Tucked away in a small and unassuming shed on the outskirts of Beechworth in Victoria, a chap by the name of Shane Flint is busy working on some curvy steel tubes that are soon to become the seatstays of a new hardtail frame. Time is of the essence. The new owner is due to pick up the bike in the near future, and Shane needs to get a completed raw frame up to Albury to have its special chrome-plated finish applied, before he’s able to assemble the complete bike as per his customer’s specifications. With a pair of Ray Bans shielding his eyes and a long, thin wire of bronze filler rod in hand, Shane fires up the gas torch to start bringing together this tailor-made, one-of-a-kind mountain bike.
Tor Bikes – Building Frames & A Name
Shane Flint is the founder, owner and one-man-band behind Tor Bikes – an emerging Beechworth-based bike brand that is focussed on producing custom mountain bikes. For those wondering, the name ‘Tor’ comes from the word to describe a rocky outcrop perched on top of the summit of a rounded hill. It’s a more commonly used term in the UK, but for anyone who’s ridden the trails around Beechworth, you’ll know just how apt this name is.
I’m here in his workshop, camera in hand, to take a closer look at the design and construction process behind Shane’s fillet brazed frames, and to get some insight into why he’s doing what he does. After all, while there’s a modest number of custom frame builders in Australia, there are still very few who are committing entirely to the mountain bike cause. And that makes Tor Bikes a little different from the rest.
Having driven a couple of hours over from Bendigo, I had a bit of an idea of what to expect as I rolled up the long dirt road driveway of Shane’s house. I’d seen some impressive examples of his work from the Australian Handmade Bicycle Shows in Melbourne, including an intriguing steel full suspension prototype that wowed onlookers with its impossibly slender swingarm, resplendent in a dazzling British Racing Green paint job.
Following a brief look at the Tor Bikes website and Instagram feed, I’d gathered that his operation was more of the small backyard variety, rather than being a bigger company like a Baum or a Bastion. Then again, when you’re an engineer who’s handling everything from design, testing and fabrication, through to assembly and customer service, things like websites and social media marketing tend to sit further down the priority list.
Indeed Tor is still very much in its infancy. Shane only built his first frame in 2015 – a trail hardtail made from 4130 chromoly steel.
The idea for this original creation came about due to a need to save his Specialized Epic, which was slowly being ground down from winter riding. During my visit to the Tor workshop, I discover that Shane rides a lot. Whether it’s trail riding at the Beechworth MTB Park, getting in some bitumen time on the roadie, gravel grinding around the region’s extensive fireroad network, racing enduro, XC or marathon events, or being away on the annual week-long riding trip with his group of riding mates, Shane is outside on two wheels as much as possible. He’s also a longstanding member of Beechworth’s infamous Wednesday night crew, which is known within the local community (and at the Bridge Rd Brewery) for its stoic perpetuity. “Only tornados and earthquakes stop the Wednesday night ride!” Shane informs me when I inquire about joining the crew on a future ride.
Certainly the terrain and soil composition surrounding Beechworth lends itself well to year-round mountain biking. That, and a four-year stint living in the UK’s Grim North, means Shane isn’t one to shy away from foul weather. However, that same decomposed granite-based soil that helps the local singletrack to drain so well, also turns into a nasty abrasive once winter rain is thrown into the mix. And that’s the sort of recipe that’ll devour suspension pivot bearings, brake pads and drivetrains in an alarmingly short amount of time.
Shane’s first homemade frame turned out to be more than just a hardy mud plugger though. He built his frame with geometry that was slacker, lower and a bit longer than his Epic, so he could ride it more aggressively at speed. He loved the handling and its springy ride quality, so much so that he ended up riding it all-year round, while the Epic sat dormant in the shed gathering dust. His hardtail was simpler and more durable than his full susser, but more importantly, it was more fun.
Of course it takes a particular type of person who decides to build their own bike. I feel like I’ve tested enough bikes over the years to know what ingredients I’d need to build something I’d really love to ride. But taking that next step to actually building your own frame? That requires a leap in commitment along with a very specialised skillset. It requires accuracy, material knowledge, an eye for detail, and above all, patience. After all, there’s no rushing when you’re assembling nine metal tubes into a structure that you’re expecting to trust your life with while hammering down a technical black diamond trail at 40+ km/h.
Shane’s technical nous and unwavering eye for perfection comes from his professional background in fabrication and engineering. “I did an apprenticeship as a Metal Fabricator (Boilermaker) straight out of year 12 and then after a couple of years I studied Mechanical Engineering” he tells me. Shane has since worked full time as a Mechanical Designer, which includes his current gig up the road in Albury-Wodonga. As well as providing him with the knowledge and attention-to-detail that suits frame building, his twelve-year career has also provided him with useful industry contacts, particularly with those who own big machines.
