The British don’t tend to shout about things they’ve achieved. Not so much these days anyway. There’s a deep sense of a fall from grace about this little island and in some ways it’s justified. For better or for worse, we were a powerful nation built on ingenuity and confidence in our ability to design, build and make the best products in the world. On so many levels this has dissolved leaving both a tortured memory and a bitter taste. Bits of our past glory remain, with small pockets of successful high-level manufacturing. However, despite these pockets there is a general acceptance that to produce large quantities of good quality items affordably, one just can’t do that in the United Kingdom. Hope doesn’t believe this and the day I visited, in the northern village of Barnoldswick they intended to show me why.
Pulling up at the house of Hope is different from most of the British bike factories I’ve visited. It’s kind of American, at least in scale. Huge in presence and neat in appearance, you would never think a jewel of the British bicycle industry resided in this modernised mill that looks like the headquarters of a trendy media company. It’s just too neat, too gentrified, too American to be a British engineering workshop. However, given the company’s ethos, its founders and the workers who make their living here, it is appropriate.
Hope’s raison d’etre isn’t a secret but they don’t tend to brag about
it. As I’ve said that’s a very British thing, particularly up here in the north. There is advertising of course, but it doesn’t seem to overexpose the people behind the products. It’s humble, product focused and that’s admirable and honest even, but it’s also a bit of a shame. There is something deeper here, something to be really proud of. It’s an ethos – a progressive and honourable one at that. Now having visited Barnoldswick, it isn’t enough that the people I meet out on the trails understand the quality of Hope, for me it feels relevant they should have a grasp of the importance of what’s being done inside the factory’s walls. Hope will tell you that their priority is on the product, but treating employees well seems to be of high importance too.
A hot northern mug of tea and greeting awaited me on arrival in the gallery space within the foyer downstairs. Old products filled the cabinets and retro bikes mingled amongst cutting- edge products in a waiting area accented with furniture made of bike parts. A nice film about the company played along side a semi-permanent exhibition of work by various cycling photographers I call friends. I already felt at home as Hope co-founder Ian Wetherill escorted me into the business in both a physical and ideological sense with a chat as we walked onto the factory floor.
That ideology is prevalent. I always heard that the Hope guys lived it, but it was clear immediately this was a soulful establishment. It’s not on a plan to grow and sell out either. “We’ve had offers,” Ian told me. “But I couldn’t sell the place, it’s part of us all. I see Hope like a family business, to be handed down and carry on that way; I’d rather wind it up than sell it out, I reckon.”
Starting my tour in the corridors and boardrooms of this huge building, I immediately think of two things; how did they afford to renovate such a beautiful old mill so lavishly? and why have they got so many home branded bikes knocking about the place? They’re on walls or in corners of every bit of the factory.
This ethos is the lifeblood of Hope. As much as a desire to produce things here in the UK and wanting those things to be world-class, I got the impression that looking after people is what it’s really all about. It’s not a faceless company that happens to make great disc brakes with a transient staff. Quite the contrary. Every member of the team gets his or her picture taken and put on the wall in the foyer, from the directors to the mechanics, they’re all here. A face to a name and every face gets a company bike or two, along with a weekly ride to take it on. There is even a mechanic to fix it. That’s a pretty un-British thing to do.
I kept having to look out of the window to remind myself we were’nt in Portland, Oregon, drinking smoothies and having a creative session by a pool table.
We moved into the machining floor and I asked about the building. Turned out it was an old mill completely renovated by a printing firm, which pretty much laid it out how a bike component company would need if a little more lavishly perhaps. They went bust about the time Hope were looking to move. “It was a bargain, really,” Wetherill says. A right place at the right time sort of thing, Ian implied. “It was just an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.” This place was noisy and smelly and industrious like any machine shop, but this one was also really clean. In fact, it was kind of sterile. “We invested a lot in having a closed system of lubricants for the machines, so people don’t have to come into contact with them,” said Wetherill. It’s better for the process, but mainly it’s nicer for the people that have to live that process day in day out. There was also a policy of buying the best quality lubricants that are a lot more money per litre compared with standard stock. A better decision all round—for the machines, the process and the people.
