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Interview: Oliver Laverack on starting a British bicycle brand

J.Laverack founder talks to about setting up a new bike company and designing titanium frames

J.Laverack launched less than two years ago and in that time the company has managed to wedge a foot in the door of the highly competitive and saturated bike market, with its debut bike the J.ACK, a four-seasons model capturing the attention of many cyclists wanting a versatile and capable titanium disc-equipped road bike.

The Rutland-based company timed its launch just right with this style of bike, with its wide tyres, disc brakes, wide tyre clearance and rack and mudguard mounts, becoming very popular with a large segment of road cyclists. Not resting on its laurels, J.Laverack has followed up with the Pilot, an urban bike built around Shimano’s Metrea urban groupset and most recently the R J.ACK, a performance road race bike.

We caught up with company founder Oliver Laverack when he dropped off the new R J.ACK bike for review last week and spoke to him about launching a bicycle brand, designing road bikes and the challenges and hurdles he has faced along the way. What motivated you to start your own bicycle company?

Oliver Laverack: It started with designing a prototype cyclocross bike actually. I decided to create a bike for myself because I quite liked the idea of it, and I didn’t have a cyclocross bike. Titanium is a good material for experimenting because you don’t need to open a mould and then I looked at some geometry, and based on stuff I tested and had ridden, I came up with something that seemed to work rather well. And off the back of that, I created another one that I was playing around with, and riding it I noticed other people commenting on it, saying if you made one for me, I’d probably buy it. So it was only when I got that sort of feedback that I realised I could make a bike brand here. 

J.Laverack J.ack bike
The company's debut bike, the J.ACK 

So there was no grand plan to launch a bike company from the outset then?

I guess in the back of my mind I thought maybe if this goes well I can do something further with it, but at the time I was busy with other things and really it was just a bike for me at the beginning. And then it seemed that a lot of people liked it and seemed like a good idea to go a bit further with it. I then teamed up with Dave Clow, a graphic designer, because it just wouldn’t have been possible on my own, because of the skill set required for everything from creating websites and so on. The two of us have got quite good skills that overlap: I’m the technical one and he does all the graphics. 

Dave and I had had many cafe rides and talked about it and how great it would be if we did this and that, and then we started planning it. It took a lot of time, a lot of thinking went into the preparation. The bike itself was quite easy, but how we wanted it to come across and what it was going to be. Then I thought my grandad was a really big cyclist and a big influence on my life and on the cycling front, and one thing fell into place after another and before you know it we’re at the 2016 Cycle Show exhibiting. 

We’ve seen quite a few new British bike brands launched in the last couple of years, do you feel it’s a good time to start a bike company?

Yes, I think there are many factors that have led to it. The theory I have is that there are many people that have got into road cycling over the last four to five years for numerous reasons, and there’s an undercurrent of momentum that’s fuelling it and more people are seeing the benefit. It has sort of changed the perception of cycling. Most of my customers have been through that cycle, they've got several bicycles, but they now want something different, and not all of them are people that have been doing it for 10 or 20 years. So I think we’re picking up that momentum at the right time, there’s an audience of people wanting to buy bikes like ours. 

J.Laverack J.ack top tube

Your first bike was a cyclocross model, did that lead directly into the bike you released, the disc-equipped J.ACK?

So the J.ACK isn’t a million miles away from a cyclocross bike. It’s got slightly different geometry, to make it a really tough road bike you could ride anything on. Cyclocross bikes are so incredibly versatile and to make a road version at the time made complete sense to me, partly because that’s something I wanted and partly I thought it was a good concept. 

The timing seems to have been perfect, with that sort of riding and bike becoming very popular with cyclists?

It just came at the right time, I couldn’t possibly take credit for planning that, I don’t think it’s possible to predict things like that, but it would be good if you could. It’s incredibly versatile; I’m running mine with a 35mm tyre in the back and a 30mm in the front, and ride around Rutland Water where it’s a great combination. But then you can run 28mm tyres on the road. Most customers are going with 28mm tyres, it seems to be a popular width at the moment. You’re not losing any speed but it’s more comfortable and tubeless allows you can run lower pressures. 

Would you categorise the J.ACK as an adventure and gravel bike?

I don’t know, I don’t really want to categorise it. I think if you can fit the tyres and make it work, then it doesn’t need a name almost, and a good example is Darren who rode our bike in the Transcontinental Race this year. He fitted it with bike bags, a third bottle cage and some wide 28mm tyres, and he did pretty well. He finished, he got there before the party started! 

J.Laverack J.ack front

So you found some success with the J.ACK, and you used the Cycle Show to launch the more conventional looking R J.ACK titanium road bike. How did that come about? 

Well, there was an interim stage, the Pilot. That came about primarily because Shimano released the new Metrea groupset and we happened to speak to them at the right time. It was sort of “I really like that groupset I could make a bike with it” and they said if you really want to, there might be an opportunity. That one wasn’t something I would have created without that groupset.

