What started as a happy accident at the turn of the millenium is now a full time job for Alan Finlay and the small team at Pipedream Cycles.
Pete sat down with Alan to chat hardtails, why steel is real and the road ahead for Pipedream.
Interview by Pete Scullion / photos by Ian Lean and Pipedream
You’d be excused for asking “who?” at the name Pipedream. They are, if you’re wondering, a relatively small scale manufacturer of steel hardtail mountain bikes, founded in 2005 in the UK by Scotsman Alan Finlay.
Like most brands, Pipedream has seen times in both the limelight and the shadows. Their bikes were – for a while – definitely one of the pedigree hardtails to be seen on in the UK. A period of staff changes meant a few years out of the spotlight and a step back from the who’s who of Steel hardtails.
2017 sees Pipedream back with new energy, some new people and at least two new bikes. Perfect time for a chat …
Who makes up Pipedream and what do they do?
Pipedream Cycles is my wife and me (Victoria and Alan Finlay), Dominic Loh and Mike Fitchie. I’m the designer and tinkerer, Dominic does marketing and hob-nobbing, Mike handles enquiries and orders and Victoria keeps our feet firmly planted on the ground. In reality, there’s a degree of overlap in our roles.
We’re kind of like an old and trusty engine that needs a whack from time to time: Mike’s the cogs and gears, Dominic is the fuel, I’m the hammer and my wife is the oil that keeps us running smoothly and without friction!
How did Pipedream come about?
Kind of by accident really. As an engineer, and cyclist, I was intrigued by bicycle design and would pore over magazine reviews and geometry charts trying to figure out what little details differentiated one frame from another.
Anyway, somewhere back in 1999-2000 there was a long-travel hardtail test in WMTB magazine – this was back in the day when any fork over 63mm was considered long – and for the first time, I saw frames which departed from the conventional 71/73 angles of the day. That test got me thinking and set me on a course to design my own MTB frame and after a few Ti prototypes I had something I was happy with.
I now had a handful of frames I didn’t need so I posted an ad’ on Singletrackworld and they all sold within 24 hours. However, I was still getting emails and phone calls asking if I had any more (which I didn’t) so I’d offer to design and source a frame for folks – so I started a company.
Pipedream came about by accident: and was initially a way for me to move the prototypes, only thing was, when I put them online to sell them, I had more enquiries than frames and ended up getting requests for more. So, shortly after I was designing semi-custom frames for folks who were asking for a good value Ti frame.
What’s your background in cycling?
I’ve loved bikes since I was a kid and was always tinkering, stripping, rebuilding and riding my bikes. As kids, my brother and I would ride for miles around North Yorkshire on weekends and during our school holidays: to us a bike was freedom and adventure.
My first real bike was a steel tourer followed by a svelte racing bike – I spent a small fortune on upgrades for that bike – but when I friend lent me his gleaming silver GT Zaskar, I was hooked. Mountain biking was my eureka moment! Cycling has had such an impact on our lives, even my wife teaches indoor spin classes…anything to get people pushing pedal power!
Why a hardtail?
I love the simplicity of a hardtail and it’s how I cut my teeth off road. I’ve owned some iconic bikes in my time, including the original Intense Tracer, the original Cove Stiffee which I actually bought from Cove Bikes in Vancouver and later a Cove Hummer but anyway, there’s something ‘honest’ about riding a hardtail: they’re engaging, purist and raw and reveal your true capabilities as a rider. Well, that’s my opinion.
I’ve dabbled with some full-sus’ designs and may do another in the future – Dominic is constantly hounding me on this – but frankly, with so many good bikes available from other brands, it’s not a priority for us right now.
For me, steel is an artisan material: it takes real craftsmanship to make a hand-built steel frame and the slim lines and graceful curves are a thing of beauty. Steel’s also got heritage – the first bikes I rode were Reynolds 531, there’s this nostalgic connection with the past.
Today’s steel tubing, the super-alloys, have phenomenal strength and qualities that are ideal for a modern hardtail which I believe creates a frame that almost feels ‘alive’.
How did you choose where to get the product made?
The fabricator we use is one of the smaller and more specialist builders in Taiwan. They’re also a tubing manufacturer and this was probably the biggest influence on our decision to use them. The specification I had in mind for the frames required special tubing and they’ve been able to deliver. They’re always eager to share their technical expertise, experience and knowledge and last time I was there, we spent the whole day with their tech’ team – that for me is invaluable.
What did you have to sacrifice to get to this stage?
Bicycles have always been a passion of mine so I’ve been ‘all in’ since I started Pipedream Cycles: it’s literally taken blood sweat and tears to make it work. There’s been times when my wife and I have seriously questioned if it’s worth it but we’ve continued to invest the time and money to achieve our goals and dreams.
