'Endangered' bespoke bike frame builders unite to save their industry

Being placed on the Heritage Crafts 'Red List' focused industry minds, with new initiative beginning this month

Paul Gibson of Ellis Briggs brazing a fork crown
(Image credit: Ellis Briggs)

Bicycle frame builders in the UK are planning to create a united front in order to combat tough times in the industry.

Steel frame building was moved last year to the Heritage Crafts Association's 'Red List', signifying that it is an endangered craft.

Artisan steel frame makers in Britain, who don't have the marketing budgets of the big players, have been hit harder than many by issues including Covid, the cost of living crisis and the cost of materials, and Brexit too.

HCA will be working with the builders to help facilitate the new strategy, with a first, exploratory meeting taking place on February 22. Exactly what form it will take is not yet known, but the idea is to raise awareness of the industry.

"I think we forget as frame builders, especially when we've been doing it as long as we have, that not everybody knows about it, knows what we do," Paul Gibson of Ellis Briggs – a Yorkshire framebuilding brand that was established in 1936 - told Cycling Weekly. Along with Rob Wade of Swallow Bespoke and the HCA, he is helping to spearhead the new initiative.

He points out that those who have come to cycling in recent years don't always know about steel bikes at all.

"If you get 50 and 60-year-old guys that were cycling in their youth, they'll know all about it. But people have come in a cycle in the last 10 years or so, all they've ever known is carbon," he said.

Gibson hopes the new initiative will "bring a bit more rejuvenation into things and get the word out there that we're still we're still doing it."

The HCA reviews its list of crafts every two years, with "the hand-building of bespoke, brazed bicycle frames" having been moved from its Viable list to the Red List last year, where it now resides under the 'Endangered' alongside cricket bat making, broom making, and tens of others.

There are numerous factors affecting the industry, says HCA's endangered crafts manager Mary Lewis, including the availability of training.

"Training is a really difficult one, because it's very difficult to train somebody when you're a self-employed person yourself," she said. "It's a big cost and a big risk. You have to take time out of your own production to train someone, so a lot of them just don't have the capacity to do it."

The numbers are key driver of whether an industry should be on HCA's Red List, and for framebuilding the numbers are small, with the HCA estimating that 50-75 frame builders operating in the UK, with less than 20 of those doing it as their main income. 

The industry isn't yet listed as 'Critically Endangered' by the HCA though and, thankfully, not on the 'Extinct' list along with cricket ball making and mouth-blown sheet glass making. With this new initiative, the frame builders hope to keep it that way.

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