I first got to know Kevin through skateboarding. He lived on the same Rotherham housing estate as me and, in the late ’70s, we spent a happy couple of years regularly rattling down local pavements as fast as our Kryptonic wheels and Swiss bearings would carry us.
But then something changed. Kevin was starting to turn his attention to two wheels rather than four. He talked of plans to build a ‘racer’. And so one summer he bought a frame (just a frame) from J.F. Wilson, a specialist retailer on City Road in Sheffield. Up until then, I had never heard of someone building a bike themselves. Bicycles had simply existed – you either had one or you didn’t. The idea of choosing and sourcing the individual parts before putting them all together was thoroughly alien.
I had no idea about bikes, skateboarding being the only form of physical exercise I had ever willingly participated in. But I was curious, and so every once in a while I would skate over to Kevin’s house to check on his progress. It was all pretty basic stuff by today’s standards, but at the time we marvelled at the gleaming, skeletal structure that was starting to take shape in front of us.
His wheels arrived first, 27×1-1/4” steel rims with alloy hubs, shod with Michelin tyres. The GB handlebar and stem, the Weinmann alloy centre-pull brakes and alloy cotterless chainset all seemed to underline the machine’s true ‘racer’ credentials. Not to mention the Gripfast wingnuts on the wheel axles – up until then the only way any of us had known of fastening a wheel in place was with a plain old nut, using one of the ubiquitous pressed steel ‘Raleigh spanners’ that languished at the bottom of every dad’s toolbox.
Within a few weeks Kevin’s bike was ready for its first outing and off into the distance he pedalled. Suddenly our skateboards seemed an inefficient way to get around. Before you knew it, several of us had turned our backs on our boards, swapping four urethane wheels for two spoked ones.
Watching that bike of Kevin’s come together was a life changing experience for me; an introduction to the world of the ‘custom’ bicycle. No off-the-peg solution for him, rather a box of carefully chosen parts assembled as we watched in admiration. His approach made me realise that you can go about things in your own way, rather than take the easy route. And in so doing you can make something that is unique; something which reflects the personality of its creator.
Those early days made me believe that the best approach to building a bike is to follow your instincts, not the rest of the herd. I always liked to be different and sought out frames and equipment that were built by businesses then far from being the household names they are today.
Cycling, and perhaps more accurately bicycles, were the first thing that really ignited a passion for specific brands. I would only really be happy if I bought a frameset and built a bike myself. It didn’t take long to get my teeth into bicycle assembly, my appetite for new equipment restrained only by my bank balance.
Much has changed since my initial exposure to the world of bike building. Back then, the artisan framebuilders assembling standardised tube sets with off-the-peg lugs tended to rely on just a graphic designer, chrome plater and enameller to create individual products. It took a lot of effort to create a truly unique design when you all started with pretty much the same raw materials. Brazing skill and proven geometry were of course touted as being the decisive issues when choosing one brand over another.
That was then. Today we find dramatic changes in frame manufacturing methods. And yet bizarrely a reliance by the majority of manufacturers on mass production means that much of the product churned out is essentially very similar in looks, weight and, it could be argued, performance.
BMC is not part of that majority. The Swiss bicycle company has, right from its foundation in 1986, done things its own way. They have already caused something of a stir with their slightly unconventional approach to frame design and manufacture, creating a unique aesthetic. So it was clear that a visit to their home in Grenchen, Switzerland was long overdue.
My passion (obsession) for some of Italy’s finest frame and equipment manufacturers is well known in certain circles. I have always considered the Italians to be the most creative and passionate people. But in recent times I have seen such an increase in high quality product from other sources less steeped in myth and cycling folklore that now my boundaries are becoming blurred.
That is why I jumped at the chance to visit BMC, a company about which I frankly knew very little. On arrival in Switzerland, we passed swiftly through passport control. There were shuttle buses to each of the surrounding hotels every 30 minutes and, sure enough, they turned up exactly on time. Well, this is Switzerland.
After a good night’s sleep, we jumped on the same shuttle bus that again turned up exactly when it said it would (well, this is Switzerland) and headed back to the airport – actually, to the railway station.
It sits beneath the airport and from there we caught a train to take us the 110 or so kilometres to Grenchen. The train service was punctual (well… you know) and an hour and a half later we arrived at the home of BMC.
Anywhere you look at BMC HQ – inside or out – your eyes find BMC branding. The company as a whole is obviously very proud of what a certain Mr Cadel Evans achieved on one of their bikes last July. There’s an extensive historical collection of BMC machines that once belonged to pro riders, including Tyler Hamilton’s TT rig and a superlight climbing bike with 650 wheels and an integrated seatpost with bonded head to shave weight, as used by Paolo Savoldelli.
