Way back, in Issue 1 of Singletrack Magazine, we interviewed Michael Bonney. As friends, family, and the industry mourn his passing, look back fondly as he takes a guess, in 2001, at how mountain biking will develop.
From the depths of deepest West Yorkshire, a Victorian factory building is alive with the hiss of welding torches and the sounds of huge machines bending great sheets of aluminium into odd shaped tubes and even the odd filing cabinet. 3500 British-built mountain bikes pour out of these factory gates each year, for this is the UK manufacturing hub of Orange Mountain Bikes. In the short time of the company’s existence, they have already been hailed as one of the great British bike manufacturing success stories. We drove North, and then North some more to meet the man responsible for travelling the world, selling Orange Bikes. Michael Bonney
Orange exist in two places at once, earning themselves the rare and prestigious honour of two entries in the Cyclist’s Sourcebook. The manufacturing centre is Halifax in West Yorkshire. This is the down to earth centre of operations. Bikes are bent, welded, scrubbed, polished and painted there. A prefab’ corrugated trading estate residence belies the lines of droolsome frames hanging to dry on rack after rack. We’ve been there and seen all that, though and this is not the hiding place of our interviewee.
The secret, back-room world of Orange is Penrith in Cumbria. This is the political centre of the company. This is where the decisions are made. Next year’s designs and designs for the year after, are drawn up here. All top secret of course. No chance of a peek. No, we had to venture even further afield to find our man. We had the directions. Just off the M6 at Shap, up the road for a few miles and there you are. It sounded innocuous enough.
The name is olde worlde, conjuring up images of, er, well sheep mostly. Famous for being the highest point of the M6 but also the only motorway service station to be listed in the Egon Ronay good food guide. At 1200 feet up this is one of the most weather disrupted stretches of motorway in the country and true to form it was snowing heavily. We pulled off at junction umpteen and followed signs for Back Of Beyond. We looped down and under the snaking M6 and headed up across the moors. Up and up some more. This was open moorland and the last of the day’s light was fading fast. Scenes from American Werewolf in London kept our minds alert. ‘Stay arf t’ moor. Keep t’ road’. Easier said than done on a snow covered road with far too many off camber bends in a turbo Mini with about as much traction as an ice hockey puck.
It was dark when we pulled up in the Bonney drive. There was no movement from within but there was from the pitch black field at the back of the house. Two shadowy figures walked towards the car, avoiding the glare of the headlights. A familiar Geordie twang broke the silence. “Ah, so you made it then?”
Inside. Boots off. Upstairs to the kitchen? Sitting round the kitchen table, tape rolling we started with the obvious opener…
SINGLETRACK: So, er, what exactly do you do at Orange?
Michael Bonney: I make the tea at 11 o’clock and sometimes at 2 o’clock too.
SINGLETRACK: Hmm. OK so how long have you been making tea at Orange?
MB: 6 years, 3 months
SINGLETRACK: And what did you do before that?
MB: What haven’t I done? Er.. financial services, lab technician. I ran my own bar for a while. Er.. what else…. Oh yeah! I worked for the MOD. Made rocket motors for a while. Not really a common link is there.
SINGLETRACK: Er no. Such a list would suggest that it isn’t complete yet. Any other plans?
MB: Ah well, with Orange there is always a new challenge. Something new to go do. For me it’s always been about doing what I want to do. Up until 6 years ago I had never really done what I wanted to do. There’s really no limits to what you can achieve at Orange.
SINGLETRACK: When you are not riding bikes what else do you do?
MB: Sailing, windsurfing, just get outdoors whenever I can. Er.. I’m a bit of a Mac enthusiast too.
Chipps: Really! Have you ordered your G4 powerbook yet?
Yeah, well. At this point I felt it was time to take a short break while Chipps and Michael rambled on about Macs and the merits of transparent plastic. Not really a problem since Michael also took this as an opportunity to demonstrate his skills as a barista with his fancy coffee machine.
MB: Latte? Espresso? Cappuccino?
One tray full of life-giving brown liquid later and at a suitable pause in the anorak computer discussion, I butted in to let the tape roll once more.
SINGLETRACK: Sorry to interrupt but how do you see mountain biking developing in the next 5 years?
