“Everything is part of a whole: the racers, the race assistance, our own experiences with the bike, looking into how we feel on the bike, the way we all differ in our approach… all this feeds our imagination vis à vis the bicycle. Between ourselves, what makes us tick, as a company, is untranslatable.”
Tuesday morning, Mavic site, Saint Trivier sur Moignans, Ain département.
We arrange to meet Mavic press officer Michel Léthenet at the Salomon headquarters outside Annecy. “Turn right by the blood bank,” Michel tells us. This we do and begin the drive into the very heart of Mavic’s service and communications.
After the death of the Mavic president Bruno Gormand, son of one of the founders, in 1985, the company was run by his wife and then a group of the executives.
They had problems raising finance to fund research and development. When Mavic was bought by the Salomon group based in Annecy in 1994, part of the operation moved there from Saint-Trivier in 2001. (Salomon was eventually bought by Amersports.)
Bruno Gormand was a man of great daring, foresight, drive and passion. His was unquestionably the galvanising spirit which brought Mavic to levels of unsurpassed excellence and he it was who installed the company at the Saint-Trivier site in 1966. Here his spirit lives on.
We drive through the marshy region of the Bresse, dotted with lakes and small ponds, home of a people whom the envious in regions less prosperous once called ventres jaunes (yellow bellies) thanks to the gold coin bulging in their money belts.
Agriculture followed a three-fold cycle: from the waters in winter came fish; drained of the water in spring, the mineral-rich alluvial soil of the pond beds was fertile ground for crops; these crops fed both the market trade and plumped up the still famous poulets de Bresse through summer to autumn – and so to flooding from the rivers teeming with fish once more.
As we drive on towards Saint Trivier, Michel tells us that 4.5 per cent of Mavic’s budget now goes to research and development.
They may spend up to six years on any one project. “We are product-driven at root,” he says. “There is no element of marketing.”
The fact that they spend virtually nothing on publicity – the major shop window of the neutral race service Mavic Service Spéciale de Course (SSC) apart – corroborates this.
Theirs is a classic ethic: to maintain a stable development of idea and manufacture, to resist faddish trends, even if the characteristic of the market in general is for novelty; the latest this, that, and the other.
At Mavic, leaning towards solid and lasting achievement and improvement, they eschew more obvious commercial imperatives.
This, in fact, is what the French word classique alludes to: applied to something which has been proved dependable, of a standard that, once set, is not easily superseded.
At Mavic, processes that were instituted over 30 years ago are still being used: for instance, in the way they make braking surfaces exactly parallel to reduce shudder.
They could exploit much of what they do more vigorously but they choose not to. Their energies go elsewhere. The company is run, in the main, by engineers, whose priority is the efficiency of what they devise and manufacture.
“And design is the cherry on the cake,” Michel adds. The aesthetic is pleasing but it is not paramount, it’s a bonus.
I’m pleased to report that, in both my view and that of your photographer, the garish aesthetic of the yellow-painted and black-lettered MTB rims (€900 a pair, only 140 per diem) is surpassingly unpleasing. A matter of taste, for sure, but no matter, for all that.
If Mavic’s technical culture combines intuition, instinct and experimentation, there is also, as with any bold enterprise, an element of audacity, the willingness to take risks.
The Mektronic, an electronic gear which obviated the need for any cables, was ten years ahead of its time when it was released in 1998. It had been three very expensive years in development at Saint Trivier and there were still unsolved technical issues.
By Mavic’s own stringent work practices it was launched too early – a gamble which did not pay off because the gear didn’t work faultlessly.
The company had to carry out an inordinate amount of post-sale service, users were angry, and the game was up, the product dead.
This was bruising for the firm and something they now keenly guard against, yielding to mere commercial exigency.
Manufacture of the Yksion tyre was outsourced to a plant in Thailand – domestically, they simply didn’t have the resources to make as many tyres as they needed to sell. But the Mavic people insisted on testing in Annecy; the quality of the rubber, the capacity for rolling resistance.
There is no official regulation governing the interior dimension of tyres in general, but Mavic impose their own strictures on everything they produce.
