Based in Cambridgeshire and tested in Cumbria, there's nothing split about Identiti's, er... identity. We hit Helvellyn to put its Mettle to the pedal
Based in Cambridgeshire and tested in Cumbria, there’s nothing split about Identiti’s, er… identity. We hit Helvellyn to put its Mettle to the pedal.
If you won the lottery and decided to start a mountain bike company, where in the country would you choose to base it? There’s a lot to consider but a location with great riding and an active and varied scene seems an obvious place to start. Somewhere with terrain that really tested your products and incredible views for your Instagram feed would be ideal. Being a mountain bike brand maybe somewhere with, you know, actual mountains. More often than not though bike brands aren’t based near the mountains. Many still have great riding on their doorstep and will take bikes to be tested at altitude but very few can truly call the mountains home.
Identiti Bikes is one of several well known brands owned by Cambridgeshire based Ison Distribution. One of Cambridgeshire’s claims to fame is having the UK’s lowest point – at 2.5m below sea level Holme Fen effectively makes the county concave. While the sub-flat lands of East Anglia might seem an odd place to have a mountain bike brand there’s more to the business of making and selling bikes than proximity to mountains – good transport links and access to a wide variety of skills are not necessarily compatible with life in the mountains. However, thanks to a mix of fate and circumstance Identiti has become a bike brand that has one foot firmly in the mountains.
Michael Bonney has an insight into the mechanics of the bike industry few possess. There are few aspects of getting a bike from initial idea to shop floor that he doesn’t have experience of and even fewer that he doesn’t have an opinion on.
When Identiti started a project to create their own full suspension trail bike they asked Michael to come onboard and lend his expertise. With Michael being based in Cumbria Identiti brand manager Pat Campbell-Jenner was making regular trips up and down the country until he made the full-time move north, from a county with negative elevation to one with the highest peaks in England. As a mountain biker it’s a dream move and it’s helping with Identiti’s design process. That full suspension trail bike project became the Identiti Mettle, a bike that has been quietly making a name for itself for the last three years. And now there’s an updated version.
When the concept of the Mettle was originally sketched out the idea was to make a bike that was compatible with 26in and 27.5in wheels and able to be run with either 140mm or 160mm of travel. Too many options produced too much compromise so a decision was made to commit to 27.5in wheels and 160mm of travel. From the start geometry was, as you’d expect for a bike built for sparring with mountains, of the long, low and slack school of thought. The new version pushes this thinking further, adding length, reducing the head angle and increasing the seatangle with the aim of increasing the bike’s ability up and down the hill. Travel at the front has increased to 170mm, marking the Mettle out as a big-mountain bike.
If you’re after fads, gimmicks and hyperbole Identiti isn’t for you. This has a lot to do with the people behind the brand – Michael and Pat are both straight talkers. They believe in what they do and are happy for their bikes to be judged on their own merits. Identiti isn’t trying to be the biggest brand or sell the most bikes. They are open about the fact that the Mettle won’t suit everyone and they are perfectly okay about that – they didn’t set out to create a bike that would be universally liked, they wanted to create something that would be uniquely loved. With the Mettle Identiti have set out to offer a bike that appeals to riders who prioritise performance, practicality, strength and reliability above all else. The Mettle – loves long hard days in the mountains, seeks like minded company.
This way of thinking and operating has meant that Identiti have been able to concentrate on thinking small, rather than big – focussing on what matters to them without the pressure of needing to do high volume sales and a yearly roll out of new models with Bold New Graphics. The second generation Mettle – or version 1.5 as Pat prefers to call it – was developed not because they felt they needed a justification for a fresh paint colour but because they felt they could make useful improvements to the original bike. “We don’t believe in change for change’s sake, but if we can make a change for the better, we will.” says Pat. This matter of fact attitude permeates into the design of the bike. The frame is made from aluminium with an eye on durability rather than weight saving, bearings are large and easily sourced and all the frame hardware uses a 5mm Allen key. It’s a thoroughly pragmatic bike. Pragmatism might not make for sexy marketing but in the real world of riding bikes in the mountains it actually makes a difference.
Now living outside Penrith Pat has been making the most of discovering Lakeland riding and quite literally testing his Mettle. One of his go-to rides is Helvellyn. Helvellyn is the third highest peak in Cumbria with a choice of bridleways to ascend and descend, making it popular with hikers and riders alike. The most popular way up Helvellyn starts in Glenridding to the east and heads up Sticks Pass and over Raise. It’s a reasonably gradual way of gaining height, but gradual is not quick. We start the much shorter, sharper and quicker push, pull and carry to the summit from the shores of Thirlmere and up Birk Side.
