Singletrack Issue 124 : Metal Machine Music

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Barney visits this machinists’ paradise in Preston to find out what makes Bounce Cycles, er, bounce. 

Words & Photography Barney Marsh

Preston, a city nestled atop the north bank of the River Ribble, has many things going for it. It’s a city, for a start, which was a surprise to your scribe if I’m honest – I would’ve badged it as a bit of an aspirational town. There’s a surprisingly large and unexpectedly opulent train station thanks to its history as a Victorian industrial hub. There’s a football team. It boasts a surprisingly varied array of former inhabitants – according to Wikipedia these include, (in decreasing order of ‘fancy that’) Benjamin Franklin (yes, that one), Stu Bennett from the WWE and the bloke who plays the saxophone in Simply Red.

What it doesn’t boast, fairly or unfairly, is a reputation as a Mecca for mountain biking. Granted there are hills not far away, and quite good ones too. But the bridleway profile is somewhat sparse compared to next door neighbours Cumbria or (whisper it) Yorkshire, and so mountain bikers in the area tend to roam further afield in search of (purely legal, natch) kicks.

And yet, and yet. Deep within the sprawling metropolis, this industrial centre, close to the narrow streets of Penwortham, and the – er – less narrow streets of Penwortham, and beyond a frankly monolithic and quasi-Victorian iron gate (seriously, it baffled me completely until I realised there was another way in) lies a small industrial estate. And it is here that Bounce Suspension has made its home.

Kids’ Club.

Started by two childhood friends, Matt Winstanley and Frank Spear, Bounce is a somewhat different experience to most bike shops. There are a few frames here and there; a few enticing titbits behind the counter – but it’s clear from the outset that most of the work at Bounce is done behind the scenes – and not just in terms of suspension servicing, no. They don’t just fix stuff, or bolt expensive stuff onto other bits of expensive stuff. There’s something else going on.

As I walk into the shop, Frank and his wife Lianne greet me and ply me with tea. Frank is an ex-Navy chap who set up the company with Matt a few years ago (Lianne’s been part of the company since then too, but is now officially on the payroll), and they’ve been nosing a furrow at an entertaining angle to most of his bike-shop contemporaries ever since.

“I grew up around motorcycles,” says Frank. “My granddad – who is really into modelling – built gas turbines from scratch. He set up a motorbike race team running classic bikes – Nortons, etc., so it’s sort of in the blood.

“So Matt and I started doing skills courses, coast to coast trips, things like that, but we never drew anything from it – it was always the intention to set this up.” Frank gestures around.

Along with the bike stands festooned with bling to be fettled and the handy (but somewhat exposed) bikewash/shower, there is a small steam engine, made from scratch, by Frank. There is an ancient drill in one corner. There’s a frankly terrifying-looking mechanical saw that looks like something straight out of a dieselpunk horror movie, and there’s a huge green lathe that looks like it’s from the ’90s. Yes, the folks at Bounce also make things.

Unspectacular mechanics.

I am, I admit, a spectacularly average mechanic. I can put something together, and find the joy in it and if required to perhaps file something down, or fettle something else, then I’m happy to do it, as long as it’s something non-vital. Like a light bracket.

When it comes to the complicated stuff, though, I freely admit to frankly hopeless levels of paranoia, procrastination and general pathetic-ness (is that a word?). It took me geological ages to get the hang of setting up V-brakes, and then hydraulic brakes came along and rendered me a gibbering wreck again. And just when I was getting comfortable with elastomer forks… well, you get the idea. If I harbour any small notions of bearded retro-curmudgeonliness, it’s nothing at all to do with function, and everything to do with paranoia at the seeming magic of the modern age.

Recently I’ve started to pluck up a bit more courage. I’ve tried to make myself comfortable with bleeding brakes with the right fluid (that lesson came at a substantial price), and with stripping forks down – or at least taking them to bits as much as I can before cleaning everything, reassembling them in approximately the right order and hoping like hell that they still work at the end, never mind the washer and that weird plasticky bit left over.

People like Frank, though, take a different approach. People like Frank take a look at how these things are made, and they can draw upon their deep knowledge of all things mechanical and some weird telepathic link to the vibrational state of the metals (or something) to make their own.

This genuinely baffles me. My ignorance lies in deep, glistening pools with fragile ribbons of cursory knowledge linking them together; it’s all I can do to gaze into the depths in astonishment and try not to fall in. It’s a similar level of awe I feel when people can recite pi to several hundred digits, or suddenly launch into Hungarian or craft a wickerwork hamster. It’s a sort of unfathomable skill. And Frank and the folk at Bounce have it. 

Looking at a bushing.

