Chipps catches up with one of the UK’s original mountain bike pioneers, still making waves from his base in North Yorkshire.
Words chipps Photography james vincent
There are still a few veterans from those heady early days of mountain biking in the scene today, but few can claim to have been as influential as Pace Cycles’ Adrian Carter. Pace’s early bikes in the late ’80s with their square aluminium tubes were visually different, but they were also designed as mountain bikes from the ground up – rather than many peer products whose roots could easily be seen in the lugged touring bikes of the time.
Pace designed its bikes to be pure mountain bikes, with dedicated bosses for Magura rim brakes (the strongest brakes known to man at the time) and Bullseye cranks. By producing a one-piece stem and fork steerer, tightening a modified Mavic headset from below, Pace preceded the Aheadset by several years. Even when its later bikes reluctantly became more compatible with the components of the day, the frames still offered a distinctive silhouette and a long top tube, short stem geometry that was a decade ahead of the times.
On the cusp of the ’90s, Pace produced its first suspension fork, and that momentum carried the brand into the new century, becoming the majority of the company’s business. A surprising sale of the fork designs to DT Swiss caused many diehards to wonder if the company would continue. It did continue though, with design offices and a successful suspension tuning operation in Dalby Forest. Recently, though, Pace pulled out of running both Dalby and Gisburn trail centres, and has seemingly retreated to a corner store in Thornton-le-Dale, just outside Dalby Forest’s tariffed gates. While many might see this ‘retreat’ as a contraction, Adrian and the team at Pace see it more as a chance to regroup and focus on what’s important. And besides, there’s a ton of new stuff in the pipeline.
At first, Adrian can seem a little quiet and reserved, focused to the point of appearing distant or grumpy, but it only means his mind is elsewhere, solving problems and working out what comes next. Once you get him talking, the smiles come easier and the words, well, the words don’t actually stop.
How has the British mountain bike scene changed since you started Pace in the ’80s? Do you think the scene has grown or shrunk? I guess with races no longer being the only place you go to see people – now that there’s the internet and stuff – it just seems that there are fewer riders and events out there, but perhaps everyone is just riding in their own bubble more… What do you reckon?
Well, yeah, everything and nothing. Riding mountain bikes is still all about being a big kid getting out in the dirt with your mates and having fun, no matter the latest style of riding, where we ride, or what we ride. Unless you make your living from riding, is mountain biking really something we should take so seriously? The tech stuff has evolved, of course, and bikes are so much more fun to ride now, much more efficient and reliable, so that’s great. Those old skool bikes were cool, of course, but I kinda view them as I would a classic car or motorcycle – sweet to take out occasionally on a warm sunny Sunday where you soon realise that, as nice as they look, they don’t handle great, don’t stop either, scare the shit out of you at speed, often won’t work, and they leave oil over your garage floor… Progress is often a very good thing.
And I think an industry less ‘race’ led as it is today is a good thing too, because you don’t want to get too twitched up about results-based riding. Like I say, dirt and fun go hand in hand. That’s not to say when we come to our riding we don’t want a few bragging rights – look, I can ride bigger, faster and stronger – but the races of old seem to have now been replaced by Instagram and Strava. But, hey, it’s all still ‘bench racing’ no matter the medium. I guess I lament the passing of those wonderful festival-type events because there’s no better way to share your passion than up close and personal, rather than through your iPhone, but the success of events like ’Ard Rock and Top of the Rock staged by our sister company, Sutton Bank Bikes, still push back against that.
And in terms of the bike industry in the UK. Has it become busier? Quieter? Or more corporate, with a smaller number of bigger players? Is there still a place for a small, independent brand like Pace to make a mark?
Well, if we believe the stats, then yes, there are fewer of us riding. Or at least there are fewer customers. Annual bike sales with one exception (e-bikes) seem to be on a gradual downward spiral and so I’d say if we all want to preserve the sport we love, then make sure the next present you buy for your kids/friends’ kids/big kids is a bike. Not wanting to be too evangelical about it, aren’t bikes rated as one of man’s best achievements? If so, let’s keep them there front and centre.
If Pace can make a contribution to the advancement of riding, then in our company we’re fulfilling one of our main goals. Sure, we’re only a small player, but small is beautiful, right? My family and I have spent years building the Pace brand, but honestly, if I had the choice of taking the business back to the scale it was in the ’90s, I’d say thanks, but no thanks. I’m happy we’re still here as a small independent brand doing our own thing and comfortable with our scale and direction. Want to be a big corporate? Well, knock yourself out buddy – that business model has no place at Pace; I think our customers appreciate the heritage of the Pace brand, but also the personal family firm ethic my wife Cathy and I think is so important.
Honestly, when we were a much larger business churning out a sizeable range of suspension forks it became something of a treadmill and I was happy to sell that part of our product range to DT Swiss. The rollercoaster life of a suspension fork brand is well documented: from RockShox to Fox, Marzocchi to Manitou. I often have a wry smile on my chops watching the ebb and flow of both the designs and the businesses. Of all the sectors of our industry, this particular one is probably the most challenging (in a design and manufacturing sense), and the suspension servicing element of our current Pace business reminds us of the complexities of the product and level of technical support our customers need.
It’s over ten years since we sold the fork portion of our business to DT and still to this day people think we sold Pace as a whole (understandable I guess, given forks represented 80% of the business). At the time I guess I’d lost my mojo and realised that I had been so busy being busy I hadn’t even thought about what was going to be the next stage of our company life.
