We’re standing watching the TV at the luggage carousel at Chicago O’Hare airport, and the travel news isn’t great. The fact that we’ve landed at the height of the evening rush hour is one thing, but another, slightly more worrying aspect is the huge snowstorm that’s scheduled to hit Chicago any minute. Flashing across the screen in full-on dramatic CNN vision, it is forecast to be the worst in years.
I do confess that I’m a bit of a Luddite. Modern technology is always a bit bewildering to me, so our fully-loaded Cadillac MPV with four-wheel drive seemed to be overkill to this uninitiated and jet-lagged grumpy old man. We’re a bit bleary-eyed and need to find the button that turns on the sat nav to guide us to Madison, Wisconsin. It’s not very far and we’re now anxious to get there. If only I could work out where reverse gear might be, we could even get out of the car park.
Half an hour into the journey and it’s getting interesting. Intrepid photographer Taz is still sat on the edge of her seat, mainly so she could see where we are going, but also because since leaving the airport we couldn’t find the button to turn the heated seats off.
Outside, it’s much colder and increasingly treacherous. Cars are starting to veer off in all directions and the road markings have all but vanished. It’s like dodgems on ice. Although visibility is now practically nil, an abandoned pickup’s headlights reveal the weight of the snowfall on the hard shoulder: it’s now a matter of feet rather than inches.
I’m slowly coming around to this modern car lark, though, and really glad of the traction control, whatever that may be. This whiteout would have had Ernest Shackleton worried. The next morning, and downtown Madison is a winter wonderland. Fresh snow is always delightful to look at, but I’m also thinking we’re unlikely to get out to see anything other than the view from the window today.
How wrong could one be? By 9am the roads are nearly clear. The local kids are all sent back to school by lunchtime and the cleared snow is shunted into huge piles, then loaded onto trucks and shipped out of town, where it will take until August to melt – I kid you not. For someone who comes from a country where two inches grinds the infrastructure to a clumsy halt, this level of pulling together and getting on with it is mind-bogglingly impressive.
Awesome is a much-used word in Madison, as my breakfast order had apparently been, and our choice of hire car, according to the hotel’s manager. It’s a term an Englishman rarely uses – a final word on something and only reserved for acts of biblical proportions. But it’s safe to say that the snow event in Wisconsin during our trip in February was truly awesome.
What do you know about Trek Bikes? Or, rather, what do you think you know about the company? Opinions can be extreme and varied. Some think that it is a huge multinational corporation which swallows up large chunks of the bicycling industry like a giant Pac-Man – the evil, brand-mad, industry engine hell-bent on global domination.
Others just think of Trek as the bike sponsors of Team Armstrong’s gate-crashing domination of the Tour de France, and as a result think that the brand is the height of anti-Euro. And worse has been said – it’s safe to say I had heard a fair bit of negative opinion about the world’s biggest bike company before we’d ventured into Wisconsin’s frozen countryside.
But you can’t ignore the facts. And the fact is Trek has been massively successful, and unfortunately with success comes a fair share of broadsides from all corners, even if it is mostly misplaced or misinformed criticism.
What you probably didn’t know about Trek is that it is still what it started out to be: a bicycle maker. Trek makes bicycles, and lots of them, and there’s nothing bad about that now, is there? What you also probably didn’t know is the people at Trek still design and make all their top-end racing bicycles themselves in Waterloo, Wisconsin, and the company is one of only a handful of bike manufacturers in the professional peloton that can still say that.
Waterloo, a short drive from Madison, is a sleepy place. When Trek started out in the 1970s, Waterloo was a boomtown, albeit a modest one, with printing and farming being the productive employers. The original Trek factory, which is still there, was a red, metal-clad 7,000 square foot carpet warehouse before founders Richard Burke and Bevel Hogg decided it was the best place to start a bicycle company.
What started out with $100,000 and five people is now the world’s biggest bike company with around $800million worth of annual sales and nearly 2,000 people working on their products worldwide – so nowadays they are one of Waterloo’s bigger local employers.
