An article by Calum Gordon.
“It’s one of the few times a watch really is useful, because most people rely on their phones to look at the time, but when you’re cycling, you can just flick your wrist,” says Malcolm Harding, co-founder of fledgling London bicycle company Freddie Grubb, as he talks me through his brand’s latest collaboration with Glaswegian watchmakers Instrmnt. As someone who usually opts for the train-option during my morning commute, it’s something that’s never occurred to me. But that’s the thing about good design – you never really notice it until you need it. And in a world of ill-conceived collaborations and contrived co-branded products, this is one meeting of minds that seems to make sense, with both parties bringing their own brand of stripped-back minimalism to the table.
Sat in the brand’s charmingly-designed Islington shop, Harding explains what initially attracted him and his business partner, Jack Pattison, to resurrecting the Freddie Grubb brand name: “We were very keen to make a connection with British cycling, so we started looking for cyclists involved in the early days of cycling. Freddie Grubb became the obvious choice for us”.
Grubb had been a celebrity of sorts within British road racing, setting a multitude of records on his single speed bike at the start of the 20th century. The Londoner would hurtle along roads that have little resemblance to their smooth modern-day equivalents, weaving through streets with no breaks and a devil-may-care attitude. “More than anything, we liked Freddie the man. He was very much a maverick of British cycling,” says Harding. “We loved his name and every time we mentioned it to people it seemed to have a resonance. It was a name that we thought sounded pretty distinct and British, so we fell in love with it.”
Born in 1887, Frederick Henry Grubb rose to prominence at the age of 23, breaking the British record for a 100-mile time trial, riding the distance in less than five hours. A year later, Grubb would once again underline his credentials as a steely, determined rider, completing a gruelling 12 hours on the bike in Liverpool’s Anerley event, in a ride that forced organisers to extend the route to accommodate the his desire to go further and further. “He seemed a bit of a character and embodied this pioneering spirit that so many Brits are renowned for,” Harding chimes.
Grubb went on to become the first Brit to enter the Giro d’Italia – “which many consider harder than the Tour de France,” adds Harding – before returning home disillusioned with professional cycling. However, in a cruel twist of fate, his decision to go professional meant that he was banned from returning to competitive amateur racing, and so Grubb turned his focus to making bicycles instead of riding them, working in London over the following decades.
Today, the spirit of Grubb lives on through Harding and Pattison‘s sleek, minimal bicycles.Having launched their first two frames earlier this year – which take inspiration from the type of geometry typically found on 1950s town bikes – Freddie Grubb are aiming to harness their founders’ keen eye for design and translate this into creating a collection of stylish bicycles. But for now, just two will do.
“We applied for the trademark in 2011 and were granted it about a year and a half later,” says Harding, explaining the arduous process of turning a passion project into a functioning business. Both Harding and Pattison’s background lies in the furniture business, where they operate a successful professional bolt-on company, supplying pieces to architects and interior designers. “Having spent several years working with other manufacturers and other products, it’s quite nice to actually work with your own product and get involved with the actual design process,” he says.
But what makes good design, I ask? “Consideration and attention to detail” according to Harding. “Most designers will start with a blank piece of paper, free to design every element. With a bicycle this is very difficult. Certain components need to be brought in to retain their function – it becomes a very costly process if you design the whole thing from scratch. What we have done is carefully consider our components and incorporate these into our design, adding detail and colour. In the realm of what’s available, you can create something very nice. I think that’s what we’ve come up with.”
From Bradley Wiggin’s enigmatic 2012 Tour de France winning performance, to the rise of the Shoreditch-dwelling creative, cycling has seen something of a renaissance in recent years at all levels. And the market for the increasingly popular fixie style, which Grubb specialise in, is one that, on the surface at least, is heavily populated. So, where does Freddie Grubb fit in? For a brand who takes its name after a fixie-riding, vegetarian – the original 1900s hipster, if you will – it would be easy to play on a clichéd heritage aesthetic, but Harding and Pattison are trying to take the much-loved style and elevate it.
“I wouldn’t say the bicycle market is entirely saturated, but it is at some levels – certainly at the mid to low levels,” he says in a measured tone. “ So what we decided to do was to move up a level and by doing that we thought we could offer a handmade frame with better quality components.”
Talk soon turns to the future and the forthcoming collaboration release with the Glasgow-based watch designers at London Design Festival: “It’s a limited edition of 10, and depending on the response, we will decide whether it becomes a full time production thing,” he says. “We’re keen for more collabs because I think there are a lot of people working on stuff out there that have some connection with us. But rather than rushing into any of this, I think we’re quite keen to get our product into the market and get people cycling on it.” I suspect Freddie would have thought the same.