I’d be lying if I said it was easy but when we think about the success we’ve had over the years, the people who’ve believed in us and supported us and of course, the folks who ride our bikes and are as passionate about Pipedeam Cycles as we are, it makes it all worth it.
Did any of you have day jobs that you had to give up?
When I started Pipedream Cycles it was kind of a side-line. My background is building and civil engineering and at the beginning, I was still doing some freelance work and teaching. It’s now a full-time job but from time to time, I’ll do some freelance design work.
Are you working alongside to make ends meet?
I love design so there’s often other projects on the go but frankly, they don’t get the attention they need as Pipedream takes up the bulk of my time. They’ve certainly helped out but I’ve got to be careful I don’t get distracted so my wife and Dominic make sure I keep my nose to grindstone, so to speak.
How make or break is the company for you?
There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not doing something for Pipedream: it’s a passion and right now my life. I spend a lot of time researching, thinking, learning, scribbling and designing and am constantly bouncing ideas off our small team. We’ve been through so much to get this far and all of us are determined to see Pipedream grow: we’re all invested in it so, as I’ve said, we’re all in.
How did you learn what you needed to know to get your own company off the ground and the product in hand?
Before I started the company I’d already designed a couple of frames and had talked to a few frame builders about getting them built but the real breakthrough came after I discovered a couple of factories, one in China and another in Russia who could build me frames in Titanium. Back then, Ti was the ‘ultimate’ material so the thought of getting a Ti custom frame for around the same price as steel frame was incredible.
It was a steep learning curve at first but I’ve had the help and support of some great people and I’ve found all the builders and factories I’ve dealt with professional and more than willing to share their knowledge and experience. I asked – and still do ask – a ton of questions and am constantly trying to learn from whoever I can: I’ve found that people in this industry are great to work with – and incredibly patient!
How many prototypes/samples did you have before getting to the final product?
In the early days, we used to build a lot of prototype frames before we’d be confident enough to release a model. Over the years though, we’ve learned to ask a lot of questions – actually, more importantly, the right questions – and the fabricators and their tech’ staff have been fantastic. Typically now, we can build the frames we’ve envisioned without doing a lot of samples and often it’s just simple little tweaks that are made before the production run.
Beyond the development of prototypes, what form did your testing take?
Between us, we’ve ridden a lot of bikes in a lot of countries over the years. One of the defining moments was riding the North Shore of Vancouver back in 2002 – I actually ended up buying a Cove Stiffee. Anyway, there’s little things, influences, you pick up along the way. I think every rider has a ‘mental database’ of bikes, trails and experiences and every ride gets logged and we end up comparing rides and bikes. Some bikes have a kind of magic about them that truly set them apart and I’ve tried to capture these qualities and inject them into our frames.
There’s no substitute for riding and as much as a frame may look right on paper, a bike is the sum of its parts and you’ve go to ride the bike as much as possible on the kind of trail or terrain that it was designed for to really see if it’s right. Travelling to and riding in unfamiliar terrain also adds a new dimension to tests and can often give new – and sometimes unexpected – feedback.
We also get feedback and input from our sponsored riders: we won the British MTB Enduro series in 2007 and have more recently had a junior national champion in Singapore. We’ve also raced and tested our bikes at the Yakru Annapurna Challenge, possibly the highest MTB event in the world. The feedback from these guys and girls is invaluable.
Where next for Pipedream? How do you plan to go about getting extra helpers etc. etc.?
Designing frames that are “the closest thing to a custom built frame” has been our passion from the beginning and will continue to be as we go forward. We recognise we’re a niche or micro-brand company and are happy with that label but it’s definitely our goal to grow and expand into new markets.
We’ve developed some great relationships over the past 10 years and as a result, we’re better positioned than ever before to achieve some of our long-term goals. We don’t want to give too much away – we’re in competition with some great brands after all – but if Dominic gets his way, we’ll be bringing some exciting new stuff to our product line in the near future.
Anybody to thank at this point in the Pipedream journey? Long suffering spouses/parents/friends?
Well, first and foremost my wife who’s been the greatest support and encouragement. She’s certainly been “long suffering” – I nearly ruined a family holiday by taking my work with me. Not doing that again!
And Dominic, who’s faith in me and the brand has carried us through some of the hardest times.
I’ve got to give a special mention to my dad, who’s always believed in me and who ran back and forth to the post office in our early days, shipping Ti frames all over the world. His enthusiasm to be our ‘runner’ waned really quick but bless him!
My final thanks go to everyone who owns a Pipedream bike and who’s made this journey possible: they’re the folks who’ve really got us this far and without them, we’d not even be here.
What a journey indeed.
Keep your eyes peeled for our review of the Pipedream Sirius 4G that Rich is currently thrashing round his local woods.
For all things Pipedream, head over to their website, here.