If I were to draw up a list of all the things that CarboFibretec makes for all of their customers it would be akin to me making a list of all the uses for crude oil. Chances are if you’ve ever flown in a Boeing then something on that plane is made out of carbon fibre by these guys: from the undercarriage, to the wing tip, to the very backrest of the seat in which you sit. If you drive a high end German car you can add your driveshaft to that list, and should you have a penchant for expensive pens you can use them to jot down another. It doesn’t end there. They also produce some of the most modern and widely used farming equipment, so even if you don’t own a car, see no need for expensive stationery and have never flown, they’ve still got you. Then there is the medical industry (ever had an X-ray?) and don’t forget NASA’s space probes. Oh and they make some pretty snazzy wheels too, by the name of Lightweight. Like I said: carbon fibre – it’s pretty inescapable stuff.
One place where it is particularly inescapable is in the CarboFibretec manufacturing facility itself. The door handle is carbon fibre, as is the umbrella stand in the lobby, the mirror frame in the toilets and the coat hangers in the cloakroom. And the tables. And the stairs. It’s like Willy Wonka’s factory, or Hansel and Gretel’s sweetie house. So this rumour that your bike was expensive because Boeing are using up all the carbon is inaccurate – Boeing don’t even get a look in. Erhard Wissler is poaching it at source.
The beginning of CarbonSports (a subsidiary of CarboFibretec, and the current owners of the Lightweight brand) is quite surprising. Erhard is a farm boy. He knew nothing about bicycles and he’s never raced. He doesn’t think it matters. I would tend to agree. He came into the mad world of carbon fibre through a business opportunity in the late 1980s. One of the new owners at Dornier (suppliers of bombers to the Luftwaffe during WWII) showed a self-sabotaging streak on the level of Gerald Ratner’s when he decided that carbon fibre technology was a dead end, closing that wing of the company and making some of the most experienced carbon engineers in Germany redundant. Erhard couldn’t believe his luck. “It clicked – carbon technology. I knew it was the future. I went over there and collected all these guys up and so it started with these eight guys.” Erhard’s only real interest was using the technology to innovate and further mechanise the farming industry he was familiar with. He had no thoughts of branching out into sports equipment.
Some years later a group of solicitors got in touch. They were liquidating the assets of another carbon technology firm and offered Erhard some of the leftovers, including a few items he assumed were worthless. “Ah, they were bicycle moulds. I had no experience with this; the only thing I knew was that you could buy [bicycles] from the supermarket for 200 Deutschmarks. “We fought over more bits and pieces and in the end he said: ‘Hey, let’s make a deal. You give me another 10,000 and you can have everything!’ I said: ‘Okay, deal!’”
But it took something big enough to shake the world – the events of September 11, 2001 – to get Erhard to give these leftovers a second look. The attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon and the hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 sent a huge shockwave through the aviation industry. Travel companies predicted a huge drop in demand for long haul travel and airliner orders plummeted, with an attendant drop in orders for carbon fibre. Erhard’s engineers were running out of things to keep them busy so he decided it was about time to dig out those old frame moulds and see what they were all about. “At this point I knew nothing about bikes. I couldn’t tell a road bike from a track bike so we went to Eurobike and I began to see the potential in the bike market.”
He decided that the following year he would return to the show with a frame, and display to the world how excellent his engineers were with carbon fibre. He did, but to say he didn’t get the response he expected would be putting it mildly. No-one cared about the frame. They were only interested in the wheels.
“We put some Lightweights on our display model just for the show,” remembers Erhard (not that he knew the brand at the time, but someone had told him they were the best). “We had borrowed them from a German magazine because we couldn’t buy a pair. The waiting list at the time was almost 12 months. "Then the customers arrived and they were saying: ‘Oh Lightweights. Look at the Lightweights!’ And I thought: ‘What’s going on here? Why is no-one looking at my frame? They are crazy!’”
