Before I went to Belgium to visit Ridley there were two things I knew almost nothing about. Belgium was one, Ridley was the other. I hadn’t been there and I hadn’t ridden one.
I knew Ridley as the brand whose riders always almost won and I knew Belgium as the country whose riders almost always won. People had told me stories of Belgium, none of which I thought were real but when I got on the train from the airport there was only one other passenger in my carriage: an old lady with two plastic supermarket bags. In one bag a cat; in the other a large bunch of dead flowers. Perhaps the stories were true. (The cat, by the way, was very much alive.)
The Ridley factory as it stands today is predominantly a large spray shop and assembly plant. The new frames are designed in a grey room downstairs and then sold from a glass room upstairs. While all the quality control on their frames is done here, they’re produced in the Far East. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As with most other companies that have taken the decision to outsource manufacturing, it’s because the production out there is not only to an excellent standard but also far cheaper than could ever be achieved on the scale Ridley produces were it done in Belgium.
They don’t just paint bikes here; they also paint expensive alloy wheels for expensive carbon cars. I guess they must be quite good at it then. Go on the Ridley website, click a few buttons and whizz bang! A beautifully finished and unique bike turns up on your doorstep. How is it unique? You can choose the paint and customise the graphics.
In an age of mass production and profit margins I suppose we’re all wondering why they still do it. Well it’s because that’s how they started. Twenty years ago Joachim Aerts was painting frames for Bio-Racer in his dad’s garage. Like most people in the cycling industry he started out early with some mixed success racing.
“I raced from 14 to 18 and the plan at that point was to focus my life on the cycling industry so – unlike the rest of my friends who did nothing the rest of the day – I started painting frames. Then a year later my eldest brother, who was in the bicycle industry, made me an offer to begin painting the frames for Bio-Racer,
a company he part-owned. At the time they were making high end custom geometry frames. He suggested that maybe it was good idea for me to offer a custom steel frame at a lower level than what Bio-Racer was making in Holland.”
He seems remarkably blasé about the whole process – like we’re all the odd ones because we don’t make frames. So I wanted to make sure he didn’t just pick up a brazing torch and go for it. Thankfully it appears he didn’t.
“Hah! No, it doesn’t work that way sadly. I finished school when I was 18 and I already knew bikes fairly well. I spent a couple of months in Holland learning how to make a custom geometry frame. First I had to learn about geometry and how it affected the way the bike rode, then how to cut the tubes and set it up on a jig. To begin with you learn how to set the frame up on the jig without the lugs, then you put on the lugs and finally you do the welding. I think it took me about three months to learn how to do this. I mean at first it wasn’t so easy but my interest and ambition helped me with the learning process a lot. After six months I was able to do a good custom frame.”
This seems far too quick to me although Joachim takes my concern in his stride. At least he appears to. He exudes confidence and charisma. You can see why he’s been so successful within the first five minutes of meeting him and, even though he’s one of those successful money-making types, it’s impossible not to like him. That’s perhaps in part because of how he started out in the trade.
“If you have to make a frame and it’s not well made you have to remake it,” he says simply. “The paint process I also learnt completely on my own. It’s the same; if you do a paint job and it’s not done well enough you have to redo it. And it’s on your own time so you’re losing a lot of your own time and money. I can guarantee when you’re doing it yourself and you have to redo it and redo it you will learn how to do it properly a lot quicker than if you are doing it for a company on their time and with their money.”
After a couple of years of making custom frames, Joachim decided to sell back all his stock and equipment to Bio-Racer and invest the money in a more professional painting facility. But he says those first two years, spent working away in his dad’s garage, were some of the most critical for Ridley: “I learnt the most about geometry, what made a good bike and how a bike should ride.”
The lessons learned still influence his designs today. While materials have changed and aerodynamics has become a factor in the design of his bikes, one thing has remained constant and that’s geometry. Steel, carbon, superlight or aero – 73.5 degrees is still 73.5 degrees.
I tell Joachim of my surprise that Ridley still offers customised paint schemes on their website. I thought it would be a hindrance to their growth as a company. I’m not sure what possesses me to insinuate this, as the peak of my business experience is a combination of watching The Apprentice and being briefly in charge of the school tuck shop.
“The thing is I started in paint,” he explains. “It made a good base to start the brand. We were the biggest bike painter in Belgium for high end frames. We were painting for Minerva, Diamante, Concorde and Santos. In the end we were able to produce about 700 to 800 painted frames on a weekly basis. All with masked stickers – the way we still paint today.
“[Then] the owner of Diamante purchased a painting company and he said: ‘Joachim, I’ve purchased a painting company so we will stop working with you.’ At this point I had to suddenly choose a new direction. I thought I could look into the market and to try and replace this customer with another customer, but I thought what value do these companies actually bring to the market? They buy their frames in one place, send them to me to be painted and do the graphics. They didn’t understand geometry. I didn’t like their distance from the product – they weren’t passionate enough for what they were selling.
