A constant shifting of purpose has kept Orange as relevant today as it ever has been
Orange’s Five is a true home-grown classic and one of the nation’s favourite trail bikes; we head to West Yorkshire to sample its Calder Valley test ground.
Best of British: Orange Bikes
You know the Orange Five. It’s an iconic bike with one of the most recognisable silhouettes in the business and more heritage in its downtube than some bike brands have in their model range. If you haven’t owned one chances are you know someone who has and for many the Five is the definition of a UK trail bike – other pretenders might come and go but the Five remains.
But maybe you don’t know the Five, or rather the Five of today. Having been on the scene for so long whilst keeping roughly the same profile it’s easy to assume that if you’ve ridden a Five at some point in its history you know what to expect. Rolling a brand new Five alongside its 20 year old ancestor the Sub 5 it’s clear that the only thing they really have in common is the monocoque downtube, single pivot suspension design and monostay rear – and even these have only a passing resemblance.
When Ashley Ball bought Orange almost four years ago he knew he was buying a lot of heritage. But with heritage can come unwanted legacy. Misconceptions, prejudices and criticism – fair and unfair – were just as much a part of the package as accolades and good will. Ash didn’t go into the deal blind though, he’s been behind the fabrication of Orange’s full suspension bikes for years, working with former owners Steve Wade and Lester Noble. When Steve and Lester were looking to retire Ash was the obvious man to take on the business, the good bits and the not so good.
Orange calls the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire home. The valley sides which range from mellow grassy farmland to steep woodland hem industry, housing, recreation and nature into the same space. This mix of uses means the hills are threaded with trails. Some are old and underused dating back to Roman times, others fresh and cut in by the local riders in search of challenges and limits.
A seam of millstone grit runs through the valley bubbling up to the surface to offer grip to tyre tread but a vicious rasping to skin. Dirt that is equal parts clay and mulch resembles a semi-solidified oil-slick in colour and consistency, kept permanently moist by thick tree cover and rain it offers nothing but trouble and unpredictability. Climb out of the valley onto the tops and things change dramatically. The moors in summer offer sandy singletrack through the heather, a bike sized Scalextric with hundreds of permutations on how you build your track. Fast and slow, light and dark – the valley and the trails that reach into it are binary, there’s little room for middle ground here.
All of Orange’s bikes are designed in Calderdale but the Five is the most natural pairing to the trails that lurk in the valley. Its development over the years has often gone hand in hand with the trails that Orange employees choose to ride when it’s time to down tools and pick up bikes. As the working day ends at five maybe the clue is in the name.
When Orange start the process of developing a bike it starts with a design brief. This will act as a guide to every design decision taken so getting this right is important. Who is the bike aimed at? Where might it be ridden? From this suspension, wheel size and geometry decisions can be made. The problem coming up with a brief for the Five is the wide spectrum of riding it can cover. This is also the reason for its popularity. While in years past you might have bought a Five and then swapped in a set of long travel forks and heavy duty wheels for trips to the Alps the march of progress in component and manufacturing technology has meant that straight out of the box the latest Five is up for most kinds of riding – home or abroad.
If you turn up to Orange’s frame fabrication plant expecting a grubby, dark and dirty shed filled with archaic tools you’ll be disappointed. The offices are bright and airy and the workshop floor is filled with large, modern machinery cutting and bending metal. Tubes and jigs are neatly stacked on shelves and each welding bay is organised to each welders’ preference. There are still the noises and smells you expect from a place of industry but with millions of pounds worth of high-tech equipment creating complex shapes out of metal this is not the dark Satanic mill some would have you believe.
Ash picks up the front section of a Five swingarm. He points out the revised design, additional creasing has improved strength while inside holes have been drilled, both to minimise weight but also to improve air and quenching fluid flow during heat treatment. The quicker the quench the more effective the process is allowing for a thinner gauge of sheet metal to be used, saving weight without sacrificing strength. “People say nothing’s changed on the Five, but everything has changed – externally and internally.”
While CAD is relied on for the final design and machine programming Ash relies on a notebook and calculator to start the design work. Like an artist might make a sketch before committing to canvas Ash scribbles ideas and punches numbers on his grubby Big Number calculator before touching a computer. For a Yorkshireman he’s quite sentimental about it, “That calculator has designed more bikes than you can imagine.”
Being a designer means being ahead of the curve and looking at where you want to be in the future, even if as a business owner you need to be looking at where you are now. Loading a Five into the back of his Defender I spot a bike already in there, matte black with black components it couldn’t be more stealth if it tried. It’s a prototype bike that Ash has been riding. “I really enjoyed riding and developing the Five but to me that bike is done, I’m trying to think about what we’ll be riding in three year’s time.” Riding prototypes sounds exciting, and it is, but Ash doesn’t see riding as testing.
