Federal has one of the more interesting tales to tell when it comes to company history. Its initial founding was fairly regular. Simply put, the dignitaries at Seventies Distribution in Hastings, UK, figured that a whole new UK bike company would be a mighty fine idea. They were already distributing the finest American BMX brands and running the world's best BMX events (namely, the Backyard Jams, more on this site here, sometime soon) and hence launching their own, UK-based BMX brand made total sense. Without a shadow of a doubt, it was definitely needed. Britain hadn't had a core BMX brand in quite some time. And so, at the turn of 1999-2000, a whole new brand was born, and its name was Federal Bikes. Federal was born into one of the strongest eras in UK riding. The mags were vibrant and growing, the scene was starting to be taken more seriously on an international scale and the buzz was there. It was almost a BMX rebirth for the UK scene, and the times felt good. The connection in the scene here was really tight (and bear in mind it was this tight before the BMX Internet revolution, before most people had mobile phones even) and so the support for a homegrown brand, one that could stand up against anything worldwide, was immediate. Just check a few of the team roster from the get-go: Ian Morris, Sandy Carson, Chris Stauffer. Federal had its finger firmly on the pulse, and through the subsequent years, it just grew and grew from there. The team developed worldwide. They added more pros, and come late 2005, counted Corey Martinez, Kye Forte, Leo Forte, Peter Adam, our own Brian Tunney and a certain Steven Hamilton amongst its sizeable pro squad, then spread across four corners of the globe. A couple of landmark full-length videos, great ad campaigns, and of course, a fully-stocked product line stamped that authority home. Federal could almost do no wrong. And then, it all just exploded. To cut a very critical story short, Ian Morris left to start a new brand in 2006, namely United Bikes, and, not to put too fine a point on it, he took almost all the Federal team with him. For more than a few stomach-churning moments, it did look to be over for Federal: the only guy left was Hamilton, and with such a shocking decamp of this scale it took Stu Dawkins and the remaining Seventies guys at least good few months to dust 'emselves off and regroup. But you know what? I actually believe things are way more interesting at Federal nowadays. The team (namely, Bruce Crisman, Dan Cox, Dan Lacey, Davey Watson, Jared Washington and more) seems tighter, more focussed and on-point. The new artistic style seems a little more unique, and the 2009 product line has stepped up a few gears. The team's working on new products and projects all the time, and new head designer Chris Harrison really knows his eggs. So, as a Federal Bikes fan and Hamilton frame rider myself of almost four years (Euro B/B model even) I decided to find out what's new, about how they address the differences between street and trails frames, about offering frames in different levels of heat-treatment other than just 'on' or 'off', and I ask the question, just how light can we get?'
I'd like to talk about your new '09 frames, which are out now. What can you tell me about these, and what makes them different?
Well, when designing a frame, there isn't that much you can do to drastically alter the appearance outside of what is demanded by today's discerning consumer. The geometry for various disciplines had pretty much been refined to a point where only small adjustments are needed, and if the frame in question is a signature frame, then that's personal preference of the rider who's helping design it. In my view, there are four areas that are key to a frame design: strength, ability to resist dents, looks and weight. All of these issues need to be addressed dependent on the type of riding the frame is meant for. For example, a street frame will need better protection from denting than a trails frame. I like to think with our frames, that we put a little bit more attention to detail in than the norm, especially in terms of features that can't be necessarily be seen cosmetically. Heat-treating has created a new opportunity to refine our frames even more, both in terms of strength and weight saving. We were the first company to show the disparity to the consumer about the three tiers of heat-treating, be it only on the dropouts, B/B and headtube, front triangle only post-weld or full post-weld. Each of these options has a differing price, and I felt that when we were introducing our frames that the consumer should be aware of what they are buying, not purchasing a frame they believe to be fully heat-treated when it's only had the front triangle done post-welding.
This is a weird question, as when I was growing up, I remember thinking that anything below 7lbs. was going to snap instantly, but as my knowledge has increased and technologies have advanced, the goalposts have been moved. I honestly think that at the moment, anything below four and a half pounds is a bit ridiculous for what is being marketed as a street frame or even a semi-robust frame for everyday usage. Maybe frames will become disposable like skateboards where people only expect them to last a few months before switching it up for the latest thing? I certainly hope not though. The consumer is to blame in a sense, as they are ultimately demanding lighter parts, and then companies obviously answer this demand and end up producing three and a half pound frames that are not fit for purpose. I think as an industry we have a responsibility by the rider to educate them and to make sure they are aware of the limitations of frame design. It's better than letting a consumer buy a badly designed frame and have them find out the hard way through personal injury.
Maybe frames will become disposable like skateboards where people only expect them to last a few months before switching it up for the latest thing? I certainly hope not though.
Where do you think frame technology is headed now, almost everything has been done, right?
Well the beauty of technology is that you never know what can be done until it's developed. The only problem is that BMX as an industry is not really big enough to develop these technologies; they tend to filter down from other areas. An example of this is all the road biking technology that has made its way onto BMX frames in the last few years. I think for the time being anyway, frames have reached a pretty happy medium of strength and weight of just over four and a half pounds for something with a decent stand-over height.
Nice. So, to wrap it up, what else is new from Federal this year?
We're just going to continue to make refinements to our current range of products and should hopefully have a few choice things at some point this year. New things include the D Watts and Twilight frame, new forks with hollow dropouts, hubs, new one-piece seat design and maybe a tire.
So, overall, the future looks really bright for Federal. I've got high hopes for these guys now: with people like Chris at the helm, they've got good things in store for all of us. Next up, we speak with Jim Cielencki from Sunday Bikes: he takes more care over product design than most people, and he gives us the insight into what's coming next, and just what goes into making one of the most technically advanced frames in BMX.
- Mark Noble