Getting out of the cycle business altogether wasn’t ever an option and so when both of our daughters, Aimee and Sophie, joined the company, what has followed has been an interesting period of diversification, branching out into cycle/trail centres and setting up two separate concerns: Sutton Bank Bikes and Dalby Bike Barn. It’s been a steep learning curve as we’ve done so and a real challenge, but it’s been fun and a great apprenticeship for our daughters. Perhaps you might say that entering into retail at this point in time, given the move to online buying, wasn’t the best timing for us, but we’re here to give the best technical and service support we can for our customers and in my view there will always be a need for that.
You don’t seem to have had the best luck in your dealings with the Forestry Commission. Care to go into more detail?
Well, yes, I think it’s fair to say it’s been a challenge; perhaps we were a little naive thinking we could make a success of developing a trail centre business when the failures of others throughout the UK have been well documented in Singletrack over the years. But Pace has a long history of creating successful mountain bike events in Dalby Forest going right back to the beginnings of the sport (National Championships, downhill, cross-country, and even hill climb races in the early 1990s), and, along with others, we helped to develop the Dalby trails, so we were confident of success. What we didn’t appreciate, though, was the cultural gulf that exists between a government body such as the Forestry Commission and a commercial operator such as ourselves.
What we were hoping for was a closer working relationship based upon the needs of mountain bikers, expanding and developing events and trails in Dalby and recognising that things have to move forward, continuing to offer what riders want as the sport evolves. Don’t get me wrong – flowing cross-country style trails, family routes and less challenging recreational trails have their place, but that’s not what the majority of experienced riders now want. The success of venues such as Bike Park Wales, the huge network of natural ‘off piste’ trails that riders create in every forest, and the size and scale of the bigger features show what mountain bikers want to ride, and, frankly, we found it frustrating these needs just weren’t being met.
The Forestry Commission helped create the unique UK forestry trail centre model driven by visionaries like Dafydd Davis in Wales back in the ’90s, but, as it stands, unless things change, they’ll also administer its demise. Back then it took a giant leap of faith by the Commission to invest in this new mountain bike thing, but look what a contribution it’s making to local economies and the health and well-being of all of us. What it needs now, I think, is another leap; by creating a bike park sector in each forest and giving over an area of our forests to us, it will allow the development of bigger and better trails to meet our needs. What it doesn’t need is a big brother approach, posting notices requesting riders to stop building natural trails. I think the Forestry Commission needs to get back to listening to what riders want and providing it, otherwise it will kill the goose that laid the golden egg.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t see progress being made any time soon, so Dalby Bike Barn, our trail centre business, simply upped sticks and moved into Thornton-le-Dale, the little village at the gateway to Dalby here in North Yorkshire where we’re able to do our own thing free from any constraint. It’s been our choice and it is something of a gamble, but what now looks like a ‘little corner shop’ is already developing into a Service and Hire centre so we’re happy with that.
What have been the standout Pace Cycles products in your opinion?
I guess the modern headset is one of those products we had a hand in developing back in the late ’80s and our early downhill bikes had some groundbreaking features too; the latest long and low trend featured on our first prototypes 25 years ago. But if I had to choose, I’d say our break away from the traditional round section frame tube to load-dedicated profiles in square and rectangular sections featured on our aluminium RC100 and 200 frames changed the way mountain bikes looked and performed forever. Today most carbon and alloy mountain bike frames combine these shapes to help provide stiffness and strength where required and our new carbon RC425 will be no different in maximising frame shape and section.
Talking of which, the Freefloater suspension system we developed in the early 2000s is one of our most treasured designs and as valid today as it was then, another feature carried over into our prototype RC425. It allows you to create a mechanical means of manipulating the load/travel curve of the rear suspension so the kinematics can be efficient, consistent and reliable. The shock effectively floats between two links and is not directly mounted to the frame; it’s the doubling of links driving the shock that doubles your design possibilities.
What’s next for Pace? I find it hard to imagine you being happy as a corner bike shop in a small town…
We’ve been exploring different product design ideas for some time now, keeping our original principles of diversification across frames, components and clothing. Most are aware of the RC127 and RC129 hardtail steel frame models we’ve been making now for a few years, but soon we’ll be prototyping a pair of carbon fibre bikes to join them. First up is a UK-focused, mid-travel enduro-style 29er, the RC425, utilising our super-efficient Freefloater rear suspension kinematics housed in a low slung, long and relaxed geometry chassis, designed to accommodate 2.5 to 2.6in width tyres in a full carbon frameset. We’ve been working on this product for some time now and hope to start cutting material for the mould within weeks.
Alongside that is a new gravel bike we’ve dubbed the RC700 Super Adventure, but there’s not too much I can tell you about that as it’s on our ‘classified product’ list until the middle of the year! Certainly we see ‘adventure’ style cycles growing in popularity, just as they have in the motorcycle market where they account for a significant proportion of total sales. Our sister company Sutton Bank Bikes has already staged its first Gravel Sportive and Dalby Bike Barn will soon follow suit with a spring event based in Thornton-le-Dale.
Just as we have for the past 30 years, we like to have a breadth of products in our range, one of which surfaced 20 years ago – the RC46 stem, one of the first short reach, tough little CNC machined stems available. So two decades on we’ve relaunched the product, brought bang up to date with a 31.8mm reach – the shortest reach available before either the handlebars touch the steerer or the stem has to be a riser design. It’s the first of a number of new products we hope to equip our new bikes with.
Likewise, Pace once had a huge 60-garment range of performance clothing back in the day when we used our cross-country, downhill and trials team riders to develop the products. Aimee and Sophie are creating some new designs, but now, rather than working with our race team, we’ll work with our Pace Ambassadors in product development and expect to have these ready to launch in 2018.
And so it seems that we’ve not heard the last from Pace and perhaps we’ll see a return to the 1990s where you couldn’t move for the things. For now, though, Adrian seems completely content where he is, and where he and his brand are headed.