It took half an hour or so to pluck up courage and wander over to the payphone in the corner. I was no more than 20 feet away from the thing, but something was keeping my Lycra-clad skinny backside firmly in situ on that extremely uncomfortable plastic seat. It can’t have been sweat: it was freezing outside and the familiar warmth of Bromley A&E department was a welcome relief. It can’t have been blood: I had been clutching a big wad of tissue to my face since the ambulance crew kindly dropped me off earlier.
Eventually I made my move, pulled out a coin and dialed the number.
“Hi, ith me,” I spluttered through the tissue. “Geth where I am?”
“Oh, not again!” she said, before asking what the damage was. Just three weeks had passed since my previous visit to casualty for something bike-related, although none-too-serious – details of the injuries escape me now. It can’t have been too bad because here I was again, fearful of phoning home to admit my own stupidity.
This time, thankfully, it was nothing that would prevent bike riding for more than a day or two (although my wife may have viewed it differently), but it did make a complete mess of my face. There was nothing obviously wrong with the tarmac surface as I banked over hard to take a sharp left-hander, but down I went in an instant. Landing face-first, if you’ve never tried it, is not recommended. It hurts like hell, and chins, mouths and noses all bleed profusely. The only positive to take from the experience is that the instantaneous effect of slipping on black ice makes the default reaction of arm-out (leading to broken collarbone) impossible. Look on the bright side: nothing broken.
Once home and scabbing over nicely, and ready once more to head out on the mean streets of south London, I looked at my bike and decided the tyres had to go in the bin. There was plenty of life left in them – a few more months on the commuter bike would certainly have been feasible – yet they had to go.
It was a matter of trust. A bond had been broken irrevocably. There was no logic behind the decision; a tyre that could have saved me in that situation has yet to be invented. It would be churlish to name the manufacturer involved, as it was clearly nobody’s fault but my own, but the writing on the wall of those tyres is indelibly printed on my mind. I will never ride them again, logical or not.
Brand loyalty is a broadly understandable concept. The “Campag or Shimano?” never-ending debate got well and truly muddled by SRAM sticking its nose in the mix. It’s now a three-way fight and, chances are, once settled on your groupset manufacturer of choice, there you will remain. Life’s complicated enough without incompatibility issues between the running gear on your shed-full of bikes, not to mention having to engage the brain every time you want to change gear for fear of pushing a lever in the wrong direction.
And what sits between road surface and rims commands fierce loyalty too. Find a brand that grips, wears well and rarely punctures, and it will take pretty compelling reasons to change. Fellow Rouleur man Matt Seaton described it as “flirting” with alternatives, and we scuttle back to where we feel safest at the first hint of trouble. Tyres are the comfort blanket of cycling equipment.
So aside from the occasional foray with others’ offerings, my default position with rubber has remained the same for the past 20 years or so. I contemplated this brand loyalty conundrum on the Eurostar to Paris where Arnaud Zumaglia, marketing and communications manager at Hutchinson, awaited to drive us 70 miles south to Montargis, where the company has been based since 1853. This is an historic brand that makes quality products that I am struggling to recall ever using. Indeed, outside of Decathlon’s UK stores, trying to spot a Hutchinson tyre on the shelves of a cycle retailer is a difficult task.
Here is a brand that has taken Louison Bobet, Jacques Anquetil and Lance Armstrong (all seven times) to victory in the Tour de France – plenty to shout about – yet is practically invisible in Britain and, I suspect, the rest of the world. Thomas Voeckler’s Hutchinsons carried him to ten stages in yellow and fourth overall this year, the highest-placed Frenchman at the Tour since Christophe Moreau in 2000 – worth making a fuss of, you would think. Hutchinson, in that oh-so-French way, appears to have more of a take-it-or-leave-it attitude: let the products speak for themselves, which is, I suppose, quite refreshing in this age of hard sell and product endorsement. The company provides tyres for three pro road teams – Europcar, FDJ and Geox – who provide feedback to research and development manager Norbert Gangloff, the man from Hutchinson with the closest working relationship to the riders, with over 30 years of experience at the Montargis factory. Scour the Hutchinson website and you may find a brief mention of this, but it takes some searching.
