Design stories: Donhou Bicycles DSS2

If the steepest climbs of your training loops seem malicious, it’s likely that Iceland offers something still more severe.
Tom Donhou, a frame builder of impressive pedigree, and a rider whose attempt at the landspeed record for bicycles saw him ride at 80mph in unnerving proximity to the bumper of MK3 Ford Zephyr operating as a mobile windbreak, was forced twice to dismount on a recent odyssey across Iceland’s frequently rugged and barren interior.
The second offering in Donhou Bicycle’s Signature Steel collection of off-the-peg steel steeds offers a broad field of endeavour for a builder who has rapidly built a reputation as one of Britain’s finest. At the heart of the DSS2 is a Reynolds 853 chassis: a seamless, air-hardened tubeset, light and strong, mated to a Wound Up carbon filament fork.
“With the larger clearance bikes you have more to think about. You’ve got more to squeeze in and you want the bike to do a bit more,” Donhou says, speaking in the matter-of-fact tone in which he discusses all his creations, from the bike constructed for Rapha’s Continental project in 2012 to the recent and exquisite collaboration with Simon Mottram’s firm and Liberty.
In fact, the Continental bike can be seen as a progenitor for the SS2. Donhou speaks with justifiable pride at the trend-setting nature of a bike that propelled him, if not into the mainstream, for this will surely never be the Donhou way, then at least before a wider audience of connoisseurs.

“We were putting discs on bikes before you’d see them anywhere else. And road bikes with more clearance; we were doing that too. Now you’re seeing quite a lot more of it. “
Measured. Even. There is nothing boastful about Donhou’s pronouncement. He is merely stating a fact. He is similarly matter-of-fact about another development from road cycling’s left field, embraced for the DSS2: the 1×11 drivetrain.
Pioneered by SRAM and now de rigueur for serious mountain bike riders, the single chainwheel solution, paired with a cassette expanding to dinner plate-like diameters for the off-road set, is an option for the DSS2.
Donhou concedes that it is not a set-up for everyone, thus the second SS bike will also accommodate conventional double and even triple chainwheel set-ups. The latter might have proved useful in Iceland.
“We were on a double when we were riding through Iceland, and that was a mixture of tarmac, hardpack, loose surface, rocky tracks. I had to get off and push twice up a couple of 15 per cent climbs, and I had a 32 on the back. Ideally, we would have wanted a triple for something like that.
“If you’re heavily loaded, it [the DSS2] will take a triple. For more ordinary road riding, it will take a double, and if you want to go for the single, it will take that as well, but it isn’t for everyone: you definitely don’t get as wide a spread of gears, or even as close a spread of gears.”

Donhou does not subscribe to fads. Instead, he uses different technologies where appropriate. On disc brakes, heralded either as a universal panacea or the devil’s work, he is refreshingly balanced.
“I grew up racing mountain bikes, so to start putting discs on these kind of…” he gropes for the latest industry trope – “I guess they were ‘all-road bikes’, before you were seeing ‘all-road bikes’.
“For me, to put discs on a bike that was intended to be used predominantly on tarmac, but in all seasons, in all weather, and where part of the brief was that there may be some bridleways, just made complete sense.
“You get more ‘usable’ braking power; much more comfortable braking power. When you’re in the saddle all day, doing long rides, and you’re descending, you don’t want to be hanging on your brakes. You want your brakes there for you without conjuring up a lot of effort to use them. That’s where the discs, for me, really work, and I build a lot of those sort of bikes.
“I think in a race situation where ultimate braking power isn’t quite so critical [and weight is] maybe caliper brakes are still the way to go. In my mind, I wouldn’t build myself a bike without disc brakes.”
One of the many pleasurable aspects of sourcing a machine from a small scale builder is the network that the buyer enters, if only by proxy. The wheels are built by Gavin Buxton, aka August Wheelworks, an old friend of Donhou.The DSS2 in standard trim rolls on Pacenti SL25 rims, a platform to which it’s possible to mount a 35c tyre, laced to Hope hubs.

Donhou is at pains to stress that bespoke specifications are available even within this off-the-peg Signature Steel range. It is one of the things he enjoys most about the platform.
“I love the custom builds, but with the Signature Steel, they’re basically my custom builds, if you know what I mean; kind of what I build myself.  It’s also a case of wanting to offer usable bikes to people and making it a bit easier than waiting a year for a custom frame. It’s just growing and making Donhou Bikes more accessible to more people.”
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