To understand BMC, you need to understand what BMC stands for. Quite simply, it stands for Bicycle Manufacturing Company. It is a perfect Swiss name – straight forwards, utterly without pretense and very efficient in explaining what the company does. In a world dominated by social media and carefully cultivated public images, it is endearingly honest. Fun, even. To those unfamiliar with Switzerland 'fun' may seem like an unusual choice of adjective, but despite their straight-laced reputation, in my experience, the Swiss, as a whole, are pretty good fun to spend time with. Certainly, by the end of my day with BMC, I came away with an overwhelming impression of a genuine shared sense of excitement and enjoyment amongst the people working here.
Writing about BMC right now is a little difficult though. A few days after we visited their HQ their long-time investor, Andy Rhis, died after suffering for a long time with illness. It is hard to write about BMC without him. Although he may never have held a day-to-day job, his mark on the company is indelible. After making his money with a hearing aid patent he began investing in a nascent BMC in the 90s and his enthusiasm, passion and willingness to encourage them to innovate has shaped the company.
In the Germanic business tradition, he allowed the business to put aside the bottom line to an extent not possible with regular shareholders, and it is under his guidance that they established a facility in Grenchen, Switzerland, to perfect the art of working with carbon fibre. While most high-end companies now work with carbon, this facility is unique – when BMC opened this facility in 2010 nobody else in the industry had such extensive in-house technology. Anybody who works with carbon will tell you that there is a massive learning curve to getting the best from the material, yet it has not all been plain sailing for BMC.
The original idea was that they would produce their high-end bikes in Grenchen, but in 2014 they acknowledged that it simply was not feasible and by the time they had truly understood the technology they invested in, it was no longer cutting edge. So to keep up with the competition in terms of both cost and quality, they had to keep their production in Taiwan. With that decision, this facility was re-purposed as their R&D centre and their test lab for new ideas and technology for their range of products. It became the beating heart of a company who have always put great value in bringing new technology and ideas to market.
Their design team is based in the main building of their HQ. For a company the size of their design team is very noticeable - BMC clearly is not afraid to invest their resources in the engineering side. Of the 75 people they employ here in Grenchen more than 10% of that total work in engineering.
As you walk into the Impec Lab you are greeted by their museum - charting the development of their mountain bikes from late 90's experiments onto straight tubing, hydroforming, then carbon fibre.
The team behind BMC's carbon mountain bike development (clockwise from top left): Stefan Christ (Head of R&D), the head of this team and BMC's mountain bike division; Peter Staemplfi (MTB Product Development Engineer); Mariano Schoefer (MTB Product Development Engineer) and Angelo Visno (Prototyping Supervisor) who is the aluminium master - he is responsible for anything shiny, including machining the moulds for their carbon layups.
Looking closely at this frame, you can start to understand how they operate. The front has been re-worked to slacken the headangle to DH-worthy territory (the stock bike started with a 67-degree headangle) - this was done by replacing the downtube and the toptube and leaving the headtube intact because it is a more complex and critical shape, complete with cable ports. At the back, the rear stays were cut to lengthen the chainstays. In the centre, the shock mount was re-worked to create space for a piggyback and custom links were machined to adapt the kinematic to DH. It may all look a little rough and ready, but that is because it is precisely what it is. For a prototype like this, they err on the side of safety over-building the new parts and finishing any cosmetic imperfections with filler to create a frame that is fully rideable, but less refined than you would expect to pick up from your local bike shop.
Understandably, BMC is keen to show off how they developed their new Trail Sync technology - where the seatpost is integrated into the frame and works in conjunction with the lockout for the rear shock. Again, they started with an existing frame, this time removing the seat tower section to accomodate the integrated post.
For their prototypes Angelo has an extensive in-house materials store. Most of the time he works with 7000 series aluminium, mainly because it is what he knows best and has stockpiled a fair bit in the lab. That is a big barrier-breaker for their development process because they already have the materials here to get started with something, it makes the decision to try something that little bit easier.
This is a really good example of the kind of project they are free to experiment with. For a long time, BMC has used vertically-mounted shocks on their mountain bikes and they were curious to see how a horizontally-mounted shock would change the performance. They took an existing frame, glued on the top tube mount and machined a custom link to drive the linkage. They rode the frame for a while and came to the conclusion that it was not a direction they wanted to pursue.
Peter was very curious about the Pinion gearbox. Once they had finished their flagship eMTB, the Trailfox Amp, they popped the motor out and machined a custom cradle to mount the Pinion gearbox on it. This bike then got the hell thrashed out of it so they could make up their minds about the system, really understand the benefits and the drawbacks of a gearbox - they decided that for now it is not something that is likely to make it into their range.