But why Waterloo and why Trek? In 1975, Burke and Hogg chose the location by putting a pin in the map halfway between their respective homes in Milwaukee and Madison. As for the name, they judged that neither of their own would really be fitting monikers for a bicycle company.
Frame builder Mike Appel (who left Trek to build his own bikes, only to return to work in the paint shop recently) remembers it was a happy place back in 1976 when he started on the shop floor.
“It was very different back then. When it got to be 100 degrees in the shop, Bevel would come in and have a couple of six packs and say the whole factory is taking the rest of the day off and we’d go swimming in the lake.
"We don’t do that now. It was pretty relaxed back then. There were a lot of characters in the bike shop, and you could smoke cigarettes and cigars in the factory. We had this one guy, a Harley biker, and he’d come in with this big cigar and he’d smoke it all day. It’d be smoke down to about three feet above the ground in the frame shop – everybody would be coughing all day long, but they just put up with that back then. It was really relaxed.”
Tim Isaac, another frame engineer, summed this time up pretty well: “Trek was dominated by free spirits and I think it showed in our products.”
After three years in the carpet factory, Trek was selling frames for $275 each and turning over roughly $750,000 a year. These early Trek bikes made by Mike and his colleagues were intended to fill a gap in the burgeoning US touring market which opened up as a result of the mid-’70s energy crisis, and to do this they set out making good quality steel frames. The product was well received: consumers and retailers liked the fact they were hand-built and made in the USA.
Mike recalls: “There was a big touring market in America at the time. People were into touring across the country, so touring bikes were in demand because they wanted all the racks on their bikes and people seemed to like the idea of buying a locally built frame.
"There was a real Earth movement and buying a hand-built bike was a big attraction, and that was our niche at the time. Why it exploded? I couldn’t put my finger on any one thing. There just wasn’t anything around like that. It was a hand-built, one-a-time bike and that just probably made the difference, and we had really nice finishes – we used Imron paints plus the silver brazing was beyond everybody else’s specification.
"Trek offered Campagnolo too, which probably had a lot to do with it – Shimano was just coming in and we offered both, so it was the big attraction, I guess. Trek also hired Dick Nolan who had the experience of building a few frames – he was kind of the engineer who designed our first Trek bikes and showed us how it was done.
"All the first ones were done in silver brazing which was a really big deal ’cause we probably wouldn’t have made it if we’d started on brass right away. We started out doing about ten frames a day, and by the time I first left, we were probably doing a couple of hundred.
"We did a lot of neat things – in the old days we used to do the serial numbers by hand, and there were small things, like the head badges were screwed onto the frame with iddy-biddy screws. We had a guy with an iddy-biddy tap and a screwdriver and he’d screw every head badge to each bike because production was still small and you could do that.”
Mary Schultz, another frame builder who still works in production for Trek, remembers those good times too. “Back then, I pretty much did everything – brazing, welding – and when we’d hit 50 bikes a day, we’d have champagne parties. If we hit a record for us, Bevel Hogg would go out to the liquor store, and we’d have champagne at the end of the shift.”
Trek quickly built a solid reputation and a nationwide following – and, despite the champagne parties, Burke and Hogg had big plans. All this shifted tack slightly a decade or so later when bike brands expanded out into the world of mountain bikes. Although Trek’s heritage was in touring and travel, mountain biking was destined to be a lot more product-savvy than road cycling had been, and also a lot less narrow-minded.
The names that started to appear were less road-exclusive and added a new dimension into the bike industry. The Trek marque fitted perfectly. So in the summer of 1983, when Laurent Fignon was busy winning the Tour, Trek’s Harry Spehar started testing a prototype Trek mountain bike in the California hills – and it was just the start of much bigger things for the company.
By the time the rest of the road market had realised mountain bikes weren’t just a quirky fad, the established mountain bike brands, with Trek at the forefront, had pretty much taken over the global cycling market. The established brands were now struggling to catch up, although they still had the road racing market – for the moment.
By the end of ’90s, Trek realised that this road market was starting to edge back into the limelight. Although at around 80 per cent of its production, Trek’s mountain bike market had reached a plateau and road cycling was at about to resurge.
