I’ve travelled out from central London to the southwest end of the Northern Line. Exiting the station, a short walk through the surrounding suburbs leads to an industrial estate and the home of Isen Workshop. Pushing open the door, there’s a sudden movement as a small dog darts out and excitedly runs rings around my legs. Caren Hartley follows and greets me with a smile as she scoops up this new addition to the Isen family. The dog’s name is Frieda and it’s her first day in the workshop—Caren obviously delighted with her new companion as she politely asks if I’d like a cup of tea.
After studying an MA in Goldsmithing, Silversmithing, Metalwork & Jewellery at the Royal College of Art, Caren received award-winning recognition as a frame builder with her eponymous Hartley Cycles before partnering with Matt McDonough of Talbot Frameworks to found Isen Workshop.
With the pair carving out a well-deserved reputation for beautifully built bikes in steel and titanium, I spent an enjoyable morning touring the workshop and photographing Caren in preparation for an interview subsequently published on the Quoc web journal—a fascinating glimpse into her passion for making and the level of detail demanded by such a bespoke product.
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“I was always making things as a child and I remember my parents being quite creative. Dad was a watchmaker and Mum would make costumes for us out of crêpe paper and cereal boxes.”
“After attending an event where I met a frame builder, I had this sudden realisation that it was a little like jewellery – basically big soldering – and I just needed to start making things that were bike shaped.”
The lightest paint is no paint so the frame is half painted and half raw stainless.
With the 2021 British National Hill Climb Championship taking place on Winnats Pass in the Peak District National Park, the event’s close proximity to The Service Course Wilmslow prompted a conversation with ISEN Workshop’s award-winning framebuilders Caren Hartley and Matt McDonough. The goal? To design and fabricate a steel frame to help hill climber Matthew Cleave conquer the 20% gradients in the fastest time possible. Tricked out with lightest components and with a paint finish taking design cues from autumnal colours and the climb’s contours, what resulted was the perfect marriage of form and function in a steel bike weighing 5.4kg.
“I’ve been involved in the hill climb scene for about four years. It’s the time of year when many cyclists are taking a bit of a break or winding down. But there’s a small minority that race each other up some of the steepest, craziest climbs in the country.
The plan was to create our version of the perfect hill climb bike. And then for me to race the bike throughout the 2021 season leading up to the National Hill Climb Championship. So this was a bit of a dream project for me—combining the passion I have for the hill climb scene with our experience at The Service Course in creating custom bike builds with the best bespoke bike builders from around the world.” – Matthew Cleave
“I started building bikes about 8 years ago. I trained as a metal worker before spending a number of years as both jeweller and artist. Over a period of time I fell out of love with the art industry and decided I wanted to use my skills for something a bit more practical. Making bikes seemed like the perfect match.
Our main ethos is building everything from start to finish in our London workshop. And we’d been thinking about how we could make the lightest steel bike for quite a while—what it would look like and how we could shave off every spare gram. We started with Matt’s geometry and then got the lightest tube set we could. Mostly Reynolds 953. After hours spent fabricating and machining, we ended up with a frame that weighed 1,150g before paint. We were quite pleased with that.
We’ve become known for our candy fades—strong colours with quite bold, in-your-face paint schemes. But I wanted to do something a bit different for this bike so I started by looking at what the bike was being used for and then added colours that signify the end of the season—reds and oranges with a little bit of purple to bring it back to ISEN.” – Caren Hartley
“We’re in the Peaks on Winnats, it’s pouring with rain and the wind is howling. And there’s hundreds and hundreds of people walking up the hill ready to cheer us on. That says it all really—had it been anywhere but Winnats I think the conditions would have deterred spectators from coming out to watch.
At the sign-on, one of the organisers had asked me if I was the guy with the bike. Pretty cool but also adding a bit of pressure. And then when you’re in line waiting for your number to be called, the nerves do start to build.
My family and friends were standing on the lower part of the climb and it was incredible to ride past them. And towards the top where you’re trying to throw everything left through the pedals, catching my 30-second man gave me that little extra push to get across the line.
The bike was amazing and having those conversations with Caren and Matt from the very start – being able to visit the workshop – was really valuable and I was absolutely blown away by the job they did. And placing 31st in a time of 3:39? To be honest, I felt over the moon.” – Matthew Cleave