“So I said: I can design, I can paint, I know geometry, and I know how a frame works. I knew all the key points. All my friends that were good riders were still in competition so I had a direct link back to the racing scene. That was when we made the decision. Let’s not replace Diamante, let’s just produce our own brand.”
Ridley started in bike production by jumping into the trend of mountain bikes, as well as by quickly grasping the importance of aluminium in bicycle design. All of the firm’s competitors were still using steel, causing a sudden shift in consumer attention.
“Aluminium got a bad reputation at first – the ones coming out of Italy weren’t done properly. It had bad heat treatment and polished welds. Bianchi had a big learning curve when their Roubaix bikes cracked. Even when we started we had problems so we began to think: how can we solve this? I understood there were no problems with the aluminium mountain bike frames coming from Asia so after two years I took a plane to Asia to find a good aluminium supplier. We took our designs, our geometry, our tube shapes, our specification to Asia. The problem with cracked frames was gone!”
This constant flow of progression is something a lot of cycling consumers can be highly resistant to. I reeled in horror at the thought of a disc brake-equipped road bike even though I knew it would almost certainly be better and, although they’ve been around for some years, people are still remarkably against the idea of electronic gears. With the luddites preaching the fear of being stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing but a flat wet battery for comfort, you could argue that the cycling world’s reception to new technology hasn’t been the warmest. If they’d have been there when Joachim came up with the idea of an integrated brake I dread to think how they’d have reacted. Come back in the night and smashed them, I imagine. But he explains he is constantly looking for ways to progress his products.
“When we finish a product – the first thing we’re thinking is how can we do the next generation better? There are two directions to take a frame: weight or aerodynamics, and the biggest benefit to the rider is aerodynamics. For the professional rider with a 6.8kg weight limit there is only so far you can go. Even our Noah with big aero tubes and stiffened stays comes in at the UCI weight limit.”
With Ridley’s decision to chase aerodynamic progress becoming a key factor in their bike design, they’ve found themselves wanting to spend the sort of time in a wind tunnel they can’t realistically achieve. So they took the obvious decision: to build their own.
“Building a wind tunnel specifically designed for testing bikes is how we intend to achieve our goals. We developed the measurement system for bikes in wind tunnels and there are not many people who can do this as accurately.
“We have a university student here who is developing a measurement system in which we have three measurement points to test wind effects at different angles. These technologies are not available today and hiring a wind tunnel costs thousands of euros a day, so all the companies now do development and analysis in 3D and only then take it to the tunnel. We have to try and do as much as we can in two days.
“As soon as we have the wind tunnel our goal is to share it with the team as well as using it for our product development. Once we have it we can spend more time in there than we do now – perhaps we’ll go from spending two hours looking at the bottom bracket area to spending 200 hours. I think we’re right at the start of aerodynamic exploration.”
The current limits on the time in wind tunnels are because of the obvious budget constraints. I ask about the battles they must have with bigger companies and bigger budgets, especially if those companies have the backing of large car firms. Joachim grimaces.
“Yes, well that’s a painful story. We went to a Formula 1 manufacturer two years ago with our ideas and everything we discussed there they decided to take with them to a bigger brand. We purchased the patents on the Splitfork but we couldn’t protect the rest. I saw their wind tunnel – it’s designed for scale testing on Formula 1 cars. For me it’s just a marketing stunt, it’s not real development. Just put our two bikes together and compare them and you’ll see very similar technologies at work.”
With my libel senses tingling I decide to steer the conversation elsewhere. Their office is full of young trendy-looking people. Far too trendy in my eyes for the design of technical bike components. What does he have to say about that?
“I think that it’s so important if you want to stay at the end of technology to always have multiple new people bringing more ideas. You could be the smartest person in the world but add another person and you’re stronger. We had a student working for one whole year just on the surface finish of the bike.”
Most bike manufacturers say that among the people they involve in product development are the professional teams to which they supply products. They usually say they have direct involvement with their riders but it often turns out to be fairly loose contact at best. But Joachim sounds very convincing when he mentions the Lotto-Belisol team and takes it surprisingly well when I ask him directly if the riders give genuine feedback.
“Of course! The Phoenix, our first model in the new range, has been professionally tested. I asked Greipel to race on it in the spring. He did five or six races in the end. We start all our testing with development teams – two U23 teams who are located really close by. They give us their first feedback during training, we modify and then they go and race on it. Even our entry-level frame in the range is race proven – it should be good enough for a professional.”
If the bikes are good enough for the professionals then I wanted to know if he thinks the professionals are good enough for his bikes. Ridley has taken seven out of the last ten cyclo-cross World Championships but is still seeking that first Grand Tour victory. I wonder aloud if he knows why. He doesn’t but knows a lot of other things on the subject.