They have invented a machine which measures the internal diameter in exact accord with their rims, and they are certainly not prepared to hand over such a specialist bit of kit to any other manufacturer.
The French company’s insistence on the specifications was close to paranoid and not something to which the Thais were accustomed. “Why so complicated?” they said. “Why not just use our tyres and put your label on?” Imagine.
At this point, your photographer says that he feels that Yksion ought to be a classical tutelary god – of charioteers, maybe.
I do not think this is the moment to point out that there is a character in Greek myth called Ixion whom Zeus punished for entertaining (and pursuing) sexual designs on his wife, the goddess Hera. Ixion was bound to a fiery wheel which then rolled without cease through the sky. The sun, you see.
The Saint Trivier plant is a dated building, the entrance nondescript, the interior – crowded with machines, racks for rims in various stages of manufacture – is an old-fashioned workshop, well-lit, quite noisy, peopled with one of the day’s two shifts who clock in with a swipe card and proceed to their posts. (In high season, there will occasionally be three shifts.)
A sign on the factory wall reads: “A better bike begins here”. More specifically, it begins with that item which engenders the principle of motion, the wheel, and at Saint Trivier, with a single very particular component of the wheel: the rim.
Into this rim is packed the long history of the development of the wheel, from the crude quasi conveyor belt of wooden rollers used in the building of the Pyramids, to the solid wooden wheel which transformed man’s capacity to transport heavy loads – the inspiration which invented the spoke – thence to the perfect circle of the metal rim, the complex genius of the wheel and the compelling mystery of two wheels in line staying upright, answering to a special law of physics.
Here we begin our ride.
As we go, Michel underlines that any improvement Mavic come up with is an improvement for the entire bike industry.
When developing the tubeless tyre, they sat down with fellow French manufacturers Hutchinson and Michelin to pool ideas on the production of a rim that would cause the bead of the tyre to press tight into the channel to eliminate leaks.
Because the tubeless tyre requires a lower air pressure and will not blow out, the safety improvement is considerable. Mavic don’t own this universal system tubeless (UST) tyre, meaning it is now open for testing by other companies.
Thus everyone benefits. It’s part of their determination to see the whole industry evolve to a higher standard.
The use of their products by professional riders is, and always has been, an essential to their modus operandi.
To make components for racers you have to be in racing and Michel stresses that it’s an absolute inspiration to see their products used and tested by cyclists – mostly in the off-season – working and ageing in the conditions to which they will be subjected long term.
Inspiration? Certainly. Most of the Mavic people are cyclists. He tells me that for the Mavic people, cycling is a permanent passion: they dream bike, they think bike and not a few of them go for training rides even in the lunch hour.
Every year, there’s an outdoor company picnic, usually in Saint Trivier, and a posse of the Annecy crowd set off on their bikes at 5am to ride the 140-plus kilometres to join the party.
“It’s our everyday work and our everyday pleasure,” Michel says. In the deserted production office – the boffins will have been huddled over computers and the backs of envelopes in a darkened room plotting refinements – I note that the screensaver on one of the computers is an extremely fine racing machine.
We reach the big warehouse at the far end. Across its concrete pavement, a fork-lift truck shifts large paper-wrapped bundles of extruded aluminium rods, basic ingredient of the rims, from towering shelf stands, to the doorway and on into the factory.
The rods are supplied directly by the Alcan Group, which manufactures them to a recipe developed in conjunction with Mavic. Alcan use dies supplied by Mavic.
These have to be discarded after a number of uses because they expand and the content of the resulting rod increases by as much as ten per cent.
Mavic overview is core to their method: a matter of credibility. Another part of the ethic: “It’s our responsibility from start to finish”.
The rods, approximately six metres long, go straight from the warehouse into a machine which threads them into a circle and cuts them off, three rim lengths per rod.
There follow the basic operations which either weld or pin the two loose ends and perforate for spokes. The rims which will make high-end wheels are subjected to a number of further refinements: metal is shaved from between spoke holes, reducing weight by up to 20 grams, as well from the outer surface of the rim.
