To understand the Swiss you need to understand their geography. The country is more slope than plain, ringed by the unforgiving alps on every side. Sure, the alps may look lovely on a postcard, but try living there for 12 months of the year. That kind of mountain living leaves a mark on the soul, even if your descendants now live in a comfortable loft conversion in downtown Zurich. Up in those mountains you're not going to survive long if you rush in or do things by halves. As a nation, the Swiss like to take their time to understand a problem, work out the best way to deal with it and then make sure that the solution lasts. That tends to mean not being swayed by fashion or fad. Those characteristics cross over into the business world too, and BMC are an archetypically Swiss affair.
When they posed themselves the problem of making bicycles they were nothing if not thorough. If they were going to make carbon bikes, they were going to make perfect carbon bikes. To do that they set up their Impec laboratory just down the street from their headquarters in Grenchen, a facility that was originally designed to produce bikes, but the torturous nature of working with carbon diverted to an advanced development facility (for now). What people may miss in the straightforwardness of the Swiss approach is the creativity - after all, if you're taking the time to really get to grips with a problem in search of the best solution, that best solution can easily be utterly unique. Back that up with the commitment to make sure the solution lasts, or on a mountain bike, that it works out on the trail, and you tap a surprising well of creativity and inspiration. The man guiding that blend of study, engineering and mad science at BMC is Stefan Christ. We sat down with him to find out more about the challenges of making carbon bikes in Switzerland, taking risks and why 27.5 wheels should never have been a thing.
How long have you been with BMC?
Almost 11 years now.
What was your background before BMC?
I started studying mechanical engineering while I was still racing mountain bikes. Then I did my specialty in plastic engineering, with composite engineering as well. My first job was calculating composite structures, as an engineer. Then there was an opportunity to be the first in-house engineer for BMC. Before my time all the engineering was outsourced to a consulting company. Since then I have built up the internal development team. Now we are seven people, so over ten years, maybe a little bit more, we added roughly one person per year.
For a company this size, that's proportionally quite a large team.
We are about 120 people at BMC, it depends how many of the salespeople you count as really part of the core organization. So for product development, including product management and industrial design, we are 14 people so roughly 10%.
What was the first project you worked with here at BMC?
My first project was the alloy Trailfox in 2009.
That was BMC's first hydroformed bike, wasn't it?
Yes, it was the first frame where we kind of combined industrial design with the engineering, because we had opportunities with new production methods like hydroforming and all that. That was really a project from the ground up, including kinematics everything, and was, I would say, the start of the second generation of Trailfoxes. And then the third generation of Trailfoxes were the 29ers.
When you began, was it primarily aluminum bikes you were working on? In 2009 there weren't a lot of carbon bikes being made.
No, actually we had the Four Stroke, it was the first full carbon frame on the market with a carbon swingarm, It was our XC bike that was just reaching production when I started. So I was not involved with the design, but I was involved a lot, through my composite background, in the manufacturing. Since this was really early days for composite full-suspension bikes... yeah, we had some issues. I had to spend quite some time in Asia, but it was, on the other hand, a great opportunity to get into it very quickly. I knew a lot of the theory for composites and then seeing how it's made on a large scale. That was a steep learning curve for me, but also helped me through our next projects.
What level was BMC's carbon at when you arrived?
When I started we were already making, as I said, the Four Stroke, but also on the road, the Pro Machine, which was a collaboration with Easton. We used their manufacturing partner in Asia. They had very good materials and we were the first one to actually use uni-directional aesthetic layers on the bikes. When I started, all the bikes had to have a weaved finish, otherwise it was not carbon. Today everything is uni-directional. I would say the company, already back then, even if we didn't have the internal know-how, was working with the right partners, always the best partners.
Upstairs you have RTM and braiding machines lying dormant - how did BMC arrive at this position?
Yeah, as I mentioned the first generation of carbon bikes out of Asia were really unstable in production, so you could have one that was excellent and then there was another one that did not fulfill the requirements. Then Andy Rhis (BMC's long-time investor), together with the management, decided that we could not rely on unstable Asian production. That was kind of the kick off for the Impec Lab project...
What year was this?
Actually, when I started, the project was already running in the process development phase, not the product development phase, but process development, so... 2006 maybe.
The Impec lab was a concept at that time and you have overseen the development of this whole facility?
