This weekend, in Bristol, Bespoked happened.
The UK handmade bicycles show: a great confirmation that bicycles, the people who make them and those who ride them are awesome. And for me a great opportunity to look back on the 10 days spent learning how to build frames at Bicycle Academy earlier this month.
It takes quite a few different skills and knowledge to design and build a bespoke steel bicycle. It’s not just the brazing, it’s also the structure, the choice of tubes, the visual proportions, the fit, the mitering, etc. That crazy mixture of craft, mechanics and design attracts me like nothing else.
On the last Monday of March, as the team is still fast asleep (remember #5thegghunt), I left the training camp and headed to my first day of school. I had a ton of stinky kit in my bag, a brand new crankset poking in my back, a pair of forks mostly resting on my helmet and a huge grin from ear to ear. I’m going to make myself a bike.
Have you ever made something before ?
Before Bicycle Academy, I had never brazed anything and had spent a very limited amount of time in a workshop. I found it hard to believe I was going to design, fit and build myself a bike in the space of ten days. But I will what I want. And what I really want is to make myself a cross bike to race on. One that fits me perfectly, has all the clearance and none of the compromises smaller off-the-shelf frames always seem to have.
Bicycle Academy is in Frome, Somerset. It’s a huge open space, with 4 work benches on the left, a fitting studio on the right, a kitchen, a bunch of giant power tools, a secret TIG welding spot, all sorts of frames in all sorts of states of making hanging from the ceiling and two dogs. It’s run and taught by the nicest – and some of the most skilled – human beings of the entire industry. Pretty much.
Tom, the man behind Sturdy Cycles, takes me through fitting -as he helps me get to the best position for a cross bike, concepts of structure and how to pick tubes. Soon we put it all into bikeCAD.
At the end of the day, it feels like I can already almost touch it.
Paul from BTR Fabrications teaches me how to miter. He makes it look dead easy and, with his simple explanations and a bit of practice, my brain seems to soon get around where material needs to be removed each time for the tubes to join neatly together. By the end of the day, I count three blisters on my right hand. I’m exhausted but so happy. I can see, hold and weigh what one day of work can produce. And that feels incredible.
Getting down to the fillet brazing business was also pretty rad. Andrew – the founder or BA – much like everyone, is an amazing teacher. We go from understanding what fillet brazing is to brazing tubes by myself in what seems like no time at all.
Are you going to be emotional ? – Yeah, I reckon so.
Sometimes, you feel like every little thing, good or bad, that happened in your life was leading to the exact moment you are living right now. I’m not trying to be deep or philosophical, it just happens like that sometimes. And that’s how I felt on the last Thursday. In the afternoon, Paul and I get a stand and we put my tacked frame in. I pop my glasses on, turn on the flame, check it’s neutral. Make sure I’ve got rod nearby. Shake my shoulders a bit. And here we go.
I don’t know how long I spent brazing. Maybe ten minutes, maybe two hours ? I’ve rarely been that focused. The rod, the flame, the tube, the speed, the temperature, the puddle. Paul looks at my hands and how I’m doing my job. He gives me an advice every so often.
And when the last stretch of the last joint is finished, I can’t believe what I’ve just done.
Fuck, I made a bike.
And you know what, I think it’ll be the first one of many.