Lightweight wheels are still a bit special, but in the late 1990s they were almost unreal. The firm, consisting at the time of Heinz Obermayer and Rudolf Dierl, had created the world’s first true full carbon fibre wheel. They were revolutionising bicycle wheels by making them stiffer than could ever be achieved with aluminium and steel. Most importantly, though, they were light. Incredibly light. Just over 1,000 grams, to be precise, and this back when frames were still made of aluminium and weighed nearly 2kgs on their own. Needless to say, professionals were desperate to get their hands on them. Johan Museeuw rode Lightweights to victory at the Worlds in 1996, Jan Ullrich took the yellow into Paris aboard a pair in 1997 and some guy named Lance floated around on his from 1998 onwards. In fact the Texan was in for a bit of a shock when he wanted a pair for himself; a story Erhard recounts well.
“Heinz told me the story of when Johan Bruyneel, the manager of Armstrong, rang up before the Tour to get five sets of Lightweights. Heinz told him: ‘Oh no you can only have two.’ ‘What?’ ‘We are too busy. You can only have two.’ ‘Okay, I will take two.’
“Anyway some time passes and he rings again: ‘Hey, the Tour is in a few days: when will you send the wheels over?’ and Heinz says to him: ‘But you haven’t paid me.’ Bruyneel was astonished: ‘But do you know who this is? This is Lance Armstrong.’ Heinz paused before telling him in thick Bavarian slang: ‘Listen, boy, everybody pays.’”
Erhard was astonished when he was told this story. I was too but I tried to pretend not to be – stiff upper lip and all that.
“I thought, wow, these guys are real entrepreneurs. Everybody else would fall on their knees to give a product to Lance along with a cheque for €30,000.”
Erhard knew he had to buy this company but, like everything with Lightweight, it was easier said than done. He did the obvious thing and picked up the phone to talk to Heinz. The reply shocked him somewhat: “He told me I had to either ‘buy their company or go away’. "Then he phoned me back and told me he had been on our website and he had seen what we could do so he didn’t want us to come to his factory. "He wanted to meet on neutral ground, so we met in a pizzeria. It was such a dark pizzeria. It was like a gangster movie. "So we came in, me with a frame under one arm, and we looked around the place and right at the back we could see two guys with a wheel on a chair. Ah, there they are!”
He sat down to discuss business but, before he could even get a word out, Rudy Dierl warned: “Remember this, Erhard. We can negotiate everything, but not the price.”
It’s romantic to think that the people who designed your bike fell in love with cycling as a child or something to that effect. So it might be disheartening to hear that, much like Erhard, Heinz had no real interest in cycling to begin with. “They made wheels for lorries and horse racing carts but they were not riders. Rudy still doesn’t ride – Heinz might have a bike now.”
That’s right. Heinz Obermayer started making Kevlar disc wheels for horse racing carts before foolishly accepting a bet (over a beer) that he couldn’t transfer that wheel into a bicycle frame. “I didn’t know anything about bicycle wheels at first,” Heinz told me. “I didn’t even know they were asymmetric.” He had learnt about fibre technology when he founded KDO, which made car bodywork for Porsche. To learn about bikes he turned to former track pro Sigi Renz who described the properties he was looking for in a wheel. It was quite obvious stuff really: he wanted it stiff but it must be light. “It took me about two years to produce that first wheel. Once I had the ideas in place there was no stopping me. Just lots of sleepless nights.”
Heinz is notoriously difficult to work with. When I met him I proudly told him that as a younger man I had learnt to speak some German. I was then informed that it would be useless as Heinz is not German but Bavarian and as such speaks Swabian. Firmly back in my place I quickly suspected that this ‘non-German-ness’ explained why he created wheels in the rather idiosyncratic way he did.
It was only when Erhard had purchased the company that he was actually allowed to set foot inside the original Lightweight facility and get a sense of that idiosyncratic method. He got a bit of a shock: not unlike the one I got when I stepped inside their current facility, although I didn’t draw the comparison at the time.
“It was a tractor garage the size of my office,” remembers Erhard. “My first impression was ‘Oh God.’ Everything was handmade – the heating system was a lorry heater and a tube with a paper box hardened with resin. This pumped the heat into the moulds for hardening the wheels.”
Don’t re-read that. Heinz really did use a lorry heater to cure the wheels inside a cardboard box. He also ‘cooked’ the hub shells in the oven, ‘fried’ the spokes on the hob and hardened the rims under a few UV lights. Erhard was shocked but he wasn’t worried yet. His engineers were, however.
