From its crowd-funded origins in 2011,The Bicycle Academy (TBA) has arguably become the most influential framebuilding school in Europe. With names like Ted James, Robin Mather, Paul Burford, and Tony Corke of Torke Cycling, gracing the past and present roster of instructors, it’s no wonder that TBA has seen over 1,000 framebuilder graduates leave its halls.
TBA’s current space is a large, purpose-built warehouse with a semi-open plan on a labyrinth-like industrial estate just outside of the town center in Frome, England. Even with its spacious design, every corner is jammed full of amazing bits of work, every surface adorned with tools or momentos and every wall covered in paraphernalia that induces positive vibes. It’s a fortress for community building and the halls themselves seem built to foster forward-thinking, where shared mantras include, ”what good will I do this day” “make the new” and my personal favorite “flux is thicker than water”.
Many of the faces are TBA come and go—that’s, of course, the nature of a school—and the fluid shifting keeps the place brimming with energy and dynamism. But a few figures have become cornerstones of the institution. Below, let’s dive into some of the conversations I recently had with a few TBA long-haulers.
Andrew, TBA Headmaster
On my arrival, I was led in through a little kitchen side door where off the bat I was presented with a cake alongside some party hats that had been decorated. Andrew, the school’s headmaster, has the endearing skill of making people feel at home immediately.
“I tried to make it look like a poo in the middle.”
Pointing to a blobby pile of cream-coloured icing in the center of the cake.
Andrew forces me to cut and eat the cake more or less against my will. It’s cloying and somehow sweeter than straight sugar. I love this place. It’s hard to explain precisely what TBAs secret sauce is but the ingredients are definitely based around a crack team of over-qualified and wildly self-motivated individuals. The staff at TBA couldn’t be further from the cohorts of jaded car mechanics and fabricators grumbling and shuffling around the light industrial units scattered elsewhere around the estate. Everyone who works there has at some time been a student, and that time wasn’t so long ago that they’ve forgotten how that feels. That plays a huge part in the way the school runs. Andrew, who’s never been a full time framebuilder himself is still exceptionally skilled at the craft and has mentored several others who’ve gone onto become well known builders. I asked him how he managed to train the likes of Tom Sturdy and Rob Quirk, and so many others over the years without ever having been a “professional” builder.
“I think having teachers who are not framebuilders actually adds an enormous amount. You can be terrible at math but still be a fantastic math teacher, who engages their students and makes them see the value of math around them. That’s what it’s like for us really, in that none of us have been framebuilders before being at The Bicycle Academy.
Even though we’ve had some really accomplished builders come to work with us, their names has never a basis on which we sold courses. One of the things that was the most awesome about working with those builders was that in the first couple of weeks, when we were teaching Robin (Mather) and Ted (James) our method for filet brazing, both Robin and Ted were really excited about it, and ended up adapting this way in their own practice. We didn’t teach them to filet braze, they were both incredibly capable. Robin especially was known for making the beautifully sculpted filet brazed frames, but we definitely did stuff with him that he added into his practice.”
While teaching is at the core of TBA as a collective they’ve had fingers in a number of industry pies too, with prototyping jigs that see use with companies like Brompton they’ve also made a number of bespoke fixtures used for things like Pashley’s award winning new tilting cargo trikes. Being able to work at all levels within the cycling industry is pretty rare especially for a small independent business. For a place like TBA it adds an invaluable level of deep cultural awareness that feeds into teaching as well as the work they do for other bike brands. It makes Andrew, with his unique perspective on both sides of framebuilding, a super interesting person to talk to in terms of forecasting trends.
TBA has been running for over 10 years now and the general cultural landscape has changed so much in that time. I feel like 10 years ago, frame building could have been relevant to people in their lives in the same way that perhaps a green woodworking or spoon carving course might be. That’s not to belittle those crafts, rather it represents a shift in the way that people are learning framebuilding and their motivations in learning. I asked Andrew if he thinks there are more new builders now that there were ten years ago, or less? Or just different?
