i rather love the fact that the world is populated by artisans and craftspersons. in any given street scene, dressed pretty much the same as the rest of us (more or less) could be one or two with the ability to hew magical stuff from base metals or wood. it is a humbling thought, particularly when you consider that my own contribution to the genre consists of not a lot more than a pile of newspapers and magazines on the floor. no doubt, in some corners of the world, that would be considered something of a skill, but to my mind, nothing worth having ought to come that easily, nor look quite so dishevelled.
though i doubt i'm the only one with this cultivated skill, unfortunately for my diminishing bank balance it seems there is little commercial demand. perhaps i simply associated with the wrong bunch of folks at art college. several artists nowadays seem to revel in the untidy mess described as art. as a cycling obsessive, however, it is steel tubing, brazing rods, ruddy great bench vices and those scary gas cylinders sitting in the corner that, for me, define craftsmanship. in the hands of the skilled builder, shiny metal and ornate lugs win out everytime.
for probably the nth time and still as heartfelt as at the first iteration, i am embarrassed to admit that i missed this year's bespoked bristol, yet transported myself all the way to the west coast of america to look at the (admittedly bigger) american equivalent. at the risk of sounding trite and apologetic, woe is me. perhaps, however, i have found my woe suitably ameliorated in the shape of a particularly hefty book featuring interviews with twelve of england's finest framebuilders, augmented with an introductory feature on the steel tubing which many of them feature within their double-diamond triangles.
the progenitors of this luxurious volume are undoubtedly qualified to be identified as the authors. commendably excluding himself from the dozen, matthew sowter (saffron frameworks) joined up with top uk builder ricky feather (feather cycles) and his partner, kayti peschke, to interview and photograph the cream of england's bike builders. some of the names are likely well-known to most of us who've been around the cycling world for more than five minutes: chas roberts, dave yates and jason rourke. the others are not all entirely unknown, though some i confess to not knowing at all. however, i will not have you think less of me, so i'll keep my failings to myself.
the interview with keith noronha of reynolds tubing is something of a masterstroke in my estimation. "to make just one 28.6mm butted tube out of 953 (stainless) takes 47 separate operations. by comparison, a down tube out of 631 might take only 12 operations". it's the sort of minutiae that makes not one jot of a difference to those lucky enough to ride a reynolds 953 frame, but to take a leaf out of dave brailsford's sky operator's manual, these innocuous marginal gains can add up to a bigger self-satisfied grin on the visage of the rider. too often the basic materials of choice are implied rather than described; chapter one is the picture frame that collates the subsequent chapters against that burgundy wallpaper.
though each chapter is populated with the organised, yet random thoughts of the authors' victims, there is no denying that the biggest impact is that of kayti peschke's imagery. imagine the outlying struggle to create a collage of photographs that essentially will vary little from one workshop to the next. having visited a number of framebuilders in their natural portland town habitats, i can sympathise, for though the size, shape and vista of each space willundoubtedly vary, the contents are frequently of similar hue. peschke's eye, however, has unearthed a cornucopia of difference all the way down to a harrison vice that has the surname ford, inked in below.
though each builder has been given the opportunity to present a double-page spread featuring the pinnacle of their skills, as it clearly states on the contents page ...'we present you with a snapshot of the current industry.. things change, and framebuilders are not exempt from this immutable law. as a snapshot, it is unparalleled. tom warmerdam holding up a nest of steel swarf, a feather cycles head tube badge, the exciting clutter framing lee cooper's clear workshop floor and robin mather's beautiful blue road bike with racks, mudguards and balloon style tyres. a snapshot of a slide show.
it is possible to learn a great deal by simply looking at the pictures, and i cannot deny that such was my introduction to made in england, spending what seemed an inordinate amount of time looking, taking only a few moments to read the script set round-boxed quotes. the layout allows for many periods of reflection such as these, but to fully comprehend just what it is that makes these gentlemen stand out in a crowd, it is necessary to investigate no further than the pertinent questions asked by sowter and feather. i am assuming, for reasons of sanity, that ricky feather excused himself from being interviewer and interviewee in his own chapter.
you're obviously a man of your hands. why bicycles? do you have a particular pattern that you stick to? what drinks get you through the day? who is your ideal customer? a brief and necessarily random step through of the queries posed. a well crafted question more often than not, will tease an appropriately revealing answer, for it is the attitude, influences and philosophy of those well-versed in the art of the brazing rod that brings us, the relatively ignorant, the very criteria by which we can adjudge the integrity and vision of the craftsmen who may well be responsible for our next bicycle.
"There was a genuine fear a few years ago, when carbon came onto the scene, that the hand-built, steel-framed bicycle would disappear, but this shows there's still life in them yet." (woodrup cycles) have you made frames for women in the past? "yes, but you have to warm your hands up before you measure them." (ron cooper). "we built a bike for a lady a few years ago and she asked whether i wanted to bear a child with her." (chas roberts).
thankfully, this isn't a manual. i daresay careful examination of questions and answers coupled with close scrutiny of the images might just assist one or two with previous gainful experience of joining two tubes of metal together. this might be the very spark of enthusiasm needed by those on the verge of taking the brazing plunge, and i sincerely hope that for some, that's what they gain from made in england's 217 pages. perhaps in a few years' time, sowter and feather will be visiting a few for whom this book was the catalyst. for many of us it'll only add to the mystery, helping to equate the terms 'craftsman' and 'artisan' with that of the alchemist. i can happily live with that.
it is rarely necessary, especially in this day and age, to understand any of the principles behind the modern motor car. in keeping with video recorders, dvd players and microwaves, i doubt anyone bothers to read the manuals at all. bicycles rarely come with a manual, at least not one that pertains to the model you've just put in the bikeshed. visit any of the dozen in this book with a view to ordering a custom frame and they're unlikely to require that you take a test of elegibility, but wouldn't it just be neat to meet your maker before the wheels fit the dropouts?
i'm as guilty as the next guy in having categorised the home-grown framebuilder as the sort of person you'd once have gone to for next year's race bike, or a tourer for the summer holiday. across the pond, there seemed a more innovative mindset; racing or touring was almost passe. if nothing else, made in england proves that once more i have confirmed i am far less well-informed than i profess.
the handmade british bicycle has never been in safer hands.
made in england is currently available for pre-order from push projects at a cost of £35. it is something of an understatement to mention that it's worth every penny.
tuesday 23rd october 2012..........................................................................................................................................................................................................