Monday, February 21, 2011

Aging gracefully

If I was this casual there would be no way I’d be able to afford the bag, much less the destination...

In changing times there is a certain art to aging well. One does not want to reflect too longingly at an overly romanticised past. Or rush headlong into the latest, ultimately passing, fad. Like most things in life, aging gracefully takes balance.

Brooks Swallows circa 1950 and limited edition 2007

Brooks (originally JB Brooks & Co, now Brooks England Ltd) has been around since 1866. A quick internet search reveals that back in them early days rich people used to ride a horse to work and the company originally sold horse harnesses along with other leather goods. As legend has it, Mr Brooks horse died in 1878 so he borrowed a bicycle from a friend to cycle to work. Not surprisingly Mr Brooks found the bicycle saddle very uncomfortable (“soft heiny you whinging newbie!” I would have yelled if I was alive back in them days) and thought he would do something about it (which I guess makes Mr Brooks different from the rest of us). On the 28 October 1882, John Boultbee Brooks filed his first saddle patent. And since that time the core business for Brooks has been the leather bicycle saddle.

The business grew with an ever expanding range of saddles, helped somewhat by the appearance and rapid popularity of the safety bicycle in the mid to late 1880’s. And if that wasn’t enough in 1887 a Scottish inventor, a Mr John Dunlop no less, developed the first practical pneumatic tyre. So cycling’s “golden age” came to be: after the demise of the horse (as a means of transportation that is - I understand that people still use horses for dandy things like fox hunting) and before the rise of the automobile.

According to Wikipedia, cycling’s “golden age” ended somewhat abruptly around 1910 in the United States as the Americans rapidly took to the automobile. (Henry Ford’s “Model T” started rolling off the production line in 1909, the Americans already had plenty of oil, and driving around was a great way to pass time until Lionel Sternberger provided a destination by inventing the cheeseburger).

While the folk in Europe weren’t immune to the allure of the automobile they didn’t altogether abandon the concept of the bicycle as an adult sport (as the Americans did). Blessed with beautiful, ridable scenery they went on to give us the derailleur and the cyclotouring bicycle. And with that came all the other innovative bits-n-pieces that go along with it: lightweight frames, reliable wheels and equipment, panniers and holdalls, integrated electric lights... Not to mention the growing business of professional bicycle racing (and, as another legend has it, the birth of the quick release wheel on the Croce D’Aune Pass). European bicycle and componentry manufacturers only lost ground when those pesky Asians out-innovated and under-priced them in the 1980s. And their introspection certainly didn’t help when they all but missed the American-lead BMX & mountain bike movements that started in the preceding decade. But I digress.

In Britain I suspect they were simply waiting for this:

Aston Martin DB4 GT Zagato (1960)

Indeed, British bicycle manufacturers actually increased their output after the second world war. Britain’s reliance on imports combined with a sobering postwar economy meant that rations introduced during the war continued into the years following (in some cases they were even more strict). It was a time of austerity and enduring British grit. A time when bicycles made sense. But it didn’t last long. Sentiment soon picked up as the rations were lifted under the Labour government. Bicycle manufacturers were caught out when petrol rationing ceased on the 26 May 1950 (rations on various food items were phased out around this time starting with bread in 1948 and ending with meat in 1954 adding to an air of prosperity) and the automobile became popular again.

And, to return to the topic, up until the middle of the 20th century Brooks was the largest bicycle saddle manufacturer in the world (buoyed by the many bicycle enthusiasts in the UK and Europe as well as the three or four adult Americans who still rode a bicycle).

But to this day Brooks (or rather Brooks England Ltd) remains a small company. A small factory with some 30 workers still toils away making leather saddles in Smethwick on the outskirts of Birmingham, England. I’m told that even the cows from which they source the leather grows up in the UK. So, the rest of the world has changed and moved on whilst Brooks has just stayed the same, clinging desperately to its glory days?

Well, yes and no.

