People Have to Learn Bicycles: Inside / Out at Ted James Design

As though they’d joined a cult and made some kind of suicide pact, having seen none during the five hours of driving previous, perhaps thirty pheasants lay dead in the road over a quarter-mile3 stretch. What had happened on this quarter-mile stretch? Why here? It made me regret buying the rabbit, but without screeching to a halt on a frozen dual carriageway it wouldn’t have been practical to stop and collect them. Even at 70mph I could tell some were past their best and it’s rude to turn up empty-handed. I was on my way to visit Ted, so turning up with roadkill seemed to make sense. I was running late though and didn’t want to rely on road gifts so I picked up a wild rabbit wrapped in paper from our local butchers. It was a relief they had it because plan B was the pet shop.

I’d debated not going to visit Ted of Ted James Design and just compiling the stories people tell about him. The chronicles of SuperTed! The stories people tell can seem fairly fantastic, however, worryingly most of the time they’re true. I sometimes wonder how Ted is even alive? If I were more superstitious, I’d say his spirit was too big for his body and so it spends all of its time trying to get out. There’s something in his eyes like the sort of superintelligence and frustration a sheepdog has about being domesticated, as though any room that he’s in is somehow too small, so his eyes dance about searching for exits.

“One time on his way home from a late shift in the workshop, he fell off his motorbike into a ditch, he had to work early the next morning so he decided the ditch wasn’t that bad, so he slept in the ditch and then wheeled his bike back to work in the morning”. “On the first few ESB frames, he bent the chainstays with his hands!”. “One time Ted picked up a deer he found in the road, and put it in his car, and then it exploded.”

“Chris king walks into a bar, takes one look at a drunken half-naked Ted swinging wild punches in an invisible bar brawl, spins 180 on the spot, and disappears.” “Once Ted dropped a lathe on himself, and had to cut his trousers off”.

80% of the chronicles of SuperTed involve superhuman interactions and/or near-death experiences with lathes. There are a lot of stories about Ted that are probably true, so I definitely shouldn’t write about them. Ted was one of the people who taught me how to build frames, but before that our paths had crossed a few times. Outside of bike shows, I’ve not really hung out with Ted, so I took the opportunity to go and have a nose around and do some riding in the woods.

I rolled into Ted’s workshop on a rural industrial estate in Gloucestershire at around three in the afternoon, to find him mixing paint.

“I’m not sure if I should add more yellow?”

“I don’t know? What colour’s it meant to be?”

“It doesn’t matter, it’s a BMX”.

I poked around in the chaos and clutter while he laid down the first coat in a home-made spray booth that uses outside for ventilation. “I had a tidy, so it’s a bit tidier than usual.” I was late arriving and a bit panicked about getting some decent pictures of his most recent personal build, a mostly stainless-steel suspension BMX, so we headed out to catch the sunset and take a look at some of the local BMX spots. It being November in the UK, we missed the sunset, but I did get to take a look at Ted’s new bike.

“How long have you been riding this thing?”

“I was building one for Mike Bennet from Fingers Crossed and so I built this one at the same time…I’ve had it for a few months now.”

“It’s stainless?”

“Yea I built a 953 frame for Reynolds for the mountain bike testing, then after all the stress testing the frame was just lying about in the workshop so I used the tubes”

“There can’t be much butt left on those tubes?”

“No, I had to make it a bit longer than I wanted, and it’s only 0.5 wall at the seat tube and 0.8 at the head tube which is super thin. Normally I make it 1.2 but its super-strong material”

“Isn’t that going to hurt when it fails?”

“Hopefully if it breaks, I’ll notice the crack before it gets any bigger – it’s amazing because the tubes have been stressed already before I built it.”

Ted’s not a big guy by any means but it’s also not a bike for taking on picnics.

I can’t ride a BMX- it might as well be a skateboard, so I have no intention of asking why it has suspension. Ted’s a practical person so he understands that I don’t get it.

“People see it and say ‘that’s not a BMX it’s got suspension that’s a fucking mountain bike get a proper BMX! There are a lot of people who obviously aren’t keen on it. The funny thing is that modern BMX, like modern park riding and stuff, is far removed from the origins of BMX and where BMX has come from. These bikes are more BMX than anything else. BMX is bicycle motor cross and so the bikes imitate motor cross bikes. I think people would have a much worse reaction if Ruben Alcantara and Garett Byrnes weren’t building suspension bikes. They’re amazing riders and they’ve been riding these bikes and they find the suspension pretty good for old bodies”

I mean – I guess it makes sense? Why don’t people build suspension BMX bikes?

