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Meet the maker: Chris Yeomans of Smithy Frameworks

In-depth
25 Jul 2022
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Chris Yeomans of Smithy Frameworks discusses balancing his own brand with taking over the legendary Flying Gate marque

Words Will Strickson Photography Anthony Pease

After 29 years as one of the UK’s leading artist-blacksmiths, Chris Yeomans’ transition to framebuilder was easier than most.

His artistic and restoration metalwork can be seen across the country, including at Windsor Castle and Hampton Court Palace, and he even built a sculpture for the visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. But labour takes its toll.

‘I got to the point where I was burned out physically. Stuff I could do all day previously I could only do for 20 minutes,’ Yeomans says.

‘I did a course at the Bicycle Academy with a view to phasing out blacksmithing for something more enjoyable. I went from working with objects weighing 200kg to fabricating things weighing less than two.’

It helped that he wasn’t a stranger to cycling. As a kid he’d race his Claud Butler through northwest London on the way to school and when he got older he cycled to work. But things really picked up when he had kids.

‘When our eldest got into mountain bike racing, we all started riding again,’ says Yeomans. ‘He did a lot of four-cross and downhill and won a lot.

‘He ended up being sponsored by Curtis Bikes, and going to visit Gary Woodhouse at Curtis was the first time I came across the concept of building a frame myself.’

The lightbulb moment came later though, after reading an article in Dirt magazine about its tech editor, framebuilder Ed Haythornthwaite. Fascinated, Yeomans noticed the equipment and processes were largely the same as those he was already using.

He started Smithy Frameworks after his Bicycle Academy course, downsizing houses to complete the move away from blacksmithing.

‘The transition was straightforward – I just flowed into it,’ says Yeomans. ‘I can’t even remember it happening, so it must have been that smooth.

‘There’s lots to learn obviously; the job is quite different in many ways but it’s very similar in others, and I feel very at home working with the tools.’

Smithy builds are almost exclusively steel off-road bikes, ranging from more traditional front suspension-equipped mountain bikes to flatbar gravel and bikepacking bikes. Smithy bikes have won awards at Bespoked and are raced under Yeomans’ son.

But hold on, if all that is the case… what’s this TJ Cycles bike all about?

A quick history lesson

The design of the bike pictured here was originally devised in 1935 by the Baines brothers and called the VS37 because of its short 373/4-inch (959mm) wheelbase.

Production paused during the Second World War, and post-war supply issues meant the last bike was built in 1953.

Skip to 1979 and a man called Trevor Jarvis has set up TJ Cycles in Burton-on-Trent. Jarvis had ridden a VS37 he’d been asked to renovate and was impressed, so he tracked down Bill Baines and got his approval to relaunch the bike.

Jarvis re-registered the design under the name Flying Gate, which was an old nickname for the bikes, a reference to the quirky square angles and quick ride feel.

Under TJ Cycles, the design became something of a legend, with a mass of proud owners gathering once a year for ‘Flying Gate Weekend’. But Jarvis, now in his late eighties, couldn’t do it forever, so for seven years Liz Colebrook of Beaumont Bicycle helped him out.

Now the torch has been passed again and it’s Yeomans who owns the rights, building both Smithy Frameworks and Flying Gate bikes.

‘I got to know Liz when I didn’t have certain bits of tooling,’ says Yeomans. ‘We started sharing tools and equipment, then she asked if I’d help build frames as she was falling behind.

‘That progressed to building Flying Gates, and when Liz decided to do something else the opportunity was put in my lap. I talked to Trevor about it and he said yes straight away. I still meet up with him at least once a month.’

Pictured is Yeomans’ own Flying Gate, built with Jarvis. It’s traditionally British, made from Reynolds 725 steel tubing with an 853 fork and finished with a Brooks saddle, but elsewhere the parts list is more modern and eclectic.

Shifters are from Crane Creek, brakes are Shimano Ultegra, the seatpost and headset are Campagnolo, the chainset Stronglight, the white chain is from BMX-brand Gusset, and the wheels are Son rims laced to Paul hubs. Total weight is a very respectable 9kg.

The lugged road bikes are obviously a big departure from Yeoman’s own Smithy frames, but making Flying Gates, though involved, does have at least one curious benefit.

‘Smithy customers have an idea of what they want and then I might suggest one of the models I make. Flying Gate, though, has its parameters, but a lot of the people who want one are so enthusiastic about it that some end up buying four or five bikes.’

It has given Smithy a boost too, with Flying Gate customers wanting one of Yeomans’ bikes for riding off-road.

If that sounds like a lot of work, it is, yet Yeomans says it’s nothing compared to the pressure of running the Flying Gate Weekend and is significantly easier than maintaining the TJ Cycles website.

‘I think they built that in the 70s too.’