Brooks Factory Visit
Brooks is a name that stands alone as a legend in cycling. The word legend is easily tossed about, kind of like the word epic, but in some cases, the word does in fact fit the subject. In this case, it's no exaggeration or cliché to call Brooks England a legend. The company builds a product that is designed to not only stand the ravaging test of time, but stand as a beacon of refined style on your bike. They're not for everyone, but for their devout followers, they’re what truly remarkable saddles are all about.’
The company, which got its start in the 19th century, has been producing some of the finest saddles the sport has ever known. John Boultbee Brooks established his eponymously named company on Great Charles Street in Birmingham in 1866. One hundred and forty-four years later, the company creates 800 to 1000 saddles a day, in 20 different models, just a few miles from where it all started. It's nowhere near the jaw-dropping productivity of the 1950s, when a workforce of 1,5000 sold more than 55,000 leather saddles and 25,000 mattress saddles per week! The company's saddles were under each and every major rider for years in the first half of the 20th century. While the years have marched on since then and overall sales have dwindled, the Brooks name has only grown in acclaim.
We had the opportunity to visit Brooks England in November at its factory in Smethwick on the outskirts of the capital of the Industrial Revolution, Birmingham. The current factory lies in a nondescript, hard used industrial area on the outskirts of Birmingham. It's almost comforting to see it in such a place. It is Birmingham after all. The inside was no less perfect in its industrial feel – the brick building houses a menagerie of machines, processes, and workers, who all combine to make not just a saddle, but a story, and a bit of living history.
I have to admit that before our visit to Brooks, I knew little of the company. I race bikes, so Brooks's sister company, Fizik through its new owner Selle Royal, was always more familiar to me: Of course, some would say that it's sacrilegious to even mention the two companies in the same sentence, but whether you like it or not, they're now in the same family. I always felt like Brooks was the saddle of the aficionado, which I'm most especially not. I thought of it as a saddle above my class, and for the price, it certainly is, but visiting Brooks is not a visit to an upper class, frou frou place. It's blue collar through and through.
A lot of our time with Brooks was spent redefining how I saw this respected name. I went from never even considering the idea of putting one of their saddles on my bike to wondering, how good are they, really? I guess there's a reason why people will ride the same saddle for 50 years. I doubt that my current saddle will be around then.
Birth of a Saddle
The factory floor is roughly divided into two sections – metal and leather. Correspondingly, each saddle starts as a coil of metal wire and a big chunk of leather. It's pretty amazing to watch a saddle come to life from such basic materials. To say that the chain of events that goes together to create a Brooks saddle is extensive is putting it mildly. Large, Willy Wonka-esque machines stand as sentries all across the main factory floor, all seemingly impossible to operate until the right employee walks up and makes magic.
It's not all operation of heavy machinery to create a Brooks saddle though. The production process is equal parts aging, but well-oiled and maintained machinery, as well as skilled handwork. It's a delicate line that is well-trodden by Brooks.