Dan Craven / Onguza Bicycles

Our name comes from an old Namibian word ‘okuti-onguza’ meaning, “the great expanse of desert out there.”

Perhaps the cowboy hat helped but ripples of global interest greeted Onguza Bicycles’ first posting on social media. Featuring a brightly coloured frame – casually slung over the shoulder of a Namibian cyclist – and set against the rocky backdrop of the world’s oldest desert, there was an immediate sense of exciting things to come. At the time a fledgling new brand founded by ex-professional road cyclist Dan Craven, a year later and the first batch of gravel bikes was unveiled at the handmade bicycle show Bespoked.

Over a call from his home in Namibia, Dan took a look back over the past 18 months and beyond—an eloquent and fascinating commentary on his own experiences with frame building, how the Onguza dream finally became a reality, and why this next chapter is firmly rooted in the land of his birth.

cyclespeak
So you’re at home in Namibia?

Dan
That’s right. It’s a beautiful morning here in Omaruru.

cyclespeak
It’s good to finally sit down and talk.

Dan
Even if I got here late [laughs].

cyclespeak
Could you set the scene? Are you living on the farm?

Dan
I wish [smiles]. I did grow up on a farm just outside of town but my family and I are now living on the main street. I’ve been coming and going but they’ve all just arrived, so this is more a launch pad for our life in Namibia.

cyclespeak
That’s quite a big change for everybody?

Dan
Considering my wife is American, went to university in Montreal, lived in London for 13 years and now lives in a town that even Namibians consider small—then yes, you could say that. But Omaruru does have many things going for it. If you ask any Namibian to name an artistic town, this is basically it.

cyclespeak
But I’m right in thinking you were born in Otjiwarongo?

Dan
That’s the town next door. But in Namibian terms, next door can be 140 km away.

cyclespeak
I put Otjiwarongo into Google Maps and it looks like an interesting place. There’s a fashion museum and a crocodile farm.

Dan
The crocodile farm, yes. But a fashion museum?

cyclespeak
The Museum of Namibian Fashion. According to Google.

[Dan entering a search on his laptop]

Dan
Wow. Now you’re teaching me stuff. Because that’s the town where I was born and went to school but I never knew about the museum.

cyclespeak
I changed the setting on Google Maps to satellite and zoomed out. There’s a lot of empty space in Namibia.

Dan
Namibia used to be the second least populated country in the world in terms of people per square kilometre. I think we’re now third so when we say we have wide-open spaces, we really mean wide-open. If we drive from where we live in Omaruru to the country’s capital, Windhoek, that’s a journey of 240 km and you go past two towns.

cyclespeak
Can I ask – and I’m conscious this might be a cliché – but Namibia appears to be a rather rugged – possibly extreme – physical environment?

Dan
That’s a pretty fair assessment.

cyclespeak
And you’re very softly spoken.

Dan
No one has ever put those two statements together before.

[pause while Dan is thinking]

So, yes, Namibia has got the oldest desert in the world. Namibia is rugged and dry. We like to say we’re built a bit different to live here. But, interestingly, the people are super friendly because of it.

cyclespeak
Because life is so hard?

Dan
I’m being playful but there’s a certain European country not known for its friendliness. But if you look at that country, it’s full of farming and wine and abundance. In Namibia, we have an abundance of sand. So if you want to get by, you have to smile and be happy.

cyclespeak
Is that what you remember from your childhood?

Dan
One of my parents’ friends that I knew when I was growing up – a chap called Garth Owen Smith who’s unfortunately now passed away – he won awards from the British Royal Family for his work in saving the rhino. He was this super tall man who lived out in the desert and drove Land Rovers—a real gentleman, very softly spoken and he thought about every word he was saying. So maybe some of these traits rubbed off on me?

cyclespeak
If we cast our minds back to March 2021 when you posted that first picture of an Onguza frame, I clearly remember the excitement it prompted across social media platforms. But I believe you had the initial idea for Onguza bikes way back in 2010 when you were still racing professionally.

