Gathering Moss

Words: Poppy Smith, Photos: Ben Broomfield and Andrew Jones

Once again, Andrew Jones of Moss Bikes bought something special to Bespoked: an adventure bike with a built-in whisky flask, and bicycles built by his GCSE students as part of his pioneering L!FE BIKES project. We caught up with the teacher and framebuilder to get the latest on Moss and L!FE bikes.

Three weeks before the show Bespoked organiser Phil Taylor got an email from Andrew Jones: “It’s crazy round the clock here with 27 student bike builds on the go as well as trying to sort out my own. Actually it’s an absolute buzz! The L!FE Bikes project is growing, not quite sure how were going to keep up next year!”

AJ has created a monster. As head of Design and Technology at Adams’ Grammar School in Shropshire, three years ago he created a world first: a GCSE in framebuilding, the L!FE Bikes project. Over a two-year course, the GCSE Design and Technology students learn how to design their own bicycles using BikeCAD and then make their own custom lugged steel frames, which account for 60% of their final GCSE mark. “We’re at a point now where we’ve just completed 27 bikes, it’s just mad. What we’ve got to do now is get the school to the level that we’re at now. We’ve got problems with storage, where we put the bikes when we’re building them. All these little things that we didn’t need to think about at the start we’re having to think about now.”

The students do everything: the BikeCAD design, mitring, brazing, painting, assembling, marketing and even exhibiting at Bespoked. They have a set-up most framebuilders would be envious of: a design studio of computers for BikeCAD, 3D printing, two workshops with a range of lathes and machines, their own-made jigs and an assembly area with racks of tools.

This year the examiners wanted to see more of a marketable product, something to differentiate the frames beyond the custom geometry. Frustratingly, they didn’t appreciate the angles or how the bikes would ride. “On the face of it the bikes all looked similar to the examiners, which was a real shame because they totally missed the point,” says AJ. “It just shows that to get a bike right it’s about the whole package. We know that our bikes are ace but at the same time we’ve got to get them through the GCSE, that’s the difficulty.”

So they went all-out with the paint jobs and branding to make the students’ work more expressive and individual. Using paint kits (donated by sponsors Brick Lane Bikes) they worked on top of the powder coat Shropshire powder coaters do for free. “We’re short on time and the students are throwing paint at their freshly powder coated frames in a crazy way and we’re like ‘Oh my gosh…’.”

They needn’t have worried though, the results were stunning, with highly professional fades, splatters and rings seen on the bikes at Bespoked.

Not confined to the D&T workshops, L!FE Bikes has bought cycling into the previously very traditional school’s sporting curriculum with house cycle-cross competitions, a school CX team and a long-term project to raise funds for a cycle track and pump track on site at the school. “It’s gone from ‘a crazy idea’ three years ago to what it is now – members of staff, who never rode a bike before, are now cycling to school and buying their partners’ bikes.”

It’s any wonder AJ has time to build his own bikes. “I’m teaching full time. I’m up at 5am trying to find all those times in the day. Sometimes there will be a spell in half term where I’m bonkers and I feel really bad [for my family]” he says, “but I’m a framebuilder and that’s a great thing to have.” He says it makes him more of a happy, rounded person because he’s got these two strands, and after working with kids all day he relishes being able to lock himself away in his workshop to build his own bikes.

AJ began building under the name Moss Bikes five years ago, but you could say he built his first bike at 14, when he joined two bikes together to build a tandem. “I was massively into bikes and taking things apart and I was lucky that my Dad bought me kit rather than toys. I got a compressor when I was 13 and an old mini which I took apart and painted.” His parents bought an old farmhouse and gave him one of the rickety old out-buildings to use as a workshop. “It was literally a rough old shed, roof half falling down, floor was no good, but it was enough for me to have things and take them apart. Then I got bought some welding equipment, sounds mad but this is honestly what happened. I did a project when I was 15/16 at school where I built my own desk with a bed above it. It was like an oil rig, it was the biggest thing that anyone had ever done at school. It was all made from box section tubing and was all brazed together.”

The now infamous whisky bike started out as a bit of a joke. Kevin of Spokes bike shop, who commissioned the build, said he wanted a bike with a whisky tap on it. “You know, you go camping and you’re with your mates, what’s cycling all about? It’s about having a good time, stopping and having a drop of whisky.” The bike was built with stainless steel so they knew it was food safe. They worked out how to make the downtube sealed so that it became the whisky flask, took it to Bespoked and it “just went mad”. Off the back of the whisky bike AJ has had two orders from The States.

Moss bikes are scattered all over the world, but the reason for this eludes AJ. He only has time to build 12-15 bikes a year, but you’ll find them in America, Canada, France... In fact, AJ is personally delivering a bike to a customer in France and then they are going for a ride in The Dauphiné Alps together. “Part of the whole framebuilding thing is that people want to meet you and they want to go for a ride as part of the whole experience.”

At the moment he’s developing a new mountainbike with custom bends, and doing a lot with adventure bikes with disc brakes and lugs. “I do question my own wellbeing sometimes,” he says. “When the bike building is going well it’s a nice experience, I do enjoy the framebuilding side as a rest from teaching. But then there is a lot of pressure when you’re trying to meet deadlines and keep the customers happy.”

He wouldn’t have it any different though. “I’m part of something that I really value. You know that feeling that you’d get years ago if you were a craftsman, that feeling of self-worth because you’re a craftsman. And that’s gone in a lot of walks of life. But as a framebuilder, even though you worry about trying to make a living out of it if you’re purely framebuilding, you’ve got this skill that you should be really proud of. That’s really nice. What’s strange about being a teacher is you kind of lose that because you’re so busy trying to deal with the day to day of working with kids and all the marking and all the assessment, that you lose that identity as a maker, and I haven’t lost that being a framebuilder.”


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