Eddy Merckx is making a comeback. Not the 70-year-old superlative champion, though he can still drop a fair few riders, but the company.
It has come through mediocre recent years. There have been numerous management changes and a rough financial footing; in 2013, they had made a loss of turnover of €5 million, and a total loss of €2.5 million.
Even the great man himself walked away from the company he had started, selling his remaining shares last April.
“Eddy wasn’t, let’s say, really connected to the former management,” says CEO Rob Beset. “In my opinion, they didn’t treat him with enough respect. They thought they knew better, in doing business, probably even thought they were better in bike knowledge.”
Moreover, they had stopped challenging themselves.
“They were like ‘we are Belgian and we are a small brand, so we just keep… no, no, no,” chief development officer Rolf Singenberger says. “It was missing the pride heavily. I went ‘okay, [the limited edition] EDDY70 is your first project, now we start building frames again.’”
Singenberger and Beset, who both joined within months of one another in 2014, have been integral to the company’s resurgence.
“When I came in, the situation was not good. I had meetings with everyone. Just a few of them really asked: what are your plans? That’s typical Belgium. I said ‘my plan is to make at least this the most well-known, most interesting and innovative bike company in the world,’” Beset says.
Therefore it is not a question of cannibalising market interest with super-light bicycles or ploughing millions of euros into backing a WorldTour team (besides, they don’t have the resources for that).
It’s all about equilibrium: their slogan is Power Under Control and they tout their EMX-525 as the best-balanced bicycle in the world.
“In our rating, the most important thing is the geometry; this defines your handling, and many more things besides,” Singenberger says.
“Of course we want to do everything as light as possible. But weight is not on top of the list,” Singenberger says.
They are quite the odd couple: Singenberger, a monotone Swiss and self-confessed “product guy”, Beset, shaven-headed and garrulous. But it seems to be a productive partnership.
For the new Eddy Merckx collection, Beset says that they did 18 months’ worth of work in 12. That meant breathless, jet lag-inducing trips to and from Shenzhen and even staying in characteristic local accommodation for months on end to work solidly on the new collection.
“Normally Rolf flies in [from Switzerland] on Monday morning, we sleep around the corner at a very interesting bed and breakfast. It’s a terrific lady who owns it, she bought us a new coffee machine and toaster, she’s doing the eggs in the morning. We sleep there two or three nights a week.”
The key was sharing their vast base of contacts – Beset spent 25 years at Batavus, Singenberger was with BMC from its inception - and improving suppliers in time for the new collection.
The quality hasn’t altered over the years; for instance, Johan Vranckx, the kid Eddy Merckx plucked out of school 35 years ago to train with De Rosa and work in his nascent company, is still building bicycles in the Zelik-based factory today.
The metal frames result from a refined process: no hydroforming, just stage by stage forming. They’ve opted for triple-butted tubing and double tapering during construction too.
Eddy Merckx Cycles’ latest innovation for high-end frames is the introduction of CT scanning. “It’s the most secure way to test out the product. If it doesn’t pass the test, the bike won’t be built,” Beset says.
Another step was bringing the figurehead back to the fold of his eponymous company; Beset asked Eddy Merckx to be an ambassador and technical advisor.
“I was positively surprised by his knowledge about carbon. I knew he would be good in geometries, I knew he would be good in gearing. But I didn’t expect the pure material knowledge, at that level, at least.”
Of course, they aren’t afraid to disagree either. “We started talking about the EDDY70 project,” he says, of the limited edition stainless steel, Made in Belgium bicycle. “We had a fierce discussion, I can tell you: we wanted to use triple butted stainless steel. And he said, ‘I think you’d better go back to scandium.’”
“So we made those two framesets, we let him compare. Eddy was surprised because he hadn’t been working with stainless, and Rolf and I both had. He went ‘you’re right, I agree, let’s do it with stainless.’”
“I mean, this company has his name,” Beset says. “It’s good to have him on the side of the table, actively involved in collections.”
Eddy Merckx Cycles will exhibit at the Rouleur Classic, an intimately curated show of road cycling’s most desirable brands, to be held at Vinopolis, London Bridge, from November 19 to 21, 2015. To find out more, visit Rouleur Classic.