High Speed Steel

In an age where we are increasingly divorced from the process of making – the click of a button sends products straight to our front doors – to meet someone who actually works with their own hands seems somehow significant. And after chatting about bikes and racing with Ricky Feather in the informal setting of his Yorkshire based workshop, it’s clear that he’s an individual that places great store in the quality of a finished product. Every frame is designed and built by the man himself but not before an extensive period of consultation with the customer. As Ricky explains, ‘A lot of people come to me because they like what I do but it starts with them giving me an idea of what they want. Then I’ll throw some ideas back at them. It’s a bit of a collaboration between me and the customer.’

With the benefit of hindsight, setting up as an independent frame builder was in some ways inevitable as it combines his love of riding with an attention to detail that caused problems on the factory floor where he first learnt to weld. ‘They were a good bunch of lads but the focus was on banging out the jobs before hitting the town on Friday night. Don’t get me wrong, I did that as well but after a day riding my bike.’

Tellingly, he describes having more in common with, ‘The old blokes. They had all the stories.’ And respecting skills learnt over a lifetime of working with metal is typical of this self-taught frame builder. Proudly bearing the Feather name, he accepts no compromises in the quality of their fabrication. ‘I love finishing a build. When it’s back from paint and it’s perfect. It’s a beautiful bike and that’s what it’s all about.’

Not afraid to occasionally bait his followers on Twitter – ‘I sometimes just put something out there to see what will happen’ – evidently character matters to Ricky. Describing his Feather Cycles Racing team mates, it’s clear that the laughs they share are just as important as the race itself; the whole enterprise set up as a co-operative with every member encouraged to pitch in and contribute to their successes. His choice of Peter Sagan as a racer that he admires also speaks volumes; Ricky viewing the current World Champion as the best rider on the road. ‘I started racing on the BMX circuit and it’s full of individuals doing daft things. Sagan’s a refreshing change to all the other serious professionals.’

Now that his brand is established, Ricky is planning on taking a couple of months off when his current order list is completed. ‘It was kind of my own fault as I took too much work on. A little bit of a victim of its own success after winning the first award at the Bespoked show. I already had a nine month waiting list and then two weeks later it was two years. I’ve got eight bikes left to build, so probably about three months of work.’ Not that Ricky now works alone having taken someone on in the workshop to help with the finishing. Although comfortable with his own company he nevertheless enjoys sharing the workload. In his typically direct manner, ‘You’ve built the frame – it’s done. Then you spend all this time on the polishing and it’s as boring as hell. You get kind of project fatigue. But the only reason I’ve got someone helping is that he’s a mate of mine and I can trust him.’

Talking about the frames he builds it’s clear that, in his eyes, this is a process of engineering rather than artistry. ‘There’s always a little bit of a twist that goes into every build that’s kind of creative. But I’ve always been a bike rider. To me it’s a bike frame.’ And although Ricky accepts that some of his builds are reserved for club runs on fine summer days, he’s obviously happiest when they show signs of hard use. Exactly how he treats his own Feather Cycles Racing bike leaning against the workshop’s front wall. ‘I want the bikes I make to go out and get smashed. My race bike is ridden in all weathers. Chucked in and out of the back of cars.’

When asked if there’s a typical Feather Cycles customer, Ricky pauses to consider before stating, ‘You’d think there would be but there isn’t.’ The frame in the jig that he’s currently working on is a touring bike for a Portuguese girl who lives in Holland. Earlier in the week one of his racing bikes was collected by an ambulance driver from Leeds. As his waiting list reflects, this steady flow of customers finding their way to Ricky’s workshop door shows no sign of abating.

Asked whether he’s considered growing the brand, it’s clear that the ownership he places on building each and every frame poses limitations. Happy to discuss the work of other frame builders – ‘I’m a fan of their work and how they manufacture their bikes’ – he understands that employing other fabricators would allow him the time to focus purely on custom builds. But as he explains, ‘People come to me because they want me to build the frame. If someone else made it, I wouldn’t want to put my name on it.’

And another name that’s currently on display – in this particular case on the chain stay of Ricky’s race bike – is the hashtag #HighSpeedSteel. Describing these bikes, his enthusiasm is evident. ‘I really enjoy making the race bikes. They’re tools for a job. To be raced and thrown around. To take a beating.’ Made primarily from Columbus steel, the tubes are shaped and manipulated so Ricky can build in a level of comfort but still have stiffness where it’s important. And as he points out, ‘Even with deep section wheels, these race bikes only weigh 7.6kg. This is what I’m really into. I could build these bikes all day long.’

Regular racing means he’s perfectly placed to use this hard-won knowledge to inform future designs and builds. Never intimidated if a race profile is hilly, Ricky nevertheless prefers some circuits to others. ‘I like the longer races, those extra few miles. It separates the field, knackers people out. As my sprint is pretty much nonexistent, when I have won races it’s been from a break or solos.’ The Rapha Road Race is a rolling course that he’s particularly looking forward to riding. Considering race tactics he explains with a wry smile, ‘It used to be take it as it comes. But I know I need to read the race a bit better. Rather than previously following everything and smashing it.’

With the current focus on transcontinental racing and bike packing, he would love to build someone a bike specially designed for that style of riding but pulls up at the thought of giving it a go himself. ‘When I was younger I’d travel through America for weeks at a time and, not having much money, spent each night on someone’s couch. Now I like a bit of comfort. I don’t want to be sleeping at the side of the road.’

Mindful of efficiencies, Ricky continually re-invests in tooling; purchasing as he describes, ‘This and that and the other.’ Starting from scratch as a self-taught fabricator – handmade bench, gas bottles and a set of files – his first frame was free-styled without the benefits of a jig and he sees the development of his craft over the years as a natural process. ‘You progress. You get more skilled, more confident. It’s like all things in life – the more you do, the better you get.’

Considering why his customers prefer to go down the custom build route rather than simply purchasing from one of major manufacturers, Ricky views this in terms of the emotional return they seek. ‘People save up because they want something special. They want to feel like it’s their’s and their’s only.’ An attitude that Ricky understands but also feels the need to address during the planning phase. ‘To me, it’s all about the ride. It’s just a bonus if the bike looks absolutely stunning.’

As the workshop door closes, you’re left with the impression that the integrity of the bikes bearing his name is everything. That beneath the laddish exterior lies a craftsman putting his heart and soul into the frames he builds. In his own words, ‘I like to be pretty chilled and relaxed about stuff but you want to do a good job. I want to be proud of what I do and go home thinking that I’ve done well.’

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