Ian Bailey takes a trip to Stanton Bikes’ Peak District HQ to talk about steel bikes, the future of British framebuilding and following your dreams.
Words ian bailey Photography Andy Heading
The British bike manufacturing industry has a tumultuous history; once the world leader in both output and innovation, it has fallen on hard times since the mid-to-latter end of the 20th century. Fluctuations in bicycle popularity have influenced the birth and demise of many companies, while others have had to reshape business models and look abroad to survive. Reasons are multiple, but in simplified terms, an increasingly global economy, where foreign production has become more cost-effective and logistically possible, has rendered most UK factories obsolete. Faced with stark survival prospects and unable to compete, the vast majority of manufacturers have left our shores. In turn, benefiting from a new bulk of experience, factories in the Far East have become capable of producing industry-leading standards of workmanship, combining quality with competitive pricing.
Against this backdrop the UK has still maintained a strong, albeit small, presence on the world stage in terms of cutting-edge product development, but even the most passionately patriotic have generally succumbed to the lures of offshore manufacture. While British artisan framebuilders have enjoyed a resurgence this century, many are shed-based sole traders with moderate turnover and little global influence. It’s difficult to envisage a larger outfit bucking the trend, and so when we got wind of an industry rumour that Stanton Bikes was considering moving production back to the UK, it needed further investigation.
Derbyshire-based Stanton Bikes appears to currently occupy the middle ground, still small, boutique, and expensive enough to retain a desirable exclusivity, but with distribution reaching far-flung places, it’s not among the aforementioned small fry. Building a reputation on top-end ‘hardcore hardtails’, it has taken that niche segment and successfully sold it into a continually expanding worldwide market. A beneficiary of skilled Taiwanese welding, it is effectively mass-producing framesets that maintain the perfectionist attention to detail often only provided by custom outfits.
Dan Stanton is well known in mountain biking circles as a philosophising engineer, as likely to be found discussing ‘the concept of femininity’ as he is to be examining the finer points of seat-tube diameters. A student of social and cultural theory, his metallurgical knowledge has been entirely self-taught – a process of painstaking research and fearless trial and error. He’s never looked back since selling his beloved Charge Blender to fund the first-ever Stanton frame, unsurprisingly a titanium hardtail.
So, how do you go about starting your own bike company?
Dan – I was extremely fortunate to have a lecturer at university who taught me that who you are and who you become is largely down to you. He gave me the confidence to dream big, to shake off the negativity of working-class surroundings where everything is geared towards perpetual struggle and settling for your lot in life.
Nevertheless, it’s surely still a huge step from dream to reality?
Dan – I suppose so; I guess I’ve never viewed it in those terms. I’m a huge believer in self-actualisation, making things happen for yourself. Take this place for example, (The Unit, Stanton Bikes HQ), when I was a kid growing up in the rough end of Derby I dreamed of living up here in the Derbyshire Dales. As soon as I had the means we made that move and then found premises within walking distance of the house.
The location of The Unit is certainly surprising, within the picturesque village surroundings of Tansley and as far from grim industrial estates as imaginable. Constructed from bright yellow Peak District limestone, it provides an alluring image that is only enhanced by the welcomingly open front door. Once inside, it feels like an exercise in borderline anarchy, currently part showroom and part building-site, reflecting the expansions I’ve come to investigate. Elegant wooden-clad office walls are hidden by piles of boxes and new machinery. On the first floor, a homely arrangement of ageing sofas wedged between workbenches and a cluttered coffee table provides a pleasant feel, a ‘man-shed’ familiarity, comfortable and warming, but with drool-inducing shapes of steel and titanium adding a bike-lover’s frisson of excitement.
And so how would you describe Stanton Bikes now?
Dan – There’s definitely been a lot of changes; it’s been a really wobbly line to get to this point, but this dream I had as a kid is being realised. For a while last year things were getting too hectic and we started to drop balls. That’s when my investor strongly advised me to bring Stu on board. Since then we’ve really been able to push on and I feel like I’m back in a creative frame of mind. It’s impossible to be creative when you’re fretting over VAT returns.
Stuart Mason was drafted in to provide structure and order at a time when the size of the company was snowballing beyond effective management. With decades of experience in the precision automotive industry, he is a systems man with an unerring eye for detail. He clearly enjoys a relaxed relationship with Dan that’s borne from years of friendship as well as a clear understanding of how they complement each other’s attributes and personalities.
How would you best describe Stu’s involvement with Stanton Bikes and your working relationship?
Dan – Managing a business is like running through a forest backwards – Stu’s job is to help people get through forests. When he came in he took a couple of weeks to get his bearings and then just took over, he’s so capable that initially I felt de-roled! Ultimately, it’s allowed us to start looking to the future again, good job, with all that’s gone on…
What do you mean by that?
