The last bike: my Ellis randonneur

The last bike.  I wonder how many times we have all said that to ourselves as the basement or garage finds space for yet another bike and we begin to contemplate the next build. As far as the Legnano collection goes, I am sure it will not be the last project on the list. On the modern side of the fence however this custom build with Dave Wages of Ellis Cycles is definitely the terminal project.

Like most cyclists, that next bike or the ‘dream bike’ that lingers in our minds goes through many changes. As an industrial designer of many years I am no stranger to the changing mind that feeds what designers do but at the same time it is also a forbidding nemesis when it comes to making decisions. Going into this project I had a well-defined component list in mind and a short, short list of very talented builders. In the end, I decided to vet the final decision with my trusted friend Noah Rosen at Velocolour who put me in touch with Dave Wages at Ellis Cycles.

I had never met Dave Wages however I had seen some of his work, most notably a stunning black and red randonneur that brought him top honours at the 2011 NAHBS. Dave’s winning entry that year (five in all to date I believe) was a build very close to what I wanted to achieve. Those that may be familiar with that bike will see a striking similarity to what Dave has built for me, although I do think we have raised the bar a notch or two.

This project was all about retaining the aesthetic of the classic randonneur or light touring bike that one associates with the historic builds from Alex Singer, Rene Herse, and Jack Taylor. To properly fulfill that equation, it had to be a lugged steel frame with perfectly fitted fenders and as enjoyable to ride with a load as without. And to honour the tradition, I felt it should be built with a level of quality and workmanship that would outlive my own years on the planet.  Yes, a bike that would transition the generations to come and yet an artifact in its own right from inception.

What I had definitely not planned to use was a Shimano Di2 drive train. This is when Dave Wages became a living part of the project rather than just a pair of incredibly skilled hands. I had good experience with the Di2 system on one of my modern road bikes.  Flawless and effortless shifting every time, however I struggled to get my head around a battery on this randonneur, it just didn’t seem to fit. I could tell that Dave was pretty determined to see the build go this way so he left it with me to get over my nostalgia, and eventually the Di2 won out.  History is in the making as they say and it was the right decision.

The gear setup (11/32 x 32/46) is also thanks to Dave’s experience and many miles on the road as well as off, including the elegant Sugino compact silver cranks that take an inner chainring as small as 30T and are truly 11-speed compatabilty. I didn’t even know these Sugino cranks existed and I was seriously struggling to get my head around black Dura-Ace or Ultegra cranks on this bike. Noooooooooo! Dave to the rescue, although I had to get out the acetone and remove the screen-printed black and red graphics from the crank arms that better suit a toy spaceship than a bicycle. Absolutely stunning crankset Sugino, but take a page out of Nitto’s branding manual and dump the cheesy graphics.

The mirror polished, stainless steel lugs with teardrop cutouts and matching fork crown are optional on the Ellis build sheet.  Along with the fastback style seat lug and mirror polished stainless steel rear triangle, these build details have become the ‘signature’ of an Ellis frame and worth digging a little deeper into the bank account. Most importantly, I saw these polished elements as critical to maintaining the classic appearance of what is otherwise a very modern bike. In design terms we often refer to this aesthetic objective as hanging on to the DNA of an object.

The recently designed Berthoud leather saddle is a wonderful example of how the DNA of an object can evolve with technology. Hand-fitted rivets of old replaced with beautiful brass counterbored washers and Torx screws enable the saddle top to be replaced by the user or their local shop mechanic. The scalloped edge at the rear of the saddle provides clearance for the straps of a seat bag and integrated ‘Klickfix’ system mounts, and it is an elegant almost whimsical visual detail.

Stainless steel rails that will not corrode and a patented tensioning system that does not require special tools further improve on the traditional leather saddle. Personally I am a pretty easy fit when it comes to saddles however I will need to put in a few more miles before reaching a final verdict, but so far the Berthoud is very comfortable and the side panels are well relieved to avoid any chafing.

Most days this bike will be fitted with just a front handlebar bag however I also wanted the bike set up for light touring with a rear rack and front lowriders. The front rack from Compass with the integrated light bracket was an easy decision. I spent a bit of time on a custom design for the rear rack, eventually settling on the Campeur model from VO that is well executed. Dave made some custom brackets for the rear rack to align with the canti brake mounts in lieu of the stock adjustable hardware that really tidied things up.

