Sonder Bikes launched in 2016 and has grown into an 11-bike range covering road, gravel and mountain bikes — not that it likes to pigeon-hole things
Sonder Bikes has quietly been developing a range of bikes raised on South Yorkshire’s post-industrial scraps. We head to the formative trails.
Best of British: Sonder Bikes
Alpkit design, manufacture and source pretty much anything and everything you need for a good time in the hills — from socks and sporks to tents and torches. The company was started by a group of friends with a mutual lust for mountains who went from ogling Alpine peaks in books and magazines, to working in outdoor shops so they could afford to travel to those same peaks. Along the way they found their kit — bought at a discount from the outdoor shops they worked in — was starting to come apart. With hard-won experience of what worked and what didn’t and a vision of producing decent kit at prices even outdoor bums like themselves could afford, Alpkit was born.
Creating its own bike brand, then, was a natural progression for the business. Alpkit’s bike brand, Sonder Bikes, launched in 2016 and has grown into an 11-bike range covering road, gravel and mountain bikes — not that it likes to pigeon-hole things. Alpkit — and Sonder — may have its head in the Alps, but its feet are very much in the UK, where mountains are rarer.
Mountain biking in the UK happens in all kinds of places. Mountains, hills and dales may be the obvious ones, but not always the most common. Often riding is found in the in-between places that others have forgotten or deliberately ignored. The scraps of waste ground and slivers of woodland that have been written off as unusable and ugly have become as much the home of mountain biking as any Alpine trail.
My first experience of riding a bike off-road was on a piece of wasteland on the outskirts of town. I clearly wasn’t the first person to ride there — disused jumps covered in nettles and beer cans and the vague outlines of berms could be made out alongside the obligatory burnt-out carcass of a Vauxhall Nova. This nowhere land was a link between the town and the bridleways that lead to woods. From the woods it wasn’t too much further to ride to The Great Outdoors — Cumbria’s mountains, lakes and forests. Without that bit of unloved wasteland, which most people saw as an eyesore and dumping ground, I might never have got to the mountains.
Sonder Bikes product manager Neil Sutton has a similar story. Growing up in South Yorkshire’s industrial landscape between Rotherham and Doncaster, his first experience of riding on dirt was in a strip of woodland hemmed in by a busy road on one side and a working quarry on the other. He and his friends would pedal their BMXs up the hill and duck into the trees to dig trails, build sketchy jumps and generally just mess around on their bikes. As the years went by the BMX was joined by a mountain bike and from there trips led him further afield; the Peak District and the Alps. A career working as a bike mechanic, workshop manager, warranty and design manager and now product manager mark Neil down as bike industry lifer.
Transmitter to signal
Alpkit HQ is based outside Nottingham but Neil stills lives in the area he grew up in. Today we’re back in the same bit of woodland that started Neil’s love of riding bikes on dirt, but rather than a BMX Neil is riding a prototype mountain bike — a steel version of Sonder’s 29in trail hardtail, the Signal. Free of any decals, and with obligatory zip-ties here and there, this test mule is in the final stages of evaluation.
Sonder’s first mountain bike was the Transmitter, a 27.5in Plus-wheeled aluminium hardtail cast in the longer, lower, slacker die. In the spirit of experimentation, some owners were trying to fit 29inch wheels into the frame, something that Neil tried to dissuade them from doing — the frame simply wasn’t designed for the bigger wheels. In response, Sonder developed the Signal, a 29er version of the Transmitter. Initially the Signal was launched with a titanium frame to try and engineer in some of the comfort lost going from a fat Plus-sized tyre to a narrower 29in tyre. By using titanium, Sonder was also able to order the frame in smaller quantities than if it had gone for aluminium or steel, minimising risk. As it turned out, the first three shipments of Signal Ti frames sold out before they’d even landed in the UK. With its popularity well proven, Sonder has now decided to press the button on a steel version of the frame.
Neil has watched these woods change as mountain biking has evolved. Jumps have got bigger, lines more committing and at one time there was a network of North Shore-style elevated woodwork running through the trees. The woods are still in use by riders, although judging by the condition of the trails, less so in winter. The lips of the jumps are dulled and the bermed turns are filled with soggy brown leaves. Energy drink bottles litter the floor and a frame that’s suffered catastrophically at the hands of the trails hangs from a tree — either as a talisman or a warning. Trails twist in all directions, some obvious, others oblique. Jumps, decent-sized drops and rocky sections are all efficiently squeezed next to each other. Despite the drab day, green is everywhere — moss, ivy and holly, nature’s indicators of atrophy and abandonment have taken over. A deep man-made gulley — a leftover from when this was a place of work — cuts the hill in two. A log spans the gap, apparently at one point in the wood’s history riders would ride up it, now the log is slick and takers for the balancing act are fewer.