No, that was a parallel project because it was really seen as, let's say, a new direction. There was an entire engineering team working on that in parallel, developing a production process and the product. With my background in composite engineering, I was pretty quickly thrown into this project as a consultant. I learned a lot, but it was always driven by another team because I was still responsible for all the mountain bike development, our commercial products. I had a good distance from it, I think, to guide it without being too involved with the project, that was important. The idea of it was, and still is, very valid because the idea was to use automation to get to better quality. At the time production was not consistent in Asia and also the lead times were very unpredictable. That was another motivation to have our own facility. The project was pretty long, we made it to market... What did not work in our favor was the fact that there was the Swiss Franc getting much stronger. In the end... we could not automate all the steps as we wanted to, so it was an economic decision to stop it. What we learned from this was really beneficial for us as a company, because that was the root of what we have today as Impec prototype lab. So a lot of the equipment, the people, they are still working here. What we should not under-estimate is that it brought us, as a brand, to a whole different level when we were talking to suppliers in Asia, because they know we too know how to produce carbon. So, I think it was easier for us to find good partners, and be respected. I think that was good. Of course, the quality got better in Asia and I could say today we get product out of Asia that is on a very high level, on a very controlled level. I would say the quality issue is gone. What we would like to have is more control of the supply chain. I mean lead times, all those things. In an ideal world, we would still want to produce where we are because it's faster and we can keep our know-how internal. I think, in general, as a whole industry, we gave a lot of know-how to Asia. To the point where we have to be very careful to do this any further... I think that today in Asia if a brand or a supplier wants to create their own brand, it's much easier than for a European brand to become a manufacturer.
Do you think this dynamic is changing? Do you think that there is still a price-advantage for going to Taiwan and if so, how quickly is that changing? And at what point do you think the tipping point comes?
I think we are at this tipping point. I mean, with the bike industry we are going through big changes right now. On one side we can talk about distribution. I think this is obvious for everyone, that where five years ago it was purely retail-based, today it goes in the direction of more omni-channel. That changes your whole supply chain. Then on the mountain bike side, especially in Europe, I can say that e-bikes changed where companies are putting their development focus. That's another parameter that accelerates this change, because some of the e-bike drive units are made in Europe. So I think it's going very quickly and salaries worldwide will equalize. Time to market becomes more important. Today the end consumer has no problem to go and talk directly to the brand and they expect service within hours, not within weeks. So this whole acceleration of the timeline, I think, will push us to produce locally again. Even if the cost might be slightly higher, I think, the overall package cost is lower.
Does that incentivize a shift away from the traditional season model? Today you have a 2017 bike and a 2018 bike. If the cost has to go up slightly, surely it makes more sense to move away from that and just have a blue bike and a red bike, rather than the blue bike being last year's model and the red bike being this year's?
Yeah, we will definitely, as an industry, transfer into a model more where product is delivered to the market when it's ready. The challenge is that we are still very dependent on the big suppliers like Shimano. If they have their yearly cycle of releasing new products, and if we want be in line with this cycle, it dictates, a little bit, what we do. I think that will not make it easy, even if you want to have a model for multiple years. If there's a new groupset coming, you're not going sell a bike with the old groupset.
Will there be more interest in programmes like Orbea's My-O scheme, where they are moving away from having a set spec? So you say, "Okay I'd like this frame", then you are offered a wide range of customization options, does that change the supplier relationship? Instead of saying, "I'm making 10 bikes, so I need 10 XT groupsets", you need some XT groupsets, some SLX and Deore...
We had a customization program ten years ago. It was just for the Swiss market, but this is totally feasible on a local scale and I think if we talk about producing closer to the market, it will go back in this direction, that's very clear. It has also to do with logistics, stock of material and all this, but I think the recipe is out now. The challenge is more that where 10 years ago people were willing to wait six months, today I don't think they want to wait one month. So either you have a solution that gives almost immediate fulfillment of their demand, or you are not really in the game. Today, for us, it's easier to have this immediate fulfillment with a standardized stock item than with something custom. But this is changing, for sure.
I don't think I have ever visited a company where there is such a strong culture that encourages people to say, "I have this idea, let's try it." In some ways, it seems very Swiss, but in others, maybe not so much.
I think the Swissness in this approach is that when we are after something we really want do it right. And that is also true for an idea. If we have an idea, we don't want to base our judgment of the idea on a guess, we really want to prove whether it works or not. I think that is still very Swiss. Then the freedom of how much we are allowed to try things is a balance between the pressure of bringing something that works commercially, that has a very direct timeline, where targets are really clear, as opposed to spending energy on something that might become a commercial idea. This balance is, in the end, up to me to judge how we allocate our resources. But, in many cases, we are pushing ourselves, so that with our new bikes we can also bring something new and beneficial for the rider. I mean we knew, for instance, that with our new trail bike, the Speedfox, that we wanted to bring something more. That's how Trailsync, for instance, was born. But it's also clear that we cannot do this with every new product. Maybe it's a little bit Swiss as well, that sometimes we have a tendency to over-engineer things. Which is a good and a bad thing...