We borrowed a page from our friends at Mariposa Bicycles for the design direction of the custom low rider racks. These lowriders mount through the front fork and at the dropouts providing exceptional stability and they can be attached in minutes without removing or resetting any other components on the bike. For anyone contemplating custom racks, it’s time consuming work to get it right and not every builder is willing to take it on.

The final bit of procrastination came due when Dave shipped the bike to Velocolour in Toronto for painting. Noah Rosen has been refinishing my Legnano projects for many years now and his magic with a spray gun are second to none in my opinion. We worked through a few different colour schemes over several weeks along with numerous cups of espresso and a few boxes of cannolis from a local Italian baker.

Noah’s partner at Velocolour, Suzanne Carlsen is a very talented designer and maker in her own right and she was instrumental in rendering this classic and elegant scheme. Noah and I share a passion for painted fenders. The black trim and pin striping along the fenders is a nod to early British ‘lightweights’ and complements the traditional black band on the head tube and seat tube. I also appreciate how the two-tone scheme thins out the fender line.

The temperatures are dropping in Toronto but I have managed to get in a first ride and perhaps there will be a few more good days before the snow flies.  What to say?  As spectacular as this bike looks it rides even better. Dave based the geometry (in part) on three different existing bikes that I enjoy riding and in particular an 80’s Marinoni road bike that has always had that magic fit you can never really put your finger on. Tailor made, my new Ellis fits like a glove.

And it seems everything they say about the Compass Barlow Pass tires is true. I chose the extra light casings and they really smooth out the road while remaining incredibly responsive. Looking forward to the spring is a part of living in the ‘great white north’ and this year it will be an anxious wait to be sure.

I began my career as a tool and die maker, apprenticing to many skilled tradesmen including my father who was also an accomplished cyclist. Men that had learned their craft in the tool rooms of Rolls-Royce and the great shipyards on the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. Hands and minds driven by perfection and a dedication to the trade. Men that could turn steel into magic, measuring the fit of things with a piece of cigarette paper and a steady hand. Now retired and many who have passed, these men were of a time that has all but left us now with a few exceptions.  One of those exceptions is Dave Wages, master frame builder.


Here is a detailed blueprint of the bike:

Total Weight:  13.68 kg or 30.16 lbs (with pump, pedals and racks)
Frame Size:
  55.5 cm (seat tube ctc)  56.0 cm ( top tube ctc)
Tubing:  Columbus w custom stainless steel rear triangle
Dropouts:  Ellis custom in stainless steel
Pump:  Silca Impero (painted to match frame)
Crankset:  Sugino OX 901D x 170mm (32/46 chainrings)
Bottom Bracket:  Sugino OX 901D
Pedals:  Shimano 105
Front Derailleur:  Shimano Ultegra Di2
Rear Derailleur:  Shimano Ultegra GS Di2
Brake/Shift Levers:  Shimano Di2
Battery: IBTDN 1101 – Internal seatpost mount
Cassette:  Shimano Ultegra – 11 speed (11/32)
Chain: Shimano Ultegra
Front Hub: Schmidt 28SL 36H wireless, polished
Rear Hub: White Industries T11, 36H polished
Quick Releases: Shimano Dura-Ace 7900 (nos)
Rims:  H Plus Son TB14 36H polished
Spokes:  Wheelsmith 14 guage double butted
Tires:  Compass Barlow Pass 700C x 38 (extralight casings)
Handlebars: Nitto M106NAS (26.0mm clamp)
Handlebar Stem:
  Nitto NP-80 Pearl (100mm)
Handlebar Wrap: Compass Grand Bois leather (black)
Handlebar End Plugs:  Compass Grand Bois, silver
Headset:  VO Grand Cru, polished
Brakes:  Paul’s touring cantilevers, polished
Seatpost: Nitto S65 (27.0mm OD)
Saddle:  Berthoud Aspin (black)
Fenders:  Honjo Koken H31 45mm x 700c smooth – custom painted
Front Rack:  Compass M13 extralight wide with light mount
Lowrider Racks: Ellis custom in chrome plated steel
Rear Rack:  VO Campeur
Front Light:  Edelux II, polished
Rear Light:  Pixio XBA (battery powered)

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2 thoughts on “The last bike: my Ellis randonneur

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