With golden leaves coating the hills, the twitter of birds and the smell of fresh grass filling the air, we pick up the trail outside the little village of Wiehl, near Cologne in Western Germany. We're a stone's throw from Schwalbe's international headquarters, home to the R&D, storage and distribution of some 17 million bicycle tires over the year. As interesting as that place may prove to be, this morning is very much more about the latter end of the development process - a key area best enjoyed with one or more like-minded friends; some real-world testing on local terrain. Our two riders sprint towards the trees swaying in the autumn wind while a captive audience, for some reason difficult to quantify and remain awake, look on in apparent fascination.
Both Michael Kull, Schwalbe's marketing and race support manager and long-term Schwalbe athlete and ambassador Steffi Marth are obviously no strangers to this life behind bars. Testing may, hopefully of course, never be finished as they put their ProCore's through the rigors of the roots, just 'one more time'.
Michael's flawless Aggy impression is still no match for Steffi's raw speed as they continue to make complex telemetry calculations in their heads without the help of computer equipment... Just how much is the reduced pressure of the outer chamber assisting the handling of their bikes on this trail? The figures can be discussed later at the office, by the water cooler... or heck, maybe just over a nice beer.
Let's face it, not much is getting done at HQ today... Out in the forest we also have laboratory technician, Sascha Ochmann and Markus Hachmeyer, head of product management. After a quick spell of almost 20 years at Schwalbe, Markus is the main man behind innumerable designs, not least the mighty ProCore system itself.
A former cross-country World Cup racer and previous German national champion back in the day, Markus leads his crew of Schwalbe mates through the forest at corporate high speed. As with all tough jobs, someone simply has to do it.
Michael Kull - Schwalbe
|There's this old rivalry between the mountain bikers and roadies at the company, but of course it's all fun. The roadies are doing some races on a regular basis, for example at the Schwalbe Tour Transalp, an annual road race over the alps, where we even had 4 teams doing the week-long-race. The MTB crew meet up most weekends and some evenings during the summer to ride the amazing trails that we have around the company or at nearby bike parks such as Olpe-Fahlenscheid or Winterberg. It's not a bad place to ride bikes around here, that's for sure! |
In a nutshell, Michael Kull is Schwalbe's 'gravity guy'. The strong presence of the brand at the DH World Cups is largely all down to his hard work and enthusiasm. Currently the brand supplies around half of the teams on the circuit, including a couple unofficially who require better performance than their sponsor's offerings allow. With a strong 10 out of the top 20 riding Schwalbe at a given WC, Michael will tell you getting the top guys on board is about the performance and innovation of the company, more so than writing big checks.
Carsten Zahn, head of marketing, is famed for his powerful speeches at Eurobike, always stacked with German humor (definitely a thing), introducing all the year's latest innovations. It's all smiles outside the headquarters with Steffi and Michael, but on the inside of these walls is a sinister world of pain... for tires anyway.
Welcome to 'the torture chamber'. It's really called that. Sometimes just 'the laboratory', but here, at any rate, tires are punished endlessly in the name of R&D by a team of three technicians, all avid cyclists.
On this machine tires are put through their paces to determine durability. Long term tests over days, even weeks, are conducted with thousands of kilometers amassed within a very short amount of time. The sophistication of this particular set-up ends with bumper-equipped rollers to simulate an uneven ground surface, which of course accelerates deterioration, while other, more modern machinery, takes care of forces truer to real cycling.
'The Stabber' consists of a weighted blade falling from variable height to indicate forces required to pierce tire carcasses, puncture protective layers or complete tires. Meanwhile, 'The Pumper' drives water into the tire to a maximum of 30 bar (435psi). This MTB tire failed at 9 bar. And why water not air? All in the name of ear-drum preservation.
'The Gripper' is obviously all about traction, with an interchangeable surface. A typical choice would be tarmac or concrete such as this, taken from the street. The hose provides the rain.
That would be 'The Slasher'.
No sidewall is safe.
You may have noticed conventional wheels have no place in this house of pain. Reinforced steel rims, designed specifically for testing purposes, take over for improved laboratory lifespan. Not many typical MTB wheels could withstand 'The Guillotine' at full tilt. Computer feedback is of course collected from every station in the lab and held on record for many years for use by product development. However, with such a large array of hi-tech machinery and measuring equipment, all unique and self developed, Schwalbe also hosts the editors of big magazines who make regular testing appointments. Rolling resistance, puncture & snake bite proofing are the usual focus and while conducted by Schwalbe's technicians, they are always overseen to guarantee lack of bias between brands.
