come with a story behind them, often concealed in a pocket or on the inside of a jacket. I wanted the bike to be the same. The Challenge Cup, which is a great story from Liberty’s history and their connection to women’s cycling, was an obvious way to achieve this. I took the illustration from the winner’s certificate that the Liberty designers found in their archive, turned that into a drawing, did a stainless steel laser cutting from it, and then brazed it onto the frame. It celebrates the history from back in the day, and where we’ve placed it between the seat stays is quite hidden, reflecting the hidden stories in the clothing.

Liberty’s prints have never featured on performance garments previous to the Rapha + Liberty collection. It must be a unique collaboration for you, too?Rapha and Liberty are both very ‘London’, and the fact that I’m based here tied us together quite well. The print itself looks great on a bike, and leant itself really well to the process. Had it been a standard Liberty paisley-type pattern it would have been a different story, but the pattern that Rapha and Liberty chose really looks great on the bikes. With regards to working with Liberty, I certainly didn’t think I ever would [laughs]. But it has been a great experience and a great project, and I’m really pleased to have been involved with it.

The Rapha + Liberty road and town bikes can be ordered via www.donhoubicycles.com and follow @donhoubicycles on Instagram.