Building European Bicycle – My Story

My journey and learnings from building a custom bike only from European made parts.

How It All Started

A few years back, I decided to fulfil my dream of discovering Asia. I went there for 3 months and travelled extensively away from the beaten tourist track meeting as many people as I could. Many things fascinated me, but one really stuck a cord – many people loved and appreciated European products. This topic came up again and again in different settings and conversations.

scene-from-an-asian-street

That made me realise that we, Europeans, do not really know what we are making these days. And those small artisans with unique skills make extraordinary things deep in the Italian countryside without knowing how to reach us, the consumers, in this digital age.

This eventually led me to start a project that became my life obsession – discovering European makers. So, to get the most out of it, I decided to buy only European made things. But I have to admit, it was not my idea – I was inspired by Benjamin who lived for a year using only ‘French-made’ (Guardian – ‘Can you live using only products made in France?’).

This is a bit of a long intro, but I feel it is relevant to show why I was obsessed with every single part of my future bike being from Europe.And to my surprise, at that time, I could not find a European bicycle maker who would clearly indicate that 100% of bike parts are coming from Europe.

There were always parts that were clearly coming from major Asian bicycle makers. Hence I decided to build my own custom European bicycle.Cycling was a new hobby for me at that time. Many of my friends took me for rides, and I started appreciating longer rides, wind in my hair and sunny countryside.

The only problem was that I had no idea how to fix a bike, let alone build one.

But hey, what could go wrong?

The Reality About European Bike Makers

Let’s face it, we live in a global world with global supply chains. I see absolutely no problems when large bike manufacturers are using parts from around the world. They choose the best, the cheapest and the most innovative. But for me, I needed to look at the heritage of every single part if I were to get a 100% European bike. That’s where I encountered the first challenges.

There is no unified agreement on what can we call ‘European’. For some, assembling the bike in Europe from globally supplied parts allows them to claim to be European bike manufacturer.

For others, it would also should be built from European made parts. But then each part also has components, metal alloys etc. It can become quite tricky to decide if you look really closely. ‘Made in Swiss’ mark, for example, is given to watches that contain 50% of the watch parts made in Europe. I just could not apply the same concept on my bike.

I also noted that some makers are importing lower-priced bikes and do make a premium ranges in Europe. But that would typically mean carbon bikes costing tens of thousands of Euros – a price I could simply not afford. And then, even those bikes would still have components that were not made in Europe.

product-with-a-label

Disappointingly, I also started noticing some misleading claims. Some maker would even say ‘made in Italy’ on the packaging, but their corporate site would confirm that their manufacturing is outsourced to Taiwan. And there were more and more discrepancies I found as I went along with this project. I found it fascinating that brands still want to hold on to the European maker’s image – especially when selling outside Europe.

Making My Own Custom Made European Bicycle

Hence I had no choice but to custom build my own custom made European bicycle. As with many first time projects, I did think – ‘how hard can it be?’ Only later to be overwhelmed by the number of parts required and all those options on top of it.

Luckily, I had all the in the world to learn as I went along. Also, I was really grateful for the advice and increasing support from my friend Vytas, who owns Machine bicycle shop/social club near Tower Bridge in London. I doubt I would have completed this project without him.

man-in-front-of-a-bicycle-shop

It is incredible how hard it is to find European makers of certain parts. Sometimes I would give up after days and days of search, only to start again with a hope that there is at least one maker who will have what I need. But in the end, I did have to settle for alternatives – second-hand options. Luckily, only a few parts required that option B, and I ended up with a new bike representing current bicycle part manufacturers in Europe.

Although the bike did not come cheap, it was much less expensive than carbon options I saw before. In total, I spent just under €2,500. One of the significant savings was the frame, as I went for second hand De Rosa instead of very costly new options I found.

European Cycling Gear Manufacturers

As part of my project of only buying European made products, I also had to buy my cycling gear. And to my surprise buying European cycling gear posed no challenge whatsoever. There are loads of companies and brand from France, Italy and the UK who make exceptional sports clothing. And that, of course, includes cycling shoes. I am also impressed by how high tech cycling clothing can be.

