Road to impeccable bike proves impassable for BMC

Five years after Swiss bicycle manufacturer BMC proudly unveiled its new carbon production facility in Grenchen, Switzerland, the reality of achieving the initial objectives behind its creation have proven insurmountable.

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Against the majestic background of the Arc de Triomphe, 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans proudly lifted his custom-painted yellow BMC Impec high into the air. Looking on was Andy Rihs, the Swiss visionary who had poured millions of his personal fortune into an enterprise designed to realise that moment.

Rihs had experienced the same elation in July 2006, but it was fleeting. The celebrations of American Floyd Landis’ Tour de France victory that year were short-lived; a few days later, Landis tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. He too, had piloted a BMC bicycle, in a team sponsored by Rihs’ hearing aid company Phonak.

Defeated, despondent and deflated, Rihs almost walked away from the world of professional road cycling altogether. Or so the story goes. The problem was his bicycle company, fighting for its place in the global market on a narrative of passion, precision and design, still needed a marketing platform to validate its small portfolio of expensive performance road bikes. Intuitively, Rihs knew no platform other than a pro cycling team could deliver that validation. Less than one month after Landis’ positive doping test, BMC announced its decision to supply bicycles to ProTeam Astana.

In parallel, ISH International Sport Holding AG was also formed. BMC would be housed under this new parent company, with a new entity Swiss Manufacturing Technology (SMT) beside it. SMT would control R&D, operations and logistics of ISH’s future subsidiaries, whilst BMC would become a sales and marketing vehicle for the eponymous brand. Andy Rihs’ ambitions never failed to disappoint. “BMC will continue to grow between 30% and 50% a year in the coming years thanks to its innovative range of high-tech bikes and the strengthening of its global sales network. We also plan to go public in the next 4 or 5 years.”

In July 2007, lightning struck twice.

The Swiss bike manufacturer BMC has terminated prematurely its agreement with the Swiss/Khazakh cycling team Astana as per end of July 2007. The reason for this is the latest case of doping that occurred in the Astana team during the Tour de France that has just ended. Whether BMC will engage again in the future as a sponsor of a professional cycling team is still an open question. The other current BMC sponsoring activities in professional cycling, mountain biking and triathlon are not concerned by the present decision.

– BMC press release, 31 July 2007.

For all its dramatic wording, BMC’s media release was disingenuous. The company was still heavily invested in a US-based Continental team called BMC Racing Team, managed by ex-pro Gavin Chilcott and US Cycling coach Charlie Livermore.

The pair had started an elite U23 domestic development squad in 2005 which caught the eye of BMC’s owner. Despite the visibility of the still-active Phonak team, BMC had struggled to make an impression in the ultra-competitive US market. Rihs liked what he saw in the Chilcott-Livermore venture, committing equipment and cash to what was intended to be a long-term development pathway. A new operating company, Continuum Sports LLC, was formed by Chilcott and Livermore in January 2006 and the team’s name changed to BMC Racing Team. The Continuum-operated, BMC-sponsored, outfit was now positioned to be a feeder squad for Rihs’ Phonak Cycling team.

Six months later, Phonak imploded.

In parallel with the Astana deal, an additional investment by Rihs in late 2006 enabled the team to register as a well-funded UCI Continental squad for the 2007 season. Ironically, it meant ex-Phonak Swiss riders Alex Moos (a favourite of Rihs) and neo-pro David Vitoria had somewhere to go. The development pipeline had been switched to reverse cycle mode.

When Astana also went belly-up, Rihs simply ploughed more money into BMC Racing Team. His additional investment enabled the US squad to take out a Pro Continental license for the 2008 season. The following year Rihs, together with team advisor Jim Ochowicz, bought a majority stake of Continuum in early 2009. He now controlled what he always desired to have; a BMC-branded team, based in the most desirable global cycling market. It was also perfectly timed to coincide with the release of a new BMC bicycle created from his most risky and expensive project yet.

“We will set a true industrial standard for the construction of carbon frames. We will develop all the technologies we need right through to series production. We will do all of it in Switzerland – with Swiss thoroughness and precision. And when we have finished we will be the first manufacturer in the world able to offer our customers an absolutely faultless carbon frame that satisfies the highest demands. In short, we’ll build the impec.”

