Volare: Italian, To Fly
Metaphorically speaking the reason why we are all here, together on planet Rouleur, essentially comes down to two people: Lance Armstrong and the late, great Jock Wadley.
The former you will all be familiar with but the latter will have many of you scratching your heads. Jock Wadley was a much loved cycling journalist of the 1940s, 50s and 60s. In 1956 he was the founding editor of Coureur – The Magazine for the Sporting Cyclist, a publication that was launched to counter the conservative and English-centric editorial content of Cycling: the two-wheeled establishment’s magazine obsessed with time-trialling, saddlebags and the use of mudguards on clubruns.
Wadley was into road racing, continental-style road racing at that, at a time when British cycling politics had little of David Brailsford’s slick marketing, man-management skills.Without going into great detail, UK cycle racing in 1956 was divided between the Road Time Trials Council (RTTC), the National Cycling Union (NCU) and the British League of Racing Cyclists (BLRC). This was a time of dusty committee rooms filled with mustachioed men dressed in tweed, smoking pipes. Flamboyant continental ‘roadmen’ back then were regarded as being flash and showy, attributes the cycling establishment of post-war austerity Britain seemed almost disgusted by.
The resulting messy marital break-up between the RTTC and the NCU/BLRC (eventually leading to the formation of the British Cycling Federation) has been linked directly to the reason why road racing in this country took so long to catch up with the rest of Europe – the in-fighting held us back, understandably so. Prior to the benefits of marginal gains there were political chasms that needed bridging.
So Jock Wadley’s proposal for a magazine that opened up the stoic, sporting cyclist in Britain to a wider, more cosmopolitan world was as risky as it was brilliant. By all accounts Wadley was no businessman, but he was a man with passion, determined to tell the stories from the Grand Tours and Classic races of mainland Europe. Unsurprisingly there was immediate enthusiasm for his new media project – road racing was far more glamourous than time-trialling on the A1 – so he garnered a loyal band of readers and advertisers from his second issue onwards.
Its popularity helped maintain a magazine that was truly different and brought a new angle to cycle racing – in no small part due to the photography and graphic design. When Rouleur was mooted, we made decisions on how and why it would be different from the competition, but in reality it’s just another cycling magazine in the vein of Jock Wadley’s Coureur (later to become The Sporting Cyclist), with our version fuelled by a huge rise in popularity of cycle racing across the English speaking world (which is where, love him or loathe him, Armstrong comes in). And the similarity between the titles Coureur and Rouleur? Well, that bit wasn’t a complete coincidence.
Jock was mad keen on continental road racing, as are we. He also wanted to move away from the formulaic approach of the rest of the newstand publications and we had some ideas here too. The decisions about what to leave out of Rouleur weren’t hard to make – it would be about racing and the environs of the world of professional cycling. We wanted to steer clear of the usual bike tests, product reviews and news reports, because to be honest, if a little churlish, they are amongst the biggest piles of horse shit written about cycling you can buy. And modern magazines are full of them.
So what does all this have to do with the Genesis project? We didn’t want to test a bike or review a group of stainless steel frames in a ‘shoot-out’ because, no doubt, that will be done elsewhere and it’s just not our bag. We wanted to see how and where the bike fits into this team, and how the riders and designers develop it. And that is proving to be a much harder and lengthier evaluation to make.
At least the bike now has a name – Volare – and the riders all have the first prototypes, presented to them at the team’s first get-together. We can ask the riders, and we will, about what they think of their stainless steel ‘flyers’, but how honest would they really be? If I ask Dominic Thomas (head designer at Genesis) what the team’s new employees have said about his handiwork, how truthful is he likely to be? They are professionals after all, paid to ride the bike, but as Dominic freely admits, he needs their input.
“Predominantly this project was always meant to be a test team to benefit the Genesis range and help develop the products that I can’t, because I’m not a road racer. There’s a process you go through: it’s not a guessing game. You have to get to the point where you can’t improve on it in any way and you know you have done the best job you can. So as long as that is the case I can get it out there and have complete faith in it.”
It’s not been easy deciding not to feature products in a ‘traditional’ sense in this magazine and in some respects we should have, because it would have made life a lot easier, but it’s also quite liberating. The dubious art of the bike test report was never really based around finding out the philosophy of the company or bike builder, but was often how the bike in question filled a price point or made a new material all the more desirable.
Formulaic features and product tests spun for marketing’s sake make a magazine far more commercial, and the more cynical out there may say that this Genesis project could be viewed much the same – purely a commercial sponsorship deal. I put it to Dominic that it’s probably harder to build a bad bike than it is a good one these days and that much of the process has already been done for you: road geometry is dialled-in and sorted. As I blather on a bit about the whole point of the Genesis team being to sell bikes and raise the profile of the brand, I’m beginning to sound like a bike tester myself. Looking slightly put out, Dominic interrupts me.