The design of the Mettle started with the shock. While some manufacturers will design a frame and then go to a shock manufacturer and ask for a shock to suit the kinematics they’ve come up with Identiti approached Rock Shox and asked them for the best shock they made and designed the rest of the frame around it. The Rock Shox Super Deluxe Ultimate Metric shock is as good as it gets and is fitted to all Mettle models, from entry level to top of the range.
The actual engineering for the Mettle is done by engineer Ryan at Ison HQ. There’s a lot of Skype video conferencing goes on between Cambridgeshire and Cumbria, but modern tools and means of sharing information mean it’s possible to work collaboratively from either end of the country. Communication with Taiwan, where the frames are made, is done in similar fashion. Technology has compressed distance and time, helping to make the design process quicker.
Finely tuned suspension kinematics and geometry are vital but don’t really count for much when the bike is on your back. The reality of most rides in The Lakes are that there will be an element of portage – shouldering your bike and hiking up. Considering the amount of carrying that needs to be done riders here have a reputation for overbuilding their bikes. The temptation is to try and save weight, lighten the load and make the trek to the top a little easier – halfway up a vertical mountain pass the idea of a 22lbs carbon XC bike holds a lot of appeal, but halfway back down, less so. Strength and confidence are the key factors in building a Lakeland Fell proof bike. Weight just is what it is.
The Alps might have mountain goats but the Fells have Herdwick sheep. Friendly faces and slightly daft they are hardy animals capable of getting themselves up and down impossible looking inclines. In many ways they are the mountain biker’s spirit animal. As we make our way back down the mountain we pass them, some grouped together, others stood alone, all silently watching and judging the amateurs making their way up and down their mountain.
“You’re not going to ride down this are you? You’re mad!” If the sheep are judgemental the walkers of Helvellyn are bemused. Wide eyed, hands on hips they gawp, it seems mountain bikes in their natural environment are a rare thing, even here. But bikes like the Mettle are making riding in the mountains more accessible to riders. The new wave of geometry and suspension technology has made hard climbs and descents more manageable, giving riders the confidence to attempt what might have once been off-putting and making riding in the mountains more accessible.
As much as the mountains are our playground they are also serious places. A Coast Guard helicopter flies straight over us as we slog up the summit and over on the blade of Striding Edge the red jackets of Mountain Rescue swarm around a fallen walker. With good trails to the east and west it’s possible to do a ride from one side of the mountain to the other and back again all on different trails. It’s a big day out though and not for today.
The components can be just as important in defining the overall feel of the bike as the frame itself. Part of Pat’s job is working out what parts to spec on the bikes. Riding in the mountains is brutal. Tyres, brakes and suspension are worked hard.
Components not up to the job are quickly exposed and just as quickly swapped out. “Nearly every ride is a focus group”, says Pat with conversations generally focussing on who is riding what and what is working. Over time a consensus appears as to what is mountain approved and what isn’t.
I’ve often thought mountain biking was a daft name, it doesn’t really represent the sport most of us do. But riding a bike in the mountains is something special and on a clear, warm and windless day like today I can’t help but think ‘this is why’. To the north the Skiddaw massif stands out, its summit dipping in and out of cloud, to the West Scafell Pike and to the East is the Pennines. We turn around and head back down what we’ve just come up.
If mountains are the why the Mettle aims to be the how. It was designed to inspire confidence in big mountain environments and to put the odds in your favour on technical sections like these. With 170mm travel forks and a long, low stance there’s little mistaking the new Mettle’s strengths. Pat is open about the fact that this is a bike for riders like himself, riders who tolerate the ups but are more concerned with having as much fun as possible on the downhills.
The top section of Helvellyn is fast and open. The gravel track instantly rewards previous efforts but also lures you in to going a little quicker than you really should. The first technical section approaches quickly and has you weighing up whether to brake and tackle it at a sensible pace or use the speed you’ve built up to bludgeon through it. The Mettle is happy to use its brawn.
Steps that helped provide a stable footing on the way up jar on the way down, water bars seem designed to catch stray wheels as much as water, everywhere there’s rock with few soft landings should you get caught out. The trail has been reinforced in sections to counter erosion from the elements and visitors. Everything that needs to survive and endure here is built tough, so there’s no reason why bikes should be any different.
Rides in the Lakes can look depressingly short on paper and fail to convey the amount of effort required. We drop back down to lake level having covered a mere 7.4km. 781m of ascent, tight legs and well worked arms tell a slightly more accurate story of the day’s adventure.
The Mettle is a product of time spent on the fells creating a mountain bike that’s fit to use the title. Identiti might be from Cambridgeshire but it’s now got a Cumbrian accent.
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?