Yorkshire handbuilt bike revival

In the third part of our series on what cycling means to me, Dylan Thomas tells Sarah Freeman how the handbuilt bike industry is on the brink of a revival and it’s all happening in York.

Dylan Thomas, who is spearheading a handbuilt bike revival in York.
Dylan Thomas, who is spearheading a handbuilt bike revival in York.

Cycling is hardly recognisable from the sport it was 50 years ago.

Gone are the days when leading riders would prepare for a race with rounds of jam sandwiches and bowls of rice pudding. These days it’s all about the science.

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From the type of spokes used on the wheels to the weight of the frame, it’s a precision business and that’s’ before you take into account the army of nutritionists, sports psychologists and personal trainers behind every rider.

However, in a workshop, tucked away off a busy street in the heart of York city centre, there is a glimpse of what Britain’s cycling industry used to look like. Dozens of tools line the walls of the small brick building and it’s where for the last few years one man has been reviving the art of hand built bikes.

“Before the Second World War, there would have been lots of workshops like this one,” says Dylan Thomas, whose business is the only of its kind within the city walls. “If you wanted a bike, you needed someone to build it.

“However, most of those skilled in the trade went off to war and when they came back the industry they knew had been consigned to history. A few of them carried on, but most got other jobs and then as people’s reliance on cars increased there just wasn’t the market for hand built bikes.

“It’s taken a really long time for it to come back, but I definitely think we are starting to see a renaissance in these traditional skills.”

While Dylan had always been a keen cyclist, for a while it never occurred to him that he could make a living out of it and in his 20s he spent a number of years as a chef working in the Caribbean.

“I know it sounds idyllic, but trust me when I say the novelty does eventually wear off and the truth was I missed my friends. When I came back I knew I didn’t want to work in a kitchen anymore, so I needed to find something else to do.”

After a spell working as a mechanic in a local bike shop, he decided that wasn’t for him either, so in an effort to clear his head, Dylan spent seven months cycling across Canada and America. He started in Nova Scotia and by the time he finished in San Francisco he had a plan - he would return to York and set up on his own.

“I had an idea in my head that I wanted to do something in the bike industry, but I didn’t want to work for someone else. I wanted flexibility and I knew the only way to get that was to start my own business.

“I also knew that there while a lot of people just go to one of the big chains when they want to buy a bike, there are a lot of other people who want something which is custom-built.”

Yourspokes was launched in the middle of the recession, but quite quickly Dylan’s hunch proved right.

“It wasn’t the best time to start a business. In fact it was probably the worst, but within six months I was earning enough to pay the bills and that’s all I needed,” he says. “I reckon if I can start a brand new business in the recession and come out the other side then I should be ok.

“You know, I haven’t spent a penny on advertising, partly because in the early days I just wasn’t able to afford it. It’s all been about word of mouth and now I’ve got customers in Canada in Australia.”

Dylan now makes custom-built wheels and frames which he sells to individuals and the wider industry and says that over the last few years York has established itself as something of a hub for traditional skills.

In a large shed 10 miles north of York, Ricky Feather has quietly established himself as one of the country’s leading frame builders. The waiting list for one of Feather Cycles’s sought after frames can be more than a year and the independent bike shop, York Cycle Works, also boasts a large workshop specialising in custom-built wheels.

“There’s definitely a bit of a cycling community emerging in the city,” says Dylan, who has recently taken on a couple of a couple of staff who help out in busier times. “When I first started out, I had a few contacts, but to be honest the whole business has been about trial and error.

“I started experimenting with frames purely because I’d made a set of wheels which were too big for a standard frame. I spent hours in this place and got through an awful lot of tubing finding out what worked and what didn’t.

“The reason people want hand built wheels is the same reason why they want hand-built anything. It’s about quality and its about investing in something you know will last.”

While some of the big cycling manufacturers spend thousands rigorously testing new designs, Dylan has a more straightforward method.

“I’m a pretty big bloke,” he says. “I reckon that if a frame can take me riding at full pelt then it can take anyone. In the early days I did break a fair few, let’s just say it was a bit of steep learning curve.” Dylan admits that when it comes to cycling he is slightly accident prone and the large scar down his left leg is a permanent reminder of his most serious crash.

“Ah yes, that was big one,” he says. “It was the first time I had gone out on a fixed wheel bike. They don’t have breaks and I went off like a steam train. Unfortunately, I happened to look behind me and stopped pedalling for a second. The rear wheel locked and I catapulted off. My leg was in a pretty bad way, as was my face. I’ve now got a lot of steel plates in that side of my body.” The accident didn’t put him off, but he admits that as orders mount he doesn’t get out on his bike as much as he once did.

“I guess that’s the one downside of running your own business,” he says. “For me cycling is as much about the social scene as it is about the ride itself. When I’m out, I like to do long distances and I’m not too bothered about talking to any one along the way, but once you’ve finished it’s nice to have a couple of pints with friends. Cycling is about freedom, for me it’s how I relax.”

It was by chance that Dylan ended up settling in York. Growing up in Essex, his father was unhappy with the choice of schools and went in search of a better education for his children.

“As soon as he got off the train at York, he knew he’d found the right place,” he says. “Who knows what would have happened if we’d stayed in Essex, Yourspokes might never have happened. It feels good to be working in the cycling industry at the moment and the Tour de France has already had an impact. In the last few weeks alone I’ve had people over here for the Grand Depart place orders because I have been recommended.

“For the event itself, I’ll be at Leeds Town Hall bike show. I might not get a chance to catch the peloton, but it’s great to feel that your part of something so big.”


Tomorrow: Kirsten England, York Council chief executive and former poster girl for the Edinburgh Bike Co-operative on her life-long passion for cycling.