England has always had a historical North-South divide. It all starts to change right in the middle, around Birmingham. You would think the divide would have ceased in the age of homogenized pursuits like Saturday shopping, the cinema the night before and the pub the morning after but it still exists. The English are still different up North than they are
to the South. In the North they are hard. I mean, properly hard. Maybe it’s the relentless economic climate and pampered houses of power that nurtures the South and freezes out the North. Perhaps being overlooked and neglected by successive governments has also made them tough. They can at least laugh about it — they even pride themselves on it. “Shandy drinking soft Southerners,” is a heard phrase in the North, among others. Being British has always been built on an element of banter, but there is truth in the soft South, hard North divide. Maybe it’s as simple as the bleak weather. Maybe it’s deeper. Whatever it is, I am most definitely a Southerner, kind of soft and am driving north into the rain and cold to visit a little handmade British global success story and I’m a bit scared.
Orange Mountain Bikes sits in the hills just outside Halifax, Yorkshire. They have been here since the dawn of mountain biking in the UK, about 1987. Saying they have survived on a wing and a prayer would be an exaggeration, but a certain amount of free-floating through trends, fads and an ever changing biking world would be fair. Somehow against all odds the homogenizing of suspension designs, the rise of Far East production and the lightweight onslaught of carbon, Orange is still here doing what they do best, better than they ever did it with more people wanting a niche machine, built by hand from a small metal shop in Yorkshire.
Story has it that founders Lester Noble and Steve Wade began mountain biking out of a lull in
the windsurfing season. They started building their own bikes when the ones they were riding were increasingly becoming fashion items rather than useable machines. The first machines
were built under the badge Tushingham, a name borrowed from friend and fellow windsurfng expert, Roger Tushingham. The Tushingham B52 and rarer Works Replica were the pre-cursor
to Orange Mountain Bikes. It wasn’t much more than a year before advertisements for Orange started appearing in the British bike press. “What’s Orange and climbs hills?” was the tagline that accompanied a picture of the fruit.
Orange quickly moved onto the still burgeoning race scene with the Clockwork, a play on Stanley Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’. The Clockwork was a white and orange-fade race bike that was both available and affordable. For Brits, there were a lot of classic British steel road bike builders in our past, but the majority of the hardware for this new sport was from the other side of the ocean. A genuinely British mass-market alternative that was refreshing and one that had a sense of humor, a sense of British pride and a sense of cool was a recipe for success. Although the Clockworks were made in the Far East, the Formula race bike was handbuilt in Yorkshire. These are unicorns nowadays having had very limited build runs in their respective incarnations but survive they do being made from good old Reynolds 531 steel tubes.
Today the spirit of the first Orange machines remains: tough, good riding bikes for tough good riders. A loyal following and competitive portfolio has kept them in peoples’ minds in a way that could so easily have been the usual story of liking and respecting a bike that is made on your doorstep, but not actually buying it.
In typical cool and almost accidental fashion, it was Steve Peat that actually approached them to ride on an Orange when his GT deal ended. That was a good era for Orange, when they seemed to find themselves on the podium and in the spotlight with much bigger ships.
The way you always know you’re close to mountain bikes in the UK is when there’s either a Mercedes Vito or a VW Transporter covered in graphics parked nearby. I park in line and am greeted by the charming Pete Scullion (a sort of younger, shorter mountain biking version of Lemmy from Motorhead), my guide and chaperone for the day. Do I need a chaperone? “This is the North and you are a soft Southerner,” I am reminded. Fair point. First thing’s first: off to the metal shop where they make the frames by hand. One of the oddities of Orange is that in seemingly opposite fashion to everyone else in the bike industry, they’ve brought production in- house from the Far East rather than the other way around. Most of the range is made in England now— only the lower-priced hard tails are still being imported for finishing and painting. This results in a constant row of metal being rolled, cut, shaped and welded by proper tattooed Northerners with pictures of naked women on their desks. They take pride in creating bikes that, in the words of the Orange crew, “Ride like no other.”
The metal shop is a world away from your Chris King paragon of virtue and efficiency. This is
a Dickensian workhouse of a factory—all smells and fumes and dust and swearing. And there is a lot of swearing that goes into an Orange. I can’t help thinking it’s the element that makes them tougher than the rest and naturally more Northern. Noble’s nephew, Ashley runs it. He’s a true aluminum master, passionate mountain biker and definite Northerner. Swearing included. In all honesty I genuinely may have never met a more pure Northerner than Ashley. Back down the road to the rest of the operation we pass houses with no windows and cars with no wheels. There is a recession in the UK but you wouldn’t know it where I am from. Queues to get into shopping centers and country pubs full to the brim every Sunday is brought into context up here when you see a mother walk her four kids to school out of a house with no glass in the window frames. Reality check. North-South divide? More so by the mile.
Orange’s finishing school which is a couple of miles from the metal shop houses all the final stages of production—from priming and painting to building and applying decals by hand. It’s all done by hand actually: each frame is hand sprayed one at a time, and each
one is hung to dry and then given to a chap for decals and packing or building. One of the beauties of being a comparatively small operation, Marketing Director Michael Bonney tells me is that they can keep costs down by building small batches of bikes on demand or even each bike to order, with custom specs, one at a time. It means minimal waste and bikes not hanging around in shops toward the end of the shopping season. You want it, you get it the way you want it—and pretty quickly.
Steel and titanium have secured a future in the handmade arena, while carbon is obviously at the top end of racing technology but also seems to be spreading far and wide—perhaps worryingly, towards the mainstream. This leaves aluminum in a bit of a state of flux. It’s the sensible choice, but is it still desirable? Orange is small enough to stretch its legs into carbon, but also not big enough to enter the research and development world needed to be cutting edge. Would it mean a move to outsourcing, something Orange stands against? Is it why the tribe is loyal? I’m just not sure I can see that staying the same if we’re talking carbon imported from the Far East. I think English mountain bikers like riding an English mountain bike, not an English brand, but a bike made by an Englishman, in England, with all the fire and dust and swearing that’s gone into each one. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe they’d still love a cutting-edge carbon Orange made somewhere else by a robot. Who knows? What I wouldn’t be surprised to find is Orange somehow transcending the trend and sailing right through the carbon apocalypse and out the other side on an aluminium rig and being right at the forefront of a renaissance in the shiny metal.
As I pack up my cameras and nish my brew (tea of the North), I realize there’s a real down-to-earth frankness about Northerners— especially Yorkshiremen. They tell it how it is. There are no minced words up here. It can be quite a shock to a Southern diplomat, but there’s also a refreshing ease of saying and hearing how things actually are. That sums up Orange bikes. They’re not the latest high- modulus weave. They’re not antiquated niche steel, but they are honest. They do exactly what they say on the tin. People love that in this country. Especially up North. Long may it and they stay.