“I’m a human being, when I go for a ride it’s to forget about work. I ride for the same reasons as everyone else – for enjoyment. I leave the testing to my subconscious, it’s amazing what it can work out without you being aware of it.” Ride debriefs happen at a later date, but not always at a convenient time – this morning Ash woke up at a quarter to three in the morning, ideas buzzing around his head. The notebook and calculator getting a good work out.
Winding onto the moors of the Upper Calder Valley Yorkshire rolls out to the horizon, Lancastrian windfarms in the distance marking the county boundary. The midsummer heat makes the grass that is slowly fading from green to yellow shimmer, turning the open expanse into a Northern savannah. A few muddy sections survive on the trail, fed by water trickling from higher up and shaded by coarse heather either side. Moorland singletrack is something special. It requires patience, to wait for the trails to become baked or frozen hard and skimming over the landscape seems effortless, the hollow sound of dry peat booming below you. Oranges, and the Five in particular, have always felt at home on trails like this where pumping and working the terrain are rewarded with speed and just mashing the pedals being catapulted into the scrub.
The moors are unrelenting. There’s precious little protection from the weather here, be it wind, rain or sun. It takes a particular determination to survive in such a place regardless of whether you are animal, mineral or vegetable. The wooded valleys that skirt the moors are no more of a safe haven. Here the trails take on a different character. The speed and flow of the moors is replaced with awkward, slow speed technical rocky sections. The certainty of grip on rock diminishes with a thin veneer of green slime making committing to some lines a gamble. It’s physically and mentally demanding riding with little scope to relax. Trails that were built to heave goods in and out of the valley typically take the most efficient way up and down, that is to say steep. This means climbs are short and sharp and descents are similar.
This combination of fast singletrack and slow speed tech has over the years produced a mutant strain of bikes in Calderdale. Frankenbikes built with short travel frames with long travel forks have traditionally done well here, a curious mix of agility and strength – bikes designed to winch up and plummet down. Modern geometry and suspension has reduced the compromise of shorter travel on the downs and longer travel on the ups, making a standard Five the sweet spot in the range for most people without creating a monstrosity.
As the Five has grown and changed it’s created a gap that is now filled by the Orange Four, a 120mm rear travel bike. This is, essentially what the Five was but with the addition of more modern geometry. For a lot of people the Four is all the bike they need and proof not to pigeon hole a bike by its numbers. Ash points out that the trails you regularly ride don’t really change, you’ll always have favourites you come back to again and again, but the amount of travel on your bike might change. Some people will have ‘downsized’ from an older Five to a new Four, but in reality it’s a very similar bike. Equally there will be those who have traded in one Five for another, gaining travel even if the name on the swingarm has stayed the same.
We drop over large lumps of rock, through awkward pedal catching gullies and into gritty, muddy ruts. Metal scratches, rubber tears, swear words are uttered and skills are tested. Riding here is often likened to downhill trials – it certainly doesn’t make for pretty riding. It also gives bikes a unique going over and watching your bike go over your head and bounce off stoically uncaring Yorkshire rocks is a common theme on many rides.
One question that is often asked is why Orange haven’t made a carbon frame. Having hired consultants and Universities to carry out feasibility studies in carbon and composite frames Ash is convinced aluminium is still the best material for a mountain bike to be made from. While carbon has many benefits none of them really translate well to the job of riding a bike off-road – and weight doesn’t even come into it. Having crunched the numbers (probably on his beloved calculator) Ash reckons carbon’s weight benefit vanishes when you build it to the same strength as an aluminium frame. Watching as swingarms get ground against rocks that lurk on the inside of tight corners metal certainly feels like the right material for the job of surviving Calderdale’s unforgiving terrain.
Evolution is a word that gets used a lot when talking about the Five. Apparent subtle changes over the years rather than clear re-invention mean it’s easy to frame the Five’s history as a steady but incremental series of changes. To some degree this is true, but it’s easy to change everything when you have nothing worth keeping. Sticking to what you believe works is in some ways a harder job than changing for change’s sake. We ride down a trail that is a local favourite, a mess of rocks that once were a well trodden thoroughfare out of the valley. Time, weather, neglect – all have had a bearing on what is now a green and technical trail. If the Five is the model of Calderdale’s riding evolution then this trail demonstrates its slow atrophy and regression.
Not all of Calderdale’s trails are like this. New trails spring up, flourish and vanish or become established. As bikes become more capable the trails getting ridden become harder and progressing in previously unthought of directions.
The Five is a talisman for Orange and for the trails of Calderdale. The history and the future of the two runs side by side. The Five is an institution in its own right but it’s ability to change, adapt and improve is what makes it an all-time great. Much the same can be said for Calderdale’s trails. A constant shifting of purpose has kept them both as relevant today as they ever have been.