Unless you’re a serious cyclist or a transport historian, there’s a good chance you won’t have heard of Starley.
In fact, the name should be as synonymous with cycling as Ford and Dyson are with the worlds of motor cars and vacuum cleaners.
After all, it was uncle James and his nephew John Kemp Starley who more than anyone were responsible for the look and design of the bicycles we ride today – it was the latter’s safety bicycle, manufactured in Coventry in 1885, that sparked the global boom for two-wheeled transport that continues today.
One hundred and thirty years later, the Starley name can call Altrincham its home. Two years after the trademark was acquired by Richard and Amanda Peel, Starley Bikes is building a reputation for innovation in bike manufacturing and speed on the elite race circuit.
The man in charge of that reputation on a day-to-day basis is Nick Fountain. Although the marketing director by title, his role is far more wide-ranging, taking in both the professional cycling team (which he runs in partnership with Primal Clothing in Portsmouth) and the part-factory, part-showroom on Church Street.
A former dirt-biker (a more extreme form of BMX biking) until his competitive career was ended by a broken back suffered in a car crash when he was 18, Fountain kept in touch with the bike industry and became involved with Starley after a conversation with Richard Peel, who he’d known for years.
Below: Starley Bikes on Church Street in Altrincham
He says that the Peels had seen a demand for a bike company that was “different”. “The problem with the bike industry,” Fountain says, “is that you walk into a shop, are told ‘that bike’s about right’, and you go off and ride it. You then adapt to try and fit the bike, with the result that you end up with pain across your shoulders and lower back and all sorts of other places. Plus your gear ratios might not be right, so you then have to invest further.”
Starley’s difference is that the product comes with a service. You’re not just buying a bike – you’re buying a process that begins with an initial jig measurement and ends with a two-hour fitting for a bike that will be entirely bespoke to the rider.
In between, the bike will be in designed in Altrincham, made in Taiwan or China, and then returned in raw form to Altrincham to be “prepped, finished and painted in-house” (every Starley bike will be painted to the customer’s preference). The final leg is a “rigorous” testing procedure at a facility in Warrington. After all that, bikes start at £1,200 and go up to several thousand.
Below: Starley’s bikes being finished in Altrincham
“It’s the personal touch, not just the product,” adds Fountain. “Each bike comes with a unique service – and you’ll get that whether you choose a £1,200 bike or a £5,000 bike.
The company has only been selling bikes to the public for the last couple of years, during which time it has had a “nice steady growth”, with international sales in particular going well where ironically the Starley name is more recognised. Fountain is determined to continue that growth in a “controlled manner” in order not to compromise the quality.
Starley did previously use its Altrincham base as a metal and paint studio only, but last summer gutted the vacant shop unit at the front and customers can now see its bikes both as finished articles and works in progress.
“The area works well for us and it’s good for people travelling from distance – we have people flying into the airport and collecting their bikes,” adds Fountain. “You have the Peaks and the Lake District not far away, and there’s some brilliant riding around Cheshire, so all in all it’s a fantastic area for cycling.”
Below: Starley Bikes’ Nick Fountain
The race team – the only professional outfit in the UK to have a male and female team – is intended to be a vehicle for brand Starley, and after “massive success” at the elite tour level this year, has big ambitions.
“We’d love a grand tour invite in the next five years,” admits Fountain, “something like a wild card at the Tour de France.”
In order to achieve that dream, they’ll need a bigger budget and more substantial sponsorship income – but Fountain says they are “stepping up in terms of riders and racing ability” with each passing year.
From its base in Altrincham, Starley Bikes is building up and thinking big. Perhaps that famous name will get the wider recognition it deserves after all.
Below: A Starley bike in racing mode, and some finished models in the Altrincham showroom