Unsung Heroes: Caren Hartley on Building Custom Frames for Women

We spoke to this successful custom frame builder about what she really thinks women need in a bike...

Frame builder Caren Hartley has experienced impressive success from building her first bespoke bike less than three years ago to featuring one of her machines at the Design Museum alongside the icons of bicycle innovation.

Hartley chats to Laura Laker about her meteoric rise as the UK’s first modern day female bike builder, why she believes we don’t need women-specific bikes and how off the peg frames may be in the pipeline for Hartley Cycles.

Image: Ollie Hammick

Caren and I met waiting at some traffic lights near Monument Station in the pouring rain in early 2014, we shared a moment, laughing as water poured off our noses. We met, coincidentally, again that summer, 26 miles into the Dunwich Dynamo in the loos of a pub. It’s amazing to think she was only building her second bike then, the Pocket Rocket she now rides.

Hartley’s personality is a great combination of a sunny outlook combined with quiet – I want to say steely – determination, traits that are perhaps reflected in her gorgeous machines. Coming from a fine art background in metalwork and sculpture Hartley’s route into the bespoke bike world was unconventional, but it perhaps meant her now easily-recognisable style was quickly established: the deep blues and art deco inspired red and yellow details with silver highlights (that’s real silver, folks) that have turned so many heads.

Needless to say she didn’t expect to be so successful so soon. So what has drawn people to her bikes?

“No idea, I hadn’t expected it to happen this quickly!”

Go on, you’ve got an idea.

“Without maybe realising it, I’m ridiculously picky”

“Probably the finish, maybe the silver details, I really take a lot of time over the way they look, but I don’t want that to be at the expense of the function so I kind of see both of those things as equal. I feel it needs to perform really well, that’s obviously its primary function, but if it doesn’t look nice then I’m less interested, so I spend lots of time tweaking bits here and there until I’m happy.”

Hartley feels it’s her art school, design background “where you literally spend years and years of your life looking at things, saying ‘why do I like that? What is it that I like?’ and so I kind of apply that to the way I work as well”, she says.

“Without maybe realising it, I’m ridiculously picky: that angle’s wrong, why? I don’t know, it just is and there’s not always a reason why and I’ll just keep working on it.”

Image: Sebastien Klien

One obvious benefit of bespoke bikes is you can make a bike for anyone, of any size which, in off the peg, is difficult, and this has played out in the bikes Hartley’s been commissioned to make.

“I think it is a story in bespoke bikes”, she says. “I’m speculating a bit there, but of the women I’ve made bikes for they’ve all been shorter, of the men they’ve all been not average but average to tall, but that could be because I haven’t made a huge number – just ten or 11.”

Total Women’s Cycling has been following the women-specific bike debate closely, something Hartley is in a unique position to comment on, as a woman who has built frames for herself and other women of the same size as her, with vastly different geometry.

Fitting a Woman’s Body to a Unisex Frame

Do Women Need Female Specific Bikes? 

So, in her opinion, do we need women-specific bikes?

“No, I don’t think so,” she says.

Hartley believes – and she’s not alone – that there simply aren’t the options for those outside average height ranges – both men and women, and it’s size, not gender, that needs greater range.

She says: “Off the peg bikes tend not to go down to small enough frame sizes. It tends to affect women because women tend to be shorter; short men would have exactly the same problem.”

Says Hartley: “You can get [frames] down to 54cm in men’s bikes, and smaller in women’s but they tend to be less good.”

Image: Sebastien Klien

She believes while women’s bikes, built on the theory women have shorter torsos and longer legs, can sometimes mean performance compromises.

“One of the things they sometimes do is use the same frame but with a shorter stem – they adjust the size by reducing the length of the stem – which affects the handling.”

For riders like herself, of around 5’4” this is bad news – in Hartley’s experience they would need a 48-52cm frame. She says: “My bike is equivalent to a 50 seat tube and a 52 top tube, which is quite a standard ratio for men’s bikes, but most men’s bikes wouldn’t go down to that size”.