The French nation is understandably proud of its produce and loyal to homegrown manufacturing: food and wine, cars, cinema and culture – France has it all, so why look abroad? This could be construed as insularism, or it could be patriotism; I am inclined towards the latter. Hell, crack open a bottle of Nuits-Saint-Georges and strike up La Marseillaise and even I would stand to attention and try and bluff my way through the first verse. Where French businesses seems slow to adapt is in getting the message across to export markets in an increasingly competitive world. The social networking and strong web presence deemed as essential tools of a modern business lag far behind. Either the rest of us have got it wrong – Facebook will implode in a cyberspace black hole, taking Twitter and YouTube with it, and we will return once more to a world where the term “viral” is only heard in doctors’ surgeries – or France is missing a trick.
My Francophile friends say the nation is finally changing: English is now widely spoken; it is an outward-looking, modern European state keen to do business with the rest of the world; the long lunch break with its attendant wine has become an outmoded anachronism, no longer relevant in this age of sandwiches at the desk. If the American notion of lunch being for wimps, as Gordon Gekko maintained in 1987’s Wall Street, is now widespread, France was turning a blind eye, too busy watching Louis Malle’s excellent Au Revoir les Enfants, a far superior film seen by a fraction of the Hollywood blockbuster’s audience. There is an apt parallel here to Hutchinson and its output. I discussed this notion with my hosts over a fine dish of duck with lentils and a carafe of eminently drinkable red before we started the factory tour…
You’re probably wondering (or should be) how a French tyre company with such an English name came to be based in Montargis in 1853, some 35 years before John Boyd Dunlop patented the pneumatic tyre. Hiram Hutchinson left his native America in the company of a group of US foremen and a ship-full of machinery to establish a very successful rubber shoe factory, rapidly expanding to produce military equipment and a multitude of other rubber-based goods. When John Dunlop developed the first successful pneumatic bicycle tyre in 1887, Hutchinson saw an opportunity and followed suit three years later.
Step forward a century or so and the company founded by the American makes a mind-boggling array of rubber goods: car door seals, tyres for all kinds of motorised transport, teats for baby bottles, anti-vibration systems for submarines and trains, bathing caps, even those orange seals for preserving jars. Knowing Hutchinson makes parts for Boeing aircraft and the Ariane space rocket is a tad bizarre, but rather reassuring at the same time. There is no margin for error in a space rocket. These guys know their rubber.
Samuel Labard, chief chemist at Montargis and our guide for the tour, is a man who certainly knows his rubber, including the fascinating history of its export from Brazil. “At the beginning of the rubber industry in the mid-nineteenth century, the only rubber trees were in the Amazon forest, but many of them were diseased,” he tells me. “An Englishman, Henry Wickham, took something like 30,000 seeds back to England, grew the saplings, then transferred them to Malaysia. After five years, only 17 remained alive. And these 17 trees were the start of the modern rubber industry. Everything since then has come from those 17 trees.”
Sir Henry Wickham: father of the modern rubber industry (European view), or bio-pirate – “the executioner of Amazonas” (Brazilian)? Either way, it’s an interesting tale that Wickham apparently embellished somewhat in each telling. Whatever the truth, it is remarkable to think that workers in Southeast Asia are tapping trees for the magical milk-coloured latex that forms the basis of so much of what Hutchinson do and can drain enough of the stuff to supply well over 90 per cent of the world’s demand. Synthetic rubbers work best for the tread but the skeleton of the tyre is still made from the real thing, stacks of which lie on pallets awaiting introduction to the massive heated steel cylinders which produce beautifully smooth sheets of the black stuff.
Apologies for the history lesson but it is time to talk about vulcanisation, without which all this rubber is not much use. Charles Goodyear, of whom you will have heard, either accidently spilt some sulphur and rubber on a hot stove, or intentionally introduced the two components to heat, producing much-improved durability and mechanical properties. Much like Sir Henry and his 17 saplings, the jury is out on which is the true account, but without Goodyear, our guide Monsieur Labard would be out of a job.
“Before vulcanisation the rubber is like hard chewing gum,” he explains. “In the early days, they just added rubber to fabrics and textiles to waterproof them. With vulcanisation, you add sulphur to natural rubber to produce a chemical reaction and then you have a usable material.”
Arnaud chips in with obvious pride: “The French brand Eagle was the first in France to make rubber boots using this method, and that was the first product Hiram Hutchinson made here.”
As the raw rubber cools from an intense 150 degrees to a manageable 90, sulphur and other additives go in the mix: carbon black powder for durability, silica for light-coloured tyres. Automated programmable weighing machines introduce vivid powders in red, yellow, blue – whatever the colour of that day’s run might be. What just minutes earlier looked like a wooden palette-full of unpromising-looking raw material, before being poked between hot rollers by a strapping bloke, has emerged as a swathe of beautiful crimson rubber ready to meet its synthetic base layer.
