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 the influence within the marketplace, so much so that there are several online campaigns to boycott CRC as traditional bike shops see their bottoms 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 a totem for all that it wrong in the modern marketplace. Yet their story is maybe not 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 in how it adapted and grew. Many of our younger readers probably don't remember a time before the internet, 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 were 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 are what goes into serving a truly global market.



CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
When we say humble beginnings, we mean humble - this is the unit where CRC was born, before its direct sales business dwarfed it's sales as a bike shop.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
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 have the tech team, who will be their first point of contact. They should be instantly recognisable to anyone who has spend 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.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
With a worldwide customer base, you also need the language skills on the end of the phone to help customers who don't speak English. For this, CRC have a dedicated team of language experts from all over the world to try and help as many customers as possible.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Once an order is placed the next step is security, it is a huge task for this relatively small group of people. Normally on a Monday morning they have more than 4,000 orders from the 16,000 or so that CRC takes every weekend to work through. It is certainly very reassuring to see all the checks an order goes through - the only orders that skip this stage are when an existing customer orders something to an existing address - any changes such as a simple change of delivery address instantly place the order into security.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
This isn't a process that can be automated - it takes experience to spot the warning markers for a fraudulent order. If they are unsure, then they have the tools to look into the buyer to make sure they make the right decision.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
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 cacheing to organise more than just you 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.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
What this system means out on the warehouse floor is not organised into one section for derailleurs, one for shifters, and so on - which when you apply the cacheing logic 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 fulfil for each trip into the warehouse and a computer then plots their most efficent route through - they are guided through by a headset which gives them directions and other information they need to fulfill their orders.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Each order has it's own box, which is then passed from the warehouse through to the packing side of the building.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
While the orders are coming through from the warehouse, a machine on the other side of the line preps the boxes, so they two can meet at the packing stations.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
At the packing stage the orders are double-checked as they are processed, to make sure that the right good are going to the right person. This is a frantic job, the pace these guys consistently are working at an incredible pace to keep up with the flow of orders is incredible.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
The box closing machine is a very interesting toy - it scans each packed box, then folds it to the smallest possible height to save space in shipping.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Any order that will not fit in a standard-sized box is handled by a separate team and packed individually.

[PI=13556653 width=window][Each package is stamped and heads for shipping./PI]

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Shipping is not small challenge when you are sending orders to every corner of the globe - each package is sorted by hand to be sent by the right service for it destination.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Each day CRC ships on average six 40ft articulated lorries of parcels.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Just a few miles away sits the other main warehouse for CRC - the large parts store. It is here there store the bulkier items, like bikes, frames, forks, wheels and turbo trainers. Naturally, because of the size of what it stores, it is a much bigger warehouse than the main building. The pace here is slightly less frantic too - because they big items are more expensive, they don't sell as many of them, so there isn't quite the same constant stream of orders to race to keep up with.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Because bikes ship from this building, they need to be prepped ready to be sent to customer. 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 the more advanced level two qualification.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
The full PDI checklist - it may look obvious to an experience mountain biker who is used to working on his or her own bike, but for many people, they wouldn't know where to start with even these sort of basic things.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
One service that CRC has offered for many years, that differentiates it from other online retailers and highlights their roots as a local bike shop, is the option to custom build wheels. They let you choose your rims, hubs and spokes and then they handbuild them here in-house. They are properly hand-built too - they only use a machine for the inital tension on the spokes, each and every wheel is laced, tensioned and trued by a professional.

CRC visit. Ballyclare Northern Ireland. Photo by Matt Wragg.
Here in this building, the process ends with delivery lorries - even this, less frantic building, still ships 800 of packages every day.



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