Dan – We were starting to get overrun; since the Brexit vote so much has changed and factors that were previously settled have altered massively. For example, we’re getting much less against the US dollar than we were two years ago, and as we source materials and manufacture in Taiwan we do all our trade in dollars. Essentially, our profit wiped out totally; it got to the stage where selling through shops we were making less than £35 per frame, definitely not sustainable.
So, what was the answer?
Dan – We were faced with some tough choices. The factory offered us several ways to make the cost to us cheaper, lower grade materials, cast yokes, cheaper paint, but none were acceptable. The finished product is key to us; we can’t compromise, that’s not why I got into this business. So initially we had to take the tough decision to up our prices. Unfortunately, shops tend to work off fixed margins so that didn’t alleviate the problem so direct selling has become key. We still sell through shops, but it’s not our primary outlet.
And so how do you reach the customers?
Dan – Social media is essential to us, it allows us to stay close to our customer base and create demand for direct sales. Quality social media content sells an aspiration and an active presence allows us to really engage with questions and resolve issues rapidly and personally.
Stanton Bikes certainly seems to enjoy a close relationship with its customers, with active social media feeds, both official and fan-created; it’s common for Dan or Stu personally replying to comments or sorting problems via Facebook.
What do you think would happen if Stanton got too big for you to personally respond to questions?
Dan – We can’t afford to let that happen. Connection to customers is key, they are buying into a brand and we’re part of that brand. People love that connection; if you’ve got a question, being able to ask the designer.
Does that mean that you’re limiting future growth and expansion?
Dan – Not at all; you’ve got to remember there are different models, different types of capitalism. You can look to produce more, cut prices, generate demand through being cheaper, but then you always need to produce more. There’s stress over output, continuous need for higher consumer demand, workers are continually asked to do more for less, that’s not how we see it. We’re looking to be different.
Getting back to the bikes, the original Stanton frameset still adorns the wall above the Unit’s metallic staircase, threatening to stab taller visitors in the face.
So, talk me through that first-ever frame.
Dan – I knew the attributes and ride feel I was looking for so I learned the basics of CAD, got some ideas down and found a factory willing to build it. It came out pretty well, but with no reference points to go off it was an exaggeration of all my desired attributes. Bottom bracket too low, chainstays too short and with little knowledge of tubing characteristics and thicknesses I created far too much flex.
There have obviously been some alterations since then; how close do you feel the current models are to notional perfection?
Dan – Barring unseen industry developments or the occasional different colour options we see them as finished articles, there’ll definitely be no big changes.
Excellent, so you know what’s coming next, what about the full-suspension frame?
Dan – Nearly there, we just displayed a rideable prototype at the London Bike Show.
So I saw, it looks quite a departure from the original prototype.
Gutsy move! You clearly enjoy the minutiae of frame design, how important is that attention to detail?
Dan – Yeah, geometry is massive fun, such slight changes make such a massive difference to rider feel, it makes me laugh when people say, ‘It’s just 3mm or just half a degree’.
Makes you laugh or pisses you off?
Dan – (laughing) It doesn’t annoy me any more – it can get frustrating when magazines or people try to compare things like for like when there are so many factors that differ, but people like to do that. If that’s how they want to read it then there’s no point me arguing.
So, what does annoy you?
Dan – Not much really, I guess when people ask how we can charge three times more for a Stanton than other makes when they’re ‘both steel frames with identical geometry’, but it’s really just a case of keep banging the message.
Surely some people will never appreciate the difference anyway?
Dan – No, exactly, some people just won’t care and they’ll never buy a Stanton and that’s fine. We never set out to make a bike for everyone, just the best bikes we could make.
Back to the full bouncer, what’s it going to be like, what are the details?
Dan – Steel front end, aluminium linkages and back end, 140mm travel with 29in wheels. The suspension curve will sit between that of a Nomad and a Yeti SB6, but the frame properties will add an extra dimension.
Extra dimension in what way? Wasn’t it originally going to be all aluminium?
Dan – Yep, aluminium is a great material for full suspension frames. It’s naturally stiff and so can be designed to minimise all unwanted lateral movement. That’s why we have gone for an aluminium back end.
And so why the steel front end? I saw a bit of social media uproar when the pictures of the all-aluminium prototype came out. Did that have anything to do with it?
Dan – I guess aesthetically it was just moving too far from what people expect from a Stanton and that definitely did have a bearing on our redesign. With hindsight, we’re delighted from an engineering perspective, as we’ve managed to find steel that’s as light as aluminium would have been, but also has the most desirable properties of the metal. What I mean by that is the back end has all the stiffness needed, but the steel front triangle will do an amazing job of dampening trail buzz to complement the suspension.
So, you were prepared to respond to customer feedback and alter designs accordingly?
Dan – Of course, as long as the end product isn’t compromised. At the end of the day they need to sell, and alienating your core customers won’t assist that. It’s not like it was a fashion-based decision.