All those stretchy materials, windproof but breathable membranes were news to me. And I learned a lot about technology and how it supports our cycling in any weather. There was a new trend that caught my eye too – going vintage. I really like the idea of tapping into historical technologies like merino wool, which also guarantees light material with quick moisture dispersion while keeping cyclist warm.

How do you like this one?

cycling-vest

Key Learnings

There are a lot of bike part makers in Europe, but they can be grouped into three main categories:

Small makers. These are the artisan and craftsmen who are passionate about cycling and focus on one specific bike part they good at making. That would include frame builders engineering custom orders or testing new frame types. Wooden handlebar maker, a one-man band, fascinated about sustainability and lightness of wood. Or a leather grip maker solely focusing on that.

There are many more makers like this that make great things, waiting to be discovered. It is a shame to see that quite a few of them closed the shop over a few years as the sales volumes were not enough to keep the passion going.

Big manufacturers. These are the brands who made are now recognised globally. It includes Hope Tech, a company that started making reliable hubs and now exports a variety of bike parts globally, all made in Brunswick, England. Or Brooks England, a great and comfy looking seat maker that everyone knows around the world.

And finally, legacy brands like Campagnolo. These companies have been around for generations and have made their mark by innovating, sponsoring professional cyclists or even races. I found it a little more tricky to deal with them for my particular project.

As global competition is heating up and times are changing, they adapt and often shift their production lines to other countries. Sometimes ‘forgetting’ to mention that on their communication. Especially a valid comment for the budget range products.

The Biggest Discoveries

During my bike build, I had a lot of wow moments. But if I had to pick the top five discoveries in the cycling world, it would be these:

Wooden Bike

Initially, I discovered makers that make separate parts like wheels and handlebars out of wood. And then it led me to a wood furniture maker from Slovenia called 4K. Their team created a fully functioning wooden bike in 2013. This bike was ridden for over 1000 km and worked flawlessly.

bicycle-made-from-wood

These days there are a few companies that adopted this concept. The best though I think is Materia bikes from Latvia. They make really nice looking wooden bikes for under €3,000, with dedicated shops in Latvia, USA, UK and France.

Son Dynamos and Bike Lights, Made in Germany

I got one of these dynamos for my bike and could not be happier, but that was not what surprised me. The company history is even more fascinating. It has a small team of cycling enthusiasts that work together in a small town of Tubingen, in a nondescript apartment block.

The company has over 80 years of history and has always focused on making dynamos. And they are really good at it. I like dynamos that are integrated into a wheel, including specifically made ones for Brompton bikes.

product-image

Italian and French Cycling Gear Makers

There is an unbelievable number of factories in Italy and France specialising in cycling clothing. They are all open to larger orders. So, any decent cycling team can make their clothing with them.

Or, if you wish to start your own cycling brand with your own wildest designs, it is really easy to do too. Just check minimum order requirements, and you got yourself a personal cycling clothing brand.

Campagnolo Wine Opener

I have always known and admired Campagnolo as bicycle groupset maker. And, of course, I put their Chorus groupset on my European bike. To my surprise, I also learned that they used to make wheels for racing cars and hold more than 2,000 international patents. One of their latest projects was a giant wine opener. Using their engineering know how they created two lever wine opener called The Big Corkscrew.

It shouts cycling engineering, the rivets, the smoothness of two ‘cranksets’ spinning – a completely different experience from an ordinary corkscrew. In the end, of course, I had to get one of these too. And I was not disappointed – I even wrote ‘The Big Corkscrew’ Review, should you wish to read more.

wine-opener-in-a-box

For me, this shows the innovation and adaptability of legendary brands. To survive in today’s global world, one has to adapt and do unexpected things. I would have never thought of such a product for predominantly bike part-makers, but hey it benefits consumers and is already a collector item.

Other European Bike Builders

It is great to see that I was not alone to come up with an idea of the European made bike. I had a few people contacting me for advice and inspiration. It was fascinating to meet with Jurgen from Belgium, who decided to build his own European made BMX bike.