BMC impec factory 1

Impec, an abbreviation for “impeccable”, was launched to the global media at BMC’s SMT facility in Grenchen, Switzerland, on 02 July 2010. The highly-automated bicycle production plant had been five years in the making at a cost reported to be CHF40m; it could have been more had the local government not pitched in with the land. Andy Rihs made a guest appearance, delivering a typically-impassioned and humorous address to the gathered journalists, but he couldn’t stay long; there was a helicopter to catch. His Pro Continental BMC Racing Team had secured a wild-card spot in the Tour de France and he needed to get to the Netherlands ahead of the all-important prologue in Rotterdam.

As Rihs departed, journalists were invited to tour the Impec production line. The centrepiece of the sprawling, clinically-clean, and high-tech setting was a towering robotic marvel appropriately dubbed ‘The Star Gate’; a halo-shaped, custom-designed, 3-D radial braiding machine covered in over 100 individual bobbins filled with Toho Tenax carbon fibre tow. It was the first instance in bicycle manufacturing history that a numerically-controlled braiding machine had been used to form the base elements (tubes) of a composite bicycle frame. The Star Gate was the jewel in an fully-automated, human-free, repeatable process that resulted in a perfectly-formed composite tube at the other end.

Nobody left feeling unimpressed.

BMC impec factory 2

Rihs’ BMC Racing Team didn’t pull off a Tour de France victory in 2010, but new signing Cadel Evans wore yellow for two stages, before the agony of pushing a fractured elbow (sustained in stage eight) over multiple mountain passes proved insurmountable. The Aussie finished 26th overall – incredible, given the circumstances – and the team applied for, and received, a coveted ProTeam licence ahead of the 2011 professional road cycling season.

First-year production targets for the new Impec, which had been set at an ambitious 25’000 frames, were not faring so well. Multiple teething problems in the production process saw assembly of complete frame sets dwindle to as few as five per day. Even though machines made the tubes, humans were still needed to stick them together. SMT was also unable to find an in-house solution for every part of the frame, including the seat post and the lugs. That outsourcing jarred against the large sign affixed to the outside of the innocuous-looking building, which read “We built a Swiss factory to produce the perfect carbon bike”. It was a slippery slope to be on.

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Economies of scale, or the lack thereof, were only part of the problem. Nobody truly knew how big the market was for such a high-end product, but all of the focus to that point had been on the process. At USD6’500 for the frame set alone, Impec was definitely not an everyday, affordable, solution for the average road cyclist.

Not helping matters was a Taiwanese-made performance road bike called the Teammachine SLR01 that BMC released in late 2009. It was lighter, more comfortable, cheaper and visually less-polarising than the Impec. It could be produced in far bigger quantities. Most critically, the press loved it; and so did BMC Racing Team’s captain.

Evans was not one to take chances with equipment; he only began using carbon fibre handlebars in 2010 and, even then, only accepted one model from Easton. Though most members of his team had been testing the Impec frame for months – with mixed feedback – it didn’t meet Evans’ expectations. At the 2010 World Championships, held not far from his Australian base in Barwon Heads, the reigning champion raced on his rainbow-striped SLR01. In his build-up to the 2011 Tour De France, which began with Tirreno-Adriatico in March, the Australian once again piloted BMC’s top Taiwanese-made road bike.

A few months later in Paris, after Evans made history in becoming the first Australian winner of the Tour de France, it was the Impec that he raised skywards. It didn’t matter that he had raced aboard a Teammachine SLR01 almost exclusively for the last three weeks; it was a key product placement opportunity. And a respectful nod to Andy Rihs’ irrepressible conviction.

Sales of BMC bikes received a boost after Evans’ TdF win, though much of the attention was on the bike that Evans rode to victory, as opposed to the one he showed to the cameras at the end. By 2013, annual Impec frame production had reached 1’300 units – a little more than 5% of the original 2010 production target. It would be the last year that Impec bikes featured in a BMC catalogue. The entire Impec line was removed from the BMC website at the end of 2014.

When BMC Racing Team unveiled its 2016 jersey this week, not many people would have realised the significance of what the team referred to as a small change on its Twitter account.

Said David Zurcher, CEO of BMC Switzerland, about the change, “Impec has been rebranded to become Impec Lab, which will be reflected on the BMC Racing Team jersey in 2016. From a bike production facility with a small prototype workshop, we have made further investments especially in prototype tooling and simulation softwares, refocusing the engineering group on advanced Research and Development projects. Contrary to most other brands reducing timelines and internal resources, innovation is our core competence.”

Refocusing. Rebranding. With those words, the impeccable bike made in Switzerland was erased from memory.

Disclosure: the author was an employee of BMC Switzerland from 2008 – 2011. All commercial information contained in this article is available online.

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