In association with Cotic
Barney takes a trip up to that there Scotland to find out more about Cotic’s venture with fledgling Scottish framebuilders Five Land Bikes
Motorways are strange things. Great, wide ribbons plunged through the countryside; it’s often only when you escape their clutches that you start to feel a part of the country once again, instead of scurrying from place to place isolated from (and with) everyone else in their own shining metal boxes. I am sitting in a van, staring out at glorious scenery I feel curiously removed from, as I’m swiftly conveyed north ever northwards towards the fringes of Edinburgh, and thence to the glories of Innerleithen. Happily, though, on this particular journey I’m accompanied by the tall, energetic and enthusiastically bestubbled owner and designer of all things Cotic, Cy Turner. He’s excellent company; conversation flows happily along family, vans, RC cars, favourite pie recipes, and of course, Cotic.
It’s been a long journey for Cotic to get to this point. Cy designed and released the iconic Soul steel hardtail back in 2003 as the sort of bike he wanted to ride, and he hoped other people agreed. They did, in considerable numbers: although the geometry seems quaintly archaic now (it’s been 15 years, remember), this was one of the first long travel hardtails, designed as it was for a 120mm fork. At the time this raised eyebrows among many in the bike industry, and had the cycle-cognoscenti pursing their lips in a moue of consternation as they presumably sieved brandy through their extravagant moustaches. But the (relatively) long and low design soon won a great many fans, not least in the corridors of other manufacturers, who soon began to follow suit.
Other Cotic models followed, including the full-suspension (and, notably, aluminium) Hemlock a scant 4 years later in 2007, and then the Rocket in 2011. A key difference between Rocket and Hemlock (apart from – er – everything else) was the change from aluminium to steel for the front triangle, which cemented steel in the minds of the masses as Cotic’s USP (with an honourable mention to the titanium Soda hardtail). And then the Rocket went to 27.5in wheels, and was joined by a shorter travelled Flare, and the bigger-wheeled RocketMAX and FlareMAX bikes.
The arrival of a redesigned Rocket in 2018 signalled a sea change. Keeping much of the Droplink suspension design the same, the new Rocket cocked a snook at traditionalists with an all-new ‘Longshot’ geometry. Keeping firmly abreast of the latest developments, this bike had much, much more reach, steeper seat angles, slacker head angles and many enthusiastic punters. Longshot geometry soon cropped up in much of the rest of the range, including the new FlareMAX and RocketMAX bikes, which each have different geometries tailored to their intended purposes above and beyond the different travel. The RocketMAX in particular boasts pots of reach (yes, that’s the collective noun) and a head angle so slack it’s often mistaken for a nineties grunge band.
But the RocketMAX is slightly different in another way, too. All the other bikes are designed in the UK, manufactured and painted overseas and finally assembled back in the UK. Yes, the rear end of the RocketMAX is also made overseas, but key suspension components are made in Lincoln – and the frame’s front triangle is hand made in Scotland.
What, what? What’s going on?
It’s necessary perhaps at this point to briefly touch upon Cotic’s ill-fated previous foray into the world of UK production. In 2013 Cy co-founded a company (BML) which was intended to enable large-scale production of Cotic’s bikes in the UK, with enough spare capacity perhaps to facilitate other smaller-scale enterprises’ UK production desires. Sadly, this ambitious project couldn’t meet the ever-expanding Cotic’s requirements, and the whole thing was shelved a few agonising months later. Cotic re-established its far-eastern workflow, and things carried on as they had before – the bikes were designed in the UK and all manufactured in Asia. But lessons were learned, ideas were bandied about, and dreams were dreamt.
And here we are, Cy and I, pulling up after a very, very (very) long drive to a remote-seeming farmhouse which is, however, only 20 minutes drive to the centre of Edinburgh. But having left the motorway in the middle of nowhere, and driven for hours across more wind-swept, sparsely populated middle of nowhere, we clearly came the more desolate way in.
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The farmhouse is perhaps on the clean side, and is clearly well-kept, but there’s little to distinguish it from others one might well imagine would house tractors, farm implements, a few sheep and a curmudgeonly farmer or three with a desire to test rusty pitchfork sharpness on a couple of Sassenachs. However, Cy pulls open a sliding door in the yard with a flourish, and there, soundtracked by a radio which is blaring out what sounds suspiciously like Kylie Minogue, is Five Land Bikes.
Matt Stitt and Callum Fisher founded Five Land Bikes in 2017, having met in Aberdeen at uni, and then at Shand. Five Land Bikes, though, is not a run-of-the-mill custom bike manufacturer. Sure, it’s a two man operation, based in an outbuilding of a farm (“we spent the first few months fixing the roof and making sure the outside didn’t become the inside”, says Matt) which is festooned with well maintained machinery, but the whole ethos of the company is to make things on a much larger scale than your typical custom frame builder.