I’m sure this kind of operation is commonplace in the America or Japan, but here in England we tend to do things a little differently. This clean, tidy, efficient, productive, happy and prosperous industrial environment is somewhat of a rarity. As historic as they are in the annals of UK mountain biking, Hope constantly seems unconcerned by traditional thinking. ‘Why can’t you make things here?’ With local craftsmen and women, out of local materials, and all in house? Well, Hope has proved it can be done and it’s worked. That level of thinking, that initiative, that confidence is what’s got £12 million of Japanese CNC machines working round the clock to create pedals, headsets and rotors, with no apparent mess. It’s a matter of belief and it’s infectious. The people manning the machines believe in it. I felt there was pride here. Not the usual British pride of what once was, but pride in what is and will be.
I was astounded to see the level of attention going into every stage with of the processes. Cutting-edge technology and hand-eye coordination mixing at the highest level and each finding its place on the factory floor, from the incredible 5-axis CNC machines silently performing their choreographed moves behind closed doors to
the unbelievably manual process of heat-treating every single disc rotor. Polishing is taken care of by nature though. Across the room, ground walnut shells are used as a fine dust to make dull metal shapes very shiny. They are much less impacting on the environment than the horrific polishing chemicals used in bigger facilities in the Far East, but also safe for the human that has to interact with the process all day long. It’s best practice again. I saw a kind of dual thought process here too though, when it comes to the industrial stages. From the recently brought in-house anodising experience to the production of the little aluminium pucks and the extraction of the waste lubricant from within them, there is a kind of balance with nature and employees. It pays to be recreating through waste rather than simply discarding it. It is again best practice, with a long- term vision. I am sure it would be cheaper to discard than invest in yet another process of recycling, but I felt at Hope that simply wasn’t an option. If it was better practice for the process and the people involved, then wasn’t only the better option, it was the only option.
I looked across to see a prototype seat post attached to a jig being put through a thousand rides in one day and Ian explained to me that new product development was usually born of necessity at Hope. “If we need a product for one reason or other, we make it for ourselves. We can, so we do. And what usually happens is we like it, and we make it for everyone else, too.” This was true of the new pedals, bars and jockey wheels … and then, by the looks of it, seat posts. It was a reminder that as big as they are and as inspirational and limitless as their thinking could be, Hope still has a small company ‘can do’ approach and hasn’t lost that ability to get a product to market pretty fast. Making pretty much everything in-house, from nipples and bearings to bolts, means they can control both design and quality and it’s quality control that really blew me away on the next leg of my tour. Every single hub, free hub and axel gets put by hand on a little jig and tiny robots with an array of miniature attachments set about measuring and checking for anything out of tolerance or any tiny flaw that could lead to problems. Anything that does not pass inspection is rejected and heads off to start a new life as an aluminium puck. This process isn’t quick either and it involves a human to guide it all the way through all day, every day. It was impressive to see, incredible to understand.
Seemingly endless corridors led off in all directions. A buzzing maze of activity marked by posters for events and reminders of rides are everywhere punctuating the tidy sterile arteries of the building with smiles and northern good humour. I followed a tea trolley and it’s pilot down one alley and found myself in bike lamp production. Trolley chasing then led me to hub assembly and what I imagined might be robots are people with little pots of grease, brushes, hand tools and wooden worktops. It was more tactile than rustic, but more rustic than automated. Opposite were the hydraulic chaps: two guys that manually filled your hose lines using a pump, a finely tuned arm and what looked like zero mess. It was a similar action to pulling a pint in a pub I noticed and they’re very good at it, but then this is the north and they do beer up here much better than they do where I’m from down south. That is one thing they’ll happily brag about too. Anyone from the south will tell you that.
With the tour nearly complete, back in the gallery I passed a faux Starbucks for a cuppa break by the – yup, there is one – pool table. Seattle twinned with Barnoldswick perhaps. I then met Ian’s family readying a hundred-odd goody bags under the company Christmas tree. It was the night of the staff Christmas ride and it would end up back at HQ to a hamper for each and every member of the team. A nice thing to do, done for nice people by nice people. Above everything else I saw there that day, that touched me the most. I left feeling a need to share my experience here. Not so much an evangelical headset epiphany as just a feeling of pride in some modern British achievement. Now that’s worth shouting about. But being from southern England, I’ll probably politely whisper it instead.