Most of the best known European brands carry someone’s name on the frame – family names like Colnago, Pinarello, Olmo or Gios. So having a bike brand represented by three letters is unusual. The reason can be traced to the company’s founder, Bob Bigelow. Bob originally hailed from England, and was contracted by Raleigh to set up shop in Grenchen to supply the Swiss market.
Over time he built up a small team of people and for a while they were kept busy. But in 1995 they lost the Raleigh contract and had to reinvent themselves. Bob needed a name to sell his own products and so he opted for BMC – Bob Bigelow Mountain Company. The firm started to focus on manufacturing high quality off-road bikes and became heavily involved in developing full suspension designs.
The activities of Bob and his team attracted the interest of Swiss entrepreneur and cycling fan Andy Rihs. Rihs decided to invest in the company and help it grow, encouraging the firm to diversify in order to reach a slightly larger audience. A model of bike called the Alpine Challenge was one of the most significant outcomes, perhaps one of the first hybrid bikes combining the best of mountain and road bike in one versatile machine.
So BMC really started off as a small mountain bike specialist – hardly surprising really when you see some of the stunning Jura terrain that is clearly visible from their office windows. For a while the company that Bob set up carried on doing its own thing with financial assistance from Andy Rihs. But ultimately the niche nature of its work meant the figures didn’t add up and Rihs had to make a decision about its future.
And so in 2001 he took over the reins and BMC became the Bicycle Manufacturing Company. The firm decided to specialise in road bikes and make a more concerted push into that market. It took them just six months to develop, test and produce a road frame ready for top level competition by the Phonak team.
That’s pretty impressive by anyone’s standards – especially when you consider that they created such a distinctive product with rather unique colours, as head of research and development Rolf Singenberger well remembers.
“Either you do something more or less following the market and just have BMC on it, the brand, or you put the money on a unique product. So we said we have to be different, we really have to show something to provoke. We are the new guys. And then the products arrive in the team’s colours: green, but it’s a no-no… Nobody sells a green bike, no way, let’s find another…
“But we were green, yellow and white… Perhaps the bike was still working better than the clothes. But the amount of clothing that they sold…”
Today then Andy Rihs is the closest thing you will get to a Mr BMC. He has taken a small, niche manufacturer and given it wider appeal while retaining focus, direction and its individuality. To strengthen the BMC brand yet further, in 2008 it joined forces with a large mid-market bike manufacturer based in Hamburg called Bergamont.
More recently, Rihs has signed up Stromer’s Thomas Binggeli, another very successful Swiss businessman, the developer of what is regarded by some as the first high performance electric bike. The result is that BMC-Bergamont-Stromer’s collective output includes shopping bikes, Tour de France winners’ machinery and full suspension XC racing rigs.
Rihs’ business activity in other areas – including the manufacture of hearing aids by Phonak – has undoubtedly benefited from association with his bike brand and a clear sports marketing strategy. How many other brands of hearing aid can you name?
Phonak apparently enjoyed a significant boost in consumer awareness thanks in no small part to the racing team sponsorship. There was something about that green and yellow team kit, you saw it everywhere then, and still see it around today.
The current BMC racing team – whose impressive roster includes 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans, ’08 world champ Alessandro Ballan, Belgian superstar and national champion Philippe Gilbert, God of Thunder Thor Hushovd and stalwart US rider George Hincapie – is separate from BMC the company. But the association has a big impact on the firm and not just in terms of generating sales. Some of the pros also give useful feedback on the machines to Stefano Cattai, who is in charge of team liaison at BMC.
Michele says Stefano’s status as a former pro is crucial because “he talks the language of the riders; he rode the bikes and he still rides; he joins the guys on the training rides, in the training camp to see how the material works with them.”
This seems like a good time to receive an introduction to the company’s latest top end racing frame, the Impec, and so we head to the workshops. Once through the main entrance, we enter a room that’s almost totally black. The lights are dimmed and we are treated to a short film that prepares us for what we are about to see on the other side of a huge red door.
Assorted BMC bikes on plinths surround us in the half light, the flickering images on the screen illuminating the polished surfaces of the equipment on show. All very atmospheric. The film ends and the red door is opened… we are going in. The transition from the dark to bright light is somehow appropriate.
The space we enter is huge and noisy. As we turn the corner we are greeted by a huge spider’s web of carbon fibre filament being woven around a silicone core. The whole tube manufacturing process is automated and we watch with amazement as the robots go about their work. Like many other manufacturers, BMC carries out much of its production in the Far East for simple economic and technical reasons.
