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We're continuing our Signature Down Under series with a Q&A with Busyman.

Busyman is the creation of Mick Peel, the once fashion professor turned expert leatherworker and all-round busy man. He uses traditional tools and techniques to craft stunning saddles and handlebar tape from cow leather, crocodile hide, and his favorite, kangaroo leather.

Here, Mick takes us through the fascinating story of his journey to fine leatherwork, his saddle making process, and his design philosophy.

We hope you enjoy this Q&A.

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SC: What came first, the bikes or the leather?

B: They both happened around the same time but quite separately. On my tenth birthday I received my first bicycle, it was a 20-inch, three speed dragster with banana seat and chopper handlebars. Soon after that the BMX craze happened, and I started modifying my bike to emulate the BMX aesthetic. Eventually I got myself a stock BMX and began changing and modifying components with a primary focus on aesthetics.

I grew up in a very creative household and there was never a shortage of tools and materials to experiment with and create. Apart from being teachers at the local high school, my parents were both artists/craftspeople with skills in metalwork, woodwork, ceramics, textiles, leatherwork, painting and sculpture. I developed a leaning towards textiles and leather. As a teenager I started making a lot of my own clothing. I learned textile sewing and leatherwork skills at home and at high school. I even started my own ‘cottage industry’ hand painted t-shirt label selling to friends and a local Melbourne surf shop.

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At university I completed a Bachelor and Masters degree in fashion design and bicycles were not so high on my agenda. After graduating and a few years in the fashion industry I worked as an academic in fashion design education specialising in menswear, active wear, tailoring and fabric surface decoration.

In 2008 my interest in cycling and bicycles was reignited, initially through the popularity of ‘fixies’. It was at this point I began experimenting with applying my own leatherwork to bicycles and Busyman Bicycles happened. Since this beginning my design and craft has evolved and I continue to learn through trial and error, serendipity and from others in the leatherwork community . Busyman Bicycles has been an amalgamation of my experience and skill in design, pattern making, sewing and leather work.

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SC: We’ve met so many great cycling pioneers whilst here on our trip, what’s it about Australia and the Melbourne/Geelong area that’s so good?

B: Melbourne is a city which nurtures creativity and has a climate, terrain and culture which really lends itself to cycling of all persuasions.

SC: What made you dedicate your craft to cycling?

B: It began as a simple project, converting an old road bike to a single speed/fixed gear commuter. I wrapped the handlebars with a stitched natural vegetable tanned leather and shared photos on my blog. I loved doing this kind of work and people seemed to really like what I was doing. It is just wonderful that I can practice my craft and that it is appreciated by enough people in the cycling community and industry.

SC: There’s a real beauty to something that’s been handmade, and something that’s really taken off within cycling. Is this something you’ve noticed?

B: On some levels I think there has always been an appreciation for the hand made. With my work I am always striving for perfection, yet as a handmade artefact I know that it will never be ‘perfect’. It has taken a while to realise that I should not destroy myself trying to emulate what a robot could do, to embrace the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, to see the beauty of the imperfect. This might be in the misalignment of one hand perforated hole or allowing a scar in the leather to run across a saddle.

There is also something very special about bespoke; having a custom made piece just for you. I have two custom made bikes, they are very special to me and riding them is magical.

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SC: Can you describe your process?

B: The whole process is very much bespoke and hand crafted. Here is a list and description of the steps typically involved in doing a perforated saddle recover. It’s not comprehensive and doesn’t include some of my secret techniques.

1. Correspond with the customer to discuss design brief. Usually this will include some visuals of the bike that the work will be applied to.

2. Design: I render a small range of design options for the customer to consider and further develop design if needed.

3. Saddle stripping: I spend a lot of time removing the factory cover from saddles, taking great care to avoid any damage to the foam padding. On some saddles this can be easy and other very difficult.

4. Pattern making: A large part of my work is moulding the leather to the required 3D form. The rounder and more complex a saddle shape the more leather shape forming that will need to be done. I like to keep seams and stitching to a minimum, however complex shaped saddles require complex pattern making with gussets and panels. At the moment I am really enjoying this complex pattern making.

5. Cutting and perforating: From the patterns I cut the leather and make any perforations by hand. That is with a mallet and a single hole punch!

6. Construction: Coloured leather underlays are prepared to be glued behind any perforations to show through the small holes. Then any panels are seamed together by hand using two needles and a single waxed thread. Seams are finished and glued as flat as possible.

7. Moulding and gluing: The leather is moulded to shape over the saddle form and then glued directly onto the foam with a contact adhesive.

8. Finishing: The edges are finished in a variety of different ways depending on the design and manufacture method of the original saddle.

SC: What materials do you use and why?

B: I use a range of leathers both vegetable and chemical tanned. My preference is for kangaroo leather, it is extremely strong while still being very malleable. For bar tapes I tend to use a lot of cow leather. I have used some more exotic leathers in the past such as crocodile, stingray and wallaby pelt.

I have used some synthetic leather and suede materials but I most definitely prefer natural leather as that is where my skill set is strongest and I have the most experience.

SC: Is this form over function, or can it improve performance?

B: My work is about aesthetics, it definitely does not claim to improve performance. When designing I always take into consideration the performance and durability of the materials. I find that much of the design process is finding a balance between function and beauty. The materials I use as well as the techniques I have developed also feed into both the form and function. The art is finding the right balance.

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SC: What’s your favourite local loop?

B: I live very close to the Melbourne CBD, in the inner north. I enjoy riding hilly terrain and am spoiled for choice in Melbourne’s north-east. For a short loop my default ride is ‘The Boulie’ which is situated almost on my doorstep and a couple of laps won’t eat into my work hours. If I want to go further the same north-east corridor offers many options including sealed road, gravel, paved and unpaved bike paths as well as plenty of single track.

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