Cy’s isn’t everything
Both Cy and Matt attest that it was as much Five Land’s desire to work with Cotic than the other way round that brought about the repatriation of the RocketMAX. Matt expands: “It didn’t make any sense for us to just set up another custom bike brand; there are so many others out there. In sheds, slowly killing themselves. There are usually one or two people doing all of the marketing, all of the shipping, all of the website and photography, all of the customer management, and it’s just a massive job. It could easily be that you’ve got a bike company and you only end up building bikes one day a week, because there’s so much other stuff taking up your time.”
“You really need a company like Cotic wanting to do something like this at the same time. So we knew that, and we talked to Cy pretty early on. It was just a happy synergy.”
Of course, with two people doing everything from cutting, inspecting, welding, prepping and painting (they also paint the raw aluminium swingarms that come in from Taiwan) you can’t just knock up 200 frames in a week – but even so, the workflow is pretty impressive. Matt again: “You have to get a rhythm. Roughly a bike a day painted and a bike a day built, so we build in batches of fives. We usually make around 20 bikes a month for Cotic which leaves a bit of room for stuff for other people.” And indeed, they’ve also taken on commissions from smaller manufacturers too.
For the most part, Matt does the welding, and Callum does the painting – but as far as everything else goes, there’s a complete skills overlap; cutting, painting, finishing can all be done by either of them, which is handy if one of them goes on holiday without the other (they’re not Morecambe and Wise after all). But are they at peak capacity? Matt is optimistic that they can dramatically increase their output as they get more comfortable with their working patterns. Production of the Cotic Flare is also set to head up the country – front end manufacture, and all paint and finishing will be done by Five Land Bikes.
At present, though, there are no plans to make any of the other frames in the UK , for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the guys at Five Land Bikes will then be working at capacity, and secondly because the Far East has a wealth of expertise that Cotic can take advantage of. “There is a huge amount of manufacturing and engineering knowhow that the Taiwanese have. The supply chain and infrastructure is there, and we have a good working relationship with our suppliers. You can go to a factory that *only* makes bikes. It doesn’t make anything else. And that’s a big difference”.
Rocket from the script
So what was the driving force from Cotic’s point of view? What lies behind the company’s decision go ahead with bikes made – at least substantially – in the UK? Well, as Cy tells it, there are a variety of advantages completely apart from the ability to put on a Union Jack hat and play God Save The Queen on a kazoo as the bikes are paraded past. In fact, it’s tied in with how, and why, Cotic started working with Five Land Bikes in the first place.
The first Longshot Rocket and RocketMAX prototypes were made by Matt, when he was working for Shand – and the speed of the turnaround that a UK company was able to accomplish was one of the major factors that encouraged Cy to deepen their working relationship. Four frames were built, and each one was them tweaked in a variety of ways – anglesets; shock mount changes; offset bushings. “In fact,” says Cy, “we were still tweaking the RocketMax in June 2018 (the bike went into production in in October; that’s pretty fast), but that wasn’t a problem because these guys could turn the frames around quickly.”
It also, perhaps, helps that the front triangle of the RocketMAX is made from steel – but Cy insists that neither manufacturing nor any ‘steel is real’ dogma were a factor in the decision to build with the material. “It was all about stiffness in the end. Lots of people think that our ‘thing’ is steel, but that’s not really true. The Hemlock was aluminium, after all. But when I did a direct comparison of the seat tube with steel and the Hemlock’s aluminium one, the steel frame completely knocked it out of the park in terms of stiffness, and it was very much in the same ballpark in terms of weight.”
But it’s not just about the seat tube. “Steel top and down tubes give enough stiffness for the bike to feel good, without being so stiff that it chatters off cambers and roots like bikes in other materials can. So a steel front triangle is entirely a performance decision. That ‘give’ that steel can provide improves the speed and confidence of the bike.”
And although the seat stays are also steel, the swingarm itself is still made out of aluminium? “Yeah. Because with the swingarm, aluminium performed similarly if not better than the steel prototype we made, and it made sense – it’s as good functionally, and it’s easier and better value to make in aluminium. I just play to the strengths of the material”.
It’s more about pragmatism, then, than dogma. Indeed, Cotic has previously prototyped a carbon rear end for the bikes too (as seen at Bespoked a couple of years ago), but – crucially – not the front triangle. And it’s not about price: “We would choose a steel front end over carbon regardless of cost, because we prefer the durability and ride feel advantages of using steel over the minimal weight savings with carbon.”
And people seem to agree. Public opinion of Cotic as a brand is shifting to focus much more about the bikes and how they’re ridden. The brand is starting to cast off its ‘purveyors of steel’ cloak to reveal a new shiny one, where they just make fine bikes that lots of riders seem to like – regardless of what they’re made from.