But where the flagship frame is concerned they have pulled out all the stops and do the manufacturing completely in house, from the highest possible quality materials. The Impec is unique in many ways and while they use some familiar techniques, there is a Swiss precision involved. It has taken years of development and a level of investment I can only guess at.
Having this level of control means they can change anything they want whenever they want – no lengthy lead times or Chinese whispers getting in the way of product refinement here. BMC are very much in the driving seat and, it seems, have every aspect of production down pat. Their study into carbon fibre lay-up drove them to stick literally with lugged construction.
Once the tubes are woven onto their formers they need to be injected with resin to create a rigid structure. Again this process is fully automated, as is the precise mitring of the tubes, with robot arms gently moving the tube from one stage to the next as it takes shape. The whole scene reminds me a little of the Fiat Strada ads of the late ’70s. All that’s missing is the Rossini soundtrack.
The weave of the fibres can be ‘adjusted’ with minute changes to the pitch of weave, and fibre orientation is carefully studied allowing BMC’s engineers to change the frame’s final characteristics. The lugs are a tour de force of precision engineering too, being constructed from two clam shells that are brought together during the bonding process. The shells are made from short carbon fibres and look like parts of an exotic Airfix model kit. Even the adhesive is mixed and applied by machine to ensure precise amounts are used and that it is applied to the same area on every frame.
Automated production, yes, but human free, no. The individual parts are still, reassuringly, brought together by hand. There are real people involved and quality control is taken very seriously. A tube is plucked from a table for closer inspection and we are shown a small sticker on the inner surface with A B C and D written on it. This is used to identify the quality of the piece: A is perfect, B has a minor cosmetic flaw, C and D are rejected. I ask how many C and D tubes they see.
Initially there were a few problems but after four or five years of development and fine tuning – involving, I suspect, lots of talking nicely to the robots as on more than one occasion a machine is referred to as ‘he’ rather than ‘it’ – they now rarely see a C or D. The tube I am holding is a B but I have to be shown the flaw. It is about the size of a pinhead and will be cosmetically corrected before use.
There are the normal alignment issues that must be monitored while the frames cure at a constant 80 degrees for around two hours. But, again, the approach taken here is typically Swiss. No hefty tables, rather a complex carbon and alloy structure specially designed by the firm.
It resists temperature fluctuations and ensures absolute stability during this critical phase. Frames are then left a further 12 hours (usually overnight) before increased heat can be applied to complete the bonding process.
The heat is then brought back down to 80 degrees to stabilise the joints. During the quality check phase that occurs after bonding is complete, the junctions of the frame are even subjected to ultrasound tests to ensure that the adhesive is where it should be. Deflection tests are also carried out on every single frame to ensure all is in order before cosmetic finishing can take place.
Further investigation of the factory reveals extensive destructive testing facilities which allow BMC to ensure that their designs and products meet the highest safety standards too. The company obviously understands that bike fit is important (although they currently make little concession to relaxed ‘comfort geometry’) as a frame is only as good as the interface with the rider.
For this very reason they produce three seat posts with different saddle set backs for the Impec to cater for an individual’s physical requirements. That just serves to underline the amount of thought that has gone into this project.
There’s a lot of options with BMC frames, but as Rolf explains it fundamentally comes down to what the pro riders use.
“I guess that the things that are important for us, as a hobby rider – if you just ride about 3,000 to 5,000kms a year – aren’t that different to what a professional rider needs of his bike.
“Even with a Team Machine or a Race Machine, the high end racing bikes that we have, you can reach a comfortable position. Otherwise we have other bikes which have a bit of a sloping frame where the headtube is a bit longer and you can sit a bit more comfortably. But most of our customers wish to spend a lot of money for a bicycle, so they don’t want that, they want exactly the bike the team rides.”
As our visit draws to a close, we are confident that the exacting nature of the Swiss is alive and well. BMC are an almost surprisingly passionate bunch and clearly committed to producing high quality modern bicycles that are as appealing to the eye as they are out on the road.
We gratefully accept the offer of a lift back to the station but are first taken to the back of the factory to see a dirt track that some of the staff have built. They spend their lunchtimes riding their mountain bikes on it, which makes clear that the BMC guys love riding bikes as much as they do making them.
They are also very excited about a velodrome that is about to be built on the lot opposite the offices, so expect to see a few BMC track frames appearing before too long.
We make it back to the station with minutes to spare and bid a fond farewell to Grenchen. We catch the 17.36 back to Zurich which arrives bang on time…
Well, this is Switzerland.