Being in Britain this year has been amazing. One thing I have appreciated is getting to see many of the slightly off the US tourist map sights. I bet not many of my peers have been to Weston Super-Mare, Chepstow, Clicket (The forgotten Victorian village) or any floating harbors. Coming here, one of my goals was to seek out elements of truly British Cycling. To me, this was best personified by the holy trinity (the troika- if you will) of English bikes: Brooks, Raleigh and Sturmey-Archer. As a boy, I picked up one of the classic black Raleigh 3 speeds with all the fixings (and a broken steel handlebar!?!) for $3.00 at a junk sale. I bit of tinkering later, I was off, and a darn sweet ride it was, with the telltale 3-speed tick…tick…tick of the hub.
I bumped into all of these folks at the Earl’s Court bike show in the fall. Sturmey-Archer is doing good things, but alas their fabrication is in Asia. Raleigh is still massive, and building everything imaginable with two wheels from very sleek high-end race rigs to kids bikes. I was told to keep an eye out for Brooks, and what a surprise. It was like bumping into an old friend after 20 years. You had heard that this person had had a few ups and downs, however in this is version, the old friend looks very fit, with a new shirt, a gleam in their eye and a spring in their step. I spent 15 minutes chatting with the Brooks folks, ogling the gear, and after ascertaining that they were still manufacturing here, I schemed to get to the factory, ground zero of the legendary saddle.
After not too much arm-twisting, Brad (RBA editor and jefe) thought this would be a great idea and shot a few feelers out into his vast world of connections. Finally, in mid December, the word came through that a tour could be set up. I felt a bit like Charlie Bucket after he found the gold ticket and would soon be off to Wonka’s factory. After a few emails, a date was agreed upon and the deal was in motion.
Early in January, I headed North on the M5 towards Birmingham, an earlier heart of British industrialization. After passing a massive football (soccer) stadium, the home of West Brom of the Premier League, I made my way through a heavily industrialized area. The area seemed to be made up of former massive factories that had been sectioned into smaller bits. There wasn’t much to see from the street, but judging by the comings and goings of trucks of all sizes and types, this was still an area where a lot was going on. The directions I was given said to look for the green gates and the Brooks sign.
The Brooks factory is located in the industrial heartland of England
Arriving I was greeted by Steven Green, office manager of the Brooks England factory. Initially we sat, as I wanted to get caught up with all of the goings on with Brooks, and Steven was the right man to talk to. A long standing employee (but not the longest he would point out) with 30 years with the company, he had seen quite a bit change since he first signed on. One of the first things we did was to take a look at the retail display that Brooks had put together for their retailers and go through it. Of course the saddles were gorgeous from the high end Swallow with titanium frame, to the ultra plush and a bit heavier B73. In addition were a number of very well made accessories such as waxed cotton messenger bags, leather tools kits and leather bar tape. All of these reflected simple time tested designs combined with flawless workmanship. These are items designed for the long haul.
The conversation steered to ownership and the future of Brooks. While I was here to see how the saddles were made, that was only part of the story, and to get a good sense of what Brooks is about, a small history lesson is in order. The company started in 1866. The first century of the company’s existence was filled with modest expansion, and largely building good saddles. In 1960, after the company left family hands, Brooks was acquired by the Tube Investment Group along with Raleigh, Reynolds and Sturmey-Archer. This was a very successful merger, and for a time, the companies within the group thrived. At one point during our tour, Steven took me outside and showed me the expanse of the Brooks empire when he first arrived. At the time they were making Brooks branded bikes, with their own saddles, tubing from Reynolds and drivetrain parts from Sturmey. The space they occupy today is less that one quarter of their former size. The early post-war era in England was huge for bikes.
Shifts within the parent company in the 80’s did not bode well for Brooks. The company first came under Derby International. In an effort to reduce debt, Derby rolled off Brooks along with Sturmey to a group called Lenark (A low rent version of Gordon Gekko Enterprises). By 2000, Lenark collapsed, and while Brooks was able to become stand-alone again, they were not flush with R & D capitol or much of a marketing budget. As Steven put it, it was nice to be independent again, and those at the factory were glad to have jobs, but the future was a big question mark.
In 2003, Selle Royal bought Brooks England. For the sale to go through, both side agreed that Brooks was an English company and it was vital for manufacturing to remain in the UK. Selle has a track record of honoring the integrity of their brands by keeping them independent. Once the sale was completed, Brooks was quickly revitalized. To quote Steven, “ Ever since they came on the scene, we’ve been busy, busy, busy.” I asked, “Crazy busy or good busy?” He replied “Oh very good busy, it’s always been a quality product, but Selle Royal was the resources to do a proper marketing job and get the word out.”
This was confirmed with a subsequent phone call to Andrea Meneghelli, Selle Royal’s marketing manager of the Brooks brand. When I spoke with him I was curious about who was buying what and areas where they were growing. In terms of sales, the US market is mostly racing type saddles, with the B17 being far and away the biggest seller. Other markets include England where they sell a mix of racing and sprung saddles, Germany and Holland where the market is huge for sprung saddles, and Japan where they too buy a mix of racing and comfort saddles.
I also asked about team sponsorship. Andrea thought it unlikely that Brooks would be sponsoring a pro team in the future, however, Brooks is deeply involved with a few events worth noting. In the true spirit of ‘old-school’ Brooks is a long standing sponsor of L’Eroica, where the wool jerseys come out, the steel frames are dusted off, and these folks set off on a 120 mile sportive that includes many miles riding on the strada bianchi (white gravel roads) of Tuscany. In addition, they are also involved in the Brompton World Championships, and Brooks will be bringing the Bike Polo World Championships to the states with qualifiers in London and Seattle in August, with the finals a few weeks later in Philadelphia.
All of this was well and good. I was pleased to see that Brooks was clearly moving forward, and seemed poised to take on the next 100 years, but I was also very curious about they made these saddles, and what the factory would be like beyond the office doors. Would it be grizzled factory workers laboring away at ancient workbenches, huddling near the coal stoves trying to stay warm as they toiled away at their craft? Maybe it would be folks in lab coats and shower caps scurrying about in various ‘clean-rooms’ checking computers as unseen robots whirred away with maximum efficiency?
Not surprisingly, the reality lay somewhat in the middle. Inside the factory was a mix of new and old. In some cases, the machines looked like they hadn’t changed since the 50’s, or earlier.
The Brooks factory is a mixture of old and new machinery.
However, don’t be fooled, the folks at Brooks weren’t afraid of technology, and a number of the steps in the process involved both massive machines, and also skilled operators on hand. Throughout the factory were bins filled with various parts and rack after rack of different models in various stages of completion. The factory seemed to be partitioned into three sections. Part 1 was where all of the metal for the frames was shaped. Part 2 was where the leather was cut and shaped. The final part was where the two were joined and the saddles were assembled and given a number of finishing touches before being shipped.
A look at the factory's production floor
NEXT: Building the Brooks Saddle