Ali McLean has been working since well before dawn. The previous evening, the founder of Fatcreations, one of the UK’s leading custom paint shops, had received a frantic call from a UCI WorldTour team. With four days left of racing at the Vuelta a España, could he clear his spray booth to paint one of their frames to match the maillot rojo they expected their lead rider to be wearing in Madrid?
“I always have one of their frames here, ready to go”, he says, which is fortunate, given the ridiculously tight deadline. “They reckon he’s got the legs to overturn Simon [Yates] and he’s getting stronger as the race goes on, so if he’s in red on Saturday my partner, Bex, will be flying out to hand it over.”
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It’s testimony to McLean’s reputation that WorldTour teams and many high-end bike manufacturers, not to mention a growing number of discerning private customers, turn to him when they want something a little special, a little extraordinary. And rarely is such success so richly deserved, for McLean has had to overcome personal adversity that would have destroyed the ambition of many.
McLean worked in the cycling industry for most of the nineties, overseeing the R&D at Ultimate Sports Engineering in West Sussex, but he took the decision to leave that all behind to start Fatcreations in 2001. When he wasn’t honing his skills in his workshop, he would be riding the roads and trails near his home in Chichester.
A former professional MTB racer – he finished second to the late Jason McRoy at the National Downhill Championship in 1993 – McLean continued to enjoy the thrill of pushing his body to the limit in retirement, whether competing in Ironman events, snowboarding or the hi-octane world of superbikes. By his own admission, the years and the cumulative injuries had taken their toll, but even as he edged his way into middle-age, he could still hand out a weekly time-trial thrashing to the local youth.
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Fatcreations was essentially a means to an end, providing a comfortable enough income to allow him to pursue the sports he loved. McLean had the perfect work-life balance. In short, life was good. Then one night in April 2014, everything changed.
A few weeks shy of his 42nd birthday, as he took himself to bed, he noticed he was short of breath and that his heart was not just racing, it was going through the roof. When it was close to 300bpm and showing no signs of abating, he admitted himself to hospital, where the seriousness of his condition quickly became clear.
“It was all a bit unbelievable, bearing in mind I’d never touched a cigarette, never touched a drug in my life, but there are people who never drink or smoke who die at the age of 21 of cancer. So it is what it is.”
McLean is remarkably philosophical as he reflects on the moment doctors told him that he was suffering from Arrhythmogenic Right Ventricular Cardiomyopathy, a rare form of heart disease that often manifests itself in adulthood. ARVC is a rare condition that causes an abnormal heartbeat and the real risk of sudden death and, as McLean appreciates only too well, it is a disease that has no respect for those with a salutary lifestyle.
ARVC can, to some extent, be managed, but it is also likely that it will get progressively worse. Initial attempts to contain his condition were positive, allowing McLean to entertain the thought that life might return to some sort of normality. His optimism, however, was short-lived and after several invasive, painful and ultimately unsuccessful operations, his condition deteriorated. Within a year of his initial diagnosis, he had to accept the inevitable: if he wanted to live, then cycling, or any other strenuous activity for that matter, was no longer an option.
His salvation was Fatcreations. McLean threw himself into his work, refining his skill – he is completely self-taught in the art of spray painting – and slowly building up a larger customer base and a reputation for work of the highest quality. He is now one of the leading exponents of custom paint in the country, with an enviable list of clients and one suspects that much of this is due to an innate competitiveness and a fierce determination not to let his heart condition overwhelm him.
One particularly poignant job (pictured, bottom) saw McLean recently paint a frame in memory of Charlie Craig, a promising junior who died at the age of 15 after a heart attack in his sleep. Craig’s father Nick -a former team mate of McLean’s- rode the frame to fourth place at the 2018 Three Peaks cyclo-cross.
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Fatcreations’ renown can bring added complications, however, and McLean now to has to contend with constant enquiries. “It’s soul-destroying telling customers we are booked up until next July. I don’t want that – I want to paint everyone’s bike who rings me!”
Soon he hopes that will be the case. Fatcreations had provided a financial security that he never envisaged and McLean is currently working on ambitious plans to expand to a more suitable premises and take on a full-time member of staff to work alongside him and Bex, so that he can take the business forward.
Fatcreations will be exhibiting at the Rouleur Classic this November and McLean promises a display that will be ‘special and educational’ to both showcase his talents and provide potential customers with an appreciation of the intricate work involved to produce something unique and original. Transforming a bike frame into a work of art is a time-consuming, complex process.
McLean has been dealt a cruel hand, but he is no longer languishing in those dark days that followed his diagnosis and has reconciled himself to the fact that the life he once enjoyed has gone forever.
“When you’re living with AVRC you feel like the most unlucky person in the world, but every now and then you get reminded that you’re not,” he muses. “Without Fat Creations, I don’t know where I’d be. On the one hand I’m very unlucky, but on the other, I am very lucky to have this.”