How to build a bike: The revival of a British craft

By Catherine Wynne
Business reporter, BBC News

Image caption,
There is a six-month waiting list for Peter Bird's made-to-measure bicycles, which start at about £3,500

Sales of bikes in the UK are up. But not everyone is content with buying a mass-produced bicycle. Some are looking for something different, which is helping the revival of a traditional British craft.

Peter Bird likens himself to a tailor. At his workshop at Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire he takes his clients' inside-leg measurements and finds out their exact needs.

But the tools of his trade are not a needle and thread, they are a brazing torch and steel tubes. His creations are not bespoke suits, but bespoke bicycles.

"One of the main reasons many people don't ride much is because their bicycles don't fit them very well. Our job is to get the fit right," says Mr Bird, who has been building bikes under his Swallow brand for 30 years.

"We make it comfortable, make it light and then add this whole thing about what it looks like. So you end up with something that is totally unique and is a joy to ride."

Mr Bird is one of the exhibitors at a show in Bristol devoted to independent bike builders, Bespoked. "This is a jewellery show for bicycles," the former goldsmith says, "a place to see gorgeous product, and where no mass manufacturer is allowed."

Now in its third year, the event's success represents the resurgence of interest in handmade bikes in the UK.

"We've been waiting for this kind of momentum for 30 years," Mr Bird says, smiling, as he looks at the bike fans filling the hall.

Anna Collins, a climate campaigner from London, is here looking for her dream bike. But it will be far from an impulse buy.

"I think I will spend more time planning a bike than I would a wedding dress," she says, laughing.

"When you get a bike that fits, there is nothing better. It is like having a custom pair of trousers or a custom dress," she says. "The other thing is beauty. It is like having a work of art, too."

Waiting list

At one time, every town in the country had at least one frame builder, but the craft largely disappeared over the past couple of decades as cheap, mass produced bikes were imported from Asia.

It is now being revived in workshops, sheds and garages dotted across the country partly thanks to a new generation of young makers like Tom Donhou.

There is a year-long waiting list for the bikes he constructs at his workshop in Hackney Wick, a former industrial area of East London which has been colonised by young artists and craftspeople.

Tom, a former product designer, allows two weeks for each one.

He starts by building and painting the all-important frame, whose geometry determines that the seat, handlebars and pedals are in the correct position for each cyclist and the sort of riding they do. He then adds on the customer's chosen components - such as gears, brakes and chainset - which complete the bicycle.

"For me, the reason to buy a made-to-measure bike is you know where your money is going. You are supporting an independent person who loves what they do," he says.

"Aside from the fact that it is tailor-made to fit you exactly, it is about the ethics of the whole thing. It is built in the UK. It has not been outsourced to China or the Far East."

Built to last

The revival of bespoke bicycles in the past couple of years has come hand-in-hand with some very straitened economic times. And with so much work going into each bike, they don't come cheap.

Prices typically start at £2,500 for a full bike, way above the few hundred pounds regular cyclists spend on average. In extreme cases this can climb to £10,000 with the inclusion of some very high-spec components.

Far from hitting sales, the downturn may even have played a part in the industry's success, says Phil Taylor, organiser of Bespoked.

"People in a recession tend to buy wiser and invest their money in something that will last longer. If you have a bicycle that is especially made for you, you are investing in something that will last you forever."

No one is saying that this will ever be more than a niche sector. Many workshops produce only a few dozen bikes a year. Some even fewer.

And the vast majority of bikes sold in the UK are made overseas and sold through a handful of national chains such as Halfords to customers content to buy standard-sized frames.

Mr Taylor is hopeful that the recent success will continue as people recognise the quality of what is being made. But he has a warning, too, for the growing numbers wanting to learn the craft.

"It takes a long time and it is hard work," says Phil Taylor, himself a bike builder. "No-one in there selling bikes is rich."

Image caption,
Field Cycles make 15 bikes a year at their workshop in Sheffield

Tough times

One experienced bike builder, who does not want to be named, says you have to be driven by passion, not money: "It has been bloody hard and I have never really made much money."

He is sad that even as a skilled craftsman, in all his years in the industry he has never been able to earn the average UK yearly wage of about £25,000.

"We are involved in an industry where people assume you earn good money because you are dealing with expensive bikes," he says.

"But most of the expense is the bits you buy to build them. If you work out the profit on things, it is not that great."

The four friends involved in the new Sheffield-based Field Cycles, are all having to do other paid jobs too.

"If you make things by hand, one by one, you are never going to be rich," says Harry Harrison, who is juggling building bikes with teaching fine art at Sheffield Hallam University. "I would probably make more money stacking shelves at Tesco."

Each of Field's steel-framed bicycles is marked Handmade in Sheffield, something that has already attracted overseas buyers from Germany and Japan.

The city's industrial heritage is something of which Harry is proud to be a part. The plan is to both continue the tradition of making desirable products in steel - and make a living from it.

"I might be naive, but I think that if you make a really good object and you really try to take care of the people who are buying it off you, then I think there is a way to make it work."

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