The highest-tech machine in the lab is currently nameless, but capable of simulating braking and turning forces with its large robotic arm.
In the corner of the room we also find a 3D printer, used to bring new designs to life before investing in a costly mold for a new tire in the making.
Meet Ralf Bohle, father of current Schwalbe CEO, Frank Bohle. Times were tough when Ralf took the reigns back in 1955. A divided Germany saw changing markets, and the increasing affordability of cars and fashionable motorbikes began to impact the bicycle tire manufacturer. Business was scarce for exporters of such European produce, but Ralf would struggle on for many years before making the switch in 1970, when the decision was made that the Bohle enterprise would become the importer, from the Far East. However, by 1973 the quality of the imports seemed to be falling short, and they needed something better. Along came 'Swallow Tires' (schwalbe means swallow in German) of Korea as new partners and the rest is history.
Four huge halls, each consisting of four large aisles afford Schwalbe a four million tire capacity in total.
What Frank can't lift...
The fire safety system at the enormous warehouse sounds like a thing of beauty and with so much rubber in one place it needs to be. In the event of an uncontrollable blaze, the roof is designed to collapse downwards shutting out the oxygen, while a reservoir under the building floods the aisles from below in minutes. If you see a big red button....
Markus Hachmeyer back at his design station in the office. One of his latest projects was the development of the all new 'Fat Albert' tire. He's the first to admit that the tread isn't perhaps the most handsome in Schwalbe's off road line-up, but they were not afraid to break far from the typical mold with its curious appearance in the quest for the ultimate hook-up and rolling efficiency combined.
Danny Hart's 2011 glory machine stands outside the sales department.
6' 6" of customer support, Stefan Franken... Any questions go his way first.
A miniature tire museum is found in the middle of the HQ that takes you through the production process of the manufacturing plant in Jakarta. Michael explains that while all aspects of design are created in Germany, they are dependent on the relationship with their Indonesian colleagues and a group of international chemical experts, not least Dr. J.S. Hong, Schwalbe's very own compound mastermind.
A compound is created from a huge range of ingredients, but it always begins with a mix of natural and synthetic rubber.
Pigments, oil, black carbon adhesive and sulphur for the vulcanization process, are all key components.
Michael Kull - Schwalbe
|Compounding is a complicated game and we are constantly working to make our tires better. It's always a compromise between rolling resistance, wear, damping, grip and numerous other important characteristics. There is no such thing as the 'ultimate compound' and that's the reason we do the triple compounding. For this we use two compounds in the tread and one underneath the tread to bring the rolling resistance as low as possible. During the last years we've, for example, worked a lot on the performance and wear of the Trail Star Compound. Even though the name is still the same, we were able to make the TSC tires last far longer and eliminated the former issues of breaking side studs |
After the compound has been created, different grades of tire carcass are selected - 50 tpi (historic only), 67 (used in majority of today's tires) and 127 tpi for the most high-end race tires. The bead and tread strips are applied on assembly drums, with precision assisted by lasers.
This is the 'green tire' as it's known. Pre-vulcanized, like plastercine, before molding.
Rocket Ron, before and after receiving its tread.
A green tire is pressed using a high pressure airbag, while the mold is heated to around 340 degrees F (170 degrees C). Molds for new designs are kept well guarded to prevent copying and each costs several thousand dollars to produce in itself.
The finished goods, back from a long sea journey ready to be shipped. At the end of their lives tires may end up back at the HQ once more as part of Schwalbe's recycling program.
Just enough time for an extra hot, triple strength Irish coffee before another field trip...
Big bikes don't equate to big profits. What they can do is bring innovation which can then go to the mass market... Innovations as well as a good deal of inspiration. In terms of Schwalbe's turnover, the gravity disciplines are rather more a drop in the ocean than a headliner, but there's no doubting the company's passion for the good stuff we all like to see. On this gloomy autumn day Steffi, Michael and I drove a few miles out to visit Schwalbe athlete and test rider, Christian Textor, at a freeride spot he cultivated years ago specifically for putting the distance between his wheels and the ground.
Christian Textor - Bulls/Schwalbe
|The Gravel pit has always been a favorite spot of mine since I was a little kid. It's just a few kilometers out of the village, but already there's almost no phone connection so it feels a bit like the wilderness haha. We used to go there and build maybe just 10 or 20cm high lips then send it with our bikes... no interruptions! Over the years our riding obviously developed, but the spot always offered something for us to keep coming back |
Check out my gravel pit, a mystery unraveling... Texy slashing into dark home soil.