“I think there are more enthusiasts, I think there are less wittlers, there are probably about the same number of transactions going on in framebuilding, but a lot more of them are spread away from the middle ground which is what people would see as a frame builder. I don’t think it has to be like that, and I don’t think it will continue to be like that, but it’s definitely the biggest shift that’s happened in the last decade since I’ve been at TBA, and observing the decade previous to that.”
So I guess enthusiasts and hobbyists are at one end of the spectrum and manufacturers like Brompton or even Shand are at the other end, with frame builders in the middle. When you say there are less whittlers you mean less people who’s aspirations in framebuilding are everything by hand and filet brazed?
“A frame builder doesn’t just have to whittle a bike like it’s a spoon, machine mitring and tig are steps that a lot of framebuilders take in their careers. It makes sense for professional builders but it’s a lot to learn in one go. It also requires a lot of practice and fine motor skills that come over time, which could in the context of a one or two week course become a source of frustration and detract from the experience. Although it’s primarily what we teach, framebuilding doesn’t have to mean lugged or filet brazed, and it’s awesome, and it’s immersive and it’s delicate and it’s lovely, but frames can be custom and bespoke and beautiful and unique and still be tig welded.”
A few weeks after my visit, I went to see old, new builder, Ricky Feather who said that his week helping out at the Bicycle Academy was one of the best things he’s ever done!
Andrew continued, “[TBA] can only happen because it’s a collection of people. As long as that’s the attitude— from the most accomplished builder in that collective right down to someone whose totally new— as long as everyone can have a dialogue and talk about this stuff in a genuine engaged way, it’s fucking great. In that way, we’re all being versions of the teacher and the student at various points in the process. If we lose that, where the relationship becomes only master and student, that’s where it’s problematic. So that’s where I think the culture of what we do works really well. It’s far more collaborative and far more open on that basis.”
Shaggy, now operations manager, started as “Head of Retail” in 2016. Shaggy is one of those frustratingly hyper capable yet super relaxed people who seems to be good at everything. With just four full time staff, everyone at TBA has to be flexible and competent in many areas, although I’ve never really been sure what Shaggy actually does at TBA. So I asked:
Shaggy, Operations Manager
“Spreadsheets. And I’ve just started using the mill”
You were building frames before you started here right?
“No [laughs] that was just a hobby, I worked in aerospace engineering management for 15 years with BAA and Airbus before TBA.”
Ok wow! That’s pretty severe. Was aerospace more chilled or less chilled?
“[Laughing] Different… a lot of its the same, you get mad bits and quiet bits”
At least no one is going to fall out of the sky and die?
“Yea but there were about 3,000 people in my office in the old place and that was one of the many small offices, so the buck never really stops at a place like that, and if it does it never really stops with me, you know? I was just a small cog. Here the buck very much stops with me so it’s different.”
Didn’t you win the single speed world championships one year?
“No, I did lots of single speed world championships, and lots of UK and European championships but I never actually won one. I came second a few times in the UK, and third in Europe but I never did well in the worlds. I crashed out twice and got a 8th once and that’s the best I ever did.”
Who were you racing with?
“That was on the Trek team. Then I did stuff like Iditarod, Colorado Trail Race and lots of other mad things.”
I’ve heard that now you run?
“Yeah, it’s the same, but you don’t have to worry about the bike so much. I’m kind of surprised there isn’t more overlap with ultra people, because so much of it is about what’s in your head rather than anything else.”
So you’re like a legit athlete?
“Kind of? A bit? [whispering] I don’t know? I used to do loads of cycling, like hours every day and loved it, and I don’t train nearly as much as I used to but I still love riding my bike and going outside and running.”
