In my late teens, after finishing school I started a career working in London. It quickly became apparent that there was a plan, a decade by decade format a person’s career should look like. My 20’s should be about finding my feet and deciding which career path I should take. My 30’s would be dedicated to honing my skills and really setting myself up to make money. My 40’s would be the pay days, you put a lot of time and effort into that career, and this is when you really reep those rewards. That was the plan anyway, but at 25, I thought fuck this, I’m going cycling.
But my timing to quit the corporate life was early, some might say I got out whilst I could, but for others, they have gone too far, given that career too much of their life to quit now. But is there ever a point when you can’t say, “you know what, let’s start doing something I’m really passionate about, regardless of the money”?
Hopping The Barrier
Let’s lay out a scenario, there’s a job promotion on the table and you’re almost turning forty. From most people’s standpoint there’s no fork in this road, it’s a motorway, with barriers on either side. And even though you’re sleep deprived and over the speed limit, the obvious choice seems to be, just to keep on driving. But for some reason Simon Stanforth pulled over onto the hard shoulder, hopped the barrier and got on a bicycle. And I’m very happy Simon made that decision, not just for himself, not just for cycling, but to set an example. An example that tells us to be tempted by the things we are passionate about and not by the things that make most sense.
The Undercover Agent
In 2014 Simon launched Stanforth Bicycles, a hand made british cycling brand that is quickly getting a name for itself. Before I quit my job, I was working in a high end interior design firm, so I am used to seeing fancy stuff. When I first saw Simon’s designs they struck me as being very stylish, kind of posh and gentlemanly, like a fancy watch that has all those features, that often never get used by the person wearing it.
The idea was genius, Simon had designed a sort of undercover agent, employed by the cycle touring community. It’s role is not to look out of place among other items of luxury, making sure it fits in among the collection. But unlike a nice watch, it is constantly reminding us, every time we take it out for a Sunday ride, or on our daily commute, that it’s capable of much more. It whispers in our ear, “you know, I can take you much further than this, I’m super reliable, I can haul heavy panniers and I’m very comfortable to ride for hours on end, just say the word and we can go on that long trip you’ve always been thinking of.”
A Wandering Mind
Stanforth bikes will be known in history as the bike brand responsible for the collapse of the UK’s economy, the brand that cleared out the city of London, enticing all those bankers off the trading floor and onto their bikes. Ok that might possibly have been a fantasy of mine and nothing to do with what Simon was thinking, but in my defence I’ve been sitting on one his bikes for the last two years, and when an empty landscape stretches out in front of me, my mind tends to wonder!
If you haven’t already switched off from the long and abstract introduction I’ve been rambling on about, I’d like to introduce you to Simon himself. He took the time to answer some of our questions and hopefully he will give you the real reasons behind Stanforth Bikes.
Q. So Simon after reading that, did I hit the nail on the head, is that the grand plan behind the brand?
Ha, exactly that! No if I have to be honest my plans are a lot less ambitious. If I got just one banker to quit their job, in favour of travelling the world by bike, I'd be very happy, in fact anyone from any profession…
Q. Any profession! Here’s me putting all my focus on bankers alone, whilst you are thinking of a much wider audience, very smart. For those that don’t know your Dad was running the mtb brand Saracen bikes when you were a child, I guess that taught you a lot about bicycles. What was the turning point for you, when did you say to yourself, I have all this knowledge and passion, let's drop the career and start doing something I believe in?
The plan was always there, it was just a matter of timing. Having a holiday is always a good moment to reflect and I remember, whilst away in Vietnam, deciding that in the next couple of years I'm going to start manufacturing an expedition bike I had been already been testing. In the following months I heard Alastair Humphreys talk about his around-the-world cycle and that was another inspiration that triggered me into action.
Q. Yes, having time and space to think is crucial. With bicycle’s aside, what would you say to someone that wants a change. I know you didn’t hand in your notice in and start designing bikes the following day, how long did take to plan this dream and what advice would you give to someone else that wants to follow their passion?
The dream was there for over a decade. I had a full time job for the first three years of Stanforth Bikes which was crucial. My advice would be, not to quit the job straight away, when following your passion. Having an income whilst you're at the early stages of a business is important, as it takes a lot of pressure off of it, rather than having to make money from day one. It does mean however you need to work all hours! But the most important advice would be to go for it. Failure is not giving it a go.
Q. I know you are very involved in the company at the moment, and it needs a lot of nurturing, and I hope it will take off, and you will find yourself with the time for a longer tour. If that happens and you manage to get a few months, where are you most interested in cycling and why?
The one that comes to mind is a tour which incorporates the Pamirs. When I see the photos of expeditionists like yourself on the Pamir Highway it's pretty awe inspiring. The terrain, the remoteness, the landscapes - that's my ideal type of touring.
Q. Good choice, central Asia is an adventure cyclists dream! Coming from a design background I find there is such a joy in designing and creating something from scratch, how did it feel standing in front of the Kibo, your first design, and how long did it take to grow from the initial seed?
The Kibo was a long time (15 years!) in the making as I tweaked angles here and there to get to the geometry I think works well for loaded touring. I agree, designing is very fulfilling. But if I’m honest, I didn't feel much satisfaction seeing the first completed bike as an object, the real satisfaction came when I saw the first pictures of a customer using it on an expedition. That was and still is very fulfilling.
Q. Your bikes are great to look at, but that’s a good point, better to see them out there getting roughed up, than sitting in someone’s garage. In 2016, I arrived in England after 16 months on the saddle from South Africa, my bike was almost in pieces, trying my luck I sent you an email to see if you’d let me continue the journey to Japan on the Kibo. You said no, haha, but later changed your mind. Why do you support people like us, even though it’s such a big outlay?
For a few reasons. I learn a lot from the likes of yourself about how the components are performing, so I get a lot of value from it too if it's the right person I'm supporting. You take great photos and I could see that from your instagram account. In a world of social media having great photos to show off the bikes in action is great. Obviously I can't support many people in this way as it is a big outlay. I've definitely used up my budget for the next couple of years!!
Q. We appreciate what you have done for us, we’ve been supported by other companies in the past, but sometimes there is very little communication between us. That is one of the reasons why we wanted to write this article, because you value our input and that really make us feel like you are focusing on improving the product wherever you can. That’s inspiring, and not something that’s easy for a customer to see on the face of any company. So what can you tell us about the future, is there a plan or are you just going with the flow?
My aims are simple, enjoy what I do, make great touring bikes and hopefully make a living from it. That's what I'm aspiring to. Now I've got the three bike ranges it's about establishing those. Of course we're still a very niche brand, that the majority of cyclists and tourers aren't aware of. Our aim is to grow the awareness amongst cycle tourers, in the hope that a Stanforth bike is something they would seriously consider riding. We'll always continue to develop and improve the bikes, as this is something that I personally love doing.
Thanks so much for answering our questions, I really hope you will inspire others to go out and do what they are passionate about. After recently discussing the design of Mayu’s new Kibo with you, I really got to feel the difference between buying something off the shelf and creating something with someone that knows the ins and outs of designing a bike. It gave me a much better insight into the process and I have to say it was a really nice experience.
Both Mayu and I have become avid cycle tourers and these are the tools we will cherish for years to come. We both want to say a huge thanks for making the bikes you do and especially for being a part of our journey. Here’s to the future.