Every carbon part has a heating cycle. So it is heated up to a set temperature over a specific time and then held there for a set period before being cooled. This is one of the most essential parts of creating a carbon structure, and imparts many of the final properties. So they asked Heinz what the heating cycle for a wheel was. His response? “Ah, turn the lorry heater to 2.5 and leave it for about two hours.”
Erhard picked up a wheel from next to his desk and pointed to the groove that runs up the centre of a tubular rim. “This groove was 0.2mm out of centre when we started. "My people said ‘it’s out of centre and varies’ so we asked Heinz about the tolerances and he said: ‘It’s in the middle – that is the tolerance’. "Then the engineer asked for the tolerance of the rim and Heinz said ‘Ah, you have to do it by feeling’ and then my engineer said ‘What is feeling? I am German, I cannot feel – I have to measure everything. Is it 0.1mm or 0.01mm?’ "I know this sounds funny but gosh he was really hard work. All my workers complained the whole factory smelt of the diesel from his lorry heater. “We had to drill holes in the wheels for sensors and put it inside the rim to measure how hot the rim got. So step by step we switched all of Heinz’s methods to normal industrial methods of manufacturing.”
They could have been forgiven for thinking that, once they had all the technical details for the production of the wheels, the hard part was over. Not quite. “To begin with they had a resin which was past its usable date by years,” Erhart explained. “Normally resin is liquid but this one had gone solid. So they used to cook it until it went liquid again. "They only used it because they got it for free. After we increased the production here, we ran out and so had a problem. "We used our own high performance resin and its viscosity was less than the old one and suddenly the wheels were 50g heavier. We didn’t know what to do. It was like we were trying to reverse engineer somebody else’s product.”
Thankfully it seems things have come quite a long way since then. Heinz was producing one wheel a day at his peak whereas they can now produce approximately 30, even though everything is still handmade. Everything still takes just as long (16 hours for a tubular wheel, 19-20 hours for clinchers) but there are now more people doing it. They’re still learning, except now they’re learning how to improve things – not how to make their own products.
“The first thing we touched was the foam inside the wheels because the original foam was one for construction work. We had to go to Home Depot to buy it. "I went in and said: ‘I need this kind of isolation foam.’ The guy said: ‘Hey, we have a better one here. You can stick things to it better.’ I said: ‘No, I like this one’ and the guy asked: ‘Why? This is better’ so I told him it was to make bicycle wheels and he said: ‘Wheels? Just take it. Take it.’ He thought I was crazy but then we switched to a high performance foam. It took us two years until we changed that.”
Carbon fibre, however, is not sourced from Home Depot. Most of CarboFibretec’s technology has been created while working with clients in the aeronautics industry. The company is currently involved in the Sentinel 3 space probe for NASA’s Galileo programme. The probe has been designed to measure the surface temperature of the earth from 800km away in space to within 0.2 degrees Centigrade. It had a specific size and weight all of which had to be made to a tolerance of five microns (or 0.005 millimetres to you and me). But it’s a walk in the park compared to bicycle wheels, apparently.
“The highest possible discipline of carbon fibre technologies is the satellite but the most difficult part we have ever made is our clincher rim,” Erhard told me. “It’s the single thing we’ve ever created which has needed the most attention. We’ve got a new layup for the clincher rim and the guys came over: ‘Hey boss we jacked the wheels up to 290psi and the wheel didn’t blow up. What should we do now?’”
Oddly enough their current limiting factor is the power output of their compressor. I have enough trouble keeping the pump head from jumping off my valves at 120psi. I was strangely tempted to ask the technician if they too had this problem but since the majority of my present company was engineers such a trivial question seemed outrageous. I asked anyway. Turns out they have a special clamp.
“We’ve started this year with an open innovation project. They come along every week with a new idea: ‘Boss can we do this?’ ‘Perhaps we could change this’. For example we’ve talked about disc brakes.
“We can push it further if we want but the cost to the customer would be too high. We made a 343g front wheel. We think we could go lower.”
Erhard believes innovation comes from people making specific demands for a product that often can’t be reached. The best people for that job are professional racers. They can have some pretty crazy requests.
“Jan Ullrich came to me asking for an uphill only wheel. At the time I was busy trying to streamline the business. I said: ‘Why do you come to me with this shit?’ so he went to Heinz instead. He made this very light, very stiff uphill only wheel. We got a call from one of the guys at Shimano who called us crazy.