Tom Mcphail, Head of Design
Tom Mcphail is head of design at TBA, and has worked on a number of super successful projects. These include the Low Cost Frame Fixture (LCFF), which is a super precise and versatile fixture, designed around a revolutionary laser calibration system pioneered by TBA, as well as the new ACFF, TBAs new fixture for professional frame builders, as well as industrial scale frame building. He also designed TBAs universal disc brake fixture as well as a handful of other top secret projects. Poking around his office there are a number of prototype bits and jig parts and strange objects I don’t recognise.
What are these?
How did you become a person who makes burgers (I have no idea what these burgers are but I’m hoping this line of enquiry will lead me down the garden path to knowledge)?
“I worked at Bristol science center, designing and making exhibits for science centers.”
Making scientific equipment?
“So interactive exhibits, you know the science museum in London? There’s a hands-on area for children and for adults where you can explore scientific concepts and principals through interactive play. I basically did that. I designed these things.”
That sounds super fun! What the hell are you doing here?!
“[Laughing] Not everywhere is all it’s cracked up to be! It was really good. I learned a lot but I’d been there for seven years and I got as far as I could go! I did a course at TBA—the build an Africa bike—course as part of the crowdfunding right at the beginning. While I was on the course we chatted about what I did, and I guess Andrew took a mental note of it. I did some work just in my spare time for Andrew at the beginning of designing the first fixture.”
What was that first fixture?
“Well it was going to be a plywood version of the LCFF, essentially, but we got a bit carried away and it turned into the first fixture that we launched, which was the MFF. It was a modular frame fixture but it never got to the point where it was modular.”
And they were the fixtures that you used for teaching?
“Aha. That was the main driver in making them. TBA needed to buy at least four fixtures plus Andrew had some different ideas about how they could be designed to improve the teaching experience. He didn’t want the fixture to be a significant part of the learning process. The fixture just needed to hold the tubes with minimal calculations and fiddly set up, because that’s a lot to take in whilst you’re also trying to learn how to build a frame. That was the starting point to
So what tools have you designed so far?
“We did the MFF which we made three batches of, and then while that was happening we designed the LCFF. Somebody came to us with a concept for a laser cut construction which was an interesting concept for a low cost fixture but it didn’t really work because of the inherent inaccuracies of the materials and construction methods, but we developed that from a concept to what it is now, which is something that works practically, as in you can make it straight. Andrew wanted to do the same with a more premium version which has all the same functionality but is much more intuitive to use and less time consuming to set up and calibrate.”
It’s kind of cool to know that at the time of this writing, TBA have made over 400 frame fixtures. An even more exciting metric, is that the vast majority of those fixtures have been purchased by people who are either new builders, or who have never owned a fixture before. That in itself is a metric of success for a frame building school.
And you went from that to making equipment for teaching science?
“I just got back from traveling and a friend of mine worked there. I’ve always been drawn to organizations which aren’t all about profit. That was an educational charity, their mission was to make science accessible for all, which is a pretty broad mission statement, but I just remember as a kid the science museum in London and the experience of interactive space.”
I kind of feel like I never want to visit the science museum ever again because their climate change exhibit is sponsored by shell.
“Haha yep thats greenwashing.”
Yeah greenwashing is rife.
“The world will be fine. It’s just humans who won’t.”
I left Tom in search of Jack, who was easy to find standing in the middle of the framebuilding space which the offices surround. Jack was bouncing between a group of students who were in the first stages of learning to braze, refining and adjusting, encouraging them to drink water and eat biscuits.
Jack, TBA Instructor
“I haven’t shot for years. I used to shoot film all the time; I worked in a lab so I could process it all myself. When I was at uni, someone gave me basically a suitcase of expired film from the army. It was this weird fuji stuff that wasn’t ever commercially available. It was basicly 800 iso colour film that was grainy as fuck. I had a load of slide film given to me as well, but it was stuff from all over the place, because when the army ran out in the field they’d just buy anything that was available locally, from China or Ukraine or wherever.
