In the world of online mountain bike sales, Chain Reaction Cycles (CRC) is the 400lb gorilla in the room. No other site has the same global reach and influence within the marketplace, so much so that there are several online campaigns to boycott CRC as traditional bike shops see their bottom lines eroded by online sales. For some it is the one-stop shop for whatever they need, wherever in the world they are, for others it's a totem for all that is wrong in the modern marketplace. Yet their story mat not be the one you would expect.
Born as a local bike shop in a tiny unit just outside Belfast, Northern Ireland, some 32 years ago, its roots are as humble as you can imagine. In those early days, there was no plan to change the way we buy our bikes and components; it was just another small business trying to find its way. Where it differed from the competition is how it adapted and grew. Many of our younger readers probably don't remember a time before the internet, and how strange those first, shaky connections to a global network were. Back then it wasn't obvious how profoundly it would change our lives, from how we connect with each other, to how we shop. CRC was one of the first to test those waters and maybe more than anything it is that timing that set them on the path - it is around the same era as companies like Amazon were beginning. In the intervening two decades they have refined and evolved their business model, so today they may seem dominant, but it is because they were there at the right moment and willing to take the risks on this new way of doing business.
We visited their headquarters, which are still in Ballyclare, a small village just outside Belfast, to take a look behind the scenes of what goes into serving a truly global market.
Much of online bike component sales is based on the premise that the customer knows exactly what they want - that level of technical understanding of our bikes is something that sets mountain biking apart from most other sports and is a big factor in the prevalence of online sales. Of course, not everybody does know quite what they need, or whether what they need will work with their existing kit. For those customers, CRC has a tech team. who will be their first point of contact. They should be instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent much time in bike shops - they are CRC's groms. Of all the people involved in processing an order, they are generally the keenest riders and have an encyclopedic knowledge of CRC's mind-bendingly huge range of products. Like all good bike shop groms, they will help the customer work out what they need and then put an order together with them.
Once the order is approved it heads over to be fulfilled at one of CRC's three warehouses - either the main one downstairs or at the specialist or large goods warehouses a few miles away. These warehouses aren't static things though - they are living, breathing organisms that constantly adapt and change to best suit the business' needs. In the tech world, there is some discussion right now about the principle of caching to organize more than just your computer's memory. The basic principle of the system is that memory is arranged in a pyramid - with a small amount of very fast memory for the most common tasks at the top of the pyramid, with a much larger amount of slower memory at the base of the pyramid. Things that are needed a lot get moved into the fastest memory, whereas things that are virtually never used get shuffled off to the further reaches of the system.
CRC's warehouses work on much the same principle, so items that sell well get brought right up to the front for easy access and those quill stems they have left lying around from the 90s are somewhere out in the furthest reaches of the system. This is constantly updated and adapted too, with each product's location based on a whole range of factors, going from price, sales data, current marketing, new releases and trends within the industry.
What this system means out on the warehouse floor is that items are not organized into one section for derailleurs, one for shifters, and so on. When you apply the caching logic this makes sense - people are far more likely to be ordering 11-speed derailleurs than old 9-speed ones. Instead, each item is given an allocated slot by the system. Each picker is given a number of orders to fulfill for each trip into the warehouse and a computer then plots their most efficient route through - they are guided through by a headset which gives them directions and other information they need to fulfill their orders.
Because bikes ship from this building, they need to be prepped before being ready to be sent to customers. In the UK they need a PDI - a nationally agreed safety checklist to ensure they are ready for customers to ride them. This check can only be done by a Cyctech-qualified mechanic. Trainees join the team working on assembling bikes for CRC's in-house brands - Nukeproof, Vitus, and Ragley - and they can work towards their qualifications while they do this. At the moment the team is going through a change period, which will mean that eventually every member of the team will have the level one qualification, and the PDI mechanics will have a more advanced level two qualification.