It’s a team effort, not just one person’s vision
The Hope HB.130 is the realisation of a dream for Hope’s founders. We head to Lancashire in order to find out the story behind this ambitious project.
One wall of Hope’s meeting room is fully glazed. The smartly appointed mezzanine looks out across the workshop floor and rows of machines, the double glazing blocking out the noise and giving the scene a strange serenity. These large anonymous looking machines run around the clock turning steel and aluminium into bicycle components with high-speed precision. Working with metal has a reputation for being grim and grimy but here it’s light, airy and almost suspiciously clean. This is cutting-edge manufacturing.
Hope is one of the UK cycling industry’s great success stories. Over its 30-year history, Hope has forged — or rather machined — a reputation for pragmatic, robust design combined with colourful anodised flare. For this reason, and many others, it has earned itself something of a soft spot in the hearts of British riders. In turn it has never been afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve — the fact that its workshop is on view to visitors is proof that it’s proud, not just of what it makes, but how it goes about making it.
Pride of place in front of the reception room’s window is Hope’s latest bike — the HB.T track bike. Designed in collaboration with Lotus Engineering and the Great Britain Cycling Team, the HB.T has been designed with the goal of bringing Olympic medals back from the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games. It’s a stunning bike, with a mantis-like design constructed from 3D printed alloy and composites.
But it’s Hope’s facility with carbon, rather than its metallurgical knowledge, that has lead to its involvement in the project. Olympic success or not, it will look incredible in action, especially on the velodrome Hope is planning to build just over the hill in its hometown of Barnoldswick. That’s right, this is a company not short on ambition.
For Hope’s founders, the move into frame building was born from the simple desire to make a bike for themselves and to have something unique to hang their components on. When faced with a blank sheet of paper, and with the ability to machine components to suit in-house, Hope saw an opportunity to innovate and do things its own way. Arguably it was the company’s co-founder, the late Simon Sharp, who was the driving force of this project, but the man charged with designing the first bike, and every subsequent model, is Guillaume Leon. Guillaume has worked for Hope since 2002, but now lives and works in Briançon in his native France, travelling back to the UK as and when needed. After 17 years of working in Barnoldswick, there’s an umistakable Lancastrian twang to his French accent, adding a je ne sais quoi to his already affable personality.
Today he is busy torture testing brakes on a dyno, watching as numbers slowly change on the computer that is monitoring the exercise, and the brake disc starts to glow. As a designer and engineer he’d spent his spare time playing with ideas of what an entirely Hope-built bike might look like. He’d drawn sketches and built models of what he thought might work, so when the time came to actually make a frame, Guillaume was the man for the job.
The first bike — the Hope HB.211 — was a 160mm-travel, 27.5in-wheeled enduro bike. It was meant to be for internal use only — something for the race team and employees to ride. With a blank sheet of paper and enough engineering power to comfortably disregard, or work around, industry standards, Hope was able to try new ideas, such as a slimline 130mm custom hub spacing, bespoke crank and BB interface, a motorcycle-inspired radial rear brake mount and other clever touches. Probably the biggest talking point was the carbon mainframe. For a company best known for working with metal, this seemed an odd choice, but for Hope it was the obvious way forward.
Despite a factory full of CNC machines and three decades of working with aluminium, Hope didn’t have any real background with welding. But with the tooling and the ability to machine a mould from a slab of metal, creating a carbon frame was both easier and cheaper. And Hope did in fact have some experience with carbon prior to the HB, producing a limited number of bars and seatposts.
A new Hope
Hope believed if it was going to create a bike, it had to do it properly. Producing a carbon frame requires quality at every step — in materials, tools and labour. So the corner of the factory that dealt with carbon was expanded, composite expert Chris Clarke was hired to oversee things, and staff and resources were allocated to make things happen.
When the production version of the HB.211 — the Hope HB.160 — was finally offered to the public it was met with a mixed response. The looks, quality and attention to detail were undoubtedly there but, for what in most people’s books was a cutting-edge super-bike, the geometry was a little behind the times. Guillaume acknowledges that the geometry had been one of the first aspects of the bike to be signed off. After that, the team had spent the majority of their time concentrating on the suspension design and, crucially, the manufacturing process. By the time the HB.160 went into production, the geometry that had been approved at the start of the project seemed dated. That’s not to say it was bad — Guillaume says that the geometry works perfectly on his local trails in Briançon where things are tight and technical, but, call it fashion or progress, the HB.160’s numbers weren’t perceived to be as progressive as the bike could have been.
Progress and change don’t stop, and even within Hope things had moved on. The Enduro race team was starting to be less of a priority and staff riders were looking for a bike better suited to the trails closer to home, rather than one designed for racing. The new breed of shorter-travel 29ers seemed to be what most riders, both in Hope and in the general market, seemed to be gravitating towards. Guillaume got to work.
With a lot of the frame manufacturing process in place, and lessons learned from developing the HB.160, there was more time to concentrate on the geometry of the new bike. A great deal of comparison testing was done, buying interesting bikes and giving them to staff to ride, creating a bank of feedback. Opinions were also gathered from outside the company to make sure they broke out of their echo chamber. The geometry of the new bike was updated three times before Hope was happy with it. The fourth iteration became the HB.130 — Hope’s 29inch, 130mm-travel trail bike.