“People have tried to make it before but it hasn’t really worked. Probably because the suspension was shit. Even on mountain bikes when suspension came in, in the 90’s suspension wasn’t any good, it was ages before it was worth having. It’s 2” longer than normal and the head angle is really slack so it feels shit to ride around a car park, but riding it round the woods it just feels normal. You can ride it on trails where you can’t normally ride a BMX, but it’s different from a mountain bike because it’s small. You don’t have a big tyre buzzing up your arse, and you can throw it around a bit more underneath you. It’s such a good feeling! There are loads of wall rides ‘n’ stuff that I couldn’t do before because the runup was too rough or they needed too much digging, so I had to do them on a mountain bike. But I don’t want to do them on a mountain bike. I want to do them on a BMX and now I can.”

No one HAS TO do a wallride!

Ted does some tricks, (I didn’t play enough tony hawk as a kid to know what the tricks are called) I take some pictures, It’s dark, so we ride back to the car.

“The bikes you have in your car are essentially a track-themed mountain bike and a BMX-themed mountain bike?”

Ted explains:

“they’re multipurpose bikes. On the gravel/track bike you can put slick tyres and a mech hanger on and it’s a road bike. I’ve made some screw on bosses for the cables, but you can also ride it round the trails, and the BMX you can just change the fork and the tyres on”

The third bike in the car is one that I built, however not entirely. It was adapted from a box of mitered tubes that were meant to be one of Teds ESB frames. It too is a multipurpose bike, having various things. A 5-speed town bike with half a cassette, a fixie with 622 x 2.2” tyres, and in its current guise as my everyday everything bike with a chubby Schwalbe G-one on the back and a knobbly fat 20” front on a Clydesdale fork upfront. Although its production was pretty limited, there are a lot of ESB frames being ridden out there, and the people who ride them, love them. It has to be one of my top five production bikes I’ve ever ridden. Like all good bikes, I bought one, rode it, sold it, regretted that for a few years, then got my hands on another. Hilariously, Ted is in the same position having sold his personal bike because it was quicker and easier than building a new one, he bought another second hand only to sell that one later for the same reason. He now wishes he still had an ESB.

The ESB (which stands for Extra Strong Bike) was born of the fixie scene of the mid 2000’s. At the time it was dubbed a “trick fixie” however it’s held up over the years as a multipurpose bike, because of its generous tyre clearances and conservative geometry as well as its reputation for being bombproof. Over the years, Ted has put together a huge number of extremely refined and exceptional bikes from the almost hyper-conservative to the fantastically experimental and the immaculately detailed and presented. I remember being almost giddy at the idea of chatting to Ted about his 29gnar which was a 29er that could be ridden fixed or single speed, and then be ridden geared with the addition of an easily removable frame-mounted gearbox. At one point he made business cards that had a picture of the bike he made for his Mum on them. It was a super slick “rando” (hybrid) bike with internal routing, dynamo lights and mudguards, which was in stark contrast to the sweet fixie and gnarly mountain bike builds he was known for. In a way that’s what is interesting about Ted’s work; bikes are bikes and he can make them all very well.

Frame builders who machine their own frame components and can get excited by frame repairs are just a very different fish. They’re much fewer and farther between than makers of slick road and gravel bikes. It’s tricky to describe exactly how and why this work is valuable in a world of side-by-side comparisons, but it somehow makes every build more coherent and rational. Like the bikes are born not made. Ted thinks. No one has ever seen him do it, but snippets of excellent design just keep coming. I remember spending weeks trying to get some pretty tight bends into 0.8 wall 1 1/5” T45 tubes which were super tricky, and being frustrated at how stiff and thin the material was. A few weeks later, Ted casually turned up to a bike show with a frame made entirely from 953 stainless tubes that he’d profiled somehow into dodecahedrons. Even with his remarkable back catalogue of insane builds that hinge on what seems like an intuitive understanding of metallurgy, the ESB stands out as an incredibly well thought out and utilitarian design.

At one point I flirted with the idea of designing a bike to be manufactured- I guess that’s a pipe dream that a lot of builders share. My search led me to a stash of notched tubes in a container that at one time, were destined to become 14 Bike Co. ESB frames, that had been abandoned and left to rust. I asked Ted, “Why didn’t you buy them? Surely, they wouldn’t take any time to weld up and paint. People still want ESB’s; I have one that I love and you want one. I guess they’re a bit rusty now?”. “Yea, they’re all rusty and I was always broke, also they’re a huge distance away and they have no interest in delivering them.” Always being broke kind of feels like a bit of a double-edged sword, especially in relation to Ted and the bikes that he builds. It’s the best possible mindset in building multipurpose bikes. As uncomfortable as it is, it forces experimentation and refinement of process, and best of all it puts the focus on bikes that ride better and are better. “I don’t care about making perfect looking bikes. Loads of people make perfect looking bikes and it just takes so much more time. I just want to make bikes that ride really well.” Every one of Ted’s bikes that I’ve ridden has been an absolute joy, but aside from that, he’s designed some pretty exceptional components to be made efficiently in house with manual machines. Having machined headtubes out of solid material on a contract basis for Reynolds, he now has his own headtube cups which share many of the benefits but can be made more efficiently in-house at a fraction of the cost. His through-axle dropouts are hydro cut to shape and then manually machined, using the mech hanger as the thread, so that when the wheels are off the rear mech can also come off easily to avoid being damaged in transit.