Dan
Oh yes.

cyclespeak
And the notion that there’s no such thing as overnight success – that it comes from a long process of chasing ideas – made me wonder what planted the seed?

Dan
I was racing on a steel Condor at the time but didn’t really know anything about steel bikes. And then Rapha approached a few frame builders to fabricate one-off bikes for their Rapha Continental series. One of them was built by this American chap called Ira Ryan and it just blew me away. So I did some research – expecting to learn how this guy was a mechanical engineer and could build rocket ships – but it turned out he had no such background. And then I discovered he’d only been building bikes for five years. So here’s this chap with no formal engineering education and only fabricating frames for a handful of years, and he’s collaborating with Rapha. Which, at the time, was one of the highest compliments a builder could receive.

cyclespeak
It was a very well-respected build series.

Dan
These ideas kind of hung around in the back of my mind until a couple of years later when I grabbed the opportunity to attend the Bicycle Academy on a five day frame building course.

cyclespeak
That sounds like fantastic fun.

Dan
It just blew my mind that I could walk into this workshop and five days later I’d walk out with my own bike frame. So off I went and then two weeks later I went to a different workshop belonging to a friend of mine and built another frame in five days. I returned to Namibia with this second bike and promptly won a race on it.

cyclespeak
Can I ask what kind of race?

Dan
It was 350 km through the desert that I won on a bike I’d built 10 days beforehand. So that was a ‘wow, I can do this’ moment. But…

cyclespeak
But?

Dan
The big takeaway that I haven’t alluded to yet is that I’m a privileged, white man with a beard [laughs]. And does the world really need another white man with a beard building bicycles?

cyclespeak
And this got you thinking?

Dan
It did. Because what about the people in Namibia? By necessity, it’s a country of makers. When you have very little, you take that and turn it into something. So what happens when you give someone a bit more? Some beautiful steel tubes that come all the way from Italy and the necessary training to combine these into an amazing bike frame.

cyclespeak
And Onguza was born.

Dan
We have these two gentlemen – Petrus and Sakaria – that have worked for my family for 20 years as farm labourers. And I can remember countless times when something was broken on the farm and the next day they would have figured out how to fix it. So if I can build a bike frame in five days, what can these guys do? And that’s where the whole idea originated.

cyclespeak
So what happened next?

Dan
Fast forward to 2017 and I invited the frame builder Robin Mather to visit Namibia. He stayed with us for a month to help teach Petrus and Sakaria. And to be honest I was a little apprehensive because I’d spent a fair amount of money arranging Robin’s trip and what if he thought I was wasting my time with these two chaps?

cyclespeak
I suppose it was a meeting of two very different worlds?

Dan
Robin had been working at the Bicycle Academy teaching student after student. And when it came to Petrus and Sakaria, he immediately recognised how they lacked a formal education in terms of mathematics but their innate understanding of making simply blew him away.

cyclespeak
A sense of relief for you?

Dan
It was amazing—and a massive validation. But then I had to catch a flight for a race in Canada and things once again kind of petered out and came to a halt. Which was really painful because every time there was a speed bump, everything would stop. And considering we’re sitting all the way out in Africa, speed bumps happen pretty frequently.

cyclespeak
So what happened to change this situation?

Dan
My career finally ended and I was faced with that classic question—what am I going to do with the rest of my life? I did have the luxury of a number of paths to follow but looking back at this pivotal time, I really only had one option because all the others were meh. They had certain advantages but they weren’t worth leaving my young family for.

cyclespeak
Are these internal monologues something every professional cyclist experiences as they approach retirement?

Dan
Which monologue are you referring to? As there can be multiple [laughs].

cyclespeak
The what next.

