Less is more

26th November 2020

In the world of cycling, shaving of a few grams can radically enhance a bike’s performance. So where should you go to find some of the lightest and most durable frames available to mankind? Why, Sussex of course.

Words by Alex Moore

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Sussex is fast becoming the epicentre of bleeding-edge bicycle manufacture in the UK. In Hailsham, Jim Walker and the Enigma team have been reimagining the capabilities of titanium frames for the past 13 years (Jim’s involvement in the industry stretches back nearly half a century), while at the foot of Ditchling Beacon – a sore subject for many a Sussex cyclist – Orro Bikes is experimenting with the same Sigmatex composite materials used in aerospace. It’s safe to assume that this localised passion for engineering has something to do with Sussex also being a hotbed for motorsports.

At Reilly Cycleworks in Brighton, master frame builder Mark Reilly (an apprentice of the late, great framebuilder Ron Cooper) has teamed up with industrial model maker Neil FitzGerald (no stranger to making things lighter and faster). FitzGerald learned his trade in Fontwell, working on Thrust SSC, the first land vehicle to break the sound barrier when it set the world land speed record (763mph) back in 1997. From there, he went to work with the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 team in Brackley, designing the aerodynamic prototypes that are tested in the wind tunnel. He still works the weekend shift there but spends the rest of his time making Reilly’s framesets as light and durable as is scientifically possible.

“There’s a simple purity in a bicycle frame,” explains FitzGerald. “It’s a million miles away from Formula One, where it can take thousands of people to create just two cars. I can pretty much make a bike with my bare hands. But the engineering challenges still exist, only with bikes it’s about seeing how far you can go with two triangles and two wheels.”

If only it were that simple. To get Reilly’s latest frames weighing under 600 grams (that’s less than a basketball), FitzGerald has sought the expertise of “carbon composite guru” Dr Rob Neumann. “We use a special type of spread tow carbon fibre,” he explains. “It’s a unidirectional carbon, around 70 per cent lighter than your typical woven carbon fibre as it requires far less resin. It’s also incredibly stiff.”

It would seem the words of legendary Lotus founder Colin Chapman not only permeate every aspect of F1 design, but also the working practices of those involved in the sport: “Simplify, then add lightness.” Indeed, FitzGerald is already wondering how to shave another 50 grams off the latest design. With a bike that light, suddenly the prospect of Ditchling Beacon doesn’t sound quite so daunting.

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