Melbourne is Australia’s cultural and cycling capital: a heady mix of interesting laneways, cafes, art galleries and an even topography have all contributed to a city dedicated to the pursuit of aesthetic gratification. No surprise, then, that we should discover it’s also home to Mick Peel: the bespoke bicycle saddler otherwise known as Busyman Bicycles. After admiring his work for a number of years, I decided I had to find out more about the man and his craft.
How did you come to be Australia’s, if not the world’s, leading custom bicycle upholsterer? Can you briefly tell us how your academic and artistic paths have led you to this point?
I never really thought about it like that. I just started upholstering these saddles, blogged about them because I get a kick out of showing off my work and then I started getting noticed. My formal training is in fashion design, I have a BA and MA in fashion design and am currently working on my PhD. I’ve been lecturing in fashion design at RMIT University now for almost twenty years and I was the head of the fashion design program there for about five years.
My MA was an exploration of fabric surface decoration and experimental pattern cutting, I produced some pretty elaborate and decoratively complex stuff and my major revelation through this work was that decoration in an object is most successful if it also serves a structural purpose, the decorative element should be integral to the construction of the object.
After finishing the MA work I developed a strong interest in pattern making and kind of pursued minimalism in design through pattern cutting; a reaction against all of that decoration. Both of these ideas feed into my current bicycle leatherwork. When I design and make there is a tension between the decorative and the functional, I have a problem with doing decorative work if it is likely to adversely affect functionality.
So then I started my PhD in 2007, didn’t really know what I was doing, and at about the same time I did my first couple of customised bike builds/restorations. My PhD has become about the interrelationship between design and making and the fact that in my practice these two things cannot be separated, they are one and the same. Busyman Bicycles came into being some time in 2008 and also has become very much what my PhD is based on. My formal training in fashion design, my appreciation of materials and my slightly hippie upbringing have all fed into the Busyman practice.
You’re based in Melbourne. As a cyclist, what’s it like to live in? It’s really great to live and ride in Melbourne. I ride to work — all of five minutes from my home. It has been well covered by the media and Melbourne marketing that it’s a cycling friendly city. Some of the experiments with separated bike lanes on some of our CBD roads are a bit of a fail but generally it’s great. It’s basically flat but if you feel like some climbing there are plenty of hills to be found outside of the city.
What do you love about cycling, and how long have you been riding? As many people would say it’s the sense of freedom and self sufficiency that I enjoy the most about cycling. That is certainly the case today and pretty much describes the feeling I had when I ride rode a bike by myself (not being held upright by a big person) when I was nine years old. As a teenager I really got into riding, I had a Mongoose BMX, we used to go exploring on what felt like long rides around the countryside as well as make a lot of dirt jumps.
What type of riding are you enjoying these days and what does your current stable consist of? The majority of my riding is the commute to work, it’s about 2.5 kilometres each way and fairly flat, not really an impressive achievement or enough to keep me fit. I ride a variety of different bikes for the commute, the choice usually dependent on my mood, the shoes and outfit I’m wearing and maybe the weather. In other words the bike kind of matches the outfit. I have a couple of old steel road fixed conversions that have been powder coated, have no branding and use as many recycled components as possible. I have an old Master Sports I found in the gutter which I’ve turned into a single speed with Ghisallo wooden rims and a coaster brake and the other commute bike is a single speed ladies step through with full mud guards and baskets front and back.
I also use these bikes for general getting around, deliveries, trips to the leather suppliers and to meet clients. I also do a little bit of road riding. I go out with a small bunch of guys on a Saturday morning and we usually cover between 65km to 150km. I’m pretty much always the slow one who ‘blows up’ first, mainly because these guys are out riding every other weekday morning. If I’m lucky I can squeeze in a couple of weekday rides of around 30km – 50km.
My road bikes consist of an early nineties Hillman, Reynolds 531 with a complete Shimano 600 groupset, downtube shifting, seven speed. And, most recently, a Scott Addict R1 which was salvaged from a crash and given the Busyman makeover. Recently while riding a fellow road cyclist came alongside me and asked whether I was “…riding a fixie with gears…?” A bit of a stupid comment but I guess that what he thought it looked like. The Scott has eleven speed Campagnolo Athena and plenty of Busyman leather.
If money were no option, what would your dream bike look like? My road bike would/will be a Baum Corretto with all the latest gadgets and a retro paint scheme and colour palette and my city bikes will both be custom lugged frames, one set up fixed and the other single speed with fenders. There will be some polished stainless steel bits and they’ll all be really cool.
There seems to be an ever-growing interest in that which is hand made, tailor made or custom — whether it’s bicycle frames, pocket knives, food or fashion. What’s your explanation? To a degree I think people are over the idea of over consumption and mass production, there’s a growing desire for things that one has a personal or intimate connection with. The custom, handmade and bespoke makes this connection between the owner, the object and the craftsman. Often the owner/client has quite a bit of input into the specifics of the design and materials, an involvement which enhances the sense of connection.
I think there is also a growing community of practice in the area of bespoke and craft. These practices often employ a beautiful mix of old and new techniques; a mix of the analogue and the digital; tradition and innovation. My work is primarily manually crafted; even the majority of my stitching is done by hand. I’ve tried laser cutting the leather but found the whole experience actually alienates me from the made object. The extent of the digital in the Busyman practice is in the communications side; the blog and working through two dimensional design ideas.
Bridie O’Donell is a returning customer, how did that relationship come about? I have done a few custom saddles and bar tapes for Peter Kyriakidis at The Cycling Edge. Among other brands, Peter imports Parlee Cycles and Bridie is sponsored by Parlee. So a little while back Peter asked me to do a custom recover on one of Bridie’s SMP saddles. She wore the leather through in about four months, riding over 550 km per week. I’ve just recently recovered a couple more SMPs for her, this time using much stronger kangaroo leather on one and some synthetic leather on the other. Hopefully these two will last much longer.
By now, you must have a favourite saddle to work with? Probably the most difficult saddle to work with is the SMP range but each time I finish one I have a real sense of achievement. They are stressful but at the same time rewarding. At the other end of the scale I really like working with Selle Italia SLR saddles and Fizik Arione because the shapes are so simple. Both of these models offer plenty of surface area for designing personalized detailing.
Of the old school models a Selle San Marco Rolls is really nice because the metal trims finish it of beautifully and I kind of enjoy the moulding that’s required on the rear underside of the Concor.
Will you only ever work with saddles and toe straps? When will we see SPD-equipped Busyman Bicycles cycling shoes?
No specific plans as yet. I would love to get into shoe making but I just don’t have the time, I’m really busy man. I could also get into some apparel; I’m interested in developing cycling specific trousers and tailored jackets and have played around a little with this. However, there are quite a few labels doing a great job with cycling apparel at the moment and probably many more in the side lines about to emerge.