“You’ve got to have complete faith in it. I already know from the feedback we’ve had that there are three changes we need to make. It boils down to a trial and error process, and a process we go through with every bike – the difference here is I usually make those calls. Because of the expense on this project there’s more pressure to have the product deliver, as at the end of the day it’s about selling bikes. I believe that quality is the main thing you should focus on, so if you put all your efforts into improving quality, even if you take your foot off the marketing gas, I don’t think your brand will fail, you’ll be OK – because people like to have faith that there’s a process going on. It’s a juggling act: we need product you can sell but we also need to have product we believe in. I won’t put a product out until I’m 100 per cent happy with it and as it stands we’re six to 12 months away from having a production bike that we can sell.”
Since the first ideas of a British team built around one bike, a bike made from steel (and British steel at that), the team has become reality. Team director Roger Hammond has chosen his riders, a mix of youthful talent and established experience, and they’ve planned their season, but we’re only halfway towards the true picture here. The riders have already been sent a classic geometry bike to ride and the response has been enthusiastic and useful, but also telling – it’s not yet the finished article.
“There has been a mixed bag, to be honest. The younger guys have all said, pretty much, that it feels great, and the older guys, who really, really know what they’re after, have raised a few issues. For example, Dean Downing can’t get low enough on the standard 50cm geometry frame at the front, so we are having to address that. But I am questioning everything. There is not one part of the bike where we have just said ‘that’s standard’. Everything that affects the ride, the comfort and the stiffness, has been looked at.”
I wonder if Genesis and Reynolds had perhaps over-complicated the design theory here a little, and seeing as Genesis is a brand built around quality and value, I asked Dominic if they could have done things built on the success of their other frames – kept it simple and started out a bit ‘standard’.
“There has been a suggestion that we just make a standard plain-tubed race frame like our Equilibrium frame and maybe that’s where we should have started, but I still don’t think it would be stiff enough and that wouldn’t cut it in a race situation. The work we’ve done with Reynolds on the headtube, the chainstays, the wider bottom bracket… it’s all worked out so far. Truth be told, I’m not 100 per cent convinced we need the 44mm headtube at the front of the bike and one of the things that rider feedback has given me is that the front end is currently too harsh and so we’re thinking about changing that.
"Then there’s the debate between compact versus traditional geometry. Some are saying the traditional shape might be too harsh in the seat stays and so compact might be the way to go. Certainly the next batch of frames will be compact so we will see. But I know that all the things we’ve done to the bottom section of the frame are spot on as they are, because the riders say that the bike flies when you step on the pedals. And that’s not marketing.”
Historically there was no real need for a bike test in a magazine, because frame builders made bikes for enthusiastic racers, tourists and commuters everyday, so the quality of the frame and its building to a high standard was a given. They had the experience and they had the expertise. The only decision you had to make was whose name did you associate with the most. Before mass-produced carbon frames, building a bike was all about what components went on it rather than how it was made.
I have piles of old cycling magazines in my office at home – not just Jock Wadley’s Coureur and Sporting Cyclist either. There are copies of Bicisport from Italy and Mirroir de Cyclisme from France, mags and cycling papers from all over the world. They prop up my desk, support the broken paper tray of the printer and my laptop stands on them as I write. Occasionally I even read them. Many an editorial deadline has been lost, forgotten and drifted past after I’ve picked up a copy of Cycling and Mopeds from the spring of 1963 and become completely distracted. And, I hasten to add, Cycling and Mopeds in its 1960s format was, and still is, a much better read than it sounds…
In cycling magazines prior to 1990, writing endless bike and product tests was not deemed necessary. Racing and riding was what the readership wanted to digest. Most of the advertising was for practical products: it was all about keeping the cyclist on the road, not selling them another bike. A rider’s solitary machine was interchangeable, upgradeable and fixable – so tubular tyres, dynamos, brake pads, chains and freewheels were what filled the pages, everyday essentials for their one multi-tasking steel mount that was used for training, racing and holidaying.
The bicycle hasn’t changed much since then, but the emphasis on what consumers spend their hard-earned cash on is very, very different. But then again, the halcyon days of Jock Wadley packing a typewriter into his panniers and heading off to the Tour are long behind us too… plus ça change perhaps?
After spending a fair bit of time with Dominic on this Genesis project already, I’m beginning to see some retrospection here and just maybe the luddite in me is still excited by the steel racer premise of the Volare project. But despite struggling with some aspects of the modern world, Dominic is clearly onto the next stage of this story, one that will help shape where Genesis and the Volare go over the coming seasons.
Behind the scenes they have already started on a second version of the bike that will be developed further still as a prototype and with three or four more versions still to come, it will be essential that Dominic gets the rider feedback he needs. Cycling teams are increasingly social media-savvy, understandably so, but any rider posting feedback on Facebook may have the designer to answer to…
“People who know me would say I’m a technology hater,” Dominic says. “It’s true to some extent. A lot of modern technology is pointless: in many ways it removes more from life than it gives. As for Facebook and Twitter, don’t get me started. If people turned off their smart phones or iPads and walked out their front door then the world might be a better place. People and relationships matter.”