“We gave it to Jan to use in the mountain time trials. We said: ‘Hey! Please be careful. Do not ride this downhill – it has no braking surface and he said: ‘Yeah, yeah – I won’t’ and then I see this bastard riding downhill like crazy! "I shouted at the TV: ‘Jan don’t do this!’ When he returned it, it was delaminated to near complete failure. This was the last time I ever gave pros a prototype.”
Looking at the wheels of the professional ranks there has been a huge decline in the number of riders using Lightweights. I always assumed it was because other wheelmakers were catching up or because of wrangling with the UCI. Each and every wheel that doesn’t conform to the UCI’s definition of ‘standard’ has to be sent to them for testing – a process which is costly, time consuming and offers little in the way of feedback. The fact that the professionals have to buy their wheels just the same as us probably doesn’t help either. Erhard however tells it differently.
“The regulations of the sponsors are getting harder and harder but we have more success now with discs. The whole of BMC were riding them, Trek, Wiggins. We sponsor some athletes but we cannot sponsor teams. Some companies think you have to be in the ProTour to sell. We’re not so sure. Estimates currently say that for every $1 you put into a professional team it needs another $3 to use that exposure and turn it back into sales.”
Erhard isn’t too concerned about how this affects their business. “The cost of our wheels is one of the reasons we’re not afraid of copies. Mavic have bought about 50 pairs of wheels over the years to try and see what we do, but once you’ve put the time you need into reproducing it, it would be so expensive no-one would buy it. We heard a rumour they’re losing money on every pair of those CCU wheels they sell.”
One thing that’s for sure is that Erhard isn’t losing money on his wheels. He’s not a cash grabbing con artist but he believes in a fair price for what he’s producing. “My target is to be unique and be more competent than your competitors and do things with which they are struggling. I do not like to discuss about 5p per piece by squeezing prices and all this shit. We could do it if we had a subsidiary in China but this is not our way. We are proud to be working here. These people make me proud, this job makes me proud. Lightweight is special to us – to me.”
It could well be the influence of Heinz’s ‘everything but the price’ still running through the business. “Do you know Ernesto [Colnago]? He’s quite a character. He was inviting us to send him 50 or so pairs of wheels for free. He got really angry when we refused. I called him greedy. He called me a bastard.
“I said if it would calm him down he should know that not even the Pope would get better than trade price,” recalled Heinz. “Then he slammed down the phone…”
Despite all the changes at the company, Heinz can’t really stop himself from getting involved. He now uses his spare time to make wheels for those who are true talents but perhaps unable to afford them – often young kids but also athletes with disabilities.
Alex Zanardi rode to Paralympic gold on a wheel Heinz had repaired for him. He goes through the trash box and picks up the ones he thinks can be fixed.
“In his garage he has a small space where he can repair the wheels,” Erhard confirmed. “He has to pull out all his wife’s gardening equipment but the space is still there.”
Heinz’s wife Traudel was mentioned frequently throughout the day and came to the interview despite not speaking English.
I found this strange until it transpired that she has decided not to let Heinz out of her sight where Lightweight is concerned.
This decision originated when Erhard made a business plan for Lightweight and began to look for investors to grow the company.
“I told this to Heinz and he said: ‘Ah, it’s probably not a bad idea to become a shareholder in the company.’ He thought about it for ten seconds and then said: ‘Hey, I’ll do it!’
Traudel came back into the garden with some cake and Heinz exclaimed: ‘Hey I’ve become a shareholder in Lightweight.’
She looked at him with a face of thunder and left in silence. She doesn’t let him come here alone now.
“She tries to take care of him. I always wind her up because he loves to make wheels. He loves working with his hands and she has a perfect, perfect garden. Like an English garden.
"There is the most perfect grass and in the middle of this green is an apple tree and every year she collects all the leaves when they fall on the grass.
"This year I went round and he was up the ladder cutting the leaves off the tree. I asked: ‘What are you doing, Heinz?’ He told me it was easier to just cut the leaves off the tree before they fell…”
This sort of peculiar logic seems to sum up Heinz Obermayer and Lightweight perfectly.
They just can’t stop tinkering. Perhaps the old adage is different in Friedrichschafen: ‘If it ain’t broke, fix it.’