Words: Ian Cleverly Photos: Wig Worland
Hutchinson makes some of the finest racing tyres on the market and have done so for a very long time. Anquetil, Bobet, Armstrong; all Tour de France winners, all riding on French rubber. We went to Montargis, south of Paris, to find out about warp and weft, TPI and other mysterious tyre terminology…
I am not the kind of cyclist who thinks too deeply about what sits beneath me. An inquisitive mind for all things mechanical is a wonderful thing. I just don’t possess one. If a bike works, is not too heavy and isn’t ugly, that’s good enough for me. Imagine the lack of enthusiasm approaching my first Rouleur equipment feature, something I have successfully swerved thus far. What can be said about tyres? (I must at this point give special mention to the Editor who managed a thoroughly enjoyable feature about spokes… from Switzerland). But the whole day was absolutely gripping.
Warp and weft! There’s two words you don’t hear often, unless working in the clothes trade. The warp is the lengthwise yarn held in tension on a frame, while the weft is woven between at a right angle. Samuel demonstrates with a small section of base layer the strength the material has in one direction, then turns it round and simply rips it apart with ease. The clever bit comes by turning the material 45 degrees where the combination of strength and elasticity reaches its optimum.
The tyre-related acronym even I knew about before visiting Montargis was TPI, or threads per inch. The more, the better, giving a thinner and more flexible tyre carcass. “In the beginning it was 33,” says Samuel, “with big yarn, then doubled to 66, then doubled again – 127.” Hold on a minute…
“But in reality it is not that. It is 100. I don’t why.”
Content that if Samuel doesn’t know, it’s probably not worth knowing, we move onto the most labour intensive part of the tyre making process, rows of deft-fingered women bringing carcass, beading and tread together with meticulous high-speed dexterity. Then to huge heavy presses for final shaping and stretching, the finished articles emerging steaming to be cooled on racks.
This is the point where I am struck by how many pairs of hands have worked on each and every one of these tyres. I expected some kind of mass production, automated line, without having really thought it through. The reality is, yes, it’s a production line, but with a necessarily hands-on approach that is very much old school manufacturing at its finest. I vow never, ever, to complain about the cost of a pair of tyres again.
Extract taken from Rouleur 26, coming soon