Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

11 November 2016

Swords And Ploughshares From Reynolds

Today is Veterans' Day here in the USA.   In other countries, today is Armistice Day.  

While I think veterans, especially those who are disabled, should never want for anything, I think this day--or Memorial Day--should not be a day to celebrate war with chest-thumping displays of nationalistic grandiosity.  (Nor should it be simply another orgy of shopping, as too many other "holidays" have become.)  Rather, I think such days should be occasions to remember who and what we've lost in wars, and ways we can prevent it.

That said, I'm going to talk about the contribution one of the most respected companies in cycling made to a war effort.

I wrote about said company in yesterday's blog post.  Specifically, I wrote about a frame tube set it produced for a few years--and one it made for decades.

That company, Reynolds, still makes some of the most esteemed tubing, which is used by some of the world's best bicycle builders.  My post focused on "708", which it made for a few years and was a descendant of its most iconic product:  531 tubing, which won 24 out of 25 Tours de France after World War II and was used to build high-quality bikes for just about every type of riding and rider for half a century.

As much as it pains me to say this, Reynolds 531 tubing, like many other advances in technology, resulted from military research and development. The company said as much.

Reynolds began manufacturing nails in Birmingham, England in 1841. It thrived in this business but its leaders saw the potential in bicycle fitments, especially after James Starley's "safety" bicycle (with two equally-sized wheels) helped to popularize cycling in the 1880s.  

Its reputation was burnished during the cycling boom of the 1890s, when Reynolds was one of the first companies to make seamless tubing and, not long after, patented the first butted tubing.  The latter development, of course, revolutionized bicycle design because making the ends of the tubes--where most of the stress concentrated--thicker, the walls could be made thinner toward the middle of the tube.  This resulted in frames that were lighter and more resilient than ones that had been made before.  To this day, high-quality frames made from steel, aluminum or titanium have butted tubes.

Reynolds double-butted tubing was such an advancement over other steel tubing available at the time that during World War I, the company was called upon to equip the armed forces.   Its first contracts were for military bicycles and motorcycles, but by 1916, Reynolds tubing was being used for aircraft used in the war.

Aeronautical engineering is, almost by definition, a quest for making things as light and strong as possible.  Those early airplanes had such thin wings and shells because, given the materials of the time, they had to be constructed that way in order for them to be light enough to loft into the air.  Engineers and designers soon realized that they couldn't make those parts thinner without running the risk that they would break apart at the slightest crosswind or impact.  So, the emphasis shifted toward making materials stronger.

That is how Reynolds, and other companies, began to experiment with alloys of steel.   It was known that adding certain elements to the metal strengthened it, which meant that less could be used to achieve the same strength.  By the 1930s, Reynolds upon a particularly good combination consisting of maganese, molybdenum and other elements, in a ratio of approximately five to three to one.  Now you know why it's called Reynolds 531.

During World War II, production of frame tubes was suspended, as Reynolds was once again called upon to make aircraft parts.  After the war ended, 531 production resumed and the "miracle metal" was used in aircraft components, race car chasis and, most famously, bicycles.

Perhaps I am being overly pessimistic in highlighting the fact that Reynolds' technologies had their root in war efforts.  I guess I could see it as an example of "beating swords into ploughshares." That makes it easier to enjoy the ride of my Mercians! 


  1. Your post puts me in mind of the Norton Manx, a very successful racing motorcycle of the 50s and 60s. Their "featherbed" frames were were made of bicycle grade 531. Even today cafe racers build replicas of the old featherbed out of Reynolds 531.

  2. Phillip--That's interesting--and not surprising, given the other ways in which 531 has been used.