“Royce Engineering, good morning…”
“Hi, It’s Gus here, I emailed you about coming down to take some pictures in my photographic tour of the bike industry, I’m just checking it’s still ok to pop over tomorrow?”
“11 stone I reckon. Yes, 11 stone bang on”.
“I beg your pardon?…”
Pulling up to the front gates of Shimano or Campagnolo, is something a cyclist will savour. A grand affair. Shimano probably have robotic door centrys that usher your car into a reserved space. Perfectly measured for the right amount of visitors, I imagine the car park to have no mess. Nothing out of place, nothing superfluous. No unnecessary street furniture, no confusing road markings, definitely no skips. All clues to the Japanese-ness that awaits you inside the no doubt clinical looking cathedral of efficiency. A stark reminder that you are just a human after all and inside this home of formula and function, your chainset is being engineered to tolerances so above whatever you as a mere organic being can push it to you’ll always be reminded, it is still, quite a lot about the bike.
Pulling up to the entrance of their counterparts in Vicenza, the romantic in me imagined this could perhaps be a sensuous affair of classical columns, roman statues and waterfalls washed into the palette with the aroma of Italian food and the soundtrack of that wonderfully evocative language. I imagined it to have a car park full of beautiful cars. Really beautiful cars in that way that the Italians can make anything look beautiful if they try, even if it’s a five grand car that the rest of the world would style with a ruler and an accountant. I imagined inside to be full of Italian ness like big dining tables with noise and teenagers on scooters. Chaos, charm, flare and design all making their own passionate ways into the chainsets and shifters and mechs coming out the other end of the factory. All reminding you that you are just a human being and really the important bit of your super light Super Record chainset isn’t purely the tour winning applied technology, it’s that the carbon looks like it’s made from the finest Italian marble it’s that beautiful. A human made it so beautiful because they could and believed they should, because beauty is important as is the human touch.
Pulling up at the front door of Royce Engineering Ltd in the depths of the New Forest in the south east of England isn’t like that. Firstly you have to find it. Actually, locating a British bicycle component factory often proves both quite difficult and surprisingly similar an experience. The pattern is becoming clear. The middle of nowhere, a faceless industrial estate, then a small sign on the door of a unit behind a skip and nowhere to park.
Hearing voices, I knocked at the door and a huge shutter was hoisted in front of me like the curtains in the Wizard Of Oz. A man behind, presumably the wizard, stood holding the chains of the shutter mechanism and ushered me in quickly before what little heat is inside escaped into the freezing winter morning outside. “I said you were 11 stone, yes, bang on 11 stone I thought. Not often wrong on that front. Not far wrong anyway. It’s all in the tone and projection of the voice you see. You can tell a lot about a person just from their voice on the telephone”. I have just met Cliff Polton, founder and CEO of Royce Engineering, manufacturer of arguably the best and without doubt the shiniest bicycle bottom brackets and hubs on the planet. It was a fitting introduction to what I was about to find out over the following few hours. He is a charming and interesting man with a fascinating brain I became sure you could charge for a tour of.
After elevenses (it was supposed to be breakfast but I got lost) I was shown around. The first thing I noticed was how small the place was. Or rather, how full it was. There was hardly room to manouver between the incredible collection of heavy engineering machinery, piles of bike parts, engine parts, wheels of all descriptions, the odd frame and a lot of pedal cars. Cliff lives engineering, and he loves it. He loves bikes, but he really loves pedal cars. They inhabited all corners of his machine shop. Bonnets and wheels and chassis wedged into nooks and crannies. A line of them hung from the ceiling like exhibits in an aircraft museum. Prototypes and historic winners all waiting to be recalled into service in the ongoing series of pedal car races Cliff so excitedly talks about with the kind of passion any privateer speaks of their motor racing exploits when someone asks them about racing?
Moving through the narrow paths that cut between the huge industrial machines that whirr and spin and cut and spit and bleed to turn awkward lumps of metal into shiny bundles of joy, we started the tour at the bathroom. Partly because I was busting for a pee, but mainly because that is where the wall of fame begins. Cliff talked me through the history of Royce’s successes in various torn out magazine articles and adverts, autographs of Olympians and signed snapshots of huge sporting events with cycling legends just blu-tac’d on a wall as people walk up the stairs to the office. Witnessing this was important to understanding the underlying ethos of Royce Engineering. It’s not about shiny cabinets proudly displaying heritage and achievement. Represented by the pile of staff bikes in the makeshift kitchen, the Saturday boy’s bmx is stacked with the CEO’s commuter – it’s not first class and steerage. There’s no MD parking space with a new 7 series in it and a bike shed for everyone else. There wasn’t a bike shed for anyone, there was a pile of tatty commuters that they had to lean across to fill up the kettle. It’s so down to earth, it could’ve been anyone’s garage. Conversations between Cliff and Chris Boardman during that Olympic era stuck awkwardly out from the wall as we walked into the machine shop. I was alerted to the Nicole Cooke corner before we moved on. “This amazing young girl wrote to me at the age of 12 saying she was going to win the Olympics and would I help her get there. How could you not back such incredible aspiration?” So they did. And she did. “And we became good friends.” On the one hand Cliff is so efficient and logical, you get the impression he may well communicate directly with the CNC machines in pure binary such is his intense engineering thought process. Then he highlights the important part of the Cooke saga, that they became good friends. He is an incredible engineer. A man that can talk to robots and understand what they say back to him. But he’s also a really really nice guy if you’re a human.
