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.

Cycling’s Future

It is true that the young will inherit the earth. Whether we have cycling-friendly cities or gridlocked superhighways in the future is largely determined by the choices we make and the knowledge we impart to youngsters today.

There are so many benefits that children who cycle from an early age experience, as their parents can attest, including better health, a sense of community and overall wellbeing. Kids who bike learn to be independent and gain a sense of autonomy as they operate their own mode of transportation. They experience their communities and the outdoors while getting fresh air and exercise, which is more important in the age of digital technology and climate change than ever before.

I have fond memories of biking with my family as a child along the urban streets of Guelph, Ontario. Gazing up at the branches of trees passing above me, I felt like I was flying. Biking gave me transportation freedom: I could get to school, friends’ places and, when I got older, downtown on weekends, all without the help of my parents. I was free to choose my route, which improved my sense of direction and made me more familiar with street names and the geographical layout of my city.

Many families want their kids to experience the joys of riding. Some, however, have concerns about letting their kids bike alone to school or a friend’s place. Long-time Momentum contributor, Chris Keam, explores some of these concerns in his “Growing Up Velo” story on p. 37.

Statistics show that independent bicycle dealer unit sales of youth bikes – bikes designed specifically for ages 12 and under, including BMX and sub-20-inch wheel bikes – in Canada and the United States have stayed close to the 20 percent mark for the past decade. The number of youth cyclists in the US rose by 4.3 percent between 2007 and 2008, according to National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA) figures. Still, some industry experts believe more should be done to attract young riders.

Dave Overgaard, Norcoís bicycle division vice president, told me in a telephone interview that the bicycle industry needs to create bikes that fit kids properly and communities need to build the infrastructure that will encourage more kids to ride.

Robert Jones, statistics program manager for the Bicycle Trade Association of Canada, said key drivers for kids bike sales are cost, parentsí preferences and theft-prevention.

“The things that are working against it (getting more kids on bikes) are parents’ paranoia about allowing their children to get out of their sight and the fact that bikes get stolen.”

More work needs to be done to attract young riders, commented NBDA executive director Fred Clements in a June 2009 Bicycle Retailer and Industry News article. In the same issue, Jay Townley, manager of Gluskin Townley Group, made a plea to the bicycle industry to place a higher value on increasing youth ridership. “[I]f anything, it is even more important in the long-term to get more kids on bikes more often than to get more adults on bikes,î he said. ìOur future depends on it.”

Will communities continue to expand bicycle networks? Will there be plenty of green spaces? Will there be an emphasis on alternative forms of transportation? Will cyclists feel included or excluded? What the future holds comes down to the choices we make today and the lessons we pass on to the ambassadors of tomorrow. Our generation might not be around to cycle the streets 50 or 100 years from now, but our kids and their kids will.

Sarah Ripplinger

Editor, momentum magazine


Originally published in the Sept/ Oct 2010 issue of Momentum Magazine and on momentummag.com.