Produced in association with Ison Distribution
“Where have all the hills gone?” I wonder to myself as I drive down the A1 to the Deep South (Cambridgeshire to be precise). As someone who lives and has grown up in and around the mountains, the time trial belt that is the jutty out south east bit of England comes as a bit of a shock. The skies are bigger and there seem to be people everywhere. It’s not somewhere that I would have expected to find one of the UK’s most progressive and innovative bike manufacturer and distributors. Yet here I am rolling into a former Lancaster bomber base that now serves as a business park on the outskirts of Ely (birthplace and home of Oliver Cromwell, history fans!) to a custom designed warehouse that is a positive Aladdin’s Cave of all things bike. I’m here to learn a bit more about Ison Distribution, the people who make it what it is and their products. The chances are that you’re probably using one or more of their products without even knowing it. ODI, Halo, Gusset, Surly, The Light Blue, Renthal, Silkolene, Identiti, Dia Compe, Whisky Parts – all present and correct among many other well kent names. Heck, they even still have Cool Tool parts from back in the day! But who are they and how did they start?
Lloyd, the man with the plan.
Taking time out from meeting the men in suits, Lloyd Townsend, Managing Director and founder of Ison sits down over coffee and chocolate digestive (milk, not plain!) to give me a potted history of the company. An affable and easy going individual, he is clearly passionate about the bike industry but behind his laid back manner, there is a clear steely determination that has seen his business flourish in an industry where bike sales are declining and there is something of a race to the bottom where price is the be all and end all.
Lloyd was pretty much destined to become part of the industry whether he wanted to or not. Working out of his shop in Cambridge, Lloyd’s Great Grandfather, J Albert Townsend (now there is a proper Victorian name!) made custom bikes under “The Light Blue” banner. Post World War 1, mass production took hold which prompted a switch to selling branded bikes such as those from Humber, Sunbeam and laterally Raleigh, several of whom would go on to become major UK car manufacturers.
Jump forward to the sixties and with his father now in charge of the business, toys became part of the equation. After studying business at college, Lloyd joined the family firm and looked set to continue the tradition. However, a visit to Interbike in Anaheim proved to be a turning point. At the time, there was a whole raft of products that spotty nosed youths such as myself could read about in the bible of all things mountain biking at the time, Mountain Bike Action, but couldn’t get our hands on for love nor money. Sensing an opportunity, Lloyd started small, importing the Pamir Hypercracker cassette tool. Other brands soon followed – TNT, White Industries, Bicycle Research, Cooks Quality Products, Bullseye hubs and cranks – in a historical context, these were THE premium brands of the day. America ruled the roost and these were the brands teenage boys across the UK would drool over.
As the business grew, 4X came onto the scene. Sensing another opportunity, a new bike brand was started – Identiti. Working with three established manufacturers – Cortina, Schauff and Heavy Tools – Identiti hit the ground running. Things were going well until unbeknownst to Lloyd, Identiti bikes started being sold out the back door of one of the factories under an entirely different name. This prompted Identiti to become independent, designing their own products and being in complete control of the supply chain, something which continues to this day.
At the same time, Ison were developing a relationship with QBP, Quality Bicycle Parts. Not heard of them? If I say Surly and Salsa, the penny will probably drop now. As I wander round the warehouse later, I happen across a 1 x 1 Rat Ride bike. Before Surly were Surly, this was their first ever bike – the connection between Ison and Surly clearly goes back a very long way. Jump forward to the present and Ison are now much more than a distributor – Halo, Gusset, Identiti – all big brands that are designed and tested by an in house team of designers who, crucially, ride and ride hard as I would find out later. In an industry where business come and go, I asked Lloyd what he attributes Ison’s longevity and continued success to.
“The industry has seen a lot of companies enter the market only for them to disappear a short while later. So much has come and gone. In order for us to not just survive but be strong, the business has been built on solid foundations. We are lucky to have great staff that are passionate about what they do. We have a balanced mix of our own products such as The Light Blue, Halo and Gusset as well as strong partnerships with the likes of Dia Compe (of whom we are the largest customer outside of Japan) and QBP. By having a broad range of products, we have managed to avoid the peaks and troughs that afflict the industry. My dad always used to say that in a recession, the bike industry does well and I reckon he was right.
As a business, we try to avoid getting caught up in model years. Model years unwittingly build in obsolescence into products. A great product last year will still be a great product this year. Dealers don’t want to hold stock that could fall out of favour overnight so it is important to us to try and support them by supplying bikes and parts that are less sensitive to the model year model.
Details are important. It’s not all about the bottom line. For example, the warehouse we are in was custom built to our specification. There are no skylights but high windows to allow natural light in. Skylights leak. Windows don’t while we can open them in the summer to keep the warehouse well ventilated. Over the course of a year, we are self-sufficient when it comes to generating electricity.
When it comes to customers, we always try to be fair to them. If someone has bought one of our products and has experienced a problem, we aim to be sympathetic. They have invested in our products and we want to keep them as a satisfied customer. We don’t set out thinking about making lots of money to help them out. We want them to be happy in their choices.
It’s the same with our branded products. For example, with our Halo wheels, we endeavour to make our parts modular. With ever changing standards, it’s hard to know what to buy but if you know that you can buy a set of wheels that can be adapted to future standards for not a lot of money, we think that that is better for both the customer and ourselves.”
And with that, rather like the mysterious shopkeeper in Mr Ben, Lloyd was gone. He had given me plenty to think about as I spent the next couple of days with his people finding out more about some of their big brands.
But where to start?