Trek’s offering wasn’t really proven in any road racing peloton; the absence of a builder’s family name to hang their racing exploits on may be a part of the reason why dyed-in-the-wool road racers found it hard to relate to the brand. But racers have always bought in to the idea that if a product is used in the professional peloton it must be sought out. It’s the kind of endorsement that people like – if it’s good enough for them…
To break into this market, Trek needed to innovate. It started with aluminium, and before welding the stuff, Trek bonded tubes to lugs. Nothing new about that, but Trek managed to do it well, and after a few hiccups began to produce some of the finest examples available. Best of all, they were good value.
But aluminium was limited in what it could offer the rider, and in the pursuit to make bikes lighter, more and more carbon fibre frames were starting to appear. Trek had already made a few successful bikes with carbon tubes bonded together in the same way as their aluminium frames, but the technique needed improving and, more importantly, it needed to be winning.
Bob Read was Trek’s in-house carbon trailblazer. Believing that carbon was the future and setting a complete frame as his goal, he would often brandish a single piece carbon tennis racquet at product meetings to emphasise his point, such was his determination to get the idea across.
American companies were leading the way in developing the raw material, and Trek worked with one of them, Radius, to develop a unique process. Trek bit the bullet and bought up the required tooling and machinery to make these monocoque carbon frames a reality, and the OCLV (Optimum Compaction, Low Void) frame they eventually produced was revolutionary.
Despite the less-than snappy name, it was, from the outset, the lightest full-on production monocoque carbon frame available, and by 1998 it had taken Trek into the European professional peloton. This bike, along with its successors, was the one that was ridden to seven straight Tour de France victories. Sadly, Bob Read died before his ideas reached these dizzy heights, but Trek continued to develop the OCLV project further, culminating in its latest guise, the Madone.
According to Jim Colegrove, Trek’s senior composites manufacturing engineer, manufacturing a carbon fibre Madone frame successfully is all about three fundamental things: “Quality, precision and repeatability.”
To achieve these goals doesn’t mean you just flick a switch and set a production line rolling; making successful bike frames needs skilled human hands, too. Carbon fibre may be a relatively modern technology, yet Jim recognises that Trek’s skilled workforce will always be a key ingredient. “You couldn’t design a machine to do this – the human machine is truly amazing in what it can do.”
Jim is also keen to stress that it’s not just a simple injection-moulding procedure either, stating that it’s all well and good to make one frame well, but to make several thousand well requires an exacting process, and to do this there are many man hours ahead.
That’s not to say that this is a frame shop without technology, though. Computer controlled cutting machines dart across huge sheets of carbon material with a tiny blade which cuts the strips into the preferred shapes. The result looks more like a dressmaker’s pattern than anything resembling a bicycle frame.
Madone frames start their life as a flatpack, kits of fabric sheets, and each one is weighed and quality controlled before it’s laid up. Piece by piece, sections of material are carefully placed into the mould with epoxy resin. The two halves of the mould are then brought together with heat and pressure. The important part of the process is the bladder that is placed inside the moulds: the bag looks simple enough, but it is the part that places pressure inside the frame, forcing the shape into the mould before it cures.
Its shape and material is a closely guarded secret. There are a lot of different elements to these moulds, and some pre-formed parts and several process technologies involved too. It’s these processes, Jim believes, that give Trek a competitive edge. But he also recognises that it’s an involved process and requires many hours to produce one frame.
“For one 56cm-sized Madone frame there are up to seven moulds used to create that one frame. Now go through the seven frame sizes – they all have to be designed and analysed for loads and stresses, then each frame builder has to be familiar with each lay-up too, so there’s no waste. And once we’ve done the moulding there’s also all the finishing and frame prep. I’m sure it takes longer to make a Madone than a steel frame – we’re talking about a very labour intensive product here.
"People really don’t get this – we have our own mould making facility so we have complete control of the process, and the number of parts that we actually make ourselves is considerable.”
