I can’t quite believe what I am watching. It appears to be a TV consumer show rating sex toys. A couple, surprisingly comfortable on television in their own home bath are presenting, testing and rating these objects of desire in front the cameras as facial expressions are recorded close up as marks are awarded after an ernest post coital discussion by way of one to five stars (actually phalluses) and a smiley face or a sad face. Up next we are told, is the popular, regular fixture that appears to be a period drama/ soap opera. A kind of ‘Days of Our Lives‘ in the style of ‘Downton Abbey‘. This is German TV, it’s late and I need to go to bed.
The hotel breakfast room has brightly coloured anodised bike parts on every surface. Nodding to the local economy and the reason I am here, they fill glass cabinets where you might imagine to see tourist maps and leaflets for local distractions. Hubs hang on strands like garlic above the counter, bar ends and seat post cradles prop up local postcards with the help of a little hidden blu-tac magic. Shortly after breakfast a knock at the door drags me from my shower. Wrapped and damp I answer and a small dog charges in closely followed by a tall wiry brightly coloured man with a warm smile and a good aura. Fast realising this is Uli Fahl, owner of Tune Components I usher him in, mentioning I am not sure about dogs in rooms “It is my hotel, it will be fine” he tells me. Now all the colour and aluminium and carbon and the familiarity makes sense. Famous for his left field approach (typified by his annual Eurobike cycle show stand dioramas and his constant attendance without shoes) I notice that as unorthodox as it might be to wake me up with his miniature dog, he is not barefoot.
Tune components sits in a flat land just below the hills of the western end of the black forest not far from France. It is a simple looking headquarters, plain even, unchanged much over the years by the look of it, I wonder if aero and carbon fibre and outsourcing has passed it by and to what I will find inside. Outside under tarps lay experiments of the past, the electric car/ bike thing, the aero cover for recumbents, possibly Uli’s rocket powered bike knocks about somewhere. This is a company born out of the anodised halcyon days of mountain biking, this lot are my generation but we are not the mods anymore, I wonder how they’re doing as I pass the skips of extruded aluminium waiting for recycling outside. These are metal heads in a plastic world, how are these tech kings of the past holding up in the current insatiable appetite for a new weave?
A laid back and charming pair Harry and Dirk greet and caffeinate me. Harry is made of smiles and enthusiasm, Dirk, more reserved bearded and serious looking. I realise I recognise him from Instagram travels. Rapha clad, cross bike rode, sharp dressed and handy on a bike on the internet fast becomes friendly and interesting in the flesh. Talk is of old bikes, Grafton and Ringle, Kooka, Fat Chance mountain bikes and Rossin road bikes. In tune with stories of the old school we all share a wavelength, or maybe just an age group. Old. Perhaps wise. And now they are here with Uli, one of the last trick anodised aftermarket men standing.
The atmosphere in the machine room has that familiar smell of oil and burning metal. CNC machines spin and cut their way through the morning, bathing in that milk like coolant, occasionally spitting out a familiar shape into blue plastic buckets. Rhythmic and monotonous and noisy but surprisingly watchable the process is repeated all over the room, varying sounds are different shapes being created. An engineer stands over a work bench to the side of one machine with a vernier and a large pad, set square and pencil. To his right a computer silently writing lines of data, important seeming to a non computer person like me because it is green code on a black screen and there aren’t any apps or icons or desktop pictures. I am impressed that he can decipher the screen gobbledegook even talking back to the machine through his fingers with numbers and characters, but I am also surprised and if honest, relieved that he turns to the pad and pencil and measures and draws things out. Not as much perhaps to not trust the machines, but more as a nod to who invented who. It is clearly about a manner of things here, the least weight, enough strength, boldest colours, but this guy is checking and re checking tolerances, by machine, by hand, by eye. I like that. I ride a Tune seat post in one of my bikes and I have never known a post sit so snugly in the tube. It is as if this is what 27.2mm is supposed to measure and the others have played it a micron safe all these years.
