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In Safe Hands: The Future of Orange Bikes

The Legacy Continues

In October last year Orange Bike’s ownership passed in to a new but very familiar set of hands, those of Ashley Ball. Founders Lester Noble and Steve Wade passed the baton and weight of expectation on to Ash who is rising to the challenge and cracking on with the ideas he’s had for years.

Words: Nick Hamilton      Photos: Rich Baybutt

Ash is no stranger to Orange or the sheet metal engineering prowess that is synonymous with the brands full suspension frames. He comes from a long line of skilled metal workers and took the opportunity to buy Bairstows, the 130 year old family business, in his early twenties. It was at this time that his uncle Steve (Wade) approached him about manufacturing some mountain bike frames. As a rider of most things two wheeled he got it and has collaborated on design and manufacture ever since. The history and development of the Orange frames evolved from there, always staying true to engineering simplicity and pushing for elegant solutions. As Ash says, “It’s actually harder to engineer something that works brilliantly that is simple” and seeing the internals of a frame for the first time I can see exactly what he means.


We met Ash the day after St. Paddy’s day and he was bouncing back very well from a bit too much Craic. Looking to blame someone else for picking that particular day to be interviewed it soon became clear it was his on bloody fault. Full of energy, laughter and knowledge Ash gave us a tour of two facilities, Orange HQ and Bairstows, which was ten minutes up the road. HQ acts as warehouse, paint shop, assembly line and control centre in a nonedescript industrial unit on the outskirts of Halifax. The walls are lined with historical photos and the showroom upstairs contains many of the most special bikes as well as the full current range including our favourites, the 324 and Alpine 160.

 

Listening to Orange’s new owner describe in detail how the heat treatment process raises the temperature of the freshly welded frame to just below melting point where it becomes flexible and all the stresses are relived was a joy. Orange manufacture their own tooling to ensure the frames don’t warp during this process. He waved his hands around to demonstrate how the near molten frame is dropped in to a vat of polymer to quench it at just the right rate to give the perfect grain structure to the 6000 series aluminium. Every step of the process was second nature to Ash, he’s Orange through and through.


The process of taking the reins from Steve and Lester was a fraught one. Taking 14 months to negotiate and finalise left Ash reflecting, “last year was very difficult year”. Ash actually approached Steve and Lester with the idea but initially they weren’t ready. However, when they came round to the idea it made sense. After putting feelers out to other parties they came back to Ash; “There were offers of more money from bigger organisations, but ethically they had to believe in who was taking it on and what they were going to do with it”.

With such a long and close working relationship they all went into it thinking it would be simple. However, once the lawyers got involved, necessarily things got complicated. Having worked so well together for so long and being such good friends, suddenly they were on different sides of the fence with third parties speaking language that only they themselves understood. “It was so unexpected”. Thankfully the three never fell out and remain as close as ever, “everyone is where they want to be”.

 

“I’m an engineer but also a business man, I’ve always been that way. I see business as engineering without the metal. Making things achieve their potential, you know. If it’s not working right, make it work right”. Orange accounts for about 20% of Bairstows turnover and Ash see that the future is very bright. “The main thing for all of us now is moving forwards. We’ve got so much freedom on product development now… what we’re wanting to do is broaden the range of bikes and look at selling in other markets. It’s not changing the core of what we do. It’s just that we want to do everything we do, Better”.

There’s a really strong team at Orange that will make sure it happens, strong and talented individuals headed up by a driven owner. “I’ve been planning where I would like to take Orange for years and years, even before shaking hands on the deal. I’ve sat around the boardroom table, as part of the team in the management meetings for years… The main thing for me is that the currently the company does underperform”.


Ash made comparisons to Hope, a business that was once a similar size in the same region but has grown massively through investing in itself and its staff. “I want to see Orange achieve its potential. It’s not about selling-out, you can still be who you are but on a grander scale. It just requires effort and hard work”. The weight of responsibility to succeed is clear, “I love Orange. There can be no failure; this company can only do good things. Otherwise, before anybody else, I’ve let myself down, because I absolutely love this company”.

This attitude and knowing Ash so well means the sale has gone down very well with the staff, “the response over the past seven months has been brilliant. Everyone is on board and is upping their game. There is more than just me here that can see there is more that we can do”.
Over at Bairstows Ash was full of details about the nature and advantages of the manufacturing process Orange has become famous for. Never straying from their proven single pivot design they work with suspension manufactures to get the best performing product. They don’t need the expense of hydroforming tooling, they push the sheet metal process to produce lighter and stronger tubes their own way.


Since the handover Ash has been busy leading on new product development. The Four and the Segment are the first examples of the design direction, geometries and manufacturing refinements Orange will develop across the range. “We’re making some of the, best performing, best looking, lightest bikes we’ve ever made. They’re grin inducing!” It’s exciting times and Ash’s enthusiasm reaches a new peak when he gives us a glimpse of something new that had just been committed to metal for the first time.

Walking around the factory floor it’s clear that Ash is equally at home here. He knows every member of staff by name, what they’re doing and why. He points out machined features on sub components and explains the design rationale behind them. Watching the flat sheets getting bent up in to three dimensional parts was a real treat, they make up the entire frame bar the seat tube and the CNC’d billet bits. The refinement in the sheet metal processes and quality control is as impressive as the workers skill and only matched by the breadth of soft porn on display!


This way of manufacturing means that everything is under Orange’s control. They work in short runs and can respond to market demands and product developments swiftly. They can have a new design idea, start tinkering about with bits of metal and be riding and testing it in days. The amount of product development they undertake is astounding. They keep quality standards high and you can have your new bike in your hands, it whatever colour you chose in just a few short weeks.


They are also dedicated to running demos all around the country to ensure that you get to try their bikes and can find the right one for you. As Ash says, “I wouldn’t want to buy a bike without riding it first”. Reflecting on the state of the industry he’s as open as ever, “The industry has shot itself in the foot many times recently and at a very difficult time. The thing I love about Orange is that we don’t necessarily follow what the rest of the industry is doing. We carry on doing what we know and love, and the most important thing for me when we design and build a bike is it performs well and is enjoyable to ride. And I don’t think that’s always the case for other manufacturers.”

We finished up the day with a look at the local trails where all these bikes are honed on the rocks and ruts of the expansive moorland. Looking out over the valleys, which harbour echoes of a rich industrial past, you can see why Orange has flourished here. The heritage of the brand is steeped in history and mythology and is a real UK success story. If Ash’s passion and knowledge for his new business is anything to go by the future is set to be very bright at Orange Mountain Bikes.

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