Let’s start with a caveat. I’m no bicycle historian and I defer to the many reference sources (ie websites and yes, even books), blogsites and forums run by the true educated enthusiasts. As always my indulgent rambles will provide no useful information that isn’t already out there on the first page of a Google search. And should I happenstance upon any misinformation then I will happily and gullibly share it with you. (I feel that if they could publish “Campagnolo: 75 Years of Cycling Passion” and charge you for the dubious privilege of ownership then I should be able to get away with just about anything)

For a start, whilst partaking in my morning ritual in the smallest room in the house, I decided to read the box which was imprisoning my recently acquired Brooks saddle. (I understand that keeping my hands otherwise occupied would keep my soul pure and my intentions clean). To my surprise it tells me a somewhat different story to the “official” legend on the Brooks website and Brooks YouTube video which I have carefully plagiarized at the start of this post.

(click on image to read)

So I embarked on a comprehensive, meticulous, and in-depth research on the history of Brooks (now Brooks England Ltd).

Um... looking at the box you can see that the factory looks pretty big...

Brooks works is so big it can’t even fit in this picture...

So we can assume that, in its heyday, Brooks was a pretty large business entity (punctilious detective work if I may say so myself - assumption being that Brooks occupied the whole building and not just accessed a couple of windows - and there were no other pictures on the box to indicate otherwise). Also the factory was originally located on Great Charles St in Birmingham and a Google image search shows that it is a large and important-looking street. Indeed I even found a picture of this:

Location of the Birmingham Stock Exchange at the corner of Margaret & Great Charles St (1928-1971)

Which means that for nearly 35 years the Brooks factory was even bigger than the Birmingham Stock Exchange located just up the road! (Actually, I’ve been told that Brooks expanded dramatically in the 10 years after the war. By 1955 it had a staff of 1,500 producing 55,000 leather saddles as well as 25,000 mattress saddles a week.)

So what happened?

Well it appears that a couple of game changers came along. (Game changers in this sense are seismic events that not only alters the position of the players but also transforms the playing field as well. For example, dinosaurs were probably only just getting smug about the whole concept of evolution and their domination of small, hairy animals with a neocortex and mammary glands when a massive comet hit earth. That comet, if you will, was a “game changer”.)

The first game changer was the increasing availability of the automobile - i.e. more affordable (world-wide from 1910) and the ability to put petrol in it (UK 1950). And who wouldn’t rather use a fully-formed seat that cradles and caresses ones buttocks (as opposed to teetering your “sit bones” on a saddle) whilst letting a combustible engine do the work? You could even get a lady friend to sit beside you. Yeah, hubba hubba ‘nuff said (and no risk of emasculation here if perchance she could ride a horse or pedal a bicycle faster than you).

The second game changer came in the form of the Unica saddle (made by Nitor before it was bought out by Cinelli and thereon taking the uninspired but easily marketable name of “Unicanitor”). It may not have been the first saddle with a plastic (nylon) shell but it certainly appears to have made the biggest impact when it became widely available in the early 60s. Whether it was the easy appreciation of plastic saddles (ie lighter, cheaper, weatherproof, easy to maintain, and no “break-in” period - even bicycle deity and leather bicycle saddle advocate, Mr Sheldon Brown, has admitted that that’s a lot of appreciation) or Cinelli’s foresight and influential connections within the bicycle industry (probably a combination of both) the plastic saddle rapidly became the preferred choice of racing cyclists. And if the racing cyclist wanted a piece of plastic action then so too did your average bicyclist. And so, as is the way of business, a myriad of copies started flooding the market.

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you - just one word.

Ben: Yes sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Ben: Yes I am.

Mr. McGuire: 'Plastics.'

Ben: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

Ben: Yes I will.

Mr. McGuire: Shh! Enough said. That's a deal.