Dan
I personally said for many years that the moment I knew what I’d be doing after racing, would be the moment I stopped racing. And my career was more interesting than it was good. I wasn’t making tons of money from cycling but I was doing better than surviving and having loads of fun. But when injuries finally ended my career, I spent the next four years just floating around looking for this next step. By then I was married and didn’t really want to come back to Namibia because it’s such a big place but also such a small place if you know what I mean?

cyclespeak
But you did come back?

Dan
I did. Because I had this nagging thought that I couldn’t put aside—that returning to Namibia was what I needed to do.

cyclespeak
When you say you knew you had to come back, was that to start building bicycles?

Dan
If it wasn’t for Onguza, I wouldn’t be here now.

cyclespeak
I suppose it’s a certain state of mind? When you’re visiting somewhere on holiday, mentally you engage but only on a certain level. Now you’re building a business but also a sense of place with your family?

Dan
Yes. But…

[Dan pauses]

We lived for a while in London and my wife thought she was going to live there forever. And then we lived in Spain and then California and then back to Spain and had similar thoughts. And every time we arrived at wherever, we’d decide to go hard and build a connection. Now we’re here in Namibia and all I can say is that after a difficult couple of months we’re beginning to feel at home. And you have to factor in that for me, as I’m Namibian, making friends is relatively straightforward. For my wife who’s American, it’s a bit different. On one level this land is all about sand dunes and elephants and cheetahs. But she’s really creative and interesting and she’s now discovering this group of people that reflect those characteristics back. And, interestingly, everyone we really get on with seems to be a maker in some fashion. Our best friend in town, as an example, is a carpenter.

cyclespeak
You became a maker yourself when you built your bicycle frames. And now you’ve returned home to Namibia to continue that journey with Petrus and Sakaria. And what interests me, is that you raced professionally on the road for 15 years but your first Onguza bike is for gravel. What determined that design decision?

Dan
For the very simple reason that a gravel bike suits me really well. I live in a town that has one tar road that goes north to south. If I want to ride to the next intersection with another tar road, then I would need to travel 65 km south or 140 km north. Needless to say, as tar roads are in relatively short supply, the number of trucks and other cars is absolutely insane. And when I was a professional cyclist, if I was spending time in Namibia, I didn’t want to train on a mountain bike because the geometry is so different. But a gravel bike was pretty close, so that’s what I rode and still do. In fact I built myself a steel gravel bike back in 2016—only then the term gravel bike hadn’t become a thing. We called them monster cross and if you Google my name with that term you’ll find an article with some pictures of the bike I built with Matthew Sowter at his Saffron Frameworks.

[I did and you can]

Dan
It’s always made sense to ride a gravel bike in Namibia but, that said, the second Onguza frame we’re going to build is a road-plus bike. And then our third bike is either going to be a mountain bike or a different take on gravel.

cyclespeak
Which would be?

Dan
Imagine a 1980s road bike with a lugged fork that can take mountain bike wheels. Very thin tubing balanced with deep section wheels and electronic shifting.

cyclespeak
I do like a classic frame silhouette with round tubes but dressed up with carbon wheels. To me, that just looks cool.

Dan
Exactly. The thin tubes will flex just enough when you’re riding over rutted roads or trails to add comfort but without being too skinny so the thing is a noodle.

cyclespeak
Exciting plans.

Dan
That’s another reason why we came back here. In the sense that the world doesn’t really need another bike brand but Omaruru needs this one. And Namibia needs this one.

cyclespeak
Petrus and Sakaria, they’re shareholders in the business? So both are invested in your long term goals?

Dan
I’ve got a desk in my office and if there are any problems I’m happy to help. But I’m not building these bicycles. Petrus and Sakaria are the frame builders.

cyclespeak
Can I ask why? Because you’ve built frames before.