Ted pours a generous whiskey into a bit of stainless steel from a pile next to the lathe and sets it down next to me. There are no lumps so I take a sip.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a fin”

“You make surfboards?”

“Yea I started surfing with the kids this summer. It’s amazing, I love it. I bought Elwood a lesson and he could just do it, he just stood up until he hit the sand. Elwood’s pretty nuts. He just does stuff; he doesn’t have to learn. It’s like skateboarding, he just started dropping into bowls.”

“Yea your kid’s ride bikes better than I’ll ever be able to. When did they start riding?”

“They started riding balance bikes when they were three, but they didn’t get good until they were three and a half; Elwood was doing tricks and bunny hopping off stuff on his balance bike. Ryder’s not the same, he doesn’t really care about riding but he’s super smart, he’s good in the workshop. Elwood doesn’t care about that, he just wants to ride his bike.” 80% of Teds Instagram feed is hanging out with his kids, car camping, surfing and riding skate parks.

“So, then you made a surfboard?”

“Yea I made one out of insulation board.”

He tells me about George Greenough and how he was the first one to shape surfboard fins like fish fins, and about rail shapes and what rails on surfboards do. My interest was piqued by a boat he built that was all enclosed like a car, that was described in detail to its maker in a dream by aliens.

It’s getting late so we decant the contents of our respective cars into backpacks, scale a wall and walk out to some woods behind the workshop to find a spot to camp. We cross a couple of fields, hop a couple more low fences and we’re in the woods surrounded by little dens and other interventions which offer a convenient source of firewood.

“The den game in these woods is pretty strong!”

“Yea over by the trails someone’s built one with two stories. One time I saw a couple of guys with bricks and a trowel building a barbecue!”

I feather a piece of fatwood from my bag and Ted breaks up some dry(ish) logs by smashing them against a tree. We make a fire and try and work out how to cook the rabbit.

“I’ve never seen a rabbit this big?”

“Maybe it’s a hare? Sometimes I see muntjac deer outside the workshop running, but then I look at them and they’ve got massive ears and I think hold on! That’s a hare!”

After whittling a hobo spit and working out which organ is which, we pour some wine and choose some logs to sit on.

“Have you ever eaten a muntjac?

“No, I’ve had a few deer, though the last one I just took the legs. The first deer I only had an hour to strip and gut and I had no idea what I was doing and I had nowhere to store it, but then I found out the front legs aren’t attached…”


“Like there’s no joint, you just cut the tendons and it falls off, so the last one I just pulled up, cut the legs off, and pushed the rest into the bushes.”

I will forever have nightmares about driving down an unfamiliar country road alone at night to find a blood-soaked Ted hunched over a deer carcass with a tiny swiss army knife trying to cut the legs off, suddenly spinning to meet the glare of my high beams. How Lynchian.

We exchange roadkill stories, recipes and chat about the perils of frame building, and the financially precarious life of a frame builder. Even though I do it, I still find it really hard to understand how people can financially rely on building frames on a small scale.

“It definitely feels like a lifestyle rather than a career?”.

“I’ve never done anything else; I’ve always ridden bikes and I’ve always worked with bikes. I did an apprenticeship; it was welding and fabrication. It was nothing to do with bikes but I was all about bikes and the whole time I was thinking about bikes and how to make them. If I had to stop making bikes, there’s loads of stuff you learn when you’re making bikes so I’d make something else instead.”

“What about before that, did you grow up riding BMX?”

“No, I rode mountain bikes until I was 14 and then I discovered weed, skateboarding and girls, and then I started riding BMX. I wanted to build bikes for a long time. A lot longer than most people I think. A lot of people started building bikes without wanting to do it forever. They just suddenly want to do it for some reason or other and then they do it. For me it’s my life and it always has been. It’s because I ride bikes and I’ve always ridden bikes and broken bikes. They always failed so I wanted to build better bikes that didn’t fail. I’m interested in why they break and what needs to be done to make them not break. I always wanted to make better bikes. That’s what got me wanting to make bikes.”

