“It’s the Rolls Royce of road bikes,” said renowned custom bike maker Darren Baum in reference to HTech’s new Svelter aero road bike. Moments before, I’d asked Baum about the best thing he’d seen at the Handmade Bicycle Show Australia (HBSA). Baum wasn’t referring to the statement owning one would make, but rather the butter-smooth and unmatched ride quality it apparently delivers.
Off camera, Baum explained that at just 22 years old, Hayden Francis’ work was mind-blowing. And if, for example, the Western Australian’s core material was carbon fibre, he’d have been an internationally known name before turning 20. But alas, Francis’ key material and craft is turning timber (supplemented with carbon fibre) into performance bikes.
Set those preconceived notions of the natural material aside — Francis’ work is a stunning mix of form and function.
While Francis has been making wooden bikes since he was 18, the Svelter aero bike is the latest display of his capabilities. Brand new and finished just in time for HBSA, the Svelter is a production version of an aero road bike concept first teased in 2017. Like that initial concept, the Svelter was designed to offer a fully integrated design, be UCI-legal, and showcase what’s capable in wood.
Francis takes a modern approach to building frames, and all his frames go through simulation testing well before the epoxies are treated to even a whiff of oxygen. Using Computer Aided Design (CAD) software for all of his builds, Francis is then able to move the design to Finite Element Analysis (FEA) and Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) programs. In the case of the Svelter, “the combination of FEA and CFD used together [meant] we were able to produce a highly aerodynamic frame that still has the stiffness and strength required of a performance road bike.
“The key features for the Svelter frame during the design [were] the full integration of all possible parts, it needed to be comparable with the current aero bikes of today, but it couldn’t compromise HTech’s smooth, compliant, performance ride.”
According to Francis, the Svelter achieves those goals, and plays well to the wood’s natural damping properties and the ability to machine it into almost any shape and vary the wall thicknesses as required. All told, approximately 340 hours went into the pictured bike, including over 60 hours spent CNC machining the wood. Being the first frame of its kind, Francis admits “there were a few challenges that needed to be worked out during the build, but there is a lot of hand work to be done to frames after they come out of our CNC.”
The Svelter frame is made of 30 wooden parts, and nine made-in-house carbon parts.
Consistent across all HTech frames, Francis builds his wooden bikes with “Selective Carbon Reinforcement” (SCR). While it’s timber you see on the outside, key elements are reinforced, such as the headtube or seattube, which feature carbon fibre for strength and reliable bonding of the headset cups and bottom bracket respectively. Additionally, “UD carbon fibre (18 meters of it!) is layered across the wood’s grain, stopping the timber from splitting along its length and increasing the torsional stiffness of the tube it is bonded to.”
Francis chooses to use Jarrah exclusively for the Svelter’s timber — locally sourced wood that is repurposed and/or farm grown. “It is a stiffer hardwood compared to the Blackbutt and Marri we also use,” he said. “This makes it a better-suited timber species for thin-tubed aero bikes.”
Francis has some clear ideas on how he wants his bikes to perform and feel, something he described as coming from a collaborative effort. “I’ve ridden a number of different bikes in the past as well as the feedback from others that have ridden HTech frames (including Darren Baum),” he said. “With all the frames I have made, I’ve built up a knowledge of what tube shapes, wall thicknesses and wood species will produce what type of ride and stiffness. I have therefore developed a set of figures that I work towards in the CAD modelling stage to achieve the desired ride stiffness and comfort.”
Francis says that his simulations show the Svelter to be the fastest bike he’s built, but it’s tough to know how it compares to other aero bikes without time in the wind tunnel or detailed 3D scans. Regardless of that, the Svelter features all the cues of a modern aero race bike, including smooth lines and truncated tube shapes, disc brake hoses and electronic shift wires hidden from the wind through an integrated cockpit setup. The seatclamp, thru-axles and even braze-on front derailleur clamp are also integrated or inset for improved airflow.
HTech works with a number of OEM component manufacturers for the pieces outside of its expertise. The integrated cockpit, aero seatpost and full carbon fibre fork are all examples of this. And while Francis has made his own forks from wood in the past, almost all of his bikes today feature well tested and proven off-the-shelf options.
The Svelter will be available in both stock sizes and with the option for custom geometry. “Timber as a material is considerably varying,” Francis said. “Each board is different, and we need to adapt our CNC machining programs to the material for each and every program, so the design phase is different for custom geometry frames.”
Smooth riding, stiff, strong and sleek. What’s not to like? Unfortunately, like all other frame materials, wood has its negatives and this case it’s weight. The bike pictured weighs 9kg with pedals, with the Svelter frame alone said to be 2,580g. It’s light for what it is, but well over a kilogram more than the likes of the Specialized Venge, Trek Madone or Cannondale SystemSix.
If you’re willing to overlook the increased weight, there’s still the matter of those 300+ hours to build the thing. Weeks of work doesn’t come cheaply, nor should it. The Svelter frameset (frame, carbon fork, seatpost, stem, handlebar and headset) retails for AU$8,030 (approx US$5,600) — a fair price for a rideable piece of art.
And so, a question I cannot leaf alone: Wood you ride one?