In a world of bikes mass produced in Asia, made from exotic materials, such as carbon fibre, a small, family business in the north of England has successfully bucked the global trend. Ellis Briggs still make bicycles in the traditional manner.
Ellis Briggs was established in 1936 by Leonard Ellis and Thomas Briggs. The company has been producing quality, handmade bicycles to order ever since. The bikes are built to meet the customer's exact requirements and to last a lifetime.
The owners are John and Paul Briggs, the grandsons of Thomas Briggs. They have been working in the shop since the 1960s. The staff are all similarly experienced. Paul Gibson described himself as something of a new boy, having only worked for the company for a mere 13 years. It is easy to see why he would feel that way. Simon has been servicing and repairing the bikes for 20 years and Andrew Puodziunas, the frame builder, has been with Ellis Briggs for almost 40 years.
Ellis Briggs, traditional hand built bicycle frames made in the same way since 1936.
It is Andrew's craft that turns what might well be a good but ordinary bicycle shop into something special. Andrew spends forty hours building a bike frame. Many other frame builders will knock out a frame in less than a day. The difference shows in the quality. The attention to detail is obsessive.
The frames are made in the traditional manner, using Reynolds high quality steel. The tubes are joined together with intricately worked lugs. This traditional craftsmanship has been carefully passed down the generations. Andrew learnt the skills and the obsessive commitment to quality from the current owners' father, Jack Briggs.
Ellis Briggs still make cycles in the traditional manner, using steel and lug construction, just as they have since 1936.
The lug work is, not simply exquisite, it is highly practical and functional. When I asked Paul Gibson about how long an Ellis Briggs bicycle might be expected to last, he told me that people were still bringing frames to the shop for repairs and renovations that had been made in the 1950s. He explained that unlike bikes made from exotic modern materials, a steel lugged frame bike can always be repaired.
The bikes are all made to order. With Andrew taking at least a week to build a frame, this is not the kind of bike for anyone who is in a rush and just wants to walk into a shop and see a bike that takes their fancy and walk out with their new purchase. Buying one of Ellis Briggs' bikes is a process. One to be savoured. Paul Gibson explained how they discuss each aspect of the decision-making with a potential customer. Care is taken to ascertain the customer's budget, the type of riding they want the bike for, the parts with which it will be adorned and the correct sizing. All of this information feeds into the design and building process, ensuring safety and high performance. An Ellis Briggs bike is a bike for life.
So who buys these bikes, I asked. Paul Briggs, co-owner, told me that many of their customers nowadays are people who have often stopped cycling for a long time, but have come back to cycling recently. These are people who know about quality and want to treat themselves.
Paul shows me an Ellis Briggs, traditional hand built bicycle frame ready to be built up for an expectant customer.
One of the things that really struck me as I listened to the staff at Ellis Briggs was the all-pervasive sense of history. It is clear that everyone involved is keenly aware of being a part of a long and impressive tradition. Of the anecdotes Paul told me, one struck me as simultaneously amusing, ironic and impressive. The iconic American bicycle builder, Richard Sachs back in the 1970s wrote to Ellis Briggs asking for the privilege of working for free so he could learn the art and craft of frame building. Paul added the punch line: "We said, 'No'." However, as Richard points out on his website, he was accepted by Witcomb Cycles, sadly now defunct. Yet Ellis Briggs did teach another famous American the art and craft: Doug Fattic. It was, of course, the enthusiasm and commitment of American frame builders, such as Sachs and Fattic, who came to Europe to learn the art and craft that helped to revitalise the global market for quality hand built bicycles.
The attention to detail of an Ellis Briggs bike is particularly obvious in the lug-work.
This sense of history also shines through in how readily the staff talk of the great cycle riders who have been sponsored by Ellis Briggs over the decades. These include such people as Beryl Burton, who dominated women's cycling, setting a time trial record that beat the men's, amongst many other achievements. They also talk of Ken Russell, who worked in the shop, and his incredible victory in the Tour of Britain, which he won without a team. It is amazing to think that Russell's success occurred back in 1952.
So, how well do these bicycles perform? On the basis of personal experience, I can assure the reader that the answer is: beautifully.