Think of Reynolds and most will instantly think of 531, the tube of choice for racing bikes over countless years and not to mention the numerous tour wins that were gained aboard this cro-moly steel pipe. Since 1958 up until the modern day, the Reynolds butted tubeset has dominated the roads, Anquetil, Merckx, and Hinault all used Reynolds exclusively in their Tour victories. Now there’s an accolade.
I was recently lucky enough to be offered a bit of time to walk around the Reynolds factory and to have a quick chat with the MD about all things Reynolds and what came clear at my 45 minute mini tour was that Reynolds are still as passionate about the metal tube as they have always been. I may sound surprised at this but I really was, I honestly thought I’d be greeted by super high tech billion pound machines churning out carbon for motorbikes but what I actually saw looked like it hadn’t changed since Reynolds began in 1898.
You enter the building at the front and instantly to your left are two big posters, one of Lemond and the other of Hinault, both pictured astride Reynolds tubed bikes and both no doubt on their way to victory. I feel like I have come home, the smell of man handled Steel reminds me of my time spent as a trainee framebuilder in my younger years.
Sat in an office waiting for my host I am surrounded by frames and memorabilia, a beautiful top end Steel Masi frame in luscious gold sits alongside an Aluminium downhill frame, rear shock and all, there to show the possibilities of their special materials. A Picture on the wall of the founder hangs shoulder to shoulder with the original 1898 patent for their butted tube. Raleigh jerseys and skinsuits draped over a coat stand, stainless steel forks stood on the floor, leant up against a mystery bonded magnesium road frame with a carbon rear end, on the other side of the table where I sit, a book, the archives. Full of articles, magazine snippets, stickers and posters. Excitement on paper. A different open book dated 1898 with John Reynolds name at the top, and ‘in the chair’. Fascinating.
Here’s something, considering how internationally popular Reynolds is. The actual scale of the operation is amazing, 12 men work in that small factory. 12 men! I expected an army. The building too is very small, no bigger than a school assembly hall, but still full to the brim of old bespoke machinery.
Some of the 12 men seem to have worked there their whole lives. Fred, with big oil stained hands, still content with stretching tubes, as he has done for over 50 years quietly stands there beavering away at his pile of stacked steel, from one machine to another he stretches these tubes from 12” in length and with heavily thick sidewalls to tubes 30” long with super thin sidewalls. Keith the MD said, “He came out of retirement to come back here” such is the family nature of the Reynolds firm.
As I walked around, Keith talked me through the process of tube manufacture, at the beginning, a thick and horrible black metal sausage, then after it has been pulled, stretched, butted and polished it is a glossy, workable tube, ready to be shipped off. A very simple process by the looks of it, hence the need for such a small team, however each man has his job to do and each man does it well, was it not for these dedicated men we would not have the great materials on offer as we do today, and all don’t forget are made right here in the U.K and more importantly to me, down the road from my house.
In the beginning I mentioned 531, most will know about this material but there is so much more to Reynolds’ repertoire. 653, 753, 853, to name but a few and today, the most high tech tube manufactured in this small Hall Green factory; 953. The 953 stainless steel tubeset is apparently the hardest material in the bike industry. Big claim but if what Keith says is anything to go by, I believe him. So very strong and light, tubing such as 953 must first be given out as a prototype to universities, to see if it can actually be used commercially, then the universities will give feedback as to how the material behaves when being handled and constructed. This information once the material becomes available is then passed onto the builders, the people that will be making our bikes, so that it is possible for them to competently build bikes using this super high-end steel tube.
There is very little scrap, tubes are made to order at a length specified by the builder. There is also no stock, as such, well there is a little bit but according the Keith “ this is only for small builders” not small in stature of course but small in scale, they may only need one or two sets per time, not the hundreds or maybe thousands of what a larger cycle manufacturing company would require.
Since the rise in popularity of Aluminium, Titanium and Carbon the wonder material, it’s fair to say that steel has taken somewhat of a dive in interest but throughout this time various builders across the globe have stayed true and continued to use Steel because of it’s wonderful properties for cycling and ease of use when handling and building. Now, and over the past few years it is obvious that the use of Steel is on the increase, good news. Other materials are good, and Reynolds make these too but their Steel has an allure like other, oozing heritage and British heritage to boot, it’s hard to believe but this small factory makes the best stuff in the world. People do want a bike for life and with the proven cycling characteristics of steel a lot of folks go for it. Steel is repairable and recyclable and it just seems more wholesome than the others, longer lasting and strong. I also love the fact that I could get my frame material (953 of course) from Birmingham and have Brian Rourke in Stoke or Lee Cooper in Coventry or Trevor Jarvis in Worcester build it for me to my specifications. Great, I can get my bike for life made locally.
My time at Reynolds was very brief and I would have liked to have stopped a little while longer to maybe speak with the workers but alas it was lunchtime and they had their mind on sandwiches and cups of tea. Keith however was very kind to make time for me during their busy day, constantly communicating with other countries and trying to balance the differences in time zones, he had also just returned from representing Reynolds at a selection of trade shows around the world but now he is back, he says “it’s time for real work”.
Big thanks to Keith Noronha and Reynolds for being such lovely hosts and may you continue to supply the world with high quality cycle frame materials from your small Birmingham based factory for many years to come.
Tags: 531, 653, 753, 853, 953, birmingham, bonded, britain, carbon, classic, factory, heritage, lugs, magnesium, manufacture, raleigh, reynolds, spinwell, steel, ti, tube investments, uk, vinatge, visit, writing