It’s the end of the year, a time for taking stock and making new resolutions. A time, however, when such good intentions are all too easily swept down the back of the sofa with the crumbs of overindulgence. Rapha’s Festive 500 challenge offers an opportunity to avoid a holiday of bloated lethargy by getting out for some on-bike contemplation.The Grand Prize for this year’s Festive 500 is being supplied by a man who knows all about leaving home comforts behind for some time alone, Tom Donhou. The master craftsman behind Donhou Bicycles, Tom is kindly offering his latest Signature Steel bike, the DSS2 (pictured in action here), for whoever puts forward the best submission in ‘the spirit of the Festive 500’ category. The prize is apt because it was while challenging himself on a bicycle that Tom came to a realisation that would change the course of his life.
“I was a product designer, making toys and perfume bottles for the high street – landfill basically – and my conscience got the better of me so I quit and went away,” he says of a nine-month solo cycle tour which took him from Mongolia to Singapore via the Gobi Desert, China and Himalayas. “Riding every day is such a meditative thing that you figure everything out… everything. As I was riding, in my mind I was redesigning the bike I was on into the perfect expedition bike. Then, one day, I was just laying in my tent at the side of the road in China and decided I might as well start building frames myself.”
Tom’s eureka moment is proof that often it takes some time out to realise what has always been in front of you. His love of bikes, skill in product design, background in metalwork and old cars and ability to spend time alone without going mad are the perfect combination of elements for the profession of frame builder – he just hadn’t put it all together. And so, in 2009, Donhou Bicycles was born. Now at the forefront of a young generation of builders bringing this great tradition back up to date, this eloquent man from Norwich in England is brave and forward-thinking, often eschewing the expected for the surprising, and adventurous too, as shown by his Experiments in Speed project from 2013, when he built a bike with a staggering 104-tooth chainring and rode it as fast as he could behind his old Ford Zephyr on a runway.
With the recently-launched DSS2, an adaptable, versatile road bike with a relaxed geometry making it ideal for gravel riding, Tom’s journey with Donhou is beginning to come back to its origins. “After six years of almost non-stop working on the business, I finally had the time to take a bike trip again and test the DSS2 in the process. I wanted to go back to the desert, back to the middle of nowhere.” Tom travelled to Iceland in August with a friend, the photographer George Marshall, and rode the DSS2 across the country’s barren vastness. “As soon as we got off the plane, put the bikes together and got on the road, I thought, ‘This is sweet, I’m away for seven nights, don’t know where I’m staying and have everything I need in my packs.’ I had missed that feeling.”That feeling, that sense of adventure, which is also at the heart of every Festive 500 attempt, was challenged by truly inclement weather facing the boys as they rode for three days across Sprengisandsleið – an ancient pass whose name means ‘to ride your horse to death, to explode from exhaustion’. Battling 50mph winds and riding along an endless grey plateau of lava rocks broken up by icy river crossings may have been too much for some, but Tom embraced it: “Every time you looked up you would be blown away by what you saw. These big glacial valleys and gorges would suddenly crop up with short sheer sides covered in almost luminescent moss.”Tom came home happy that his own ‘horse’ had survived everything that the Icelandic elements could muster, and he immediately began production on the DSS2. Just three months later and the buzz around the bike is palpable – unsurprising given its beautiful build and the current off-road adventure riding mania taking hold. Indeed, Tom says that off-road modifications had become such a staple of his custom bike builds that commercialising his own gravel road bike was purely logical. Made of Reynolds’ flagship 853 steel tubing, and equipped with disc brakes, space for up to 35c tyres, and the Wound Up Gravel fork for when you hit the rough stuff, the lucky winner of the Festive 500 is in for a new year’s treat.
The question remains, is the DSS2 that ‘perfect’ expedition bike Tom was imagining as he crossed the Gobi Desert? “No, and it wasn’t intended to be – the DSS2 has its own purpose,” he says. “The funny thing is I’ve never built that bike I imagined and maybe never will. Donhou Bicycles is the same journey for me as when I set off from Mongolia, so I’m not sure I want to do it. I might feel like I’m finished with the journey.” Not yet Tom, not yet. In fact, we think you’re just getting started.
For more information on riding the Festive 500, and on how to enter to win the Donhou Signature Steel DSS2, please visit here.