VIDEO Brand Day Out: Who are Starley Bikes?
November 4th, 2015
November 4th, 2015
Anna is a jack-of-all-bikes, and has been riding and racing in a myriad of genres for over seven years; from World Cup level cross-country, to grass roots coaching kids on the road.
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We all love a brand with heritage, and I can't see many other brands out-doing Starley Bikes on this front. Descending from James Starley, one of the first to design a strong and lightweight race bike in the 1800s, and the very man that later went on to invent the 'tangent-spoke wheel', a design we still use today, and you can see why Starley already has its name firmly written into the cycling history books. Following James' example, John Kemp Starley later designed the revolutionary 'safety bicycle'. This was a bike that challenged the common Penny Farthing and brought us the standard rear wheel-driven, diamond shaped steeds we see today. Although many have tried to come up with something different, nothing has stuck, which is a testament to his design skills. But I'm not going to go over old ground here. I want to tell you who they are now, so I visited their store and workshop in Altrincham, and this is what I found: The store is a maze of floors in a period property displaying various cycling treasures. On completing my tour it seems that starting from the top and working your way down would be good order to come out with your perfect bike. Forget the finished products on the ground floor, as lovely as they are, Starley Bikes pride themselves on creating bespoke and custom bicycles designed especially for you, so, it's only natural that they start with you in the fitting room upstairs first. At the very top of the shop you can be treated to a cup of tea and a chat about what your cycling needs are. Posters of famous cyclists hang from the walls to offer inspiration before being whisked off to get measured up for a custom bike fitting. To Starley, this is not something that happens after you have purchased a bike, oh no, this is what determines the exact measurements of your new bike before it's even made. "Every bike is an individual project", says Nick Fountain, Starley's Marketing Director, as he hand picks out the lettering for a customer's bike decal. "Every customer has the bike fitting first, and then we apply geometry that meets their needs; be that touring or commuting or racing or other". While choice isn't unique in the industry any more, genuine customisation to your riding style, not just your design style, is hard to come by at an affordable price. Starley Bikes pride themselves on building to people's budgets as well as their needs. "I struggle to charge people over £5,000, because a lot of the time, they don't need a £5k bike" says Nick. As I listen to a long list of custom projects, it becomes apparent just how different each customer is, and what they're subtle needs are. It is also very apparent that Starley are honest bike builders; they give you what you need, even if that means not benefitting themselves financially. "We can build a 4.6kg hill climbing bike if that's what the customer really needs, but not everyone's goal genuinely warrants a bike like that" says Nick. This is why you won't find frame weights on their website. "We prefer the challenge of making something personal". Moving down through the store to the second level (I think) and you are met with bare carbon frames, raw steel tubes un-welded on a table and ex-team bikes hanging in a corner. A room to remind you of the choice you have after choosing your geometry and sizing. Step back down to the ground floor and you are met with rolls of colour ready to be cut out for personalised decals. Nick mentions in passing how they managed to lift a signature from a sentimental letter, so that a son could forever be reminded of his father on cycling journeys. So personal is cycling that it raises questions as to why we are accustomed to off-the-shelf models these days.
Across the courtyard outside is the workshop; a chilly brick outhouse, home to James Hull, the recently appointed and first in-house frame builder for the Altrincham flagship store. As I stood amidst steel pipes, vintage frames on the wall and a table full of tools and grinding machinery, I unconsciously expected a forty-something, 6ft, gruff hipster to walk though the doors with bushy beard, Doc Martins and hands hardened by flames and life. Instead, I was greated by a fresh faced, cleanly shaven, twenty-something, chirpy chap in a casquette.
James eases my guilt somewhat by explaining that I wasn't the first to make that assumption about what a bike builder looks like. "I'm probably the oldest young person on the planet" he says placing a frame into a vice to the sounds of Smooth FM. Though young, James has been building bikes for six years in his mum's garage, and even squeezed some sessions into his lunch breaks while he was completing his engineering degree. "It was almost by fluke that I got the job, but now I'm able to mix the skills I've learned from engineering with something that I love doing", says James as he dances a flame over the join of two steel tubes. Although he says it's fluke, I can't help but hear his passion and see the effort he has put in to set up the workshop and think that he is there for every reason other than fluke. Fed up with bikes not fitting, James once resorted to shoving a bicycle frame into a homemade fire to melt it and make it fit. As a short yet long-legged rider with a creative nature and a desire to simply make things work properly, it seems James is the perfect advocate for what Starley Bikes are all about. Watching James weld a road bike specifically for a rider with dwarfism is both inspiring and peaceful. I'm sat next to one of his own bikes (and one of his own creations), which serves as a reminder of the impending end goal; a commuter bike in stealth black that fits James perfectly. James's mint green track bike also stands proudly in the showroom and was hailed by many passers-by as one of the best looking bikes at the NEC Cycle Show too.
Out of the workshop and into the paint room, another outhouse across the courtyard awaits. This time I'm greeted by Lee Moorhouse, the in-house paint technician. Lee has all the attire and demeanour of a true artist-come-mechanic. It is said that no-one has captured him on film until this very day. Many magazines and photographers have turned up only to get Nick as his body-double instead. I immediately feel honoured to be in the presence of greatness.
Though he mixes up pots of paint amidst walls of colours and shelves speckled with past projects, Lee sees himself as an engineer, not an artist. Perhaps a nod to the precision of Starley's finishes. Yet, while Lee is a painter and a mechanic by profession, it is still very clearly a passion of his too. After a long day at Starley, Lee goes home to spend the evening fixing up old VW camper vans and has had a number of show quality vans fixed, finished and sprayed by his own fair hands. "I hate doing white" says Lee, "It turns into an utter nightmare". It seems no colour presents itself equally; some require different painting or mixing techniques, and some are just utter fingerprint dirt magnet nightmares, no matter what you do. The showroom exhibits everything from semi-raw carbon and steel, to full glossy, glittery paint jobs. Some choose steel cut 3D head badges, some choose flat paint. The Starley Primal Pro Cycling Team even received a custom glow-in-the-dark paint job so that they would be seen at Nocturne night races. No colour is unachievable, and yet, despite all the choice, I cant help but fall in love with a raw steel frame hanging on the wall with gold brazing on show.
The Verdict on Starley
Seeing Starley Bikes at various shows, I've always been blown away by their paint jobs and their friendly demeanour on the stall. It is easy to forget that those three guys manning the stall are actually the three guys running the majority of the operation, and the very guys that build your bike when you order from them. From putting the tubes together, to adding the components in the end. It's easy to buy a frame and custom build it to your taste and needs, but at the end of the day here, I was left wanting more than just a bike I liked to ride; I wanted a bike that I loved to ride. It was clear that Starley offered this, and suddenly it felt silly to be considering anything off-the-peg when I use and love the contraptions so much. Don't get me wrong, I love off-the-shelf bikes, and I love the character of each and every one. All bicycles have a purpose and they meet many needs of many riders, however; the day that I want a bike for life, a bike that is mine to cherish, that was designed for me and me only, that is the day I'll want to speak to someone like Starley Bikes.