You will have to excuse my sense of excitement thus far, but it is far from over. I am not the kind of cyclist who thinks too deeply about what sits beneath me. An inquisitive mind for all things mechanical is a wonderful thing – I just don’t possess one. If a bike works efficiently, doesn’t creak, is not too heavy and isn’t ugly, that’s good enough for me – which probably has a bearing on the lack of adventure when it comes to picking tyres. Picture the lack of enthusiasm approaching my first Rouleur equipment feature, something successfully swerved since joining the magazine. What can be said about tyres? (I must at this point give special mention to the editor who concocted a thoroughly enjoyable feature about spokes from Switzerland. Anything is possible after that.) But the whole day was absolutely gripping in every respect. And no pun intended.
Warp and weft: there’s two words you don’t hear often, unless working in the clothes trade. The warp is the lengthwise yarn held in tension on a frame, while the weft is woven between crosswise to form the material. Samuel demonstrates with a small section of base layer the impressive strength it has in the warp direction, then turns it sideways and rips the weft apart with ease. The clever bit comes by cutting the material at 45 degrees where the combination of strength and elasticity reaches its optimum.
The tyre-related acronym you probably are familiar with – even I knew about this – was TPI, or threads per inch. The more, the better, giving a thinner and more flexible tyre carcass. “In the beginning it was 33,” says Samuel, “with big yarn, then doubled to 66, then doubled again – 127.” Hold on a minute… “But in reality it is not that. It is 100. I don’t know why.”
Content that if Samuel doesn’t know, it’s probably not worth knowing, we move onto the most labour-intensive part of the tyre making process: rows of deft-fingered women bringing carcass, beading and tread together with meticulous high-speed dexterity. Then to huge heavy presses for final shaping and stretching, the finished articles emerging steaming to be cooled on racks.
This is the point where I am struck by how many pairs of hands have worked on each and every one of these tyres. I expected some kind of mass production, automated line, without having really thought it through. The reality is, yes, it’s a production line, but with a necessarily hands-on approach that is very much old school manufacturing at its finest. I vow never, ever, to complain about the cost of a pair of tyres again.
We have almost reached the end of the line except there is a tank of water that would make a fitting home to a shoal of tropical fish for the finished articles to negotiate first. One man mounts every single Road Tubeless tyre onto a rim, pumps it up, then dips it into the tank, checking for the emergence of air bubbles. The inflated tyre then hangs on a rack for 24 hours before final inspection and being passed fit to be packaged – quality control and then some.
By the end of the tour, I am converted to Hutchinson. So how come everyone else isn’t? Probably something to do with not having had a guided tour of the premises. Or canard aux lentilles. Or a glass or two of red… But putting all that aside for a minute, why was I not aware of what these guys are doing before visiting Montargis?
The tubeless tyre concept, ditched by Michelin some years back but taken forward by Hutchinson, has been garnering rave reviews and gradually winning acceptance, thanks in part to a wider availability of compatible wheels, but it seems like slow going to get the cycling public to switch. Arnaud tells me 60 per cent of the Europcar team’s mileage is now done using Hutchinson’s Road Tubeless instead of tubulars, including Paris-Roubaix, where the ability to run lower pressures without risk of pinch punctures make it ideal. Used in conjunction with the latex sealant, the chances of a blowout are also greatly reduced. There are plenty of tales out there on the web of what a pain in the backside they are to set up initially, but the general consensus seems to be a thumbs-up for Road Tubeless.
Of course, Hutchinson still make a small quantity of tubulars as well and an array of standard inner tube-using covers, but Road Tubeless is where the company believes the future lies and where it directs a large proportion of its energy. It is a bold step but one that deserves to succeed because it is abundantly clear these people have a firm belief in what they are producing, and have done for the past 150 years.
As we drive back towards the Paris rush hour and the Gare du Nord, me clutching my hand-signed and permanently embossed tyres that have yet to make it onto a bike, I decide it’s time to branch out and give Hutchinson a go before long. Yes, we have been well and truly schmoozed. Yes, a good lunch always helps curry favour. But I am pretty sure that even an equipment ignoramus like myself would spot a lame duck when he saw one.
And never again will I open a Kilner jar, step through a train door or pull on a pair of rubber gloves without thinking of Sir Henry Wickham, Charles Goodyear or Hutchinson tyres.