We used to have mix tapes. Making a mix tape was important. It could mean a number of things—love, friendship, meditation, providing company on the road. But it meant something—something good. And it lasted. Now we have playlists. Not quite as romantic or painstaking in their compilation, but admittedly easier and the sentiment is definitely still there.
I will only buy chain rings from Middleburn from now on. This could be for a number of valid reasons. It is for this one though. They have the best playlists I could imagine filling the air and that music goes into my chain rings as they are made. I like that. It’s like they have added soul. And metal. And hip hop. And violins.
As is so often the way in the cycling industry, the birthplace of your favorite expensive and treasured shiny bits is, in fact, a rather pedestrian looking industrial estate in what usually turns out to be in the middle of bloody nowhere. This lot is no different. And they’re also no different in another respect so often the case in cycling: they’re lovely people. After getting stuck behind seemingly endless roadwork and what appeared to be every caravan in Britain attempting to make a solid line from Land’s End to John O’Groats and getting lost twice (I always get lost—often more than twice), I arrived at Middleburn Cycle Components nearly two hours late to a smile, a cup of oh-so- needed tea, and cake. It doesn’t get much lovelier than that.
Middleburn Components is a small, independent aftermarket manufacturer of high-end mountain bike drivetrain components in Hampshire in the South of England.
Started by Bob Strawson in 1990, Middleburn has ridden the waves of mountain bike fad and fashion—from the weight weenie period of the early ‘90s to the modern “all-mountain era”—with a steady evolution of a classic design with their RS crankset line.
Now in their third decade of crankset production and with ex-racer Matt Starey at the helm, they seem to have no plans of slowing down anytime soon. Business it seems is booming for this little operation in the middle of the English countryside.
Matt Starey starts my tour with a photo album of pictures of his racing days. Youthful looks, daft haircuts and legendary ‘90s race bike after legendary ‘90s race bike are all there in glorious 20-year faded photo print Technicolor. “Is that a Specialized Ultimate?” I ask. “Yeah, it’s here,” Matt replies keenly. This thing is gorgeous. Gorgeous! And it’s light—really light. Light like a modern bike desperately tries to be and so rarely manages. “Is that an old FSR?” I ask. “That is the first prototype FSR,” Matt tells me. “There were two. I had one and I saw Wayne Croasdale at the ‘93 worlds with the other. I broke it. I sold it. I regret it.”
Just like so many of us of a certain mountain biking age, cross-country racing was such a part of mountain bike culture for all of us. So many raced back then. You just turned up to a race on the bike you were riding through the woods with your pals on Saturday and you were a racer by Sunday. It was back then that the love of bicycles, and the ability to build, started to come together for Matt.
Those first Middleburn RS1 cranks came at a time of fast, light, aftermarket bling—before “bling” was a word. Looking around at the boxes of the most contemporary of crankset designs, the external “X-Type” chainset, it dawns on me that they share so much with the RS1. In fact I’d describe the Middleburn Crank as the Porsche 911 of the crank world. It started as a classically simple and beautiful design, evolving gradually with every model number to become ever more contemporary in function while retaining its classic good looks somehow without ever looking dated or trivially retro.
Walking through the rows and rows of chainrings, all neatly hanging in size and bolt pattern and color order, I spot one little green one: 22t. 5 bolt, compact drive. “Oh, don’t ask about that one,” Matt says. I don’t. I say goodbye to it and move through to the laser-etching machine. I learn one thing from the laser-etching machine: laser-etching machines are cool. It dawns on me, you could write anything you wanted on these chain rings. “Yeah, I do sometimes,” Matt replies. It then dawns on me, I have laser etching machine envy. We move on.
I ask what the machine that looks (and sounds) like a washing machine is. “It’s a washing machine,” says Matt laughing. I open it up and see thousands of little blue stones all shushing round in washing up liquid and every now and then a chain ring comes up for air and dives back down into the deep blue stones. This, I learn, is the procedure before anodizing. They get stonewashed and come out all shiny and clean. You wouldn’t think there are this many stages to getting a lump of metal into a shape and onto your bike would you? But there are, and there are more.
Carol (master of the playlists and personally responsible for the choice of the incredible Joe Strummer solo track warming my earlobes) stands tapping the ramping pins and chain stops into some 50t hard-coated outers. There’s a real sense of everyone doing a bit of everything. More what needs doing at a given time than the “it’s-not-in-my-job-description” attitude so often found in workplaces.
All the engineers I have met over the years have all had one thing in common—they seem to love their work. I mean really love it. Their level of enthusiasm for designing and drilling and machining are so admirable. How many of us can say we love what we spend so much of our time doing? But these guys can, and do. I am shown with pride the chain ring tooth alignment-checking tool. It’s a chain. But then it’s not really a chain. It was a chain. Now it’s been made into something else—and it is kind of beautiful in that way engineering can make something functional and beautiful. The presses that are like huge shiny templates for chain rings are simply wonderful though. “You could hang these on the wall,” I say, half expecting a head to pop round from a CNC machine and say, “I’ve got three in my hallway.” The only sad thing is that the music doesn’t seem to extend this far. I don’t suppose there’s much call for music in a machine shop, but it does feel a little like the engine room of a liner stoking the boilers while the staff upstairs wait on passengers unaware of the beating heart downstairs—and all the time to the tune of Roxy Music.
As we wander back into the office, I spy the shiny things cabinet in the corner. Old RS1s, all green anodized single-speed chainsets, cobalt blue, mmmm. It’s like a shiny things cabinet’s shiny things cabinet. “Check out the camo ano RS7 c’set,” Matt says. “I did that one for myself.” Over £100’s worth of anodizing meant it was never going to reach the hands of the public, “but never say never,” says Matt with a glint in his eye. “I am thinking of doing some limited-edition special runs.”
As a final surprise to an already lovely day, Matt and I configure my dream chainset of a modern X Type setup with old-school ratios of not that small inner, big but not huge middle and dinner plate outer. Matt starts building it right there, fresh off the press—my very own homemade chainset. Built on the spot, in front of me, with added soul. But at that point it wasn’t soul, the playlist had moved to Lynyrd Skynyrd. That’ll do for me. Sweet home Alabama. Bloody right.