The latter half of the nineteenth century gave rise to many great inventions: the telephone, the phonograph, blue jeans, the hot dog. And somewhere in the midst of those innovations, a man with a dead horse, a new transportation machine, and sore hindquarters decided enough was enough. It was time to invent a leather bicycle saddle. That man was John Boultbee Brooks, the founder of JB Brooks & Co. Ltd. (now Brooks England Ltd.) and one of the 29 bicycle artisans featured in the The Elite Bicycle.
It all began in 1865. A simple harness maker by the surname Brooks, left his native Leicestershire town of Hinckley for Birmingham. Once he arrived, he established a business in horse harnesses and general leather goods on Great Charles Street under the name JB Brooks & CO. He rode to and from the works on his horse until 1878 when his faithful riding companion died. And because, it’s said, he could not afford to replace the beloved steed, he accepted the loan of a friend’s bicycle, a machine that was, at the time dubbed “the horse that eats no hay.”
The bicycle was fitted with a wooden saddle. Brooks found the wretched thing so excruciatingly uncomfortable that he resolved to make a seat as lenient as that which he’d enjoyed on the horse which did eat hay. So on the 28th of October, 1882, his first patent—Saddles for Bicycles and Tricycles—launched the manufacture of what became, until the 1950s, the best selling saddle in the world. [Take a look at one of his early patent applications and illustrations: John Boultbee Brooks patent “Cycle Saddle” 1898.]
Brooks applied the expertise of making equine saddles to a comfy seat for the new-fangled machine, in particular, the molding of thick cow leather to the form of the human buttocks. To this day, they use a slow-cooking method to produce their saddles, one saddle requires three days.
First, the shapes are cut from the hide, and very little is wasted. Then, the 5 mm thick hides have to be soaked in water to make them pliable enough to work. The saddles are then drip dried and given the first molding while still damp. The molded leather is then baked in two different ovens at different temperatures for two hours. They then move along to the next procedure: the fitting of the frame. And there are still a few more steps that follow the fitting. In fact, every Brooks saddle passes through up to a dozen pairs of hands before leaving the factory.
Their process might seem antiquated. Their saddles might look old school. But in reality, their work is a time —honored tradition, a tradition that has done well for them. Why not bring the company into the 21st century, you may ask? Let’s put it this way, you wouldn’t go changing your grandmother’s revered chocolate cake recipe if was just as delectable as the first time you tried it. So why would Brooks change their recipe for making a fine leather saddle if it still shaped itself to its owner the way it was made to back in the 1880s?
This brief portrait of Brooks was adapted from its full chapter in the new book The Elite Bicycle.
The Elite Bicycle brings together intimate portraits of the world’s greatest bicycle artisans, examining the philosophies, the meticulous workmanship, and the eccentric personalities behind cycling’s most prestigious brands. Their materials and methods could not be more disparate, yet their pursuit is the same: the perfect bicycle.
In chapters featuring some of cycling’s greatest craftspeople, The Elite Bicycle offers up a conversation with the men and women who make the most coveted bicycles. Lavish, oversize photographs and personal interviews invite readers into their workshops to show the melding of old-world craftsmanship with space-age materials in fascinating studios and factories that fabricate superb machines.
The Elite Bicycle is both an homage to the bicycle maker and a collector’s piece in its own right, celebrating the stories behind the greatest bicycles and components in the world.