A Hands-on Experience at Brooks England

By Sarah Ripplinger

Birmingham, England-Brooks Bike Ride
BicycleImages.com for Brooks Saddles
Momentum Editor Sarah Ripplinger riding along a canal in Birmingham, UK.

Colorful rows of bike seats line long racks. Bins filled to the top with all manner of shiny and polished flyers, side rods and seat noses checker the room. Loud booms, bangs and whizzing sounds fill the air as workers operate machines — some at least 50 years old — that churn out springs and sheets of metal or stamp nameplates and holes.

This is the Brooks England Ltd. factory where the well-known leather saddle and bike bag manufacturer produces comfortable and durable accessories and posterior supports for customers around the world.

Taking the saddles from flat leather mats to seats fit for the open road is a team effort, and the workers at the factory showed how it’s done to the close to 50 journalists from around the world who gathered there for a tour on June 8, 2010.

The factory, located in Smethwick, West Midlands, UK, is where it all happens: from cutting out the pattern of the saddle, to molding the shape of the seat and securing it with copper rivets.

Established in 1866, Brooks has a long history of fashioning saddles that presently cater to the sensibilities of traditionalists, everyday cyclists and performance riders alike.

The leather is sourced from farms in England where the cows roam in open pastures. Exposure to the elements makes their hides thicker and produces the required five-millimeter-thick leather Brooks demands for its saddles. The toughness of the leather is why Brooks saddles can last a lifetime.

After the saddle pattern is stamped out — cowhides used to make the leather seats come from the back and rump of a cow — the spare leather is used for accessories, such as leather grips and the ends of handlebars.

It’s a hands-on process: from soaking the leather to make it pliable, to molding it into the proper shape, smoothing the edges of the leather and affixing it to metal rails and springs. And it’s refreshing to see that Brooks is still producing quality saddles in this traditional manner.

A Very Merry Tweed Ride and Picnic

Our day wouldn’t have been complete without a cycle through the English countryside in our finest riding attire. The 2010 Extraordinary Brooks Picnic ride was a 17-mile jaunt from the Brooks factory, along the beautiful network of canals in Birmingham and over to Blackwell Court, the former Brooks family home.

It poured rain that morning, so many of us — including me — were furnished with Brooks’s new John Boultbee Oxford Rain Capes. The capes, which have reflective material woven into the fabric in certain places, kept my upper half perfectly dry and quite toasty. The cape comes with magnetic ties at the front that you hook over your handlebars — producing a tent that protects your legs and feet.

Inclement weather aside, we shared a lot of laughs, a couple of bumps and repairs and a lot of stories from our respective homes. The surrounding environment was a marvel to look at, with old brick and stone houses — some with thatched roofs — fields with grazing sheep and cows and brick lanes. Plus, I got to ride on the left-hand-side of the road, which was a thrilling experience along the narrow streets still dominated by the personal automobile.

I met some wonderful people from Brooks and other bicycling publications and got a taste of England, including fish and chips and bangers and mash. The ride and factory tour were certainly highlights of the trip. Not only good excuses to dress up, act the refined cyclist and test out some Brooks gear — including their saddles — for an afternoon, the trip was a reminder of the origins of cycling.

Bikes with pedals — known as velocipedes (fast feet) — have been ridden in Europe since the 1860s. While much has changed in the world of bikes since then, some things remain the same, such as handmade saddles and the warmth and moisture wicking properties of a good tweed jacket.

Originally published in Momentum magazine.

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