To many riders, South Yorkshire means Sheffield and The Peaks. Gritty. Rocky. Rugged. In this part of the county things are decidedly more slick. Chunks of jagged limestone and clay-based soil take no prisoners, tyres twitch this way and that looking for traction and bikes quickly develop a thick layer of clag which finds its way into nooks, crannies, gears and eyes. The Signal, with its slight steel tubes and generous mud clearance, shrugs it off. Neil likes to keep things simple. There’s no ornamentation or frivolous details, lines are clean and straightforward. For production, the chainstay yoke will change and the cables will be run internally along the top tube, but everything else, even the colour, will make production.
Neil cites the DMR Trailstar as having a huge influence on both his riding and the way he thinks about bike design. With its ability to do many things well, from dirt jumping and trail riding in the local woods to downhills in the Alps, the Trailstar opened Neil’s eyes to what a hardtail could do.
With a background in BMX, and having cut his teeth on tight, twisting trails, Neil’s preference is for a bike that is agile and fun — as such he’s shied away from going to extremes with reach and head angle figures. All Sonder’s bikes are designed with fun as the first priority. Neil happily admits that other bikes might be quicker in a race environment, but that’s not what Sonder is about. Neil wants to design bikes that leave you grinning, whatever speed you ride at. Comparative testing is done by feel rather than stopwatch, and products are specced on merit rather than fashion. Sonder’s own brand components, which come under the Love Mud brand, aren’t flashy, but the bars are wide enough, the stem short enough and the wheels strong enough — there’s nothing you need to swap straight away, at least for any practical reasons.
Alpkit has earned itself a devoted following, so when Sonder first launched the Transmitter, many of its first customers were existing Alpkit fans. Unsurprisingly these people tended to be general outdoor types — the kind who disappear for weeks on end to remote places, own a packraft and think nothing of spending a night under the stars in little more than a down jacket and a bivi bag.
The fact that they could order a bike along with a new waterproof from a brand they trusted made getting into mountain biking simple. As a result, a lot of early Sonders could be seen loaded with bikepacking luggage (which Alpkit also make) and the brand got a reputation for bikes built for long- distance adventures. This is still the case, but as Neil points out, most bikes get ridden on days like today where you spend a few hours ragging round the woods with your mates. If you want to cross Iceland on your Signal, go for it, but it’ll be just as at home on the trails around the back of Iceland.
With bikes like the Transmitter and Signal, Sonder Bikes is attracting riders who might not be familiar with Alpkit or who might have no interest in other outdoor activities as well as outdoor types looking for their first mountain bike. With a fully built Transmitter starting at a pound short of the magic £1,000 mark, for many riders a Sonder might be their first considered bike purchase. At the other end of the scale, Sonder also offers a custom-designed titanium frame. Neil admits it’s not something they make a big noise about, but the option is there. Using one of its existing models as a base, Neil works with customers to design a bespoke frame based on their requirements, before getting the frame welded by its titanium frame partner in Taiwan.
With the river Don below us, we skirt round the top of the woods that flank the valley. Short sections of trail cut down the hill. Some are little more than vague fall lines, others have distinct features — a jump leads into a berm which turns 90º into a motocross-style rhythm section. Below that, the trail drops away into a steep, wide trail full of washed out gullies and rocks. Eventually the woods taper out and we ride out onto the top of a disused quarry. Ridgelines of rock and heaps of sandy coloured aggregate run down the hill to the train line below. On the other side of the valley industry continues; cranes, diggers and diesel locomotives slowly but surely cut and move the landscape, creating future trails even if they don’t know it.
Wheels of industry
The withdrawal and contraction of heavy industry is the reason we have inherited trails like this. The land has been worked, stripped and then abandoned — no longer economically viable or useful. Nature has slowly crept back in and with it riders. Mine levels, derelict structures, bomb holes and slag heaps — post-industrial landscapes have just as much to offer riders as hills and mountains. The fact that these are places that only we care about — that are immune from objections that we’re ruining the landscape — just makes them even more attractive.
The quarry surface has a strange consistency; it’s firm enough, but rain from the last few days has made it like solidified porridge in parts. The steep but rollable drops down to the quarry bottom look like Yorkshire’s answer to Canadian Freeride Mecca Kamloops. This giant sand pit, like the woods, is now part of the fringes; its only regular visitors are riders, dog walkers and ne’er-do-wells.
We pick up a trail that runs along an old elevated pathway. Below us is land good for nothing, covered in trees, ivy, brush, rubbish and the detritus of long-gone industry. The trail drops into gullies that extend from tunnels — their purposes long forgotten. Neil points out one gulley half-pipe that he learned to do 360s in. There are some freshly dug jumps nearby — a new generation of riders are making these woods their own.
Big rides in the mountains might be the dream, and there’s no denying they are good for the soul, but riding in closer, less glamorous locations is what keeps the dream alive and is just as worthwhile. The Signal was designed by a brand that understands the importance of this. While calling it an all-rounder might sound like a slight, it’s the Signal’s ability to entertain on the two-hour weekend blast around the woods, as well as happily cross a continent should the need arise, that marks it out as a modern mountain bike.
Sonder is a word recently coined to describe the realisation that each random passer-by is living a life as vivid and complex as your own. Indeed, every rider on the trail is having their very own adventure — whether that’s in the French Alps or a quarry just outside Rotherham.
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?