When I worked in a lab it didn’t cost me anything. I just shot and developed, and I had all the film I needed. It was great! When I was a teacher we had a dark room so I only shot black and white, but as soon as I lost the ability to develop everything myself I lost interest in shooting film. Processing is a big part of the intrigue of film. For one thing you can control everything, another thing though is that your culpable, so if something doesnt work, it’s just you, and then its not such a big deal because you think ‘well fuck it I can do it again’. When it’s someone else who loses your negatives or whatever, that’s harder. I enjoyed having the full experience from beginning to end.”
I find Jack’s point interesting and wonder if that’s something that a lot of frame builders share: A desire for being responsible for the entire process in anything offers a wholly different, more engaging and multifaceted experience. Although Jack has built frames for a while, he has only recently started to think of himself as a frame \builder, building under the name “Luft”. Prior to that, he took photos, however he didn’t consider himself a photographer. For Jack, the real unifying link between the two isa love of teaching.
How did you go from working in a lab to teaching frame building?
“I did a photography degree and then I did a teaching degree. I wanted to be a teacher from forever, so I did my photography degree and then got a job in a lab, but just like a Boots on the high street, nothing fancy”
Did you get any equipment out of it when they broke down the lab?
Well they were selling all the machines from all the Boot labs as one big lot, I can’t remember where to, I think Russia or something? Somewhere that people still use a lot of film. I got some small bits though, like cool old developing cannisters, boxes of negative test strips, stuff like that. I did that then I did my teacher training which was like a fine arts teaching qualification, like a PGCE in art and design. I taught art and design for like six years at sixth form but I did my training at university level so that’s when I had much more access to dark rooms. When I was teaching filmmaking and photography and anything that was media or art based, at one point, I had three different darkrooms! I made sure all the darkroom stuff was in my art lessons. So I did that for 5 or six years and lived in Brighton until I couldn’t afford to teach anymore.
So we moved to Summerset because my mum had a place there. I got mad into cycling when I was cycling everyday to my teaching job. I thought that when I left teaching I’d try and get into the cycling industry. Right near Glastonbury there was the Rapha archive shop, it’s like the only one in the UK so I started working for Rapha. When I was with Rapha there was an open evening at TBA but at that point I wasn’t even into custom bikes. I kind of knew they existed, we had a few bikes made by frame builders in the shop and stuff, but I’d just got my first really nice carbon bike so I was really into carbon bikes.”
What was it?
It was a Canyon Endurance, so nothing special. It was basically a bike made for long distance riding. My boss convinced me to go to the open evening at TBA and Andrew did an intro into framebuilding night where we did some brazing and stuff. I shit you not there are two out of body experiences I’ve ever had in my life, as in I can see into the future and I know a thing you know. One of them was during my wedding, which I wasn’t expecting to be anything amazing and then it was like full on …… and the other was hearing Andrew talking at TBA because I could just add it all up in my head: I’ve got a background in teaching. I love bikes more than anything in the world right now.
At that point I was feeling a bit like ‘what the hell do I do with my life’ and then I was like oh shit! There’s a place down the road that does both of those things that I just know my life has to be and I was feeling really bad about leaving teaching Ii just couldn’t keep it up so realizing that there’s some other way of doing it while also mixing in the cycling i was like this is what i have to do!. I was working part time then, because we’d left our proper jobs, but I reached out to Andrew and said I don’t know how but I have to come and do a course here!
I sold my camera collection to pay for it. I had a collection of like 60 old film cameras so I sold them all and got a second job working in a shitty hostel cleaning toilets and washing dishes and making breakfast because it was the only job nearby. I thought since I have experience working with young people it was a job I could get really easily.I did that while I was also working at Rapha so for a whileI had both jobs. Then I did the course and I said to Andrew I want to build another bike, so can I do a bit of work for you and build another bike so that’s how I started working here just part time.
And now you’re the main teacher!