Steffi getting into Texy's playground on her Session on the scrub jump.
Time for a quick bite and remodel, but the set-up's almost perfect as it is thanks to some hard graft over the years.
Dropping into the arena.
The main line at the gravel pit consists of 3 pretty sizeable step-downs and a beefy step-up. The kickers are as smoothly crafted as Texy's riding and he has a clicked-out move on each.
Steffi's eye of the tiger coming into the step-up.
Steffi Marth - Trek
|Texy's spot is seriously rad, we were all mega impressed! To be honest I wasn't too tempted to hit his biggest stuff today in the freezing cold, but Texy went wild! Maybe a rematch next summer? |
There are two definitions of a scrub and a 'semi-abrasive cosmetic lotion applied to the face or body in order to cleanse the skin' is the other one.
Christian Textor - Bulls/Schwalbe
|The cool thing about Schwalbe is they're constantly trying to make something new and take risks to make progress, which is what we're all trying for in the sport, isn't it? For me it's super cool that the headquarters are so close to where I live - it's so easy to get involved with testing and just spend time with awesome people who are committed to improving our bike's performance |
With rain in the air, the sight of first blood (admittedly small) and the darkness sweeping in was time to call it a day and find ourselves a juicy steak in Cologne.
Back at HQ for one more point of interest before hitting the road... So shrouded in mystery during the development and testing phases as the world's fastest racers rolled around with two valves in their rims; we were keen to know - how exactly did the Procore product come about and what were its origins? Head of its development, Markus Hachmeyer, took us through the stages.
The ProCore design you'll find on the shelves today, in all its cut-away glory.
Markus is the first to admit it: a dual chamber system for a tire is no new concept. It is in fact a kind of system that has been around for decades in the automotive industry. Still, he first made the suggestion that Schwalbe could take the idea and use it to improve off-road bicycle performance back in 2008. Although well received, Schwalbe decided it wasn't worth the expense of all the development for the tiny market that was downhill and most rims elsewhere were not, at the time, wide enough. With the continued growth of gravity MTB and particularly the rise of enduro, however, priorities shifted and suddenly a dual chamber system was back on the menu and top of the 'to do' list.
The two biggest design problems remained... First - how to bypass the inner chamber and deliver air to the outer? And secondly - how could having two separate valves be avoided so that rims did not require drilling for installation?
The way it could have been... Here we have the 'sidewall valve' option, in consideration around the 2012-13 period. While it was of course detachable there were drawbacks in the form of potential damage by rocks, the need to embed the sidewall of every tire and the inconvenience of having to carry the valve stem with you on rides.
With the sidewall concept out the window something new was needed. Having considered the viability of a pipe to serve the outer chamber, Markus and the team quickly realized that far less sophistication was required. All they needed was something that would create the smallest of gaps to allow airflow - even something as crude as a piece of nylon rope was enough. However, following further testing it became evident that using string in the long term caused blockages with the sealant and the air guide then went through many shapes, sizes and materials before arriving at the ideal design (the wider of the two red models pictured below).
The (relatively) complete evolution of the ProCore air guide and valve system.
With the air guide all sorted there was still the issue of the valve itself - how could it service both chambers? Well, in the end it was all about spot-on engineering. With today's patented dual valve, the upper part acts as the selector - with a simple turn it would be possible to switch between inflation of the inner and outer chambers. What's more, it would be compatible with every rim wider than 23mm on the market.
After so many tweaks and changes we have the perfect valve design as it stands today.
Michael Kull - Schwalbe
|There is so much more potential within a tire than you might think. We have the simple mission to make the best you can get for your bicycle. Over the last two or three years we have a range of new materials from our suppliers that offer us new and very exciting capabilities... More on what to expect from us in the future, I can't yet say, but we are very excited for what is to come |About the PhotographerNathan Hughes • Age: 28 • Years Shooting: 3 Nathan Hughes was snared as mainstay Pinbike media crew for the 2013 World Cup and has been trapped behind the lens and the keyboard ever since. In between the biggest bike events of the year Nathan can be found on client shoots, making far-off travel stories and trying to catch a moment to spin the pedals himself. A great appreciation of the wilderness, the fear of a normal life and the quest for the perfect picture will have him hooked and looking to raise the bar for years to come.