MB: I think mountain biking as a sport has levelled off. You see less and less people on the trails now. There are fewer new people coming into it. There are still niches there and you will see more free riding and people just getting out and riding their bikes for fun. They probably won’t call themselves mountain bikers. I mean I don’t classify myself as a mountain biker. I ride bikes. I enjoy road riding and just about anything else on a bike. That market probably won’t be served by the major companies because they will be too slow getting into it. It will be niche companies like Orange that do well.
SINGLETRACK: What do you think will be the next big innovation in mountain biking?
MB: Simply bikes that will be easier to ride. Gear systems and brake systems will really improve. I also believe electric bikes will produce some interesting developments.
SINGLETRACK: A lot of bikes are starting to use carbon fibre as a frame material. What do you think about that?
MB: Personally I don’t think it’s the right material for bikes. Aluminium works well. It’s easy to work with and you can build different designs and modify them easily, whereas with carbon you have to create a mould every time you build something new.
SINGLETRACK: If you have seen all of next year’s stuff already, is there anything that still gets you excited about mountain biking?
MB: Just riding my bike. I suppose the Manitou test camp in Arizona is great. I go there and get the chance to play with all of next year’s forks [in January…]
SINGLETRACK: Is there still a craft in bike designing and speccing or is it just a compromise of cost?
MB: It depends on the cost of the bike. The cheaper end bikes are specced to a price but our top end bikes are specced with exactly what we all would ride. If you look in my garage now you’ll see a bike with Race Face cranks, Hope discs, Continental tyres. Exactly the same spec as our top of the range bikes.
SINGLETRACK: Tell us about your involvement in NEMBA? [The seminal Northern race series that took place during most of the ‘90s]
MB: I was involved from the start in organising events. Back then every rider had to enter XC, DH and trials and all on the same bike. Saturday morning trials. Saturday afternoon DH. No practice. XC on the Sunday. When I started with Orange I had no time to carry on doing that.
SINGLETRACK: Them were the days eh?
MB: Aye. Kids nowadays…
SINGLETRACK + MB: ……
SINGLETRACK: Where is the most exotic place your job has taken you?
MB: Phoenix, Arizona on a little stretch of singletrack I now know very well. In just 15 square miles there is just an amazing amount of good tracks.
SINGLETRACK: What’s the scariest thing you have ever done?
MB: Crashing a big motorbike. I stuffed it into a dry stone wall. Then there was the time I was on the back of Simon Kipling’s tandem. He was one of the top young downhillers at the ‘92 Malverns. I was attached firmly to the back of his tandem and ended up with the handlebars twisted round sideways as I tried to steer and brake when I had no controls. That is the fastest I have ever gone downhill.
SINGLETRACK: A little closer to home then. If you could only ride one trail in the UK where would it be?
MB: Ambleside. The route that goes out into Loughrig Terrace, out then over the top. I can’t remember the names of all the tracks. It’s a 2 hour ride with absolutely everything. Rocky, technical stuff, rolling stuff, big views and a tea shop half way round. If I had only one ride left to do, that would be it. I don’t think there is any better riding anywhere.
SINGLETRACK: What bike would you ride on that trail?
MB: Sub5 of course.
SINGLETRACK: Does everyone who works at Orange ride?
MB: There are probably a few in the factory who don’t, but on the whole I don’t think you can work in an industry like cycling and not ride. You have to have an enthusiasm for it. You have to want to do it.
SINGLETRACK: Is there any real money left to be earned in the cycle industry?
MB: There are a few people who make a lot of money. At the end of the day we all have to make money. Kids often ask us why the bikes are so expensive, but we all have to get paid. Unless you are a journalist. Then you just do it for the love of it.
Interview done and farewells spoken, we set off into the snowy night once more. The air was still and the sky crystal clear. Unpolluted by the glow of urban night-life, we stood for a minute staring up at the incredible mass of stars that are usually hidden to us townies. Despite the darkness, the moonlight was enough to highlight the hills and the trails that lay beyond. Take away the fence and all this would be Michael’s back garden. Earlier he had spoken about enthusiasm for the job and the need to want to do it. Just then, before we drove off to battle once more with the M6, we caught a glimpse of just where much of the Bonney enthusiasm must come from.
Next time we’ll come in the daylight armed with bikes. But first we need a hand pushing the Mini off the ice…