Reduce the weight of a wheel without impairing its strength and the less inertia it develops, the less the power needed to drive it.
Computer measurement is integrated with the working parts of the machines for the drilling out, and one device employs red and green laser sensors to pinpoint exact positioning for spoke holes.
There is a curious interplay of human attention and extremely high-tech precision with certain incongruous elements enlivening the scene: the vibrating rollers which jiggle a newly-pierced rim like a cat biffing a mouse, to dislodge and spill any fragments of aluminium left inside the hollow of the rim.
Inside a large cage a specially-designed robot, unique in the world, performs three operations on tip-top rims and… “No photographs, please.” I erase my own memory film and we stand and gawp in wonder.
Machines are an essential part of the Mavic innovation. Some are over 40 years old and, like any wheel, they need tuning and retuning from time to time – the operatives are trained to fettle their own machines.
Most have been invented for a purpose specific to the company, like the appliance devised in 1983 for removing the black anodising on certain rims to make a better braking surface.
Just as machines need to be retuned, so too the employees. They will periodically move from one machine to another, for a healthy change. It’s an antidote to the curse of factory work: repetition and tedium.
And if one man or woman is idle for whatever reason, he or she will go to the assistance of someone who is snowed under. This makes for good morale and a friendly workforce.
As we stand chatting with Fabrice, the team leader, he chaffs one of the workers strolling past. Smiles all round. “A lot of teasing round here?” I ask. Oh yes, it’s all pretty relaxed and friendly, I’m told.
I know that the cliché “one big happy family” is – given the level of feuding, hostility and estrangement endemic in some families – borderline moronic.
However, there are ties which can only be expressed in such terms and the people who work at Saint Trivier are, for the most part, locals.
Generations have worked here – Fabrice’s own mother was once an employee, his brother-in-law still works here. When the new Annecy site opened, many of the workers were afraid that the Saint Trivier place would close and 50 per cent of them announced that they would prefer to resign rather than leave the area.
They may no longer be ventres jaunes, but they feel and cleave to their patrimony. One woman has been with the company for 30 years – not the only employee with such long service, either.
She works a machine now but used to sit at a small table putting transfers onto rims – positions marked with a jig. She had to give up because she lost sensitivity in her fingers.
All the transfer work is done by women: it seems they are somehow more deft-fingered and meticulous at the finicky task. But here is a man checking rims by eye, for blemishes and irregularity.
Just as wheels were always built by hand and scrutinised by eye, so there are still some things for which human touch and feel are indispensable.
I ask if pro teams come to the plant. Yes, they do and the feedback is vital.
Whereas the SSC range was once reserved to the pro peloton, nowadays many more amateurs demand the same kit the top guys use and, on the other side, many pro riders will be using Mavic stuff out of the box.
Better to test as close to racing conditions as possible, namely with top riders (domestiques, usually) in training, than to launch equipment too early. They have learnt by hard experience, as with the Dura rim.
Duralumin (literally “hard earth of alum”), an alloy of aluminum with small amounts of copper and manganese, was invented by the German metallurgist Alfred Wilm in 1903.
Hard and resistant to tearing, it was much used in the early aviation industry – for the corrugated skinning of the Junkers aircraft in World War I, the internal frames of Zeppelins…
In the early 1930s, Mavic produced a rim made of duralumin which featured an eyelet whose edges spread out in a lip over the top and lower surfaces of the hollow rim, to carry the stress of the spokes.
In a race to the patent office, Italian manufacturer Mario Longhi lodged exactly the same technique two hours before Mavic registered theirs but they were allowed to exploit the innovation, under licence, until 1947.
French rider Antonin Magne, winner of the 1931 Tour, secretly tested the rims along with a few other riders during the 1934 race.
Since the rules stipulated the use of wooden hoops, the Dura rims, weighing 750 grams, were painted to look like wood.
Magne rode them to a second victory and, the following year, at the request of a majority of riders, all the Tour bikes were fitted with the rims. They gave better braking which meant descending was quicker.
