A Bicycle Built for You
Like the tailors of Savile Row, ISEN Workshop creates a bespoke product fit precisely to each client.

Royal College of Art graduate Caren Hartley is pragmatic about her pivot eight years ago from metalworker to bespoke bicycle maker. “When you’re making art, you have to convince people to want this object you’ve made,” she says. “But people already want bikes—I just have to make people want my bikes.”

An avid cyclist herself, she stumbled into her new profession after a bike shop–owning friend had her cycle stolen and asked Hartley to build a replacement. She learned, then, of the storied history of bike-making in Britain; it was once one of the world’s hubs, thanks to firms like Raleigh, before the industry imploded after outsourcing overseas gained traction in the 1980s. Still, a few suppliers persist, including Reynolds, which has been making tubing for bikes in Birmingham for more than a century. Wrangling some raw materials from Reynolds, Hartley built the bike and quickly segued into an entirely new career, intrigued by its problem-solving and relieved by the practical application of her skills.

She founded the London-based Isen Workshop (Isen is the Old English word for “iron”) with her business partner, Matt McDonough. Custom frames are built in the shop by the company’s four-person team, which makes just six bikes per month, each of which costs on average $8,000–$11,000 but can top $21,500 with certain components.

Clients who commission a custom bike first discuss its purpose—is it a gravel bike or one for long distances, for instance—before undergoing a fitting; the duo outsources this to a network of high-end fitters, whichever might be closest to a client’s house. Riding a jig bike allows the fitter to determine the right measurements for comfort and ergonomics, much like a bespoke suit. Isen uses this data to build out the frame. For a lighter customer, Hartley will build wheels with fewer spokes and lighter rims; for someone planning long-term trips with large bags, she’ll bulk out the frame to be sturdier. Titanium is the most expensive material, per Hartley, but not always the best. “If you want to do a trip to the middle of nowhere, and need to get a bike repaired easily, steel is much better,” she explains.

Though biking remains a male-dominated hobby that’s just 10 percent female, women represent 30–40 percent of Isen’s customer base. “Everything in cycling is made for a medium-sized man, which kinda makes sense,” Hartley says. “But that’s also annoying if it’s not you.” isenworkshop.com