Wandering about freely, I take a seat along side one of the guys making hubs. Terrible German rock music punctuating his afternoon. There seems sometimes a kind of simplicity and old fashioned-ness to German popular culture that I find both odd and honest but also strangely open, naive even compared with the cynical always ‘on message’ cool-ness of the UK and US, it’s kind of refreshing. As is a high end bike component being put together with a vice, hammer, a light tap and a keen eye. One by one, by hand they come together. Ingredients laid out in neat rows for each build. Red, black and yellow is assembled into a national flag hub set for some proud punter. I glance over and see the pile already made this morning and wonder if all this hammering and no play will make Jack a dull boy, but he seems content, proud even of taking the same level of care over the 2.45pm one as the 9am one.
I enquire about the carbon production as there is some Tune carbon. It’s off site but it is growing and could come in house. I ask about the wheel sets in the corner and am told they are headed for high end Trek Emonda SL builds. At that level it seems fair to assume they can cut it tech and aero wise. I notice some Caterham etched hubs and carbon rims being assembled and am told they work closely with the other native brands. It becomes clear this is a German thing, which I find at odds with the perception of the ultra competitive German car industry, that often considers it’s only real competition to be it’s fellow countrymen in Stuttgart or Munich or Ingolstadt. Arrogant perhaps, at least there’s clout and talent to back it up in this country. Talent here too yes, but this seems so different an approach. As I travel around this country, again and again they seem to value each other’s strengths and work with them, together, rather than be fearful or challenging. True German unification perhaps.
So carbon is here, but there is no doubt the main stay is metal. Is all this aluminium tech too old tech though? Are they hanging on a colourful wing and a prayer against the black art of carbon? The feeling here is upbeat. I wonder if that ought to be because they were one of the last to survive the wide sweep of the XTR aftermarket upgrade boom and the natural swing away from a garish nineties toward a more sophisticated and seemingly grown up industry shift into a new millennium that carved away so many of the bright coloured drilled young things of the golden years. And still they survive. If you want (as many still do) some super light and German strong after market non conformity under your saddle that happens to be co-ordinated apple green, these guys are one of the last. A plethora of colours and you get to know it was made one by one here in the Black Forest. So I wonder if what’s driving Tune forward with a definite look to the past is that they have become the niche in the market that creaked under the over use of the term ‘CNC’ at one point. Perhaps they survived by not changing that much and now reap the benefits. It reminds me that I was once warned not to buy the wide angled viewfinder model when shopping for a Leica M6 rangefinder camera. “No one buys those, you’ll never sell it if you decide to” I was told by the expert. Ten minutes before the end of the auction, the bidding went crazy. So crazy I got my money back on that momentary lapse of financial and photographic judgement and off it went to a new mid life crisis in Scotland. Perhaps when you become one of the the last of few, you get to carve your own path. I would like to think that was true.
Nearing the end of the day, passing the trays of bike parts sorted, Willy Wonka fashion, into colour in order to match parts with the exact same anodised hue just in case they get sold together reminds that how they want to run this place just couldn’t be done by machines really. I am sure it could be done faster and more efficiently, driving up productivity no doubt, but it’s not what it’s about here. The phone call just finished beside me serves as case in point, an order for two wheel sets now to be put together from scratch this afternoon, using hands and eyes and experience and hammers. And a little bit of German soft rock.
As I head out and say my goodbyes I brush passed a pile of logs covered by a tarp and a handful of Lilliputians escape and land at my feet. This familiar scene with it’s micro people and their canoe and crampons and their hiking poles is one small part of that miniature world set up every year at the Eurobike. A bit silly, interesting, cool and a nice change from the slick expensive booths showing you how much faster you’ll be with aero watt saving x, y and z, it reminds that amongst this unassuming building in the middle of nowhere quietly making small numbers for big spenders and taking it all seriously, there beats a heart of fun. That is brave these days, so often it seems you have to get fun signed off before it’s allowed out to play, but not here. In this small corner of the black forest it lives on shelves and in cupboards and hotel receptions. Here they play to a different, colourful, cheeky, fun tune.
First published in Peloton Magazine.
©Augustus Farmer 2015.