Bikes Of Steel
Up until now (and for the foreseeable future), Shane has chosen to work exclusively with steel, and specifically Colombus steel. His Australian supplier can access a wide range of tube sizes, diameters and profiles, depending on the job at hand. He then looks to Paragon Machine Works for small items like dropouts, cable stops and disc brake mounts.
Why steel when most mass production mountain bikes are made from alloy or carbon? For a start, steel is hardy and tough. It’s durable and repairable. And if it’s built properly, a steel frame can absolutely sing when ridden on tight and twisty singletrack in a way that no other frame material can quite achieve.
It’s also a material that Shane is familiar with and is confident working on. Though he can purchase pre-curved tubes from Columbus, he also possesses a mighty tube-bender in his workshop for custom tube bending. He’s also created his own unique cutting jigs, which are used to align tubes to ensure a perfect mitre when cutting the ends of say, a top tube or a chainstay. With the ability to cut tubes to length, he can offer a custom build that is tailor-made to the customer with the right fit and geometry suited to their proportions and riding style, without need for compromise. Being a little outside the bell curve at a height of 185cm, compromising fit is something that Shane has experienced himself in the past, but is able to navigate around with his custom-built approach.
The Cheese That Holds The Pizza
To bring all of those shapely steel tubes together, Shane chooses to fillet braze his frames, rather than TIG weld them like some other brands do. He says there are a few reasons why he uses the fillet brazing technique to build his frames.
For a start, it was a traditional frame building process that he hadn’t tried before and simply wanted to learn. “A brazed joint can be be finished smooth which creates a seamless look“, Shane goes on to explain. “From a technical point of view, brazing is performed at a lower temperature which generally creates less distortion“. This means the whole frame is less likely to spring out of alignment when you pull it off the jig, since metal tubes have a habit of expanding and contracting considerably when they’ve been hit with the welding torch. While fillet brazing results in less distortion to begin with, Shane has developed a specific building sequence for joining together his frame tubes, which helps mitigate the problem further.
The downside of brazing compared to TIG welding? It’s highly time consuming – specifically the process of hand-filing down every single braze to get those seamless junctions. As things progress over time, Shane might look into offering a TIG welded option to speed up the process for both him and the customer.
Once the frame is together, it heads up the road to Albury to be powder coated. Compared to painting, Shane says a powder coat is more hard wearing, making it particularly suitable for mountain biking applications. Nowadays there’s a load of choice for powder coating colour options, including metallic finishes. Still, Shane says custom painting (or even chrome-plating) is on offer for those who want a particularly wild colour scheme.
Tor Abrade Hardtail
While every frame is custom, Shane has mostly specialised in building a hardcore hardtail called the ‘Abrade’. The advent of contemporary geometry, bigger wheels, high-volume tyres, and dropper posts all lend very well to a hardtail, offering a smoother and more confidence-inspiring ride quality compared to the skinny race bikes that often come to mind when the H-word is uttered. With the right geometry and build package, a modern hardtail will often ride with far more pace than what many full-suss riders would expect. And as Shane proves when we hit the local Beechworth trails later in the afternoon, they can also be ludicrously fun too.
Shane’s personal Abrade is an ideal example of this new-school hardcore hardtail, with its 140mm travel fork and 27.5+ compatibility. It’s adaptable though – he’ll put on 29in wheels and a shorter 120mm fork to set it up for XC racing.
One aspect of its geometry that Shane has been particularly keen on exploring with his custom frames is the theory of a ‘front centre to rear centre ratio’, which identifies chainstay (rear centre) length as a varying metric relative to the bike’s front centre. Simply put; as the reach increases, so too does the rear centre length. The goal? To maintain weight distribution between the front and rear wheels to provide similar handling whether you’re 160cm, or 190cm tall.
This is one of the key advantages over 99% of mass-produced frames on the market, which use the same chainstays throughout the size range in order to reduce manufacturing costs. With so much focus on head angles and reach measurements these days, chainstay length remains as one of the the last aspects of modern frame geometry to be truly exploited to its full potential. Unlike all those big brands though, Shane can easily alter the rear centre length to suit the rest of the frame.
As for Shane’s personal Abrade hardtail, here are the specs he’s running to suit his proportions and riding style. He loosely defines this geometry as a ‘Large’, though all measurements are up for interpretation, depending on what you’re after. Frame pricing for one of these starts at $3,200, and goes up from there depending on the level of customisation.