I wonder how many people have such an explicit and visceral understanding of bikes and what makes them work well.

By the time the rabbit/small deer is cooked(ish) we’re on our second bottle of wine.

“You know what’s a really good idea? Guinness and brandy! I saw an old guy doing it on a train once, he had a can of Guinness and then he just slipped some brandy in it and I thought ‘that’s a bloody great idea!”

Help. My mind is on the food.

“Is rabbit ok to eat raw?”

“I had horse sashimi in Japan once. It was nice!”

“When did you go to Japan?”

“I went with 14 Bike Co. for some event, but I stayed out there for a month just living in the parks in Tokyo. Loads of people just live in the park, they build little houses with white picket fences just in the park and no one bothers them.”

My earliest memories of Ted are riding on the roof of a carpark in 2004? 2005? And then at the 14 Bike Co. shop round the corner. I remember 14 bike Co, as a slick but sparce fashion outlet behind Brick Lane next to the Truman Brewery that somehow inexplicably sold bikes. They didn’t sell bikes you could buy in a shop though, instead the window was full of immaculately laid out lugs, tubes, and shiny bits of imported NJS aluminium. I don’t know if it’s because I mostly hung out there at night, or because I was a dork, or because I definitely couldn’t afford anything in there but I never went inside.

“How did the whole 14 Bike Co. thing happen?”

“They were printing t-shirts and selling them, but then they sold the T-shirts to Topshop. They still had the shop, and they wanted to start selling bikes. They knew that we were selling bikes round the corner, and they told us that they were going to start selling bikes, so instead of working against each other, we worked together. They didn’t know anything about bikes but they had the shop. It was pretty good; they were making money off of me, but I was getting loads of work so it kind of worked.”

“That’s a pretty good situation?”

“Yea but they were making loads of money selling t-shirts and losing money selling bikes so it didn’t really work. It was cool for a bit though. I got to go to Japan.”

I’m surprised to learn Ted hasn’t done much camping. I can’t really imagine Ted living in a house but I can definitely imagine him immerging from a thicket covered in moss.

“I don’t really get much chance to go camping because of the kids, and before that I was just in London getting wasted all the time, but I have slept outside a lot.”

The recording goes from munching, to pirate noises to “what was that? – a smelly duck” to ASMR hammock tying noises. After a frosty night I wake up at 5 in my hammock surprisingly warm by the still smouldering fire in my fancy Criterion sleeping bag. Ted is still asleep on the floor on top of a deflated sleeping mat and a damp army surplus bivvy bag, just wearing all his clothes with dew collecting on his beard. Somehow, he’s completely fine. He makes a coffee; we pack up and start walking back to the workshop. It’s bitterly cold. Our footsteps crunch though the frosty fields now populated by a number of abnormally large fluffy white sheep, like little clouds disappearing into the fog that was rising up from the valley.

“Wasn’t it cold sleeping on the floor?”

“It was fine! I can pretty much sleep anywhere. I got trench foot once. It started in Japan because I didn’t have that many socks, and I was riding and getting sweaty and then just passing out and not taking my shoes off… … … It’s nice out here. Each morning I feel a bit shit when I wake up in the house, then I go outside and it’s all ok. Just the fresh air and the temperature. It’s hot in the house, hot and stuffy but it’s nice out here. After I came back from Japan I’d spent a month outdoors, I couldn’t stand being inside the house. When I came back it was horrible, I used to have to open all the windows and stuff when I went inside. I just didn’t want to sleep indoors.”

We scraped the ice off the car, jump started it and headed towards some local trails. It was a dreamy ride, loading film into the Kiev while, listening to Ted describe the local landscape and trails in incredible detail with George Greenough’s film “crystal voyager” playing in the background. We stopped by an insanely rough dry stone wall ride, and an old quarry full of lumps and bumps where a suspension BMX seemed like the only logical bike. After some jumping and sliding about, cold, exhausted and hungry we headed back to the workshop. I was glad I’d packed a tin of sandwiches as the daylight revealed how raw what was left of the rabbit carcass we had been gnawing on in the night was. It turns out you can eat raw rabbit. Ted tried to convince me that pasta and peanut butter were a good combo. We looked at some dropouts, and a customer came to collect some wheels. As Ted headed out to collect his kids from school, I sat back in my car with the heater on until I could feel my fingers before heading home. When people say “Ted’s an animal” I don’t think they mean what they’re saying, and at the same time I don’t think they know how right they are for all the wrong reasons.

Ted IS an animal, which isn’t to say that he’s subhuman. It’s the opposite, it’s like he’s the product of millions of years of evolution to be more perfectly suited to his habitat. People have to learn bicycles, but in the world of bicycles, Ted is an apex predator.