But, unhappily, the 1935 Tour brought the race’s first fatality – Francisco Cepeda crashed on the descent of the Galibier. His front tyre peeled off, he pirouetted on the stripped wheel rim and hurtled headfirst onto the road with dreadful force.
Mavic were called to answer. Critics claimed, on the evidence of the tragic accident, that the rims were not strong enough to withstand the beating of a 5,000-kilometre stage race.
This Mavic rebutted. It was almost certain that Cepeda’s fall had been due to a failure of tubular cement. Moreover the rest of the field, confident in the new rims, insisted on riding them all the way to Paris.
The way that the market has expanded from the separate sales routes – professional and amateur – has caused some problems.
The first complete Mavic wheel, the Helium, was made for Laurent Jalabert in 1996 to use on mountain stages of the Tour. Instantly, the public was clamouring for the wheels for everyday use, for which the ultra-light Heliums were not best suited.
However, by and large the opening up of equipment originally reserved to pros has encouraged Mavic to wider sales.
The more readily a cycling enthusiast can lay his or her hands on the stuff the professionals use, the keener their interest not only in the sport but in the high-end equipment. This is, as the French say, cool.
Another example: in 1975, they released an improved quality of bearings for the 600 RD (Réglable – Démontable… adjustable bearings which can be taken to pieces) hub. But spokes kept breaking.
At first they thought it was the fault of the rims but then they realised that the problem was with the hubs and that’s how Mavic started their line in bearings. Which takes us back to the hub in Annecy where they make… hubs.
As we walk back out of the factory, we observe a woman standing on a large square of sorbo rubber, bouncing a rim up and down.
There is something faintly surreal in this. She has an air of deep concentration, as if she were communing with the spirit of wheel, the juju of the rim.
Michel explains: she is shaking out any remaining crumbs of alu from the cavity. How dull is fact.
And we go on past a waste bin for the alu scrap – it’s all gathered up for recycling – and I note what might be the makings of a large aluminum Afro wig.
My head is crammed with information about rims and wheels. Here’s one bit: on the rear wheel, because of the dish and the differing tensions of spokes on either side, the valve hole is asymmetric (off-centre) to compensate for balance.
I idly wonder if at some point in this intense four-hour visit we have walked past a rim which will, one day, be part of a wheel on a bike that is ridden to victory in the Tour de France.
Tuesday late afternoon, Mavic headquarters, Metz-Tessy.
In the workshop, Michel holds up a pig of alu, the shape of a small dumbbell, dull grey in colour. “From this comes a hub,” he says, pointing to one of several shiny objects in a display cabinet.
And so we do the tour of the hubs: the rear hub of the Cosmic Carbon Ultimate is part-carbon, part-alu, because only the aluminum can take tensioning of spokes (on one side only); a special MTB hub built to counter the risk of spokes popping out from the jarring effect of big drops or front-on shock; the front hub, which does not have to withstand the torsion from the drive of the chain, made of two alu caps glued to a central hollow carbon spindle…
The construction of a single hub from that raw lump – the gradual shaving, milling, perforation to the finished shape – takes seven minutes and 47 seconds.
Much experimentation, drawing board puzzlement and trial and error goes into the design and realisation of these products.
In a way, the process of refinement of the finished article from the basic concept reflects a similar paring, honing, trimming away of the surplus material to the lean perfection of the polished hub.
The work of the various machines required to perform these successive stages echoes the hum of the creative thought picking its way through the conundra of the possible and the unworkable.
A brief visit to the Service Spéciale de Course storeroom before we leave.
Immediately I think of Stuart O’Grady’s win in the 2007 Paris-Roubaix: leading the break, he punctured at the end of the last section of pavé and, because no team cars are allowed that close in the Hell of the North, he had to rely on the Mavic motorbike.
A swift wheel change, he lost very little time and won a famous victory. Hats off, Mavic.
Michel tells us that the Skoda cars they use on the Tour arrive white, they spray them yellow and, before delivering them back, respray them white.
The SSC room is, as you’d expect, an Aladdin’s cave of desirable kit. A few moments of ogling in this bike-porn emporium and we are done for the day.
Wednesday morning, Salomon-Mavic Design Centre, Annecy.