- 29/27.5+ hardtail
- Fillet brazed Colombus steel tubing
- Designed for a 140mm travel fork
- Head angle: 66°
- Seat angle: 74°
- Reach: 462mm
- Stack: 628mm
- Rear centre length: 440mm
- Front centre/rear centre ratio: 1.766
- Wheelbase: 1217mm
Tor Erode Full Suspension Prototype
Though Shane is specialising in hardtails, he’s also got something else cooking in the background – a full suspension enduro bike that he’s been testing for nearly a full year. He’s actually up to his second frame, which has a few modifications over the first prototype.
Using 29in wheels and a single pivot suspension design, the Erode delivers 150mm of rear travel via a Fox Float X2 shock. Shane has loaded the air can with additional volume spacers, which gives the mostly linear shock rate more progression to ramp-up at the end of the travel, while giving the bike more pop. It might be a ludicrously simple system alongside more complex multi-pivot bikes, but with modern dampers and the right kinematics, a single pivot bike can outride designs with many more pivots.
Up front is a chunky 170mm travel Fox 36 that’s plugged into a stout 44mm head tube. The frame is still made with fillet-brazed steel tubes, with a burly and slack front end. The rear swingarm cuts a much more anaemic profile, with slender seat and chainstay tubes meeting together at the cowled thru-axle dropouts. From the side, the vertical uprights on the swingarm (I call them the ‘boomerangs’) look significantly larger in profile. Move your viewpoint though, and you’ll see that they’re actually the thinnest part of the entire frame. Made from 4130 chromoly steel, these swingarm plates are braced above the BB junction with a laser-cut gusset that Shane says adds considerable stiffness to the back end.
The swingarm plates then connect to the main pivot, which pierces the downtube forward and above the BB. A 15mm alloy axle rolls on dual needle roller bearings on the inside, which is complemented by a needle roller thrust bearing on each side of the main pivot. This is a unique arrangement, as needle roller thrust bearings aren’t commonly found on bikes. While it does bring masses of stiffness to the main pivot, Shane is still evaluating bearing contamination and real-world durability.
As with the rest of the bike, he wants to ensure it’s proven before he decides to offer it up as an option for people to purchase. Expected pricing is likely to be around $4,200 for the Erode frame, though that’s still to be confirmed. While we wait to hear on the full suspension front, here’s a closer look at the specs of Shane’s current prototype.
- 29in full suspension enduro bike
- Designed for a 170mm travel fork
- Head angle: 64.5°
- Seat angle: 75°
- Reach: 470mm
- Stack: 635mm
- Rear centre length: 440mm
- Front centre/rear centre ratio: 1.86
- Wheelbase: 1257mm
From Part-Time Hobby To Full-Time Gig
As of right now, frame building and the TOR Bikes brand currently fits around Shane’s day job, as well as a young family. That means he’s regularly in the shed mitring tubes late on a mid-week evening, or toiling away with the gas torch on a weekend to meet a deadline arranged with a customer. The frames don’t take a huge amount of time to produce – Shane reckons if all the components are available, he can have a complete bike ready to go in a fortnight.
The current challenge however, is building up enough names in the order book to be able to commit to ditching the day job to go full-time with frame building. Making the intimidating jump from part-time side-hobby to a legitimate business is a conundrum that many other Shanes have come up against, but it’s one that he feels he his nearing.
In addition to his own personal creations and test projects, Shane has so far produced and sold about 10 bikes for his mostly local customers. Given the small volume that he’s been operating within, the decision to exhibit at the Handmade Bicycle Show seemed like an ambitious one. “I had been building on my own for a few years and saw the show as an opportunity to learn more about the industry and meet fellow builders” he explains. “I also wanted to challenge myself and see if I could build a frame to the same standard as experienced builders.”
The decision turned out to be a good one. As well as getting to know other frame builders who have either made, or are making, the same leap that Shane is contemplating, he also garnered some vital recognition for his personal trail hardtails and that full suspension prototype. As a result, inquiries are starting to come in from further afield, and that’s helping to build confidence.
To make a go of it as a viable full time business, Shane reckons he’d need to be building around 25 frames per year. He readily admits that he could achieve a lot of that by expanding into the road and gravel market, which is where 99% of the demand for custom bikes lies. But while he has nothing against road and gravel, and indeed he rides both disciplines himself, Shane is a mountain biker first and foremost. And that’s where his passion, knowledge and creativity lies, and it’s where the focus of TOR Bikes will be for the foreseeable future – whether it steps up to the next level or continues on in its current capacity.
As to whether the Australian mountain bike market is ready to support independent frame builders like Shane, we’ll just have to wait and see.
If you want more information about Shane’s work, you can head to the Tor Bikes website.