Do you think the Swiss and the German focus on technology in the market helps this approach? Consumers there seem to like to have something extra, something technological on their bike.
It is really hard for us to bring something to market just because we believe in it, without having figures backing up the idea. This is, I think it's true for the Swiss, but also for Germans. Maybe even more for Germans. But in the end, we see many success stories in the mountain bike world that are not driven by figures. It's driven by ideas, by passion and it's hard to balance this. If we would purely base our products on figures and facts, we would also not have the product as we have today. It's a balance, but it's clear, that we always have a tendency to do something when we can add value for the rider. I always tell my team, "Let's put the BMC name on it when we can either add functionality for the rider or do something better in terms of quality." If not, we can always buy from another supplier... A handlebar is a good example. Why should we do our own handlebar? I mean, we did once a make handlebar, it was a flat, wide handlebar for our big wheel concept because back in the day there were no wide, flat handlebars available. So, that's what we had to do it to fulfill our idea of the big wheel concept. Today, there is a huge range of flat white handlebars on offer, so why would we continue doing this if we don't have an idea to make it better or different?
It strikes me that there is a big element of bravery in this approach. If you try a hundred things, surely you can't be afraid to fail and say, "Okay, that didn't work, let's move on."
It's hard to say, because, you tend to forget what doesn't work very quickly. But I would say, overall every second thing we try makes it... Maybe it doesn't make it immediately into commercial production, but sometimes it's later as kind of a side idea. Sometimes it's not even making it with the product we had in mind initially, but we can use it. If we have something that we were planning for a mountain bike, maybe we can use it on a gravel bike... But what is true to all these things is that each time you go through an unknown experience you learn a lot. I think this is what is driving my team, it is the curiosity to try something that we don't know yet.
I have to admit that after today I kind of want to come work at BMC now... I'd be a horrible engineer, but it looks like it would be fun. It seems that you give people the freedom to learn this stuff and try things, it gives them a sense of ownership. So when they see the idea reach the market they can say, "I made that".
I think sometimes we tend to forget the great opportunity we have because, of course, in the daily business, we also have the pressure from the commercial development. And many of the people on my team... Actually, I have to say all of them, have not worked at another bike company before. So, they came here with a bike background, but that was either a crazy passion for bikes, they were working at the bike shop or they were putting posters of bikes on the wall when they were kids. In that sense they've grown within this BMC environment and sometimes I wish that we had some people that have worked at other brands, just to see how different we are and help us appreciate what we have.
To what extent do you look at what other people are doing? Do you look at the new Santa Cruz or Specialized and go, "Oh, we should have done that"?
For sure we are looking... This is a curiosity for all my employees, they know exactly what our competitors are doing. We discuss what they are doing, sometimes we know why they're doing something, sometimes we ask ourselves why they are doing it [laughs]. But we also have no problem, then, to leave things on the side and go our own way. But, of course, we are super curious and actually, I think, more than the 'what' they're doing things it's 'why' they are doing things. This is what makes us curious. In some cases we know, in some cases, we don't. It definitely influences our direction.
I don't think many people realize how extreme some of your bikes are, in some ways. What year was it you began shortening the stem and lengthening the reach?
That was 2012 for alloy-level, in 2013 for carbon bikes.
That would put you right up there with Mondraker and Kona who are widely recognized for pushing things in that direction. Maybe people don't consider BMC in that same bracket?
Yeah, I think because we brought it in from cross-country racing angle. I mean, the first bikes, which followed this big wheel philosophy with short chainstays, long top tubes and short stems were our cross country hardtail and full suspension bikes. And then the first big bike that brought this was in 2014, the Trailfox 29.
So, maybe a year or two behind the curve of Mondraker?
Yes, and also in this long trail segment, we are not well-recognized. Even if, in a product test the Trailfox was ahead of the curve, it was not understood maybe because just it carries the name BMC.
With that timeline, that would mean it was between BMC and Specialized to be the first major player to bring a long-travel 29er to the market?
Yeah, that's true. The Enduro was within a couple of months of us. But we were, for one year, the only ones with a long travel 150mm 29er with, I would say, an appropriate geometry concept.
It is interesting that while the Enduro is still very much at the forefront of the market, it is maybe fair to say that the Trailfox is not talked about much these days?
Yeah, it's true for both bikes, the Trailfox and the Enduro were not immediate successes, I mean, then there was this wave of 27.5 kicking in. And only after that, the 29ers came back, right?
I know Specialized's philosophy in the beginning was "We're just going to do 29 and 26, but then the wave of 27.5 bikes came.
I think if they had more success with the Enduro it would have helped our Trailfox sell more as well, plus the industry might not have gone through this, I would say... detour.