(The Graduate, 1967)

As we tend to say: it all went South from there. The combination of a stagnant or at least disinterested market and a dwindling market share meant that Brooks saw its market base all but disappear in a cosmic microsecond (which equates to somewhere between a day and about 500 years or so - 7 years in Brooks case). In May 1959 Brooks Industries Limited was taken over by the Raleigh Bicycle Company as part of its vertical integration and domination of the British cycling industry. In 1962 Brooks dramatically downsized its factory and moved to its current location in Smethwick (1962, coincidentally is the same year that Cino Cinelli took over Unica - one example why Mr Cinelli is now regarded as a cycling visionary whilst Raleigh is regarded as cycling’s 900lb gorilla that then became its white elephant). More accurately (and to add greater unnecessary complexity to this story), Brooks was owned by Sturmey-Archer (as in the three-speed hubs that helped make Raleigh famous the world over). S-A itself fell under Raleigh’s broad umbrella (which itself became TI-Raleigh in 1960. TI = Tube Investments was a British holding company which included steel tube manufacturers such as Reynolds as well as British bicycle & motorbike manufacturers).

Then things got worse.

The Raleigh Chopper. Hugely popular in the 1970’s but not enough to save Raleigh...

In 1969 the Smethwick factory was gutted by a fire. Brooks’ diminished but industrious staff salvaged what they could and recommenced production. In 1987 Derby International (a multinational conglomerate) purchased a struggling Raleigh from Tube Investments. And thirteen years later D. I. started a series of divestitures. In October 2000 Sturmey-Archer was declared insolvent with preparations made to liquidate its assets the following month. On the 11th hour (November 2000) the management at Brooks with the help of an anonymous “UK bike trade individual” ( paid the liquidators £1m and thus rescued the Smethwick factory and its workers (Brooks employed about 20 personnel at the time). Brooks then struggled on as an independent company for a couple of years before being purchased by Selle Royal in 2002. The Italian bicycle saddle company now runs its UK operations at arms length as “Brooks England Ltd”.

Pretty amazing what you can plagiarize from the internet these days huh? And I suspect that some of this information may actually be true. And yes, I appreciate that a Google image search under “bike porn” can provide a more immediately gratifying experience.

Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) helping out at her daddy’s motorcycle repair shop in “Transformers: The Revenge of the Fallen”

The rescue of Brooks and its subsequent rebirth as a desirable if somewhat elitist bicycle saddle manufacturer began with a little soul-searching and judicious rummaging through some back catalogues. And so came about the re-release of the Brooks Swallow Limited Edition saddle in 2004/5 (I vaguely recall reading a 2004 introduction - which allowed me to excuse myself for missing the release date when I first became aware of it in 2005 and all 999 examples were already spoke for - but the official website indicates a 2005 production run).

Official image (shiny chromey rails here...)

Appropriate placement on a Hetchins (note the titanium rails)

The famous “racing” profile with the cutaway sides first debuted in 1937 but dropped off the Brooks range (along with the Sprinter) in the late 1960s - presumably in the face of competition from nylon-shelled racing saddles. The Swallow was briefly reintroduced during the dark days of the 1980s and, having one such example in my care, let me just say that it accurately reflects the sorry state of Raleigh and the British cycling industry at the time. The 2005 limited edition was an altogether different beast. It came in a dark “antique” brown with a rolled and hand-stitched edge (similar to the original but minus the wire reinforcement) and in a nod to modernity, equipped with titanium rails and cantle plate. Despite that it still weighed in at a portly 370g, not to mention priced at an eye-watering $400 USD. Whether this was a clever marketing ploy to draw the attention of a resurgent market in old/ vintage/ classic bicycles or simply Brooks returning to its roots under new management is difficult to say. The saddle was a resounding success and Brooks subsequently introduced a more economical Brooks Swallow “Classic” version to a receptive and awakened audience. Business acumen or impeccable timing, Brooks with its long history and antiquated manufacturing techniques was back in the game.