She questions the shorter torso theory, something that hasn’t played out in bikes she’s built for women

She questions the shorter torso theory, something that hasn’t played out in bikes she’s built for women, while she minces no words responding to the notion women have less muscle mass and therefore less core strength than men, and so need a more upright riding position.

“‘Women don’t want to ride as hard’ is basically what they’re saying. ‘And so we’re just going to give them a rubbish bike because they don’t need a good one, they don’t want to ride as hard anyway’. It’s a completely lame excuse.

“I think if they were fitted properly they would have a similar position to most men. The position is to do with your body proportions, so if you had injury or back problems you might have a different position. There’s lots of factors but I don’t think there’s a reason women should ride in a less aggressive position because they’re women.”

Image: Sebastien Klien

“We’re both 5’4” but Interestingly the geometry of our bikes is completely different”

Hartley has built bikes for two 5’4” riders: herself, and London Bike Kitchen’s Jenni Gwiazdowski, whose geometries are worlds apart.

“We’re both 5’4” but Interestingly the geometry of our bikes is completely different: she has got a really short top tube and a really long seat tube in comparison – I think hers is a 52 seat tube and 49 top tube – but mine is 50-52. I’ve ridden hers, it’s too upright for me, and I have to put the saddle down.”

“One key issue with smaller bike is the standard wheel size of 700c isn’t always appropriate”

One key issue with smaller bike is the standard wheel size of 700c isn’t always appropriate, another aspect of bike design she’s able to directly compare.

“I built myself a bike with exactly the same contact point geometry and also the same trail, the same seat angle, so basically the same geometry, one with 650s, and one with 700s, and the one with 650s just feels so much better, it feels nippy and fun and responsive and the other one, in comparison, feels slightly sluggish.

“It’s still a nice bike to ride, and it still fits me, and if I didn’t have a direct comparison then I probably would never know. I did it because I thought: ‘this is better but I just want to know for sure’.”

Thanks to the standard 700 racing wheel, enforced by the UCI since the ‘90s other wheel sizes “disappeared” among most manufacturers.

Because it’s women, it’s ‘Oh you’ll be fine on that darling’

She quotes Anna Schwinn, of Schwinn Cycles, as saying “if men had to ride bikes that were as badly handling as a small frame with big wheels they just wouldn’t, there would be a massive outcry, but because it’s women, it’s ‘Oh you’ll be fine on that darling’, and because they don’t know any different because they’ve never had a comparison.”

She adds: “The other thing with large wheels and a small frame, because there’s not enough room you get really bad toe overlap a lot of the time.” The wheel size also dictates a larger head tube, which means a more upright riding position.

“I think there’s a gap in the market because I know if I wanted to go out and buy an off the peg road bike tomorrow I would probably struggle, a nice bike, being smaller it is harder.”

Hence her idea for off the peg bikes. “So I’m hoping to launch off the peg small frames with 650 wheels which are loosely based on the Pocket Rocket, which is the bike I ride.”

Her Pocket Rocket-inspired machines will be steel with carbon forks, 650 wheels, most likely from 48-54cm. She’s been working on 50 year old machines, which has been slow going – she’s been hand mitring her frames until she very recently invested in a more modern jig, so when things speed up she’ll start thinking about how that will work.

So, finally – the Design Museum. That’s kind of a massive deal.

“When you work in design having your work in a major gallery like that is like the pinnacle of your career.”

“It’s been really good, as you can imagine. Before being there I was so excited, because when you work in design having your work in a major gallery like that is like the pinnacle of your career, and then I decided I’m not going to do that anymore, I’m going to make bikes, and separated it in my head and then have been making bikes for a couple of years and being offered the chance to do an exhibition there, it’s like ‘Oh my god this is incredible’. This would have been my dream ten years ago, as well, it’s still the same, but I thought it would never happen any more, and it’s just super lucky.”

Has she had a lot of enquiries from people who’ve seen her machine at the Design Museum? Yes, both customers, and a bit of fan mail.

She says: “I’ve had some really lovely emails from people saying ‘I just wanted to email to say I really like your bike’. You’ve just taken the time to email and tell me that, that’s really nice! A few moments like that have totally made my day.”

You can see Caren’s bikes and read more about custom design options on the Hartley Cycles website, here. 

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