We met up for a beer and shared our frustrations and joys of running such a project.He actually found more small European bike part makers and I included them on the European Bike Makers blogpost. Covid has got in the way of me seeing the full project to come to fruition, but when travel opens again, I hope to write a blog post or do an interview about his journey to his dream bike.

The Biggest Disappointments

It has been a few years since I started my it is Made in Europe project, and I have to admit that there were a few disappointments along the way.

As exciting as it is to discover passionate makers and engineers bringing something unique to the cycling world. It is equally heartbreaking to see those small companies disappear a year or so later. There were several products that I loved, but no longer can talk about – their site is down, and they just moved on.

email-visual

Another thing that bothers me is how deceiving some companies are. Even with the experience I had, I still find myself buying something and then discovering that it is not actually made in a European country.

So, these days I tend to email them asking to clarify the origins of the thing I want to buy, and surprisingly often the clarification means that I cannot include it in this project.

Makers Of European Bicycles

Having done extensive research on this subject, I can confidently say that there are European bicycle manufacturers. But… You need to decide what percentage of European parts you consider acceptable. Of course, makers will not list the percentages, but by looking at the part list and brand names, you will have a pretty good idea.

To name my favourite manufacturers with a solid history and clear communications:

Brompton Bikes – Made in the UK

The company is not that old, but definitely, a legacy brand is known worldwide. Started by Andrew Ritchie who drew first prototypes in 1975, this company has made its mark for its foldable bikes. It has carved out its niche, never went in too many directions and focused on what they do best. And judging by rising global sales, and huge fan base they are doing an excellent job.

Royal Dutch Gazelle – Made In The Netherlands

It is a company with a rich history dating back to 1892, and the ‘royal’ in the name was officially given by the Dutch royal family in 1992. These bikes have a lot of character influenced by local trends and quality engineering.

I like that this design actually represents what the company is. It is not taken from somewhere else or copied from the competition to increase sales. It is simply them, their style, their craftsmanship, and people do like this type of originality.

Achille – Made In Belgium

Achille is another bike maker that stands solidly by it is made in Belgium claim. They are very clear that they are ‘made, built and assembled in Europe’. Hand building is at the core of the company beliefs – as you custom build your own bike on their website. These bikes have original style, it is funky and playful and so European.

I would especially like to highlight their electric bikes. There is a lot of demand for such cycles, but they often come in a chunky and squarish design. Achille electric bikes maintain their unique, playful style that is so much more elegant.

My full list of European bike makers is getting longer and longer, so I decided to move it to a separate post – European Bike Manufacturers.

It is by all means not final, so please do ping me a brand in the comments or via email and I will be happy to add it to the list.

My Opinion About Asian Manufacturing

I feel that I need to make a statement clarifying my position on Asian manufacturing in general. I want to make it very clear that I have no negative feelings or comments towards Asian manufacturers whatsoever. Yes, low-quality products come from Asia, but they are of low quality because the retailer usually placed such requirements. We know that Asian bicycle makers also produce exceptional quality bikes and often lead in innovation and development of new technologies.

This post is not written to criticise anyone but to simply recognise, discover and celebrate European makers. I hope that this post will inspire people to learn more about Europan cycling heritage and appreciate things they did not enjoy before. This is just an addition to a myriad of cycling sites appreciating bicycle makers and engineers from around the world.

Final Look Of The Bike At The End Of The Project

In the end it took longer than I anticipated. But looking back it seems it was worth it. I really enjoying riding this bike and feel that I learned so much during this project.

For full list of parts used with closer images visit My European Bike – Parts List.

Advice For Making Your Own European Bicycle

If you want to build your own custom made European bike I hope this post will help you. It is an exciting project that allowed me to understand the genius of engineering behind bikes in general. It also opened my eyes to how much work and how many decades of dedication each part can require.

I found it really fun thing to do. Every time I take my bike for a ride, it reminds me of makers, and the journey it took me to create my dear road companion. It is definitely worth the pain and the expense in the end.

Feel free to reach out if you need any advice or inspiration. I also found that having a local bicycle shop can really help too.

Enjoy the journey, enjoy the ride.

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