The Hack Bike Derby

The Hack Bike Derby

17 frame builders go head-to-head on hand hacked Klunkers

all photography by Adam Gasson

Whether you grew up in the city or off a gravel road, if you had a bike as a kid, chances are you figured out a way to jump it. A mount of dirt, curb cut, or the classic 2x4 and plywood ramp served as many of our first introductions to engineering, physics, and even first-aid. (Shout out all the younger siblings/guinea pigs who got suckered into getting jumped.) As a kid, riding a bicycle was about one thing and one thing only—fun. In a world dominated by the next best thing, fancy lycra outfits and carbon frames, and whatever else we can find to spend rent on, the fun is easily forgotten. Though a few short weekends ago in the woody countryside of Somerset, UK, the sketchy DIY spirit of cycling was alive in the form of the Hack Bike Derby.

Hack Bike Derby is, as race organizer and proprietor of premier bicycle frame building school The Bicycle Academy Andrew Denham puts it, all about “racing home hacked bikes with friends for the heck of it.” The event is invite only, and not for the faint of heart—or those lacking a sense of humor. Each year’s theme is different, though the main concept never changes. Participants are required to hand-build a bike from scratch for under £300, and then race said bike through three courses over two days. There’s no time limit or the build, but most took less than a few days to accomplish the task.

“The word 'Hack' is key here,” explains Denham. “The idea is that the bikes are made quickly and cheaply without too much faffing. The builders involved are more used to making bikes that total around £3,000, so this kind of limit makes the event affordable, relatable, and prevents builders from getting carried away.” Though some did get carried away, nonetheless.

For the 2016 Hack Bike Derby 17 top frame builders were invited. The theme was Klunkers, inspired by the early mountain bike designs cobbled together (often from old Schwinns) in the 70s in California. These Klunkers are the stuff of legend—crazy designs, curved tubing, wide bars, fat tires, single speed. “Like an old Schwinn cruiser crossed with a motorbike,” says Denham.

To further limit the builders, modern disk and v-brakes were forbidden, leaving only calipers, coaster, and drum brakes as options. The bikes were to be built entirely by hand. Even the dropouts on the frame and fork. And no paint. Just sharpie or hand paint with a brush. 26” wheels made each bike period accurate too.

“The word 'Hack' is key here."

Each designer approached the project differently, and with a somewhat loose theme the door was open for experimentation. In the week leading up to the event countless late night beer drinking, music blasting, bike hacking sessions went down at The Bicycle Academy. One such builder involved was Nick Larsen of Charge, who drew inspiration from his own 70s era Schwinn, equally old Raleigh, and an old Charge model, pulling bits from each enough to sketch out an idea. While most of the invitees are local legends in the bike building world, Larsen’s craftsman days were few and far between. Though all of Charge’s bikes are handbuilt, it’s not by his hand, so he leaned on Denham and the Academy for some help (and his degree in industrial design).

“I hacked up the tubes, bent the top tube around a tree trunk, hand drew out the dropouts, and hacked them up with a hacksaw,” explains Larsen of the three day process, which happened to be his third frame build in 25 years. “My brazing was pretty sketchy to say the least, and the frame geometry was more by eye than anything super technical. It came out ok.” A bit of chalk pen and sharpie served as decoration. Components came from his personal stash of parts amassed over “three decades of being obsessed with bikes.”

“I think that Tony Corke’s “Corker” was beautiful, and Tom Donhou’s build too,” says Denham of his favorites for 2016. “Tam Hamilton’s take on the rules was pretty offbeat but his build was badass—a mash up between mad max, destruction derby, and the insides of his head.”

The Klunkers theme didn’t stop with the frames, it informed the actual event too. Over the course of a weekend racers would launch themselves down three hand-dug courses. “All downhill, off road, some head to head, some timed and some mass start. Fun to do and fun to watch,” as Denham explained it.

The courses were sketchy—as hand hacked as the bikes that were propelled down them—and spirits were high. Jeans, flannels and vans seemed to be the unofficial uniform of the dozen or so racers. Certainly many wished they’d worn head to to Gore-Tex for as much rain that fell during day one. Though rain poured at such a tragic pace the event trudged on. Camaraderie it was, as each fellow tried his hand at course digging, beer pouring, coffee serving, and shit talking. Everyone was in the same boat, and even though it must’ve felt like it was sinking, no one seemed to care. After all, when’s the next time a few dozen friends would be free to get together and terrorize the countryside in such fashion again? It was pure fun, plain and simple.

At the end of the long, wet weekend a single winner was announced. The renegade event was a success, and with minimal damage to bikes and their riders—save for a limp or two—all in attendance were already looking forward to next year.

see the action for yourself in the recap video

Brooklyn-based writer, photographer and founder of The Field. Graham apologizes in advance for his many mispellings.
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