Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Part 1: Lug At First Sight

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

It’s now been a year exactly since I travelled from Sydney to the UK to participate in Downland Cycles’ frame building course. My head is still reeling from the experience which, as a cyclist, was one of most satisfying things I’ve ever done.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

Downland Cycles is an academy run by Bryan and Julie Jackson near Canterbury in Kent, down a narrow country lane called Lynsore Bottom. It’s a funny name, but it’s one of the most quintessentially quaint locations you could ask for.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

The school has a comprehensive course list and it’s a credit to Bryan’s knowledge and skill base. There is accredited mechanic training, bike fitting and frame design, Campagnolo and Park Tools training, suspension and wheel building courses.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

After flying into Gatwick airport, I caught the auspiciously-named Laura Trott high-speed train to Canterbury and a taxi from the station to Downland. It’s set amongst rolling English farmland, and the region is known as the Garden of England.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

Due to conflicting travel plans, Bryan was flexible about me arriving a day earlier than the offical course start date and we got straight into the bike fitting and design segment. I had a loose idea of a lugged drop bar 29er so we worked towards that.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

It was interesting to undergo a professional fit. Bryan tried numerous variations on the fit bike around my geometry and we got the same numbers each time. I used to be happy with a 58cm square frame but 5-10mm here and there made a very noticeable difference.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

This was starting to get exciting: this could very well be the best-fitting bike I have ever had, and I’d be making it myself! We went through distributors books deciding on basic components like stems and handlebars, which would affect the final design.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

Once we had the essential measurements, we began to log them into the incredibly versatile BikeCAD program. It’s a mind-boggling tool that is extremely valuable to the modern frame builder, enabling us to instantly visualise custom geometry.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

This story will be slightly haphazard as I try and get through the hundreds of photos I took during the course. Bryan and Julie also agreed to condense the course for me from 11 days into 9, which I’ll also try to condense into three parts.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

Bryan has taught hundreds of students and is surely one of the most patient human beings in the world. First impressions were good: workshops and classrooms were clean and organised, the location was peaceful and Julie and Bryan are the perfect hosts.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

Next day we were joined by Greg and Stuart, who would be doing the course as well. It’s amazing to discover the different walks of life that brings riders to the world of the custom bicycle, and it’s also a reminder of how riding bikes is a great unifier.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

Stuart was working as a mechanic at a bike collective in Colchester, Essex, and would be building up a traditional, classic lugged road/tourer, while Greg wanted a modern, fillet brazed frame with oversized tubes and a carbon fork.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

Bryan took us through the different qualities of tubing, from Reynolds to Columbus, describing how diameter and thickness affect the ride, and demonstrated how tough stainless steel was to work with.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

If there was one thing I took away from the experience, it was a newfound respect for the job of the frame builder. There are so many aspects to it, to combine all of them into a complete bike that rides perfectly for your purpose is like an orchestra performance.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

BikeCAD is an extremely powerful piece of software, and great entertainment for bike geeks. There’s many variables to be considered when designing a frame — toe overlap — for example, that can affect the rest of the frame, and BikeCAD accounts for it.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

It’s even got a neat cheat for mitering tubes: Once the tube diameters and angles are entered, you can print out a flat plan of the miter which can then be wrapped around the tube and filed accordingly. Very clever.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

It’s no wonder frame builder’s apprentices were made to miter tubes for years before picking up the torch. They’re supposed to be virtually watertight but marrying two round edges can be frustrating — not to mention expensive.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

Around lunchtime, we heard what sounded like shots being fired. Bryan enlightened us: pheasant season had started, demanding an exploratory excursion to witness the spectacle. Sure enough, the field abounded with beaters, hounds, and Land Rovers.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

It should be noted that Julie Jackson is an incredible chef. Their website states that students enjoy the finest home-cooked meals from local ingredients, and it’s no joke. After lunch, it was back to the filing. I made friends with this Kennedy Bastard.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

Every choice of tube and lug was entered into our BikeCAD files, and we gained a two-dimensional drawing of what our finished bikes would look like. Now we just had to create it.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

Here’s my oversized Columbus Zona tube set that will eventually become a weird 29er dirt drop dirt tourer with Ritchey dropouts and Llewellyn lugs. In retrospect, I perhaps would’ve avoided a hard-to-find 30.4 seat post.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

Winter in England. My first and, hailing from the Antipodes, well-used to sunnier climes, the frosts were a shock. I loved it, though, the hot, strong teas were welcome and my senses were on fire with anticipation of the new day’s learning.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

Straight after breakfast, we were into it, getting our heads around BikeCAD, printing out the plans that would aid our mitering — all the while contemplating how traditional frame builders did all of this without computers.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

These days, highly evolved jigs can be easily set to fractions of millimeters and are highly adjustable. I quickly gained a deep respect for Don Ferris and the engineers at Anvil Bikeworks, as well as those early pioneers who made do without.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

I bet they’d be thinking: “Cheats!”

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

If you’re not mathematically inclined, this can be mind-bending stuff. I remembered hanging out with the legendary Australian builder Geoff Scott, who could grab two tubes and file and grind them down to a perfect miter by sight.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

Please stop goofing around!

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

One tube satisfactorily mitered, several to go. I may not have the analytical mind of an engineer, but I find working with raw materials greatly satisfying. Knowing the result will be an awesome bike just made the work even more enjoyable.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

Stuart was making great progress with his classic lugged frame.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Part 1: Lug At First Sight

So was Greg. It’s a world of difference between a lugged and filleted frame. Both are extremely satisfying to make and look at, and even the challenges that arise from both are but obstacles to a beautiful bike.

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Part 1: Lug At First Sight

Maybe it was the filing or the fresh air, or the rush of learning new skills, but I was knackered. Time for a nice roast with home-grown veg and crackling, and an early night. Stay tuned for the next installment.

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Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up

Framebuilding at Downland Cycles Episode 1: Spark It Up