Brooks Swallow Classic (now called the Swallow Titanium) misses out on the rolled edge and stitching

As my memory fades and I get my provenance, dates and prices all mixed up I return to official-looking websites as a source of information. Not infrequently I’m given a narrative/ presentation that does not necessarily reflect my recollections. When I go to the Brooks website I see lavish pictures of their leather products, a smattering of elegant steel bicycles, and the touch of the common man (including complimentary feedback from the legion of vocal fans). I see history and tradition presented as if it hasn’t changed for over a hundred years. Like typical Coca Cola advertising (or current Corona "from where you would rather be" ads) it makes you yearn for a time that you may never have experienced. It doesn’t so much as sell to you, rather you buy into it.

But selling nostalgia in a niche market at the upper limit of price tolerance is tricky business. Amongst the broad range of saddles on display I see the 2007 Limited Edition Swallow still selling for €590 (approx $815 USD). I suspect that they haven't sold as well as Brooks' management had hoped. There are probably several reasons for this. Sure 2007 was the start of a tough business climate, but the release of a second limited edition Swallow so soon after the first probably gave the collector and aesthete bicyclist (an important part of Brooks' market base as not everyone needs a comfortable leather saddle for the daily 200km commute) a jarring WTF? moment. A stratospheric price tag may have aimed for exclusivity and indicate that these limited edition saddles are rising in value. But pumping out another 999 examples differing only in the colour of the hide smacks of shameless profiteering. And yes, there is a well-regarded outlet (on a different continent mind you) now clearing them for much less coin.

From the Brooks England website

So the question still beckons. Has Brooks aged gracefully?

Well, yes and no.

Things tend to be more complicated than they first appear. Maybe, like many of us, Brooks (now Brooks England Ltd) has tumbled through Life and just happens to have landed back on its feet.

I, for one, am cool with that.

The Brooks story abbreviated

John Boultbee Brooks establishes in Great Charles Street, Birmingham
Brooks files first patent for a sprung leather saddle
Brooks manufactures a comprehensive range of saddles and leather accessories as well as producing furniture, motorcycle saddles, and owning a motorcycle company
Brooks helps out during the war (and reduces its bicycle inventory)
Expansion in Britain’s post-war ration years (up to 1,500 staff in 1955)
Buy out by Raleigh
Downsizing and move to Downing Street, Smethwick on the outskirts Birmingham
Sturmey-Archer goes into liquidation and Brooks goes independent
Selle Royal takes over with Brooks trading as “Brooks England” (30 staff in Smethwick producing in the order of 80,000 saddles a year whilst Brooks bags and carryalls are produced under license in China )

ADDIT: Brooks England have finally added a timeline on their website. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Messing with mojo

Even if you consider yourself the epitome of Italian cycling elegance you can never be too sure that someone won’t come along and completely mess up your mojo.

Pinarello Dogma spotted on ebay for AUD $9,999 (auction ended 9 Feb, not sold).

One suspects that that the owner had some difficulties getting comfortable on this bike. Not to mention that vibrant yellow, limited edition, Look Contador pedals are so so so sooooo passe these days (well, at least over the past couple of weeks). And white tyres were never acceptable. Ever.

Now I’m no fashionista and I certainly have no place commenting on subjects I know nothing about. Then again, if I was faithful to such a belief then I wouldn’t be commenting on anything (apart from the fluff from my navel - which, like everyone else’s, is grey with a slight tinge of blue...)

On this occasion I'll let the following pictures speak for themselves.

Giulani Fujiwara at the Milan Fashion Week in January.

Givenchy’s men in “skorts”. The French have been there before...

Missing, misplaced or messed up mojo. It's not good. Cycling's god of Italian machismo would surely not approve.

"If I weren't a professional cyclist, I'd be a porn star."

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Italian Renaissance 1994

I cherished this magazine even more than my partner at the time.

I know.


Bicycle Guide, Dec 1994

Bicycle Nostalgia 1994

Bicycle Guide, Dec 1994

Tuesday, February 1, 2011