We used to have mix tapes. Making a mix tape was an important thing. It could represent a number of things, love, friendship, meditation, company on the road, but it meant something. And it lasted. Now we have playlists. Not quite as romantic or painstaking in their compilation, but admittedly easier and the sentiment is definitely often there.
On visiting them, I imagined from then on I might only buy chainrings from Middleburn. This could have been for a number of valid reasons. Mainly for one though. They had the best playlists I could imagine filling the air went into my drivetrain as it was made. I liked that. It was like they had added soul. And metal. And hip hop. And violins.
As is so often the way in the cycling industry the birthplace of your favourite expensive and treasured shiny bits is in fact a rather pedestrian looking industrial estate in what usually turns out to be, in the middle of bloody nowhere. This lot were no different. And they were also no different in another respect so often the case in cycling, they’re lovely people. After getting stuck behind seemingly endless roadworks and what appeared to be every caravan in Britain attempting to make a solid line from Land’s End to John O’Groats and getting lost twice (I always get lost – often more than twice) I arrived at Middleburn Cycle Components nearly two hours late to a smile, cup of oh so needed tea and cake. It doesn’t get much lovlier than that.
Matt Starey started my tour with a photo album. Old pics of his racing days. Youthful looks, daft haircuts and legendary 90’s race bike after legendary 90’s race bike are all there, in glorious 20 year faded photo print technicolour. “Is that a Specialized Ultimate?” I asked. “Yeah, it’s here” Matt replied keenly. Oh my, this thing was gorgeous. Gorgeous! Black appearance changed in the light to a green and red fade that changed in to a strand of glass like finish in direct sunlight. And it was light. Really light. Light like a modern bike desperately tries but so rarely manages to be. “Is that an old FSR?” I then asked. “That, is the first prototype FSR” Matt told me. “There were two. I had one and I saw Wayne Croasdale at the 93 World’s with the other. I broke it. I sold it. I regret it.” Just like so many of us of a certain mountain biking age, cross country racing (or ‘racing’ as it was known back in 1992) was such a part of mountain bike culture for all of us. So many raced back then. You just turned up to a race on the bike you were riding through the woods with you pals the previous Saturday and there you were a bone fide racer by this Sunday. It was back then that the love of bicycles and the ability to engineer started to come together for Matt.
Those first Middleburn RS1 cranks came at a time of fast, light, aftermarket bling. Probably before bling was a word, I think we’ll call it Pre-Bling. Looking around at the boxes of the most contemporary of crankset designs, the external ‘X-Type’ chainset, it dawned on me that they share so much with the RS1. In fact I’d perhaps describe the Middleburm Crank as the Porsche 911 of the crank world. It started as a classicly simple and beautiful design, evolving gradually with every model number to become ever contemporary in function while retaining it’s classic good looks somehow without ever looking either dated or trivially retro.
Walking through the rows and rows of chainrings all neatly hanging in size and bolt pattern and colour order, I spotted one little stand out green one. 22t. 5 bolt. Compact Drive. “Oh, Don’t ask about that one” Matt said. So I didn’t. I said goodbye to it and move through to the laser etching machine. I learned one thing from the laser etching machine. Laser etching machines are cool. It dawned on me, you could write anything you wanted on these chainrings….”Yeah, I do sometimes” Matt replied. It then dawns on me that I now had laser etching machine envy. We move on. I asked what the machine that looked (and sounded) like a washing machine was. “It’s a washing machine” said Matt laughing. I opened it up and see thousands of little blue stones all smushing round in washing up liquid and every now and then a chainring coming up for air and diving back down into the deep blue scree. This, I learned is the procedure before anodising. They get stonewashed and come out all shiny and clean. You wouldn’t think there are this many stages to getting a lump of metal into a colourful shape and onto your bike would you? But there are, and there are even more. Carol (master of the playlists and personally responsible for the choice of the incredible Joe Strummer solo track warming my earlobes), stood tapping the ramping pins and chain stops into some 50t Hardcoate outers. There was a real sense of everyone doing a bit of everything. More what needed doing at a given time than the ‘it’s not in my job description’ attitude so often found in workplaces.
All the engineers I have met over the years have all had one thing in common, they seem to love their work. I mean really love it. Their anorak level of enthusiasm for designing and drilling and machining is so admirable. How many of us can say we love what we spend so much of our time doing? But these people so often can and do. I was shown with pride the chainring tooth alignment checking tool. It was a chain. But then it wasn’t really a chain. It was a chain that’d been made into something else and it was kind of lovely looking, in that way engineering can make something functional beautiful. The presses that were like huge shiny templates for chainrings were just plain old aesthetically wonderful though. “You could hang these on the wall” I said, half expecting a head to pop round from a CNC machine and say, “I’ve got three in my hallway”. The only sad thing is that the music doesn’t seem to extend this far. I don’t suppose there’s much call for music in a machine shop, but it did feel a little like the engine room of a liner stoking the boilers while the staff upstairs wait on passengers unaware of the beating heart downstairs, all the time to the tune of Roxy Music or the Clash.
Piles of forged cranks sat in boxes awaiting their call up to the CNC machinist. I asked whether Middleburn could offer a Chris King Shaker option for the odd one that doesn’t make the grade? But what could a crank be used for? “Door handles” Matt replied. “There’s a few houses in Surrey with Middleburn RS7 door handles.” I wracked my brain for ways in which I could justify this to architect and designer Sarah. I mean, she had RS8’s on her DeKerf, maybe….? Nope. Move along now, nothing to see here. ‘These are not the cranks you’re looking for.”
As we wandered back into the office, I spied the shiny things cabinet in the corner. Old RS1’s, all green anodised singlespeed chainsets, cobalt blue triples, bolts and all…mmmm. It was like a shiny things cabinet’s shiny things cabinet. “Check out the camo anodised RS7 chainset”, Matt said, “I did that one for myself.” Over £100’s worth of anodising per unit meant it was never going to reach the hands of the public….”but never say never” said Matt with a glint in his eye, “I am thinking of doing some ltd edition special runs…”. Speaking of which, we had reached the goody bag point where I got to go home with a fresh off the press toy to live the anodised dream. We configured my ideal chainset of a modern X Type set up with old school ratios of a road like compact double with in MTB terms, a dinner plate outer, and Matt started building it right there, fresh off the griddle. My very own home made, chainset. Made as we talked, in front of me with added soul. But at that point it wasn’t soul, it was Lynard Skynard. That’ll do for me, I thought. Sweet home Alabama, Sweet hometime Hampshire, thank you.