Brand Insight: Altura
With its 25th birthday celebrations ticked off, Altura is a brand that’s refusing to stand still.
We experience its local County Durham trails to test its new gravel-clothing range
From lush loch-side lanes in Scotland to the wide-open expanses of the American Midwest’s gravel network and the lava fields of Lanza, the landscapes of the adventurous cyclist are epic playgrounds barely touched by modernity.
And yet the out-of-town industrial estate also deserves its place in the annals of all-road adventures. Why? Because this is where the kit for exploring the world is often conceived, created and couriered to cyclists across the globe.
We’ve experienced these gargantuan warehouses stacked high with crates of carbon and caps, polyester and polycarbonate across Britain and beyond, often resembling the bicycling equivalents of that famous final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark (with elastane replacing the Ark). Beyond the roundabouts and loading bays, however, these identikit warehouses often disguise the innovation that’s brewing within, as well as the inspirational and scenic testing grounds a track pump’s throw away.
Altura, I discover on a recent visit, fits this narrative, with its Darlington base in Country Durham flanked by the North York Moors to the southeast, the Yorkshire Dales to the southwest and the Pennines and Kielder Forest Park to the north. It’s an adventurer’s dream, and we’re soon venturing out into the rolling countryside for one of Altura’s regular lunchtime test rides.
Apetitite for destruction
Gravel bikes, and commercial manager Stuart Grieves’ beefy new MTB ebike, are the order of the day, the multi-terrain 25km circuit witnessing us braving mighty puddles, farm tracks and grassy fields, with the quiet country lanes throwing in a couple of short but punchy climbs. It’s this varied backdrop that has helped shape Altura’s latest Gravel collections, running the full gamut of jerseys, shorts, jackets, gloves, socks, caps and more; as well as the frame bags, seatpacks, bar bags and accessories that form the Adventure collection.
“We do a range of testing on materials in the lab, including colours, resistance, waterproofing and the DWR coatings for quantifiable results,” says the head of Altura, Amy Spencer, aboard her gravel bike. “And then we have our range of real-world testers both here and around Europe, from gravel and road riders to mountain bikers and commuters. The gravel fit is mult-iuse whereas road-based kit is really just cut for road.”
Like many at the brand, Amy cut her teeth working for the mountaineering clothing group Berghaus. This outdoor-adventure expertise is evident in the continued success of Altura’s bad weather-thwarting garments, with Spencer and the team acknowledging the demands of designing gravel wear that’ll perform on all-day adventures, provide breathability, give comfort on- and off-the-bike in tricky terrain, and protect riders from the many possible climatic conditions.
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It’s a tall order, and sees Altura’s famous network of testers the length and breadth of Britain testing the kit to destruction. “Simply, we ask them to try and destroy the kit!” laughs Spencer. “We need to make sure that the testers aren’t precious about breaking the garments, as we don’t want them to only say that the kit is fantastic. That isn’t much use to us.”
Hitting new heights
As well as looking forward, 2022 has been a year of reflection for Altura as it marks the brand’s 25th anniversary since its launch in 1997. This is evident in the collection of vintage pieces of kit from past ranges that adorn the office, with luggage and race team jerseys taking us on a nostalgic journey of product design while simultaneously reminding us just how much technology has improved in recent times. Altura moved from Thirsk in North Yorkshire to Darlington in 2014 and Spencer’s aim is to build a product museum for the brand out of all of the archived kit.
Back in 1997 – the 12 months that gave us Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’, Titanic and our recent feature star Jan Ullrich as the Tour de France victor – founders Simon and Julie Ellison created Altura as part of the distribution company Zyro (today known as ZyroFisher following the acquisition of Fisher Outdoor Leisure in 2016), who now distribute over 50 cycling brands throughout the UK and Ireland, including the Cycling Plus regulars of Santini and Giro, nutrition brand Torq, light specialist CatEye and bike-maker BMC.
“Altura began life with the aim of establishing a range of products that had been absent from the UK market,” says Spencer. “Zyro’s independent retailers let the team know what was missing for their customers: reliable apparel, backpacks and panniers for the serious cyclist.”
Altura, which Google Translate informs me is Spanish for height, swiftly became known for the Nightvision reflective tech in its bike jackets, inspired by the hi-vis vests of construction workers, and before long a ubiquitous essential in the kit drawers of British cyclists.
Altura’s famously durable waterproof panniers came in 2000, along with the introduction of the waterproof material Pertex into its garments. Then, in 2008, it was ahead of many brands by at least a decade with the launch of its debut waterproof bikepacking bags, and we mustn’t forget its Progel pads, which have been soothing many cyclists’ bottoms since 2014.
While all that’s great, would you have called Altura kit exciting or fashionable? I’d argue not, as rarely had I raved to my cycling friends about the latest release from the Altura catalogue, bar extolling the virtues of the waterproof seams and tear-resistant outer linings. And yet that outlook has shifted in recent times as, without neglecting the core Altura pillars of being affordable, durable, functional and versatile, it’s become a brand that riders want to be seen wearing, as evidenced in both the surprisingly stylish current 1997-inspired tie-dye jersey designs, that started with Spencer experimenting in the bath with her son’s bedsheets, to the more understated and subtle aesthetics of the new Gravel range.
“Plenty of people are saying ‘This isn’t the Altura I know’ when they see the new designs,” adds Spencer. “We have a vast network of social media followers who provide us with a wealth of data on who is using the kit, where, and in what contexts. These customers from all over Europe and the UK give us an insight into real riders and their own stories, with many of our users wearing their kit in everyday contexts away from being in the saddle.”
That’s not forgetting Altura’s legendary band of real-world testers (with an age range from 15 to 81 and including around-the-world cyclist Mark Beaumont) tasked with pushing the kit to its very limits. “Plenty of our pre-production testers will also use the kit away from purely riding a bike,” adds Spencer, “so we’ll see them standing on the sidelines in the rain at football or even running half marathons in our leggings!”
The result is kit that works for the office, school runs, pub ventures and more in 2022, which is especially important in both the commuter and adventure ranges, the latter for bikepackers who aim to minimise the amount of kit they need to carry while also wanting something that’ll look good as evening wear when carb-loading in the Royal Oak.
“You can use these products on and off the bike, meaning that you can buy one jacket for multiple uses instead of one jacket for riding and one for going to work,” believes Spencer. “We wanted to create jackets that have the tech and features for cycling but can work off the bike for things like hiking, making this both better for cyclists’ pockets and for the environment.”