Detour. All of a sudden everyone was 27.5, even the ones who had been saying "We are 29er only and we are super convinced and we have data." They had to do 27.5, and now if, today, you look at enduro racing there is a significant number of 29ers at the top of the sport. Do you know why this is kinda frustrating for us? When we decided to do this Trailfox, this 150mm 29, it was also based on fact. I mean, we did timed laps and we knew it was faster, but it just doesn't mean... Again it's the question of the German approach, when you have figures to prove something. It's not always the recipe to be successful.
When my colleague, Mike Kazimer rode this bike in Whistler back in 2015 or so, he found it a fast bike, but it was actually, for him, too harsh and aggressive.
Everyone who was used to a playful bike was disappointed because the bigger wheels definitely don't turn as easily as small wheels, and maybe if you're jumping it's also less fun. But it's faster.
If you look around the Pinkbike office, most of the tech editors are now on 29ers for their personal bikes, were you just too early?
Maybe, I think it was too race-focused... but even if it had been a little bit milder, I think it was too early because when it hit, almost immediately there was this counter-wave of 27.5 bikes.
What is the future for you guys in that field? You backed away from the EWS and the Trailfox maybe has a lower profile than the Speedfox at the moment?
Yeah, we went backwards a little bit with the investment in this segment because we wanted to first get a fix on where the real commercial market is in mountain bikes, which we see as being in trail bikes today. That's why we have the Speedfox. It's definitely something we want to go back to, to be in this long-travel category. We have a lot of ideas which we believe will make for a very strong product. But, of course, it was also a lesson that sometimes having the right product is not enough. So I think in mountain biking we have to, as a brand, fix a couple of things first before going back there.
How do you see the mountain bike developing over the next 10 years?
I think the time is over for hyper-segmentation. I think it's coming back to maybe two, three kinds of riding. Maybe it depends on where you live, what you do. I see one strong pillar, what we here call 'marathon'. Let's put it this way, it is more efficient riding than 'trail riding', which is more on the fun side, which is where we see Speedfox and I think those two pillars, they will stay. One is for the guy who wants a high-performance bike, maybe even for racing. Then there is the guy who just wants have a super nice trail ride with a bike that is not too heavy, that pedals well. And then I think there is the category above where you really want to go rough and fast at full speed. I would like to see that us go back to these three segments of full suspension bikes. I don't think any more are needed
The question I need to ask is that whether you think there's a future for 27.5 wheels for mountain bikes?
I don't think so. I think it's going to be for extreme applications where the size of the wheels is still a constraint. In terms of, let's say, performance mountain bikes, I think 29ers are going to be the future. Where I'm not yet convinced is whether the tire development is there yet for 29ers. I still think there's a lot of room to improve the tires for this wheel size.
In what way would you like to see that change?
I think this has to do with compounds, but also the way the sidewalls are built. I mean this goes together with the new wider rims. For instance, we still see too many flat tires with 29ers. Wide rims, for instance, expose the sidewalls more, so it feels like through those multiple wheel sizes we had, whether it was 29, 27, 27+, 29... tire development was never really in line with the rest of the bike. For that reason, I'm happy that it's getting a little quieter. So, hopefully, the tires can be the focus.
That's one of the things that interest me: if a change is coming for wheel sizes, it seems like the industry's handling it very differently from the last one? With 27.5 it was kind of overnight, "You have to have this." Whereas now it seems like a much softer transition than it was with 26 to 27.5.
Yeah, I think we lost the consumer. I mean you cannot tell the consumer every year that this is the best. And as I said, we were never convinced about 27.5, because we were all about performance bikes. We did one 27.5 bike which was this Speedfox Trail Crew but this was, maybe, the first bike BMC ever did that was purely a fun bike. Not with the purpose of being a performance bike. It's not that we don't want to do fun bikes, it's just that, for us, it was more obvious to do the performance side first and there 29 has been the choice for us since the beginning. There was a time, I cannot exactly remember which year, but it was six months where if you were talking about 29 then everyone was killing you. I mean, there was... it is typical that this was not fact-based. I mean, especially in cross-country racing, where it is the most obvious that 29 is faster there were brands pushing for 27.5. They had super-strong athletes, then convincing other companies to go back to 27.5... And now everyone is back on 29. So, I would say chapeau for those who were able to occupy the competition by following the wrong direction. For sure, it cost the bike industry a lot of money. Maybe not through direct development resources, but I think the biggest thing is that we lost the consumer. I think that as an industry, we could be, business-wise, much better off today if we told stories that are a little bit more consistent. They're fed up and I can understand why. I mean, you buy expensive product, it's not something you buy every year like that...