Do you think that some companies make design decisions based on dictating or following fashions then?
Stu – We can’t really comment on the reasoning behind how other companies operate, but you have to wonder. I mean, how long is too long? If we make something ten degrees slacker, does that make it ten degrees better? You can do everything in extremis and create a hype around it, but it might ride like a bag of spanners.
Dan – We all know that there are certain ‘groups’ who, if they decide they want to dictate something to the industry, the smaller companies need to follow suit to keep selling well. Is it always functionally driven? No, of course not, the industry needs constant change to keep selling and stay the size it is.
So how can Stanton rise above that process?
Dan – It’s difficult, like I said, if we want to sell, then there are certain aspects that you just have to follow suit. We just try to remain as adaptable as possible, like the Boost Swapouts that allow existing Next Generation frames to easily convert to 148mm.
What’s your take on the whole wheel-size debate?
Dan – For me, wheel size is nowhere near as important as proper design, angles and high-quality build. I try to design frames to accentuate the properties of the wheels, there’s no reason why big wheels should be no fun. 29ers are wicked fun – just because someone is 6ft 6in, doesn’t mean their ride shouldn’t have ‘pop’.
And what about the smaller wheels – I note your full-suspension frame is a 29er – will we see other wheel sizes catered for in future?
Dan – We’re moving production in-house for the Switch FS so we’ll have the capability to rapidly design, create and test prototypes instead of being reliant on a minimum four-month turnaround time as we are now, read into that whatever you like…
OK, I’m delighted you brought up UK production. There are rumours of you ditching the Far East production and going full UK, what are the facts?
Dan – True to a large degree, very soon we’ll start in-house production of the full suspension frame; we’ll be considering the future of the rest of the range on a model by model basis, but having complete control has always been an ultimate aim. UK manufacture will give us so much more control over production. Customisation will be entirely possible, able to make custom frames with just two-week lead times. We’ll be leaner, more versatile, and more interesting as a company.
That’s a hell of a move. You mentioned the pricing issues since the Brexit referendum; has that been a catalyst?
Dan – Definitely, although Stu had already been investigating the figures and testing feasibility, the crash in sterling definitely focused the process. Bizarrely, Brexit might indirectly spawn massively positive change – it’s just caused a hell of a headache in the meantime.
You obviously pride yourselves on quality; does the expertise still exist in the UK to compete with the Taiwanese welders?
Stu – Of course! It’s widely known how good our Taiwanese factory is. They won’t even consider a welder’s CV unless they’ve got at least fifteen years experience, but we can replicate that quality in the UK – it just means sourcing the right talent and persuading them to share our vision.
Dan – It’s about so much more than that though. We want to create a ‘family’ of like-minded people and an atmosphere where creativity is constantly encouraged, from everyone. Part of that is paying people very well for their work, but it’s also about emotional wellbeing, about people loving their work, feeling part of the success of the company. I’d love to have us all meeting an hour before work and heading out riding or to the gym together. I’d like it if the whole Stanton family lived close, no commuting, none of the pressures that sap creativity.
It all sounds very utopian; can it really work?
Dan – Of course, why not? It comes back to that different type of capitalism, we’re not looking to produce more and more, we’ll sit down with everyone at the start of the year and agree how many frames we’re going to make, everyone will be in on the process. We’ll know how many we need to sell to keep running and we’ll decide what we want to do beyond that. We haven’t invented that model; it creates a better kind of business.
Sounds great, any jobs going?
Dan – If you can add to the business and believe in the philosophy, then why not? We want as much expertise as possible, to learn from everyone, we’re all going to learn about the new machinery, about how to weld, everyone will understand all parts of the process.
The future sounds exciting, what else have you got in the pipeline?
Dan – The Switch9er Ti has just landed – it’s a big-wheeled version of the Switchback, slacker than the Sherpa with a definite emphasis on speed. The first set of frames have just shipped to customers. It’s come a bit under the radar with all the focus on the full-bouncer, but it’s a beauty and initial feedback has been brilliant.
OK, quickfire question to finish. What’s better, MTB past or MTB present?
Dan – It’s easy to be nostalgic and the old days were great, but now technology is better, production is better, you’ve not got shit failing left and right.
And finally, are you now too famous to pop to the shops for a pint of milk?
Dan – (laughing) Well, I’m no Conor McGregor, but particularly on local trails I do get people coming up and saying, ‘you’re Dan from Stanton Bikes, is that the new FS frame?’. It’s funny more than anything.
And that was that. Parked outside the Unit is Dan’s ageing campervan, juxtaposed with Stu’s race-tuned Lotus. Two vehicles that provide a great analogy for Stanton themselves. The philosophising adventurer’s mobile and the UK-made speed machine, they make a pleasing combination. For Stanton Bikes, the next few years could prove very interesting.