April saw the annual Bespoked handmade bicycle show return to its spiritual home in Bristol. It also saw an even greater number of builders than ever before displaying their wares. Among the many established builders there continues to be an increasing number of new builders that are making the move from hobby builders to professional with a view to making enough frames a year to be able to survive on the proceeds.
While it is great to see the number of builders increasing every year it does lead me to wonder what is driving the interest in custom frame building. I can remember a time around the mid- to late-‘90s when bespoke frame building was in decline as aluminium became the material of choice for race frames and then carbon fibre took over the dominant position among mainstream manufacturers. Customs shops of the time only ever built with steel and so riders began to stop using them as steel simply wasn’t fashionable.
Having had many discussions recently with established frame builders, it would appear that carbon is beginning to become its own worst enemy. Riders who have worked their way through ever more expensive rides are reaching the point where they want a bike that isn’t the same as the Pinarello that all their club mates are riding.
So customer demand is one driver for the increased number of custom frame builders, but no one is ever going to get rich building one-off frames so there must be something else drawing people into the business.
Personally, I’m of the opinion that we have become a nation of people that have no skills, at least not in a traditional sense. I have memories of both my father and grandfather building all manner of things from scratch, but who does that today? And I think it is partly that realisation that is driving people to explore frame building. The need to be able to say I did that and to be able to create something by hand that is useful, rather than simply abstract art.
Plenty of old school builders have seen what is happening and are adapting their business models to suit. It was not that many years ago that if you want to learn bespoke frame building the only real opportunity was to try and get an apprenticeship with an existing builder. Then in the late-‘90s the likes of Swallow Tandems and Dave Yates were among the first to open their workshop doors to the general public providing frame building courses. Now, there are numerous choices around the country and each week it seems there is another new builder submitting his latest masterpiece to a magazine or website eager for a favourable review having completed one of the courses.
How long the trend will continue is something I’m not prepared to call. Though I’m not sure it will be as long-lived as many of those new builders would like. Why you might ask? Well, Chas Roberts, widely acknowledged as one of the country’s best frame builders, is taking a sabbatical. If a business that has survived two generations of the same family is closing its doors when so many new starters are calling themselves master builders maybe it is time to reassess the viability of starting a custom frame business.
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