“I know it’s crazy. Honestly the first time I went to TBA I just knew that I would end up working here somehow. I’m not the kind of person who believes in destiny and those kinds of things but I just thought ‘there’s nothing that can stop me being here I’m sure of it.’ I was certain.
That first time I came, Andrew stayed really late. It was like midnight by the time I left and it’s a 20 mile drive home. All I remember is my heart pumping insanely fast and I was just so excited because in one night I’d gone from being completely lost and having given up the career I’d wanted to do since I was a kid, and having no idea what I wanted to do, to suddenly knowing ‘this is what I have to do.
That’s also kind of why it sucked so much when we were shut [during the pandemic] because I was just about to go full time teaching, then suddenly it was another year-and-a-half of sitting around the house on the computer. It was like stuff was really starting to happen and then it wasn’t. I mean loads of people had it was worse than me. It’s still super cool to be able to look back and tell the students it wasn’t that long ago that I was in your position so I know what it’s like to have to learn all this stuff in a very short space of time.”
I guess frame building and teaching frame building are also very different skill sets
“Yes it’s such a specific set of skills. The thing that I think is the most important, which is also the thing that I think a lot of people lack in general, is patience. I swear that’s the secret of it, and I guess if you’re good at reading people—having empathy. There’s more complex stuff going on a lot of the time, particularly with students who are a bit older or have been out of education for a long time, but it’s pretty simple really: if you’re nice and if you can see where people are struggling and work out a way in your mind that you can help then through that then that’s a lot of it really.”
How long from when you started teaching did it take you to decide that outside of teaching, you’re also quite good at framebuilding too?“I think that happened before I was teaching full time. Tom Sturdy always says: “don’t start trying to do it as a business until frame building is the easy bit.” I guess the first ten to fifteen bikes I built, I barely slept every night that I was actively working on them. I guess you’re doing the mental arithmetic trying to work out what might become a problem in the future. You know something you might not have planned for that might come up, and you wake up in the night thinking ‘ground clearance!’ or ‘steerer tube length!’. I think it was a month or two after I started teaching that there was stuff I wasn’t thinking about you know once I went home. You know it wasn’t long, when you’re doing so many every week it just becomes fine. It’s not like we’re making anything super complex or weird on the course.”
But you get a pretty wide variety of student builds through the door?
“It’s not as wild as you might think. I think the most far out thing we’ve had that isn’t a variation of road gravel or mountain bike is a guy last week who built a bike in between a gravel bike and a mountain bike.”
It was a road bike that could take 2.4” tyres with a mix of road bike standards and mountain bike standards so it had kind of wild assembly standards. Broadly speaking, what we do now is a pretty narrow range of stuff and that’s intentional. The complex stuff just isn’t the thing to make on a frame building course. What we tend to say to people, is that if you want to build something that’s a bit more wacky or difficult, come and learn how to build a regular frame first. You’ll learn all the skills that you need to go away and build that bike, that’s going to throw up a load of issues that would have detracted from your learning experience. That might even be stuff you don’t even appreciate or understand because you don’t fully understand even the basics. So we intentionally funnel people into something that’s appropriate to the context in which we’re working.”
Building frames is surprisingly tricky, and it’s physically hard. If you’re not used to it, so is standing on a concrete floor all day and learning. There are a rare few who visit TBA who are completely comfortable with all of those things. Apart from the dream team of teachers and staff, the secret sauce of the bicycle academy’s success in having produced so many world class and often pioneering builders, is basically treating the wide variety of students that come through their doors to spend a week or two learning something new, with kindness, humility and empathy. Aside from the frame building aspect of the school, the world would be a better place if everyone took a leaf out of the book of TBA.
A note on photography: I used a mix of cameras. Film and digital, portraits were shot with my 5×4 Linhoff Master Technika and a Fujifilm GW690 on Kodak Portra 800 with the rest being shot on my Fujifilm GFX100s.