The thing I noticed about the machine shop and in fact is true of many of the smaller companies I have visited, is how happy the few employees appeared. Given that this work environment is usually freezing, smelly, noisy and dingy with the air thick with a mixture of oils and chemicals and metal and probably worse, there is so often also an feeling of beaing upbeat that you’d be hard pushed to find in any corporate workplace. Is it stoicism given the somewhat harsh nature of the hard physical work involved in working metal in near zero temperatures? I asked Robin, one of the engineers with his fingers millimetres from certain doom at the pointy end of a very fast and loud machine “No, we love it here. I wouldn’t change this for a nice clean, warm office for anything.” Similar answers ping back as I probe round the maze of men and machines. “It’s like being allowed in your garage all day long” one chirped. – And he had a point.
Another pattern that became clear as I have walked around these various machine shops is the age of the machines. Here there were cutting edge computer controlled devices that no doubt cost tens of thousands of pounds and could send a rocket to moon if you used a different set of co-ordinates, but there was also a backbone of those machine’s forefathers. Big, heavy and not just professional but industrial. Built in a time cliché but true, the built to last era. Built to be rebuilt and fixed rather than disassembled and scrapped. “This one’s my favourite” Cliff told me proudly as he patted it on the back like a pet. “She has been milling aluminium since the mid fifties and she’s not going anywhere soon”. Partly I imagined because ‘she’ weighed about three tonnes by the looks of it. But in an age where over and over we see the analogue get chucked out to make room for the digital and in doing so loose a whole quality in favour of efficiency (read cheapness), it’s reassuring to see that there are still areas where plastic comes up against iron in a game of stone paper scissors and doesn’t win.
The polishing room felt like a quiet retreat away from the hum and thrum of the machine shop downstairs. I was sure it’s very noisy when alive, but that day stacks of polishing wheels sat dormant. All shapes and sizes and states of wear. This must have been where the hubs and chainrings came for a spruce up I thought. The hub and chainring makeover of hub and chainring makeovers. I figured they would leave looking a million dollars. How on earth do you get things that shiny I asked? Thousands of little polisher mice that work round the clock with tiny cloths to get into all the nooks and crannies? “How did you guess?” Cliff Laughed. I met the man with the skills of a thousand tiny polisher mice on the way out and guess what? He loved his shiny things job.
There’s something so impressive about those IBM Clean Room like factories where Bugattis or space rockets are produced. They display such function and precision, such sterility. They lend themselves to a similar way of documenting. A sterile, symmetrical white light type of photography uncluttered by people or life or tea stains. I love seeing those places. I love photographing them. You can’t help but be impressed or try and remove yourself from the equation and reflect that sterility in images. You get swept up in the autonomy somehow. This place and those like it are the absolute antithesis though. There’s a different kind of awe in a place like this, a magic in fact. Having a tour of a workshop is like discovering a treasure map on a desert island. Prototypes and failures hide in corners, uncovered and recovered. Discovering a pile of raw titanium billet under a canvas tarp, I wondered what each lump would become? Where would it go to live? Who would be it’s owner? It was like one of those barn finds you read about, where a farmer finds the rarest sports car ever built languishing under some chicken coops in the corner of his uncle’s tractor shed. Every box in this place had potential gems in it to a bike nerd like me. There was real soul in every corner. They could move to a bigger cleaner more modern and heated unit somewhere on a newer more populated industrial estate, and could make the same beautiful hubs in an equally shiny finish, no doubt in a more efficient way, but it feels like they would lose that vital ingredient they had in oodles at Royce, soul. It’s a term bandied around too easily and too often without qualification by various industries – soul, as if it’s a birthright for a company to claim if they’ve been around long enough to know, but real, meaningful soul is depth. A warmth that you can’t measure, but you can kind of taste in the air of a workshop like this. It’s been thought up, lived through, broken, reborn, broken again and polished to within a micron of it’s life. Soul is either there or it’s not, it’s as simple as that. No one at Royce would be crass enough to suggest what they do is soulful, but that’s the point. You aren’t cool if you think you are, just as you’re probably not that soulful if you consider yourself to be. You just are or you aren’t. And this lot are. They so are.
It was incredibly cool seeing the lumps of titanium billet go through their various stages on a journey that saw them worked out, loose weight and become shapely polished hubs ready to take on the best the rest of the world can produce. These things were incredible. And what appeared a fairly high price tag for a hub now seemed like a bargain when you witnessed how many hours of machining, polishing, anodising and finishing went into the mix. I wondered how they could make any money on them after seeing the hours of intense labour they go through. But “They’re very popular” Cliff told me. As with so many things cycling, business was good in 2012. While economies fail and whole industries face hardship, most things bike appear healthier than ever.
Back on the machine floor and the tour’s end the tea was topped up and the biscuit stockpile depleted a little further. The dunkers always go first, so I leaned towards the ginger nuts. I asked what the future held for this little operation in the middle of nowhere? More of the same was the general reply. Move forward with their tri face bottom bracket axel (a design borrowed from 1930’s German truck differentials). Mention here of external bb’s was met with a look of utter disgust. “It’s a daft place to put a bearing, out there open to the elements”. Ok, so I didn’t ask if I would be able to buy a Royce external BB anytime soon then, but how about a headset to rival the King? Those super smooth bearings on the front of a bike? “Hmm, maybe one day.” Polished? “Of course”. More shiny things to look forward to then. Before leaving, I asked if there was an ethos at Royce? “Nothing’s ever perfect. Everything can be improved on.” What a good Mantra I thought. I remember thinking I’m not sure you could improve on these chocolate ginger nuts much to be honest, but I got his drift. One thing I can say of all these type of establishments, in fact of the better side of British-ness in general, was a good tea dunking biscuit is key. They do dunk in Italy and Japan don’t they?
For more information on the shiny people of Royce have a look here… Royce Engineering
First published in Peloton Magazine
©Augustus Farmer 2012