Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A one-track mind, keeping an eye on the past, and pressing the restart button. A visit to Eddy Merckx cycles.


Photo: Cycling Inquisition

It's a dreary and rainy Thursday morning in Belgium. The Amstel Gold race is just a few days away, and I'm dragging my rolling suitcase along fine gravel by the train station in Zellik, since one of its two wheels has suddenly decided to stop working. I'm exhausted thanks to my inability to sleep during the overnight flight to Brussels (thank you crying babies in rows 24 and 25). When I finally stop dragging my bag along, I realize that I'm one of a few people standing in the intersection. Some have bags, some don't. I'm set to meet Dave Luyckx, R&D Product Engineer at Eddy Merckx on this corner, as he makes his way to work. But I suddenly realize that he'll have no way of spotting me among the other people who area standing around. I look like everyone else, except perhaps for the fact that I'm a bit more tired and miserable looking as a result of the long flight. Adding to my problem is that, of course, I don't know what Dave looks like either. As I begin to worry about this, all the other passengers from the train are picked up by different cars and I'm left standing alone. Just then, a station wagon with a gigantic Eddy Merckx Cycles logo slows down in front of me. Dave rolls down the window and says hello.

That was surprisingly easy.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

We arrive at the company's headquarters, a large modern bulding adorned with a lugged steel Eddy Merckx bike that has been painted gold. I look at the bike up close and ask Dave if anyone has tried to steal it. "Not yet!" he responds with a smile. We go inside, and the young R&D Engineer begins to give me a tour. As he does, it becomes obvious that the storied bike company is well aware of its impressive history and its value, one that is embedded in its corporate DNA as a result of having such an iconic name on the down tubes of their bikes. Black and white portraits of Eddy Merckx greet visitors, along with perfectly preserved steel bikes in Molteni and Faema team colors. But look past the bits of memorabilia, and you begin to see a company that is heavily invested in the future.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

There are prototypes for upcoming models in a backroom, a secret lair of sorts that lays behind two locked doors, and connects only to Dave Luyckx’s office. In that room, you’ll find the fruits of his labor, as well as those of collaborative efforts with local universities. As I begin to hear Luyckx explain his work and research, I wonder if the steel bikes in the lobby are merely for show. Has a company with such an enviable history lost its links to the past through its recent push toward modernity?

Photo: Cycling Inquisition
Photo: Cycling Inquisition
 
As Luyckx shows me around, he tells me that the first prototype of any new frame is always a size 56 (Luyckx’s size), but the second is always a 58 (Eddy’s size). “He’s a legend, if anyone’s going to get hurt on a prototype, it should be me, not Eddy”, he jokes, while pointing out that Merckx’s feedback is still the driving force behind all of the company’s frames, including all of their geometries, which Luyckx is quick to point out, is just fine by him.

“He knows geometry, and I’m simply not going to argue with him, he really knows these things.” Luyckx goes on to explain that the company’s thinking about bikes remains fully grounded in the values that Eddy Merckx always held: a bike should be stable, and inspire confidence through it’s handling. This means that weight is not the main priority, with the emphasis being placed on geometry, handling and overall performance instead. “This is what Eddy wants his bikes to do, and that’s what our goal as a company remains.”

Photo: Cycling Inquisition
Photo: Cycling Inquisition
A one-track mind

Luyckx holds a degree in aerospace engineering, and previously worked at Toyota Europe as a materials engineer in plastics and composites. He also had a short stint at Musseuw Cycles, a company known for their creative use of flax fibers in their carbon frames. Despite his highly technical background, he’s always been passionate about bikes. He’s Belgian after all. It’s for this reason that he says it’s an absolute joy to work with such a legendary and passionate figure in the sport as Eddy Merckx.

“When Eddy comes into the office, and he sees me, he doesn’t even say ‘hello’ at first. The first thing he says, and wants to know is, ‘what’s new?’”. So to this day, cycling’s most feared competitor still wants to know about the latest frame designs, prototypes, and every aspect of Luyckx’s work, though he now owns only a minority share in the company. Regardless, Luyckx works closely with Merckx, and despite this, he admits that he’s still a bit in awe of the man he grew up admiring.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition


As we arrive into the basement level, which houses a warehouse, bike assembly, paint and welding (all rather quiet during my visit, as a result of Easter holidays), I see a dark figure emerge from behind a truck in the loading dock. It’s Eddy Merckx. He moves swiftly toward Luyckx, ignoring me and everyone else. He doesn’t to so in a rude manner, but rather in a hyper-focused way that is exemplary of a man with his long list of achievements. Once he’s within earshot of Luyckx, he begins talking, almost as though he’s already been speaking for minutes, if not hours. There are hand motions, and then a few gestures from Merckx as he talks. Luyckx listens closely, and then responds. The conversation goes on for a few minutes, only to start again as he catches us at the other end of the warehouse. Unable to speak or understand Flemish past the standard pleasantries, I ask Dave what Merckx wanted to speak about, as I could see him pointing to his bike’s seat tube and seat stays.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition
Photo: Cycling Inquisition

“He barely said hello, and asked me what was new.” We both laugh. Merckx’s one-track mind, it seems, is as predictable as his wins were during his years as a professional.  “He also wanted to discuss something he’s been thinking about. The potential for water getting into a prototype frame through the seat collar.” As Luyckx says this, and I realize just how much this detail has been bothering Merckx, I suddenly remember a relevant fact: Merckx had a pace maker put in less than two weeks earlier, but it’s the seat collar on a prototype frame that he’s been thinking about.

The man has a one-track mind, and the company benefits as a result. In the end, Luyckx’s explanations seem to appease the five-time Tour de France winner’s concerns. With that, he grabs his bike, and he rides effortlessly through the cramped loading dock. He’s gone as quickly as he went, leaving Luyckx and me to speak about the company’s past, present, as well as its future.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition
Photo: Cycling Inquisition

A fresh start

Eddy Merckx Cycles was founded in 1980, and rose in popularity quickly due to its name, and its owners’ fastidious eye for detail. Sponsorships of teams like 7-Eleven and Motorola gave the brand further caché, but as carbon fiber took over the industry, they began to lag behind.

“The company became reliant on sourcing products, and there was no development or R&D being done here. Zero. We produced alloy frames in-house, but that was it. Because there was no development, and frames were being sourced, prices went up.”

As Luyckx explains it, Merckx Cycles sourced frames from high-end manufacturers, and Eddy himself had close relationships with the engineers there, but no one at the company proceeded Luyckx as head engineer or manager of R&D. He's the first person to have that title. It’s when he says this that it suddenly dawns on me: Eddy Merckx Cycles is actually a young company, a new company actually, despite its history. They are a company that has only recently pressed the “restart” button, and wiped the slate clean. I ask Luyckx if this is accurate, and he agrees. “We are now in the final stages of re-launching the company, of re-launching the brand.”

Photo: Cycling Inquisition
Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Part of the company’s need for a fresh start came about due to the seismic shift that went on in the industry, as carbon production shifted to the East. Large brands were able to source existing frames, in part because their buying power was large (since many brands have mountain bikes, commuters, and children’s models). That, however, was not the case for Merckx Cycles, who always chose to concentrate on road bikes for racing. “It’s no secret that the Merckx bikes that Quick Step raced with [in 2010-2011], were sourced from other manufacturers.” While the partnerships with outside manufacturers and engineers had their creative upsides, that business model began to put a squeeze on Merckx’s financial bottom line. “They weren’t going to sell us their very best technology. Additionally, the mark-up was substantial.”


Photo: Cycling Inquisition
Photo: Cycling Inquisition
Photo: Cycling Inquisition

As this became clear, management realized that something had to give. To that end, they decided to bring development in-house, in order to have the company’s bikes match the gravitas that came with their name. Shortly thereafter, Luyckx was hired due to his expertise in composites, as well as his background in bringing products through manufacturing pipelines. With that, Luyckx began work on the first real carbon Eddy Merckx bike, the EMX-525, now the company’s flagship. A substantial task, but one that he took on happily.

At the same time, Merckx Cycles saw almost complete turnover, as all but five employees (four of them being mechanics) left the company, and new blood was brought in. With that, one of the most storied brands in cycling history was very young again, and everything about it was rethought. Well, almost everything, since Eddy’s vision and feedback remains a vital part of all development, and no one at Merckx Cycles would have it any other way. ◾

(First published in Road Magazine)



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Marginalia


The latest part of my ongoing project with Manual For Speed about developmental cycling in Colombia is up, and you can find it here.


3 comments:

  1. Absolutely love the photography you did for the Merckx piece. Gallery worthy, seriously.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Superb article!

    Loving my EMX-5 (2010, yeah yeah) and looking forward to what Eddy Merckx Cycles produces in the future...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Están muy chéveres sus fotos.

    De otras vainas, más hacia el lado de la marginalia, este par de historias me aguaron el ojo: http://www.universocentro.com/NUMERO46/Primerasciclas.aspx

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