Dan
Many reasons and it’s not because I can’t. But running a company – and running a company from Namibia – there’s just so much to do. Getting export permits, trade agreements, ordering parts and looking after my babies because there’s no daycare in a small town like Omaruru. So, as you can see, spare time is in short supply but I was never planning on being a frame builder. One of Onguza’s objectives has always been to put a spotlight on African engineering and making. If I’m in the workshop, people might make the assumption that Petrus and Sakaria are merely assistants. No, no, no, no. I assist them if they need an extra pair of hands. These guys, they’re masters of their own destiny.

cyclespeak
You’ve documented how launching Onguza and getting to the point of delivering the first batch of bikes has not been without its challenges. And I imagine you’ve had days racing your bike that pushed you to the limit of your endurance. Are you by nature persistent and goal orientated?

Dan
When I really want something, other things can fade into the background. I’m very obsessive when I get a bee in my bonnet.

cyclespeak
Can you relate that to your cycling career?

Dan
Becoming a professional athlete, you have to be obsessive. Moving your family to a tiny little town in Africa, you’ve got to be pretty obsessive [laughs].

cyclespeak
And speaking of challenges, one scene of the rather lovely promotional film that can be viewed on your website features your blooded nose?

Dan
Basically, I was having too much fun. The scene that follows shows us swimming at the bottom of a mine shaft which was all the way down this steep, rocky slope. I was descending too quickly, hit a rut and got taken out. But I laughed it off in the knowledge that if you roll with the punches, it makes for entertaining TV.

cyclespeak
It certainly does.

Dan
We found the music, my wife provided the storyline but we left it to the director to decide what would be included or left out. At the time, I was just concerned that I wouldn’t be able to film the scene of me racing the horse the next day.

cyclespeak
But you did. And the film certainly gives an impression of the Namibian landscape which, as we’ve already mentioned, is pretty rugged. Which reminds me of a post you made featuring a Land Rover you’d just purchased. How is it working out?

Dan
It’s very, very lonely.

cyclespeak
How so?

Dan
Because we only have the one. It’s a very big problem [laughs]. But I actually found another for sale earlier today [Dan holds up his phone with the online advert].

Collyn [Dan’s wife talking from the next room]
You’re actually talking to a journalist about Land Rovers?

Dan
He asked [laughing].

cyclespeak
That’s true. I did.

[Collyn enters the room to look at the image on Dan’s phone]

Collyn
He’s actually sort of joking and sort of not.

cyclespeak
In another scene from the film, you’re pictured with a bottle of beer. Is that the Namibian equivalent to the European coffee and cake ride?

Dan
In the capital and on the coast, we order a coffee. In Omaruru we go for a ride and come back for a beer. It’s so hot that beer is almost an electrolyte drink.

cyclespeak
I imagine it’s not without its challenges but life sounds pretty good?

Dan
With the boys being small, we have a family tradition of waking early and starting off each day all together with coffee in bed. And we’re now settled in a place that I never thought I’d come back to—to do something that I’d rather do more than anything else in the world. What more amazing thing is there? And my wife who’s from the other side of the world believes in this journey so much that she packed up the kids and cats and brought them all here to build a home with me.

cyclespeak
And here you all are.

Dan
As much as there are so many hurdles ahead of us, we’re doing something that we personally feel needs to happen. And if no-one else is doing it, then why not us? We’re on this crazy adventure and it’s like a dream.

cyclespeak
I’m guessing it was a particularly poignant moment, unveiling your first batch of frames at Bespoked?

Dan
I catch myself watching Petrus and Sakaria in the workshop and when I think back to where we started five years ago, it’s just mind-blowing to see how confident they are. And then I pick up one of the frames and I’m thinking, look at this. Look at how far we’ve come together. And that’s just…

cyclespeak
Priceless?

Dan
Yes. Priceless.

[pause]

If you believe that Africa has potential – that Africa can make beautiful, handcrafted things – then our bicycles can speak for themselves.

Dan Craven / Visit onguza.com to order a frame or complete build

Photography by Ross Garrett with kind permission of Onguza Bicycles

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