But the road bike, that’s kind of a bike that, Dave and I as keen racers, though at the moment we’re not doing a lot of it, wanted to produce. We aspire to race, so we wanted to create something that embraces the traditional caliper brakes and offers an athletic road-based geometry. Tyre clearances are pretty good, you can get a 28 on the front and a 30 in the rear. 

I think we’re going to offer it with two different geometries, one is a racing geometry and one is going to be more relaxed, you can go fast but be comfortable for long distances, but it’ll be just one model. Just choose the geometry that suits you. We also do custom geometry if people know exactly what they want. To me, it made the most sense, because we had a lot of people saying they like the J.ACK, but they wanted a bike with calipers, and then on the other side of the spectrum, Dave and myself really wanted a race bike.

We’d sold one even before we finalised the design because people were saying if you can make this up I’ll buy one, so it was crazy not to do it really

Laverack R Jack.jpg
The R J.ACK is a more conventional road race bike

Would you make one with disc brakes?

It’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about. I think there’s actually a gap between those two bikes, but there’s so much going on at the moment!

Does it share anything in common with the Jack? 

It has a different geometry, it’s got short chainstays, smaller tube diameters, basically, it’s a leaner more athletic version of the J.ACK. The fork has  a different rake, the head angle is different, everything is different, it’s a bit more compact and, I don’t want to say racy, but sportier perhaps, road bike in comparison.

You’ve launched with frames made only from titanium, do you plan to focus solely on titanium in the future?

I don’t know yet, there are no plans, but I wouldn’t rule anything out. I really like aluminium, I think carbon is the only thing I’d rule out because it’s hugely expensive, but who knows. I really like titanium. It’s got so much going for it, it’s definitely popular at the moment, which makes it a good time to use it, and there’s so much you can do with it. Each of our bikes is made individually and to order, and it’s hard to do that with other materials.

You sell your frames and bikes direct to the customer, are there any plans to expand your availability by selling in bike shops?

We’ve looked at and been approached by numerous bike shops but I think I really like the engagement with people. It’s really nice. I don’t think anybody can talk about your product if it’s in a shop alongside many other bikes and the guy in the shop doesn’t know anything about it. So there’s a whole bunch of reasons at the moment that makes sense for us to sell direct. I also like to manage that relationship with people.

What steps are involved in buying a J.Laverack?

Usually, the customer has got a bit of an idea if they want a frame or complete bike. Say someone is after a J.ACK, there’s a whole bunch of options around mudguard and rack mounts, you can pretty much spec the whole bike, but people usually go for the J.ACK 2 (a Shimano Ultegra hydraulic disc brake build with Hunt 4Season wheels that costs from £3,550). 

Laverack R Jack - top tube detail 2.jpg

Are frames custom made to the specification of each customer?

Yes, every frame has its own drawing, everything gets drafted, which is great because sometimes it makes sense to make the head tube 10mm longer because you don’t have to put spacers on to create a really clean bike for the individual, without having to compromise. We offer fit services, working with a guy in Peterborough. He’s got a really good reputation as a fitter and he does it all on experience, so I know the end result is someone is going to be comfortable on the bike. Once everything is finalised, it’s a case of pressing go on it and it’s a four week period until we get the frame. The frames are made in the Far East. We then build it up for the customer and send it out.

You’ve been going for less than two years but appear to have grown rapidly?

We were very lucky at the start. We managed to get our bike in a few magazines and we seemed to have three of four bits of exposure one after the other, not planned at all, and that seems to have kicked things off and created a steady stream of interest which then led to the sales. There were a few squeaky bum moments when I hoped someone would send me an email wanting to buy a frame, but before you know it, the orders came in, they are like buses, literally. I remember when we started we had a very long period when we didn’t sell a bike and I was worried. I don’t think you can build brands overnight, though, it has to be around for a period of time for anyone to trust you, especially with that sort of money. Thankfully we had some people that bought a frame and those are the people that probably have started us off effectively. 

What are the future plans for the company? More models in the pipeline?

I think there is a point when you probably start to lose what it means to be a small brand and that level of service, so as long as you don’t compromise that, I think it’s those core values and that consistency that I’d like to keep, but that’s what you wrestle with as a small business, keeping all those plates spinning! Regarding new models, I don’t know if I should say too much really. I have multiple ideas going forward but it’s early days yet…

Prices for the J.ACK bikes start from £2,950 with Shimano 105 while a frame will set you back from £1,750 and a frame and fork costs £2,150. Prices for the Pilot and R.JACK are to be confirmed. We're testing the new R J.ACK road bike at the moment and there'll be a full review soon.

David worked on the tech team from 2012-2020. Previously he was editor of and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds, and you can now find him over on his own YouTube channel David Arthur - Just Ride Bikes

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