Let’s take something straightforward. Bushings, you might think (well, I did), would be relatively straightforward. But, of course, as simple as the overall thing is, it’s manufactured to the same – if not much higher – tolerances as the rest of the stuff on a bike. Frank thrusts his hands into a pile of bushings and pulls one out. 

“In terms of length, most people make these to within +/- 0.1mm, which is clog iron, really – it’s not great. Ours are 0.01mm or less; we can get it pretty accurate. The outside diameter is a ton more accurate – it’s got to be +/- 5 microns (that’s 0.005mm). It took some time coming up with a method of making sure we could do that, and do it fast.”

That method involves weekends when the shop is closed, and all hands on deck – Lianne at the drill (a 1935 Pollard Corona 12FX, drill fans), Matt keeps a wary eye on that terrifying saw (probably a 1954 Ghastly Eviscerator or something*), and Frank lovingly fondles the lathe.

“In a weekend we’ll get through 100 metres of bar stock; there’s no other way of doing it so that it’s cost effective.”

It’s all very well making bushings, but Frank has cast an eye over the vast range of tooling required to service suspension, and saw an opportunity to make his own stuff – tooling and components. He regales me at length about tools and his big plans for substantially more machinery and fork doohickeys and geegaws. Soon he disappears off and returns with some shiny things that are still in prototype stages.

“That’s all manually machined, that.” We peer into the middle. “Look at that internal thread,” he says proudly. I attempt to look knowledgeable. I have no idea where you’d start on something like that, apart from Getting Someone Else To Do It. “We started playing about with prototypes. We’ve got a couple of products that are close, and we’re close to pressing the button, but they’ve got to be right. So we’re taking our time with them.” 

Tattoos and chin dimples. 

It’s fair to say there are still areas on bikes that worry me. The vast majority of these involve the words ‘damper’, ‘pressure’, and possibly ‘cartridge’. A couple of years ago I watched slack-jawed as some young, impossibly hip chap from a suspension company with actual pecs, tattoos and a chin dimple blithely took a shock off a bike, depressurised it, whipped the air can off and stuck some bands in there to increase the ramp rate. I’ve nervously done the same thing myself occasionally, although I have to admit that there’s still the feeling in the back of my head that I’ve done/am doing something terribly wrong, and that it’s going to cost me a fortune for a new shock at best, or that it’s going to explode and take my eye out. But Frank dreams a little bigger than I do when it comes to forks. And he has a couple of ideas up his sleeve.

“Chris Porter has said that he felt we’re reaching the design limit of suspension forks. And he’s right. They’re sprung on one side and damped on the other; they’re always going to try to want to twist, there’s not a lot of room for oil in there because you’re always trying to cram as much travel as possible in there… And it’s not ideal.

“People think that seals compress – they don’t; the actual seal is oil. As you compress the fork, you increase the pressure, and you increase the stiction. We think we’ve come up with a way around that…”

There’s a long pause here, as Frank decides he’d perhaps better not say too much. There’s a lot of eye swivelling between him and Matt, who has emerged from outside, and is furtling around in the cakes that Lianne has magically unfurled. But the idea (whatever it is) will be a retrofit to existing equipment. 

“Oh yeah, we don’t want to build a fork, and we don’t want to build a shock.”

More jazz, less mulching. 

It certainly sounds interesting. What’s also interesting is that Bounce seems to operate as much as a tool and bushing repository for local shops (and worldwide customers too) as they are for retail customers, for whom Frank, Matt and Lianne will perform a basic service, through assembly to full-on machining repair.

“Because we’re getting more involved with machining, we’re getting more jobs that we wouldn’t have got before; folks coming in and saying ‘we’ve got this problem; this part has snapped on my bike’. Not just re-tapping mulched up threads mind you, you’re talking about pretty major machining jobs on broken frames. A lot of old full suspension Marins and so forth.”

Essentially, then, Frank and Bounce are at least partly responsible for the 20-plus-year-old suspension frames that you still see at Polaris events up and down the country. But although Matt still rides mountain bikes, these days Frank takes things a little more slowly.

“Eventually we all turn into our dad. My commuter/gravel/whatever the trendy name for it is now bike has a Brooks saddle, mudguards, all of that. And all this stuff is becoming cool again! It’s funny, we’re getting more and more people who seem to be converging on bikes like these. Roadies saying they’re not going to buy bikes with 23c tyres any more because it’s doing their back in. And there are more and more mountain bikers saying that they’re just not getting the use out of their 160mm gnar machines – they’ll use it for one enduro, and for the rest of the time it’s totally unsuitable!”

While Frank might prefer his bike riding to have more of a jazz than a metal soundtrack these days, he’s still sure that the full suspension bike’s days aren’t numbered just yet. But whatever the future holds for bikes with bends in the middle, or at the front – if there’s stuff to be machined that’ll make it better, there’ll be Bounce.

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