Despite being thousands of miles apart and on different continents, the cities of Brisbane, Rio de Janeiro and Boston share something surprising in common.
It would be almost impossible to spot, given the millions of people that buzz around the streets, parks and alleyways of each, but in all three of those great metropolises someone, somewhere is riding around on a Feather Cycles bike. And no doubt they are smiling as they do so.
If you haven’t heard of Feather Cycles, the chances are you haven’t heard of Ricky Feather either; perhaps the most exciting frame-building talent currently working in the UK.
To get hold of one of his frames can cost up to £3,500 and, regardless of how much you spend, you’ll also be waiting a minimum of 16 months. There are 40 people currently on his waiting list, and number 40 won’t be riding his or her bike until the spring of 2015.
Make no mistake, Ricky Feather is taking the UK independent bicycle world by storm.
Born in Rochester 27 year ago, Ricky started on his journey in the factories, working in fabrication and welding on everything from sheet metal to trailers for articulated lorries. However, while it paid the bills, it certainly wasn’t his calling; he needed more than a 9-to-5 and a regular pay check to keep him happy. Escape was never far from his mind.
But he can thank an interview with US framebuilder Jordan Hufnagel, for providing the ultimate spark of inspiration that got the wheels of Feather Cycles turning. “At the time I was figuring a way out of the factories,” he tells &Bike one evening in August, almost four years to the day since he embarked on his brave new world. “I had no idea what I wanted to do, but after I saw this interview it just made sense.”
It made sense to him, because cycling had always been his passion and, for as long as he could remember, he had ridden bikes. Combining his passion with his professional training made perfect sense.
And it didn’t take long for him to spring into action, starting with a limited inventory of equipment. A bench. A vice. A set of files. But throw in some gas bottles and a set of steel tubes, and he was soon experimenting with his new found love. “I built my first frame freehand and held it up to the light to see if it was straight,” he says.
Today, he has a lot more equipment and no worries about whether his frames are straight, but he still operates out of a double-garage workshop, spending anything between five and eight days on a frame depending on the complexity, detail and amount of polishing required.
Attention to detail
By his own admission, Ricky is anal. A perfectionist. No frame will leave his workshop unless he is 100% happy. Joints must be seamless. “Every single bike that leaves the workshop, you could clear coat if you wanted and it would be absolutely fine to ride and would look gorgeous,” he insists.
As a customer, it’s exactly what you want to hear. No corner cutting, no shortcuts. Hours and hours of intensive labour, elbow grease and creativity. But it’s also why those same customers have to wait so long to get their hands on a new bike. “It’s probably my own doing, but that’s what I’ve built Feather Cycles on,” he explains.
But it might not always be that way. Today, Feather Cycles is Ricky, his wife Kayti and the occasional help of a friend who gets involved in the “dirty work”; by which, ironically, he means the polishing and finishing of a frame – a process which is more time-dependent than skills-based and allows Ricky to spend the maximum amount of time on the creative side of the process; the designing and the build.
In future, he is considering a move into what he calls “semi-production”. Still custom-size frames, but built to a specific set of designs; he also wants to do some tig-welding – partly because that’s what he was originally trained in; and partly because it would help to bring his prices down.
“It kind of makes sense, in one way, to go back to my roots,” he says. “So there’ll probably be one or two months a year when I concentrate on doing something like that, which means there would be a possibility of people getting a Feather Cycles frame with a quicker turnaround and for slightly less money.”
Again, he points to a US framebuilder as providing the inspiration for his thinking – Portland, Oregon-based Vanilla Biycles, founded by legendary frame builder Sacha White. (In 2010, Sacha had five of his bikes exhibited at the New York Museum of Art and Design). “He’s still doing all the bespoke work, but he’s also doing a line of production stuff called Speedvagen,” explains Ricky. “That’s kind of what’s inspired me and it’s the kind of line I would like to go down – once or twice a year, doing some production stuff.”
For now, however, he is committed to building bespoke bikes for his growing list of customers; and it’s not just the build itself that’s a time-consuming process.
Choosing a Feather is a more complicated process that browsing catalogues, reading a few magazines or buying something you saw on a Sunday ride. Every frame is unique and designed by Ricky to meet the specific requirements of each customer. He needs to understand what his customers will be using the bike for, where they will be using it, how often, on what type of roads.
“It’s sometimes nice to ask about the various bikes they’ve had in the past, and which ones they liked and find out the geometry of that,” he explains. “If they’re not sure, I’ll advise them on geometry and various things like that.”
Now and again, he comes across an awkward situation where the client asks for something which he knows would be unsuitable; and because his business is built on reputation he can’t afford for a single customer to be disappointed with a frame.
“It used to happen a lot more when I was building fixed-gear bikes,” he says. “People would go online, then think that the best thing in the world is to have the steepest head tube ever, and no fork rake. Obviously, that’s not ideal – if you’re riding a bike through London you want it to ride how it’s supposed to ride.”
He says that it’s a more common situation when building a bike for a younger rider – perhaps because they haven’t ridden many bikes, perhaps because they can be tempted by style over function. Either way, Ricky discourages any ill-advised requests during the design and consultation process.
In the early years, however, a large proportion of his clientele did fall into this bracket. “The client set has changed drastically even since I started. The first year or two I was building a lot of fixed-gear bikes. It was unintentional really. I built myself one, then people automatically thought that’s what I did. But I intended to get into building road bikes – it took ages to get away from that.”
Today, he is certainly known for building road bikes. His own Rapha Continental (a frame built at the behest of Rapha for its Continental road-racing series) picked up the ‘Best Road Bike’ award at Bespoked Bristol 2012. This year, he went one step further and picked up ‘Best in Show’ for his classic steel frame with an electronic twist.
And this last bike perhaps illustrates best where Ricky operates – at the threshold of different worlds. Classic styles with modern touches; comfortable and beautiful to look at, yet fast.
And, looking to the future, ‘fast’ is a particularly relevant word. Ricky wants to build bikes faster and he wants to build faster bikes. “I’m building more frames with compact geometry and which are a little bit more race orientated – a bit faster,” he explains. “That’s the stuff that I like doing at the moment, so it’s good that there are a lot of customers asking for it.”
He is, however, his own best customer and he is currently working on a frame which he will race himself next season.
As he says: “What better way to test a frame than to ride the hell out of it…”
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