Toy story: English artist creates custom cycling figurines
Nearly every night for the last year, a revolving cast of cycling’s biggest names has gathered quietly at a home on the edge of England’s New Forest. The country’s own Sir Bradley Wiggins (Sky) has been a frequent guest. Joining him have been classics legends Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp), the inimitable Peter Sagan (Cannondale), and Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Sky).
Is this the newest top-secret training location? Or, if your mind veers toward darker explanations, a place that will inevitably attract the attention of the World Anti-Doping Agency?
Not unless paint fumes are performance enhancing. It’s the home of Rowley Haverly, cycling’s own Michelan…velo. Almost nightly, Haverly crafts spot-on replicas of cycling’s greatest riders, as well as everyday Average Joes. Even Cutter great Dave Stoller has made an appearance.
Rowley’s medium, however, isn’t canvas. It’s the classic, tiny cyclist figurine that has been a favorite of children in Europe — and lusted after by collectors from the U.S. to Australia — for nearly seven decades.
Produced by France’s Fonderie Roger, these miniature (roughly 2 inches x 2 inches) die-cast cyclists first joined the company’s existing line of soldiers, cowboys, and indians in the 1950s.
By the 1960s, the company was producing several hundred thousand little cyclists a year, recognized for their Zamac (zinc alloy) construction and unique, dual triangle base. For years, the figures were a big hit in France, Italy, and Belgium, but the exodus of much of the company’s painting workforce — women working from home — to higher-paying factory jobs soon limited their numbers. By 1975, issues related to the toy’s painting saw production drop to only 10-15,000 figurines per year. During the early 1980s, the factory even turned to prison inmates to paint the figurines, the results marred by both the inmate’s varying artistic skills and the mixing of metal and plastic paints.
Production and quality continued to see-saw into the 1990s. Numbers increased to 20,000 figures a year early on as a former employee came back into the fold. Later, the foundry could not fulfill its orders, and the little cyclists almost abandoned the race.
By 1998, however, enthusiastic collectors and a corresponding increase in cycling’s popularity led to the resumption of production. The painting issues were mostly resolved by 2002, and today the figurines can be found in toy and speciality stores throughout Europe, as well as sourced on the Internet.
Few, however, display the intricate detail of Rowley’s creations.
A cycling enthusiast since the age of 21, the now 44-year-old first noticed the figurines in a well-worn issue of Rouleur magazine. Seeing them as a perfect way of combining his love of art and obsession for all things bike, he initially placed an order for 10 with the idea of keeping several for himself and gifting the others to friends. A listing on eBay, however, changed his plans. “A guy from Germany ordered nine,” Rowley recalls, “and I realized there could be real potential in selling to people all over the world, lifting it from what was a hobby to a little business.”
What differentiates Haverly’s figurines from others on the market is the incredible level of detail he includes in each and every one. Initially, something like a complicated jersey graphic was accomplished with decals, but as Haverly learned more about the enamel paint and its characteristics — and as his hand got steadier — he began to craft those minute details himself. Look at one of his latest Garmin figures, for example; the jersey sports the familiar World Wildlife Federation panda, a detail no larger than the head of a pin. To achieve a better finish, he applies the paint under cloak, and tops off each one with two coats of varnish.
Haverly has also begun to add to the classic figures, sculpting everything from tiny sunglasses to miniature helmets out of Milliput, a hard-setting modeling clay. Recent requests have even seen Haverly craft a whole line of Garmin riders, complete with their distinctive POC helmets and sunglasses, as well as add more elaborate bases, like the cobbles of Paris Roubaix.
“It can be quite an infuriating process, and [customizing, with extra features] adds another two days to the completion date,” he admits, “but the results can be quite pleasing.”
To date, Rowley estimates he’s completed about 350 figurines, including a pair of cake toppers for a couple’s road-bike-themed wedding cake. He’s also justifiably proud of several that reflected two unique, Ritte Bicycle team kits — one the Pac Man-influenced “8-Bit,” the other a bright, color-blocked version for the Clever’s Donuts cyclocross team. Haverly even completed one for this author, reproducing the tiny pixels of a favorite Skratch Lab’s kit as well as a spot-on replication of a Trek Madone. Almost each and every project is showcased on Instagram, where a fast-growing fan base keeps tabs on his latest creations.
“People have suggested I take on someone that can help me paint, but I think that would compromise the special care and effort I try and put into every figure I paint,” he said. “I want to keep it personal.”
Have any of the pros who Haverly has crafted in miniature ever put in a request?
“I was contacted by the fiancée of Chris Froome, Michelle Cound, during last year’s Tour de France with the idea to supply a full set of Team Sky figures for Chris to gift to his teammates at the end of the tour,” he said. “Sadly this never came off, but it was very flattering and exciting at the time.”
Froome and his Sky teammates may still make an appearance. After all, judging by the guest list, that house on the edge of the New Forest is only increasing in popularity.
A gallery of Rowley’s figurines can be found here.