The process compares to those in the aerospace industry where they are doing a very high-tech lay-up procedure, but with a bicycle it needs the addition of a mass manufacturing process. As a former government contracting engineer, Jim knows well what’s involved here. “We fall into a strange category. When you compare it to the plastics industry it’s small numbers, but here we are making more in one day than what an aerospace company might make in a month – six months, even.”
After the basic Madone monocoque is produced, Trek’s method of bonding dropouts into frames relies on a curing fixture which holds the dropout firmly in place as the epoxy glue cures in an oven. The fixture is remarkably similar to a steel builder’s frame jig and has the desired result of maintaining the track of the frame and setting the alignment precisely.
Jim noted that the frame needs to move slightly during the final curing process so it’s got some built-in room for movement. “There’s a spring on the jig and part of the reason for that is when things heat up everything grows – it’s called the coefficient of thermal expansion. And because the alignment of all the points in the rear end is so critical we had found that an absolutely rigid fixture is no good, so we added a spring into the fixture and it worked. It’s something that we could not really explain, but the result means tracking is perfect.”
Jim concluded that all this technology is based on a material that now dominates and the world of building performance bicycles and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
“Carbon gives us so many options. It is lightweight, you can build up material in different places and it’s very durable. We are keeping our eyes on the horizon for new materials, but whatever it is, the techniques would be very similar. Remarkably, this process is very much like 100-year-old brazing.”
After bonding the frames, the finishing process begins. First, they are sanded. This is the messy part: dusty, noisy and non-stop. After sanding, the frames are pushed through to the paint shop, which is where the fun begins.
Bob Seibel, who took us through the finishing and painting departments, oversees Trek’s Project One programme. He explains how the unique process allows you to custom paint your Madone pretty much how you want. This is becoming increasingly popular (perhaps, I’m told, because of the popularity of MTV’s custom car show Pimp My Ride) but customisation is really establishing itself in the discerning bike buyers’ market.
One of the Project One painters is Patrick Sullivan, and he’s as far removed from Jim’s scientific approach to building bikes as you can get. He paints, within reason, anything you want. And as we found out, it’s pretty quick-fire banter in the Project One department...
Patrick: “I can suggest all I want but ultimately it’s up to the customer. There’s plenty of bikes that come through here where they say, ‘This is my jersey, can you make my bike look like my jersey?’ Well, I have a set parameters of what I need to do. But sometimes I just get to put it in drive and go.”
Bob: “How often does that happen that somebody wants a one-off, how do they even do that?”
Patrick: “Well, first you gotta make a phone call and we need to have a consultation, or two or three consultations, to find out whether or not we need to have computer generated artwork. I guess the best way to put this is that every one-off project is completely different. You gotta go with this chain of command of trying to place the order going through the, ‘Yes I want this, no I don’t want that.’ Then it usually takes anywhere from two days to two weeks to complete. The longest thing I did was two weeks.”
And is the demand for this increasing?
Bob: “I dunno – I don’t really get to see that stuff from sales. I don’t know how many people say, ‘Oh I’d really buy a bike if I could get whatever.’ I just hear about the complicated ones. You know – like how we sent stuff back and forth, like people will send you a piece of their sheets from their beds…”
Patrick: “We were sent this bedspread that I needed to match this colour to and it’s like, dude, no, I don’t think so. And I’m the type of person that will just tell you no, I don’t think so – it’s either gonna be this way, or you’re not gonna get it. If it’s that meticulous, you know what I’m sayin’?
But there are so many customers, like Bob said, where they’re just blown away. So you don’t have to worry about pleasing the customer – I will go above and beyond every day of the week to make sure that person is happy. Unless there’s a fibre of a bedsheet that they’re sending through the mail and they need it to match that specifically. Then that’s not gonna happen – sorry. There’s a really broad spectrum to pleasing a customer, and as long as they’re within parameters of that, we can do it, no problem."
All those bikes that Lance Armstrong was riding last year at the Tour, did you do those?
Patrick: “It depends on what one you’re talking about. There’s a lot of ones that were done by an artist that had some really crazy graphics on there, like some cartoons and the butterfly one. I had no hand in any of that stuff…
Bob: “Those bikes were through the Nike programme. Damien Hirst and some others, but the Damien Hirst butterfly bike I think still has the record of being the most expensive bike ever on the Tour.”