“It’s so important for a brand to have big victories. Look at Specialized sponsoring three teams – one of them is always going to do well. This year Saxo Bank is not doing so great but Quick-Step is doing extremely well.
“Victories can be so important for your brand awareness. With Cadel we were on the podium twice. In 2008, when Cadel was second in the Tour, a Tour he could have won, we launched the Noah for McEwen. If Cadel would have won the Tour as the first Australian on a Ridley bike… Well… That’s the stuff that goes into the history books. For us, silver was good, but yeah we’d like a win. You don’t enter a race to try and come second.”
Ridley has sponsored a professional team every single year in which the ProTour has existed and they’ve gone as far afield as Russia looking for the right combination to secure that elusive victory. This year they’ve come back to Belgium with Lotto-Belisol and it’s something everyone at the firm is very happy about.
“I think personally from our side we should have never left Lotto,” Joachim admits. “We were there 2006-2008 but there was this offer from Katusha. I was quite strong on staying with Lotto but our marketing and sales division said: ‘Oh it’s better to be sponsoring an international team.’ But at the end of the day we’re a Belgian company and Lotto is a Belgian team.
“Outside of Europe we try to communicate our Belgian roots quite strongly because Belgium has a really strong cycling heritage. You look back to the 1900s and see how many champions there have been – Rik Van Steenbergen, Rik Van Looy, and Eddy Merckx – and still today for a small country we produce a lot of good cyclists. Cycling is a sport where Belgium has been the top of the world for more than 100 years.”
Belgium is a small country and cycling is an even smaller business, so it’s inevitable that if you combine the two you’re going to have a very small community. So small in fact that Tom Boonen’s mother used to cut Joachim’s hair while Tom’s father still works for Ridley. What with all the Belgian pride it seems obvious to ask if Joachim would like to see a change in the colours on Tom’s jersey.
“You have to be realistic. We’re a small company. In the ProTour it’s a mixture of financial contribution and the product.”
In this way the conversation takes a turn to money. Joachim seems to like to suggest his firm don’t have much but I think they’re doing just fine. My assumptions this time are informed by the size of the restaurant’s wine chiller (they use those old sliding library book case ladders to access it) and the amount of times the PR man says: “Another beer?” Underpromise, overdeliver and all that…
“Don’t be mistaken, although it was a reasonable deal, it was still a lot of money for a small company. For us, sponsoring a ProTour team is 80 per cent of our marketing budget. Thanks to the American brands, the cost of the ProTour teams have exploded. The contract price from when we signed Lotto in 2005 has gone up by 600 per cent. Now we’re in a great position to have signed an eight year contract with Lotto.”
The wine is, of course, suitably excellent. So excellent in fact that Joachim drinks enough to divulge a story involving him, close friend Lauren Fignon and a Russian sauna. By that time however I had answered the PR man’s question with a yes too many times to remember the story well enough to recount it here. What I do recall is that this taste of the high life in a Russian sauna was at the expense of the Russian billionaire who funded Katusha while Ridley was providing the bikes. Billionaires in cycling are something Joachim likes to talk about. I assume because he fully intends to become one, and seeing how far he’s come in 20 years I wouldn’t bet against him.
“Just look at the ProTour in 2012. Look at Quick-Step; 40 per cent of their budget comes from a billionaire – not from a sponsor. BMC is fantastic; as a brand BMC cannot afford that team but Riis’ big passion is cycling and he’s so rich. It’s just billionaire’s money. Katusha as a name doesn’t exist: Mr Makarov’s passion is cycling so it’s another billionaire’s plaything. HTC was billionaire’s money. GreenEdge is billionaire’s money. If you take those billionaires away, like with HTC – you see how well they performed but they couldn’t get a sponsor. It’s not logical.
“If you look at what Cervélo did, they made their own team with big name riders and they took a huge risk and in the end it nearly bankrupted them. That is the challenge of the ProTour.”
It’s a challenge which Joachim is guaranteed to be a part of for eight years thanks to the new contract with Lotto. But he still worries.
“You don’t relax. You just don’t have stress. If you see what happened with HTC-Highroad: Specialized dropped in so much cash to kick out Scott and they are at least five times larger than we are. If you’re out of the ProTour you struggle to get exposure – especially a competition-only brand like us. We only do racing bikes so to lose your racing team is a disaster. There are not so many like this any more – Pinarello and Cervélo and that’s it.”
And what of Lotto at this year’s Tour? With a new bike and a reinvigorated passion for Belgian success, does Ridley have its eye on the green?
“Ah, not the yellow, huh? I think the team will perform well in the Tour. I think Jurgen has the possibility to fight his way onto the podium and the way André is performing he’ll be looking for stage wins. Whatever happens there will certainly be a green and yellow bike in the truck.”
With that, our conversation is over. The journey home proves much less exciting than my trip over, despite the presence of a lone Rabobank rider in my carriage for company. He didn’t have a cat in his bag though. Shame, it might have livened things up.