Gisburn Forest is half an hour’s drive north of Hope. With Guillaume busy setting fire to brakes on his test rig, I’m being shown round by Doddy. Rob ‘Doddy’ Dodsworth is the HB brand manager. Responsible for sales, specs, customer service and a whole host of other things, he’s understandably passionate about the bikes in his charge.
Hope has a strong association with the trails at Gisburn. The Hope Line trail is the most obvious tie, but the hugely successful Hopetech Women’s Enduro race is held here and Hope is a strong supporter of the PMBA (Pennine Mountain Bike Association) race series which invariably uses Gisburn as a venue.
The forest is wearing Hope livery today — black cut through with vibrant green. In among the dense darkness of the forest, pockets of light illuminate the moss that carpets the ground. The HB.130 was designed with a broad remit, but it feels very much at home here. Tight and twisty, the trail has little in the way of full-bore, wide-open sections. Lots of travel and a raked-out head angle aren’t necessarily the key to going fast at Gisburn. Instead a more balanced, nuanced, approach is needed. Naturally for Lancashire in December it’s raining. Builders brew-coloured puddles dot the trail, corners are started with a bow wave and exited with a hero splash. Water and traffic have laid down a beating in places, giving the man-made trails a more natural touch; 130mm of travel and 29-inch wheels feels just enough here.
The HB.130 uses the same suspension design as the HB.160 but with a little more anti-squat dialled into the kinematics, giving a zip to the bike that lends itself to accelerating from one corner to the next. Guillaume says he uses his HB.130 for rides below 1,000 metres and his HB.160 for anything above that. Bearing in mind where he lives, that should mean the HB.130 is fine for just about anything this country can throw its way.
The weather-resistant trails lend a consistency that allows for solid comparative testing to be done, and it’s also representative of the kind of riding many of us do. A lot of the bikes Hope brings in to test are lapped round the forest. But it’s not all trail centre here. In among the dense woods are some off-piste sections — local-built trails and leftovers from various races. The good ones feel almost official; the raw dirt and roots in the corners the only giveaway that these are not built to a spec, more to a feel — much like the HB.130.
Steel and titanium frames have a reputation for possessing something special. ‘Soul’ sounds a bit hippy-dippy, but they are often perceived to have a character other materials can’t match. To some people this is just guff, to others it’s an important part of choosing a bike. Carbon has generally been overlooked by those looking for that ‘something’. From a technological standpoint it’s a wonder material, but one often associated with production-line bikes. There might be something in the Gisburn puddle water, but the HB.130 feels like a bike that has a bit more to it. Maybe it’s the carbon layup, the fact it’s been made by people I’ve looked in the eye, or just that it’s to my liking, but the HB.130 has a definite personality to it. Sometimes it’s those intangibles that make a bike feel special.
Despite the sizeable investment in producing the HBs, Doddy says there isn’t pressure to hit targets and push sales. Hope is a component manufacturer first and foremost, and that’s what brings in the money. With its current set-up it can only make five frames a week, each frame is made to order and the waiting list stands at five weeks.
Hope being Hope, HB buyers can customise their bike to suit. One customer is having one side of their HB finished with silver components and the other side red. Why? Because they can. Every HB customer is given updates as their frame progresses from sheets of carbon through to final build, and when it’s ready, it can be collected from the factory. It’s an intensely personal affair, and although the frame might not be truly custom for each rider, each bike is certainly unique.
Low cloud snags on the tops of the trees and rain whips across our faces. There are a couple of vantage points that offer fine views over the forest and towards the Trough of Bowland, but we’re avoiding them today. It’s a day for hiding in the trees, even if this makes photography tricky.
We explore some dirty but fun off-piste trails that straightline down the hill before wiggling through the trees. Claggy mud coats the frame, but the slim, angular stays shrug it off. The alloy subframe isn’t welded, instead it uses a bonding process that is also used on the wings of an Airbus A380. This means that Hope can keep the assembly in-house, but also means that there are fewer alignment issues.
Two riders join us at the top of the Hope Line. Both are on ex-Hope staff bikes and are understandably interested and enthusiastic about the HB.130. Well-built and supported products, along with plenty of homegrown pride, has made Hope part of the fabric of the UK riding scene; now that cloth has a carbon weave. The weather deteriorates further and after riding down the dark Hope Line by feel more than sight, we beat a retreat to the van.
Back at the factory a freshly built long-travel 29er from a large well known brand sits in reception. Another bike in for comparative testing and a hint at what’s to come? Maybe. At Hope anything is possible.
Talk to the people behind the HB range and each is keen to stress it’s a team effort, and not just one person’s vision. Many minds have played a part in turning the HB project from idea to reality, proving it truly does take a factory to build a bike.
About this Best of British series
The UK is a world leader in mountain bike design. We have a proud engineering heritage and a stoic pragmatism that has given us a reputation for timeless, practical design. At the same time we are open minded and innovative, unafraid of pushing boundaries and not resting on our laurels. From men tinkering in sheds to large scale engineering companies we are a nation of thinkers and doers, evidenced by the number of bike brands that call the UK home.
We’ve more than just curiosity and engineering know-how to thank for this though, the geography of the British Isles has played an equally important role in influencing the design our bikes. In this series we are going to talk to UK bike brands and explore the trails that have influenced their design decisions. We want to find out if there was one trail that informed a bike’s design, a particular section of a ride that gave a eureka moment, how has Britain’s landscape shaped the bikes we ride today?