Patrick: “Oh yeah, the insurance policy on that was ridiculous.”
Have they sold it?
Bob: “Whole set got $1.2million, Hirst’s bike got over $500,000 by itself. It had over 300 real butterfly wings.”
Patrick: “The RadioShack ones and some of the LiveStrong ones with the gold band on them and things like that I’ve done. I did – I don’t know if you remember this one – back in 2005, the custom flame. It was the Discovery Channel one, with the transparent pearl carbon, and it had a blue cookie cutter flame with a white halo.”
Bob: “Do you know who did the one for the president of France, Nicolas Sarkozy? It was really cool. It looked like a Hamms beer can – it was blue with gold, sort of French colours, and it had a golden rooster on it. We’ve done bikes for the president of the United States, George W Bush, for the president of Mexico…”
Patrick: “Bush had like eight come through – he just kept wreckin’ ’em. He’d take ’em around his ranch and stuff, and I dunno how the hell he does it. I haven’t ever wrecked a bike in my entire life. Maybe he fell a lot. And that stuff’s not easy to paint – you’ve got the United States of America seal on it and all this other stuff.”
So you paint all that?
Patrick: “Actually, [Brian] Yuker takes care of most of that stuff. He’s got the talent, he’s got the knowledge, so he usually gets those gigs.”
Bob: “He does a good job.”
Patrick: “He does a very good job. He’s a good guy.”
Someone told me you were a tattoo artist. Does that help with the painting?
Patrick: “No – my brother is a tattoo artist, and Yuker don’t even have a single tattoo. There’s painters, there’s custom painters and then there’s artists who are painting. In my opinion, I guess there’s people who can paint really well and will never run [get a drip on] a bike for years, but they can’t draw. I guess it’s probably something you’re probably born with.
"I guess Yuker is right in the middle of the road. He can’t draw very well, he doesn’t like to draw, he don’t care to draw. He’d rather shoot deer and be out and about, you know. But he can paint a good bike.”
So have you noticed you’ve got busier with this Project One thing?
Patrick: “We’re doing well, yes, and we have gotten a lot busier. We were crazy busy six months ago. We were about 1,000 bikes behind and I ate, slept, breathed Trek my whole life, and it was one of those things: you’ve either gotta sink or swim. We just grabbed our boot straps and just started hammering out bikes and workin’ ten-hour days and just really staying focused and now we’ve got a good grasp on things. Also, with the birth of the minimal we’re getting busy.”
Patrick: “Yeah. For example, black paint over decals so it’s a very, very small amount of raised decal and it looks like a stealth bike. This is black-on-black – it’s a matt finish that’s overlaid, so once this whole thing is black you’re gonna get to see the outline of the Trek, and then it’ll go a satin matt finish and you’ll just barely be able to see it. And then everything else on the bike will be black too. We’re gonna do that in white and silver as well. It looks pretty sweet.”
Compared to the heat and dust of the finishing rooms, and the paint-spattered spray shop, the atmosphere of the transfer rooms is a thankfully tranquil and clean environment. Bob explained that they’ve tried various approaches to applying graphics, and water transfer is the best way.
Interestingly, but not unsurprisingly, men just don’t have the same dexterity as women and get bored easily, which means the attention to detail isn’t the same – so this immaculate room is occupied by workers lovingly referred to as “The Sticker Chicks”.
This is the same the world over: all frame transfers, when they are this complicated, are applied by women. I watched the stickers soaked off their backing strips and positioned on the frame. It’s a bit like adding decals to a model airplane (and remember how hard they were to get straight?) only bigger and easier to crease. Once the stickers are added, a clear coat lacquer is applied. And there you have it: a Trek Madone.
But what do you do in the winter in Waterloo? A company that actively encourages employees to go for a spin on the bike every day has a bit of a problem when the snow is four foot deep.
Away from cycling, hunting seems pretty popular, but that’s a summer activity, too. During our visit, the Green Bay Packers reached the final of the Super Bowl, which seemed to be everyone’s main focus right now.