Enter stage left Pat Campbell-Jenner. As Brand Manager for Gusset Components, Pat is the public face of Gusset (so to speak!) However, unlike the traditional brand manager, Pat is very much hands on, a dirt jump and enduro rider who is intimately involved in the design and testing of the products he is responsible for. Heck, have a look at the Gusset website and you will see bearded Pat (thankfully not full Hipster beard) ripping it up on his mountain and dirt jump bikes.
Once perceived as a purely BMX brand, Gusset have undergone something of a transformation in recent years. Their range has expanded considerably to the extent that they can supply pretty much all of your cockpit requirements – bars, stems, grips, pedals, headsets, saddles, seat posts – amongst others. With the expansion of the range has come a refocusing on how the brand is perceived.
Employing the services of the likes of UCI DH rider Jack Reading, EWS rider James Shirley, freeride pro and Red Bull athlete Matt Jones who has ridden Halo wheels for the last ten years and used Gusset parts for seven years and You Tube rider Will Greenfield to both promote the brand and to provide real world feedback on what works and what doesn’t, the brands focus is on designing and manufacturing products that are strong and dependable but at a reasonable price. Fundamentally, their aim is to have a range of products which they would want to buy and ride themselves.
Rider led design
Keen to demonstrate their hands on, rider led approach to design, development and testing, Pat shows me several versions of the latest Gusset flat pedal from 3D printed prototype through to final version, the Series 2.
Designed on site, Pat and the team started with a series of CAD drawings where they took their initial spec and came up with a detailed design that could be 3D printed. Think of it as the proof of concept.
This led to refinement of the initial design and a working prototype that could be ridden. Rider feedback was critical at this stage. Featuring a 2/3 length axle and hollow design between the plates, it became apparent that a reinforcing tab was required to stiffen the pedals as version one was bending on heavy landings. To demonstrate this, Pat happily showed me the early prototype with bent cage. As he explained, this is all part of the process involved in perfecting a design that ensures the end user rider gets the best possible product for their hard earned cash.
The design was then improved upon with further changes made to the axle design in order to improve stiffness and the overall reliability of the final version. Over a period of 18 months, what had started as an idea had become a reality. The Series 2 pedal was good to go.
Series 2 – a new chapter for Gusset
Rather neatly, this brings us onto the Series 2 range of products. As with the pedals, the Series 2 range has been designed, developed and tested in house. For Gusset, it marks a concerted effort to elevate the brand in terms of finish and quality. Pat is keen to stress that Gusset has long been regarded as a value brand. With the Series 2 range, their stated aim is to ensure that their products still offer good value for money but which offer quality which lasts.
Through a rigorous testing regime that covers everything from computer modelling to real world thrashing, Gusset parts are designed not just to meet but exceed EN and ISO testing standards. Nobody wants to endure the long walk home that a bent or broken part can bring and it is clear that Pat and the team recognise this.
The range launched with the Series 2 handlebar, an 800mm custom butted and swaged bar available in 3 different rises (10mm, 20mm and 38mm) and has expanded to include stems, saddle, grips and, of course, pedals. However, there is much more to Gusset than Series 2.
What follows is a whirlwind tour of some of the range highlights. Starting with the shin splitting Prosecutor pedal (just looking at it gives me the heebie-jeebies as it looks like some kind of medieval instrument of torture!), Pat then shows me their best-selling product. Take a guess as to what that might be. Pedals? Grips? Saddles? Nope. None of the above. Single speed kits is the answer. Yup. I never saw that coming either.
Need a chain from 8 to 11 speed? Gusset have got you covered. Or how about a stem? S2 or Staff perhaps? In the past ,sir or madam could choose from the rather wonderfully monikered SOD, Lil SOD and Colt dirt jumping stem? Or my personal favourite, the Magnum? I don’t know about you but when I hear magnum, I cannot help but think that if Derek Zoolander was a mountain biker, this would be his stem of choice. They really should keep making stems with those names!
Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.
Keeping all your points of contact covered, Pat shows me Gusset’s latest line in saddles and grips. Of the latter, he is particularly proud. The S2 grip is very much his baby, having designed it himself. Now I don’t know about you but I’ve never really given any thought to grip design. I mean, seriously, how much time and effort does it take to design a grip? I was about to get a lesson in product design!
Resplendent in so on trend purple, the S2 grip started life as a 2d drawing. Keen to bring something new to the market that was packed with features that the average Joe rider would come to appreciate, Pat took me through the design. The top of the grip features double knurling for added comfort while the bottom half of it is half size in order to improve fingertip grip.
The core is eccentric in order to deliver more comfort at the pressure points while the material used is designed to optimise wet weather grip. As Pat recounts the arduous design and testing process, I realise that I probably won’t ever look at grips in the same way again.
Turning to saddles, I learn about the importance of grippers (a design cue borrowed from e bike saddles), pressure relieving grooves and bonded seamless construction. From dirt jumping through average Joe mountain biking to e biking, Gusset appear to have your back (or butt!).
Of all the saddles on show, I have to say that I am particularly taken by the one with the Union Jack detailing built into the logo. I know that it adds precisely nothing in terms of performance but damn, it just looks cool!
And with that we are done although not before Pat takes me for a tour around the warehouse. “Kid” and “sweetshop” spring to mind as I walk through rows and rows of bikes, tyres, parts and all manner of accessories. The atmosphere is definitely one of relaxed efficiency. Everyone is on first name terms and without exception, folk have worked there for many years making me think that they are doing something right when it comes to work life balance. I reflect on the conversation with Lloyd and his stated desire to keep his customers happy. It is an attitude that permeates throughout the business leaving me with the lasting impression that Ison would be a good place to work.
Next time, Sanny delves into the not so murky world of wheel design with HALO wheels.
Ison Distribution contributed to the production of this article