This is where the bright ideas are tabled, discussed, rejected or accepted, worked on and brought to being.
Ideas like the Mavic patented brake with flat spring and double pivot; carbon fibre hollow spokes, another ingenious idea; the Tracomp (traction-compression) system, another.
Under the exaggerated force of out-of-the-saddle sprinting, the front wheel is wrenched violently, the spokes on one side pulled (traction), those on the other compressed.
The hollow carbon spokes resist the added lateral load in these conditions. Moreover, because they exhibit 30 per cent greater rigidity, the number of spokes can be reduced – 20 on the front, 24 on the rear.
This imposes less stress on the rim which means a lighter rim, with less metal.
Sounds easy when you say it all at once but someone had to think it all up. And here, they do.
The open court of the workshop is lined on one side with machines forming a chain along which the wheels pass in their stages of assembly.
For a single wheel the process takes some 45 minutes, start to finish: hubs, spokes, rim, pre-tensioning by machine through an automatic process of regulated turns of the spokes, hand tensioning to true following the exactions of a superior jig with sensors and light traces, computer read-outs, an electronic wizardry.
It seems to be mostly women involved in the work – I comment on this but am assured that it is not really so.
At each stage, the machine operator applies a coloured sticker to the rim, job done. This is part of a deliberate tracking of the entire process so that, at any moment, any wheel can be routed back to the sources of its construction.
On the far side of the wheel-builders – oh, one machine simulates the action of tension on a finished wheel, a process delightfully known as massage – other items are being put together: quick-release levers, for example.
This assembly involves eight separate pieces. Originally, the central rod was forged in a single piece. Now it comprises three: rod, washer and cap, which are glued together and then checked for strength.
Although this process takes marginally longer in the assembly, there is a fractional saving of cost on the material and forging. Since they produce thousands of the articles, this small economy is worth it in the long run.
Clearly these are margins to delight an accountant and, whilst Mavic might seem a touch cavalier in their apparent eschewal of the more obvious commercial imperatives, they do work to a very tight, orderly and cost-conscious programme.
Besides, Euros saved in production can supplement the money needed for research and development and the purchase of testing machines.
We don’t actually mutter “What’s behind there?” of a large closed door but the cautious manner which attends the invitation to enter implies that we had.
Not quite a stage whisper but getting on that way. A room, perhaps hermetically sealed, the sanctum sanctorum, all that we see in here is top secret, mum’s the word.
I do not jest. No notes, no photographs, no telling. I am, we are, potential industrial moles and have been forced to take oaths of silence.
Wild horses wouldn’t drag… and all that. Which is not in any way to take lightly what we did see. It was a privilege – unique to us, I may say. Another 1 exclusive.
The end of the production line. On every item which reaches this point there is a bar code, a series of numbers detailing the various stages of assembly it has undergone.
A number missing and the entire batch has to be checked again. Since the absence of one of those numbers annuls the warranty offered to the customer and since the buck must, and always does, stop with Mavic, they have to be sure and double sure that everything is tickety-boo.
They take their post-sales service of repair and replacement of faulty kit very seriously indeed. Even as we were there we watched a number of boxes, all ready for dispatch, emptied, the wheels they contained extricated and sent back for the complete check over. Nothing, absolutely nothing, left to chance.
Mavic vaunt the fact that they deliberately exceed all basic safety regulations. They set their own higher standards and adhere strictly to them. Safety for all cyclists.
Given the price of the wheels they sell – and the level of performance those wheels achieve – their criteria of design, manufacture and testing has to be extremely, even exorbitantly, high.
The cost of the lengthy process of development and production is inevitably very high too and, occasionally, the finance people call a halt.
Their answer is to stop one of the processes of experimentation and hold back the product for a year – something they rue not doing with the Mektronic…
Reputation counts. Mavic are one of the oldest companies in the trade and tradition gilds their continuing sense of commitment and responsibility to the bicycle and the men and women who ride it, for whatever reason.
Founded in 1889, first centenary of the outbreak of the French revolution, Mavic remain at the very centre of a more peaceable but equally wide-reaching revolution.