This article was published in 2015, in Newsletter 121.
Ever dreamt of ditching the day job and following your passion for cycling? I recently met SaiTong Man who has done exactly that: leaving behind a career in software and putting his life savings into building bespoke cycles. He invited me to his workshop where he explained how Satoma Cycles had started. ‘I was at Ninja Theory [a video game studio based in Cambridge] for a number of years and I grew tired of doing the same things over and over again. I’ve always built and constructed things outside of work and always loved cycling. I had this big yearning to build and craft again, and I wanted to really bring all my passions together as one.’ It was handcrafting custom bike frames that allowed these to come together.
Every bike SaiTong produces is a one-off – custom designed and personalised for the client. ‘Any customer can come to me and ask for any design, any shaping of the bike. It’s all custom to their requirement and also to fit their anatomy.’ SaiTong explains that customers will have had a frame fitting done, or found an existing frame that they feel is perfect to copy dimensions from, ‘I will get millimetre measurements where every single component for the bike needs to be for that person. Then I design the frame geometry to suit their riding and what they actually want to do. From that point I put it all into CAD [computer-aided design], and from that CAD drawing I construct the frame exactly so that we know with a certain size stem, a certain extension of seat post, a certain length crank set, that they will get all the contact points exactly where it should be for them to be most efficient at riding. So in essence what I build is like a tailored suit in terms of a bicycle frame.’
However, it’s not all about function with SaiTong’s cycles – the aesthetics are clearly important too. I wonder if SaiTong’s past in designing digital games and wooden furniture has played a part? ‘They’re all very different, to be honest. Game design is understanding how people interact and respond to certain elements in a virtual world. Furniture design is a merger of functions and aesthetics. Bikes [are] more similar to furniture design, but far more functional and the aesthetics side is a lot more restricted. Which is why I try to find areas on a bike where I can gain freedom and a space where I can actually put an aesthetic to it.’ He shows me where custom artwork has been cut from metal and placed between the twin top tubes of his partner’s ‘mixte’ bike; elsewhere he has used two-tone bilaminates on a fixie’s frame so ‘that it looks as if the back end is holding onto the front end’; conversely, bi-laminates are used to improve power transfer on a racer.
And these bikes are beautiful! Stainless steel fittings polished to a mirror finish, flawless paintwork, the tubing meeting without any discernible weld marks as if they’ve grown as a single piece. Fortunately these labours of love have gained SaiTong critical acclaim, ‘I studied at a place called The Bicycle Academy (thebicycleacademy.org) how to design and build frames, learning the basics, and I was selected out of all the students for that year as their best student. They awarded me with my gas welding equipment, a copy of BikeCAD, a set of tubes and a set of workshop tools. And that enabled me to get going by reducing my start-up costs. Just recently I was exhibiting at Bespoked in Bristol, which is Europe’s largest hand-built bike show, and there I won the award for the best finish/paint. So yeah, it’s been really good to get the recognition, because that’s what this industry – the bespoke frame building industry – is all about. It’s all about reputation and recognition.’
SaiTong believes he is the only custom frame builder in Cambridgeshire. The workshop itself is hidden within an unassuming terrace house in Romsey, the small front room converted into a space for metalworking. He has a garage in Trumpington where the brazing operations are done. The painting is done by a company in Milton, with SaiTong masking the areas for painting himself at their workshop. So is the location important to Satoma Cycles? SaiTong is uncertain about the market for bespoke cycles in Cambridge, ‘I think the majority of cyclists in Cambridge are commuter-based, and would loathe to have such a personalised item being locked somewhere. I would personally imagine that the majority of my customers would want a bike that they would never lock up, would sit under their desk or at home when not being used.’ However, he is hopeful that Cambridge’s ‘vibrant cycling community’ can provide the ‘enthusiasts who would like to go riding on a Sunday-best bike.’
Does a Sunday-best bike appeal to you? Contact SaiTong via email@example.com to discuss your ideas, or to arrange to see the workshop and bikes for yourself. Smaller commissions are also considered: perhaps you’ve got a beloved frame in need of repair, or would like to customise an existing frame for extra utility?
Many thanks to SaiTong for showing me round his workshop and bikes. You can view more of his work at www.satomacycles.com. Thanks also to Lucinda Price for the wonderful photography accompanying this piece. You can view more of her work at lucindapricephotography.wordpress.com