But what else is there to do? Ice fishing, apparently. It seems to be an excuse to get out of the house and drink beer, but Jim Colegrove had promised to take us out after work to Rock Lake by his house.
Out on the lake there are several sheds resting on blocks, and under these blocks is around 30 inches of ice. The lake is frozen solid during the winter months, but I’m reluctant to venture out onto it. Apart from the obvious and breathtaking cold (it’s touching -20°C) there are a few cracks around the surface, and although Jim assures me that this is normal I’m still a little doubtful.
While Jim is explaining in depth, as only a composites engineer can, the nature of ice formation and how it flexes and raises itself at the edge of the bank, from nowhere a truck appears from behind us and dives out onto the ice, driving out towards the sheds. Any doubt of it supporting a shivering 80-kilo man quickly vanishes.
The fishermen drill four-inch-wide holes through the ice with a corkscrew drill bit attached to something resembling a chainsaw. Out on the ice, a solitary woman sits on an empty beer crate in what resembles a baby grow suit, dangling a tiny fishing rod into the abyss. It sounds pitiful and it looks dreadfully lonely, but she beams a smile at us and we go over for a chat. As it happens, the whole family is with her, just back in the shed in the warmth cooking dinner.
Ice fishing is a family obsession for them, and everyone comes out after work and school. Snow doesn’t stop them. Jim dutifully warns us of the risk of exposure and invites us for a slightly less cold beer to warm up back at his house.
This is the world that Trek inhabits. I can’t convey how distant it feels from the world of professional cycling, but I can explain the qualities of the sort of people who have shaped a market leader: good spirits, a thirst for knowledge (not to mention the beer) hard work and a love of ice fishing.
Back at the factory the following day, we are introduced to the one piece of technology at Trek that really blew me away. The 3D printer is an incredible machine, and it made our fully-loaded Cadillac rental look like a tractor. This futuristic device allows Trek designers to realise their products completely. It can “print” a solid form and is used for the styling of components and accessories, managing anything up to the size of a bicycle helmet.
It can even print a chain, complete with moving links and rivets. Hard to believe, but this type of technology cuts development time for Trek and is a key ingredient to its commitment to accessory research and development.
Lupe Ollarzabal, a Trek employee of 17 years’ standing, is this multi-million dollar machine’s dedicated operator. Like many in the R and D department, Lupe started in the frame shop, first as a steel frame welder and then an aluminium frame builder working on Bontrager frames. He’s progressed with Trek’s success and is now an important part of the company machine.
“I’ve worked my way through the company,” he says. “A lot of these guys in here have degrees, but they don’t treat me any different.”
America is not only the world’s biggest (for the moment) and, arguably, most innovative manufacturer, it also has one of the most skilled workforces on the planet. Just look at the creative flair of Apple Computers and then think of the skill of manufacturing a Fender guitar and the technology that NASA can cram into a space shuttle.
Trek has the elements of all these companies within its walls. Innovation is led from inside a company that believes direct control of new technology is vital to its success. Sure, we’ve heard all this before, but a pattern is now developing, with many leading bicycle manufacturers keeping the innovators close to hand and letting their imaginations rule the company’s destiny.
What I also found out about Trek is that they do care about their people. The cynical out there would say that all modern companies are bound to say that they do, but I was struggling to find out where any hierarchy fits in at Trek.
All I could find was energetic enthusiasm for the product, something Trek’s founder Richard Burke realised when his son John started in the company in the ’80s. Successfully running the accessories side with a team of young product managers, Burke senior said: “It was blind enthusiasm with adult supervision.” It seems that philosophy has stuck.
Perhaps the biggest problem Trek has nowadays is that very few people really know anything about the company. But inside the machine, it’s a lot less faceless and corporate than you’d probably think. There’s no evident blame culture either, there are no suits marching around the offices, and there’s a mutual familiarity which makes for a very relaxing atmosphere.
From what I was told, this still comes from the top, and pulling together is at the heart of Trek’s power. So when they have a problem on the line, no matter how small, everyone gets involved to solve it – a little bit like clearing snow.