Next time you’re passing an over-stocked bank of bikes, at a train station say, why not pause for a moment and take a glance at a few of their downtubes. You will, almost certainly, spot at least a couple bearing the immediately recognizable Reynolds 531 decal. It’s a sticker that evokes a certain heritage and great British manufacturing tradition. The company recently celebrated its 120th birthday.
When Rouleur first began thinking about the Cycling Hall of Fame trophy it was all of this that we had in mind. We knew we wanted something that would simultaneously speak to timelessness and represent the grand history of this magnificent sport. The Hall of Fame is, after all, about celebrating those riders whose achievements and contributions have stood the test of time. Who better than Reynolds to deliver the physical symbol?
Reynolds immediately recognized the potential of the project, pointing to the connections between the company and our first two inductees: “Eddy Merckx had won Tours de France on Reynolds tubing,” says Keith Noronha, Reynolds’ Managing Director. “Of course,” he adds, “Beryl Burton herself would have used Reynolds in her career.”
What Rouleur would mea culpa to overlooking – and we’re probably not alone in this – is that Reynolds acquired their status as an iconic brand by being first and foremost an innovator.
The Birmingham-based brand were pioneers of a process which meant people no longer had to choose between strong and lightweight bicycle frames. At 80 years-old 531 might have been around so long as to be Hall of Fame-worthy in its own right but, Noronha points out, when it was launched it was “way ahead of its time and even now is considered a leading edge material.”
He is keen to stress that while the Reynolds is now “much smaller than it was back in its heyday of the 1960s”, when almost every UK bike builder was using their 531 tubing, it would not still be around at all if they hadn’t kept pushing forward: “Research and development is fundamental to what we do.”
When Rouleur initially approached them with a tubing-based concept for the award, Reynolds responded by proposing an alternative that was, to say the least, a world away from the traditions with which they’re most commonly associated.
“Reynolds had been doing a lot in 3D printing and what we thought was, I wonder if we could use some of our technology that we’re using on titanium drop-outs and other things like that to create something that couldn’t be done in a conventionally machined way?”
The eventual design that the parties settled upon, the Möbius strip – a surface which, when modelled in three dimensions, has a single side and only one boundary – certainly satisfied that requirement. More than merely providing a problem that only 3D printing can solve, the shape communicates a sense of continual motion and, therefore, timelessness.
As Noronha patiently explains, the 3D printing process creates the object by building up layers of metal powder, fusing it into place using the concentrated power of a lazer. In this case, partly as a nod to Reynolds’ heritage, rather than printing the trophies in futuristic titanium, the decision was made to go with stainless steel.
Lazers obviously require a lot of energy, but 3D printing is nonetheless a very efficient process. This is partly due to the method of building up the item rather than cutting down, which leads to less wasted material.
“The original way that aircraft parts were made, you’d take a block of, say, a kilo of metal… say and end up with a part that’s only going to weigh 100, 150 grams, because of the shape. You’ve wasted the rest of it which you have to throw back into the recycling, and re-melt it back into use.”
Noronha says producing metal items this ways versus traditional methods is “like an LED lightbulb compared to the original filament lamps.”
It is not, however, cheap. Nor is it speedy. Noronha says the printing alone took “70 hours per award”. Then there was the polishing and mounting and delivery of each one just in time for the ceremony which took place at Rouleur Classic on November 1st.
Unsurprisingly, for now at least, this method of manufacturing bike parts is restricted to small quantities and limited to the higher end of the market.
“That’s probably why we’ve still kept going, because we’ve chosen a particular area of the bicycle industry where the enthusiasts tend to understand what they’re trying to do… We know that we’ve got a very high-end clientele around the world for whom cycling is a passion and they understand what goes on at that end of the world.”
3D printing might look from the outside like a step change, a world away from Reynolds’ roots. Noronha, rejects this suggestion. He is clear that “matching the old to the new,” reimagining ways of working with traditional materials, is “actually an extension of what we have been doing for the last 100 years.”
Just as Reynolds 531 tubing continues to be ridden decades after it was made, Reynolds knows that its customers expect any new products they purchase to have the same sort of longevity, to be sure that “if I buy this, I’m not going to throw it away within a few years.” This mindset should be enough to prevent Reynolds from straying too far from what it was that built their reputation.
At the same time Noronha knows full well that the company simply could not have survived as long as it had if it had relied entirely on former glories:
“It’s great to have that brand and heritage and recognition but the way you keep a company going and keep it going forwards is you keep looking at what’s happening and hopefully make the right decisions about what you can sell in the future.”