Far from Pinkbike’s World Headquarters, lies Dijon, France. To the general public, Dijon is the home of the famous Dijon mustard. To the culinary elite, Dijon lies in the heart of the Burgundy wine region—acclaimed globally for it’s rich red wine and classic French cuisine. But to bike enthusiasts around the globe, Dijon is also the home of Cycles Lapierre. 'Lapierre Bikes,' as they are more commonly referred to, has been in business for sixty five years. They are France’s largest premium bicycle producer and they sponsor race teams and individuals who participate in all forms of competitive cycling; from the Tour de France, with the FDJ team, to the UCI Downhill World Cup with its Lapierre Factory Team featuring Sam Blenkinsop, 2012 Junior World Champ Loic Bruni, and two-time World Champ Emmeline Ragot), as well as Enduro, with the indomitable Nicolas Vouilloz.
WORDS & PHOTOS: Colin Meagher
Lapierre is best known in mountain biking is for their innovative full suspension mountain bike designs. They first made the legendary X-Control - a single pivot design - in 2001. Jerome Chiotti raced that bike to a French National Championship title at a time when almost everyone else was unwilling to race a full-suspension bike. X-Control still exists in a modern version, but today Lapierre is better known for their OST+ suspension - a patented four-bar system utilized on their longer-travel trail and freeride bikes, and for their proprietary Pendbox linkage design that is found on both their DH bike and the X-Flow trail bike). More recently, Lapierre created waves with the advent of their e.i.shock concept.
|My dad did with me what his dad did with him. He made me work in the factory, so as to experience all the stages of production. And I can only thank him for that... I did everything: built wheels, spoke lacing, and even welding, since at that time we were also manufacturing frames. So every time I was on holiday or around, I was given the opportunity to take part in all the stages of the production. - Gilles Lapierre|
It was Gilles who was responsible for Lapierre’s move into mountain bikes. On a trip to Taiwan in 1987, he had his first exposure to mountain bikes. Samples were ordered, the local trails in Dijon were explored, and Gilles was hooked. “When I tried [mountain biking] for the first time, I was immediately convinced that it was [going to be] amazing and saw huge opportunities right away,” recalls Gilles. “I was used to riding enduro motorcycles in the woods near Dijon with my friends every Sunday morning. I already knew very nice trails and I asked my friends to test the three samples I brought back from Taiwan… We were all on the same page; that this was going to be the start of something amazing.”
Like most bicycle companies, Lapierre’s manufacturing has been in Taiwan since the early '90s when aluminum became the predominant frame-building material, but unlike many other bicycle manufacturers, Lapierre bucked economic trends by maintaining their bike assembly in Dijon (they do maintain some full time engineers and QC personnel in Asia as well). This was done for two reasons: a strong sense of tradition, backed up by business sensibilities.
Wrenching at Lapierre is definitely not a standard blue collar gig. Many of the lead mechanics have been here for over three decades. Only the most deft of these mechanics are allowed to do the final assemblies. It's a task that requires speed, attention to detail, and precision. These 'ace' Lapierre men are capable of taking the exactingly pre-assembled components, and building a bike that is quite literally "good to go" in roughly twelve minutes. Nor is this assembly something that needs to be double checked, as is all to often the case with other pre-assembled brands, everything - literally every assembly step - is double-checked and torqued to spec.
“Having bikes assembled here is tradition,” Gilles states in a matter-of-fact tone. After some thought, he then clarifies with, “Very frequently, my father and I discussed that we must always have a part of our production close to our R&D department…it helps us to keep a constant control of the different processes, including assembly.”
This theme of tradition, mixed with business savvy, continues to be the backbone of Lapierre. The Lapierre factory employs roughly 60 people on a full-time basis to drive the front end of the business, push the R&D, manage customer service, and to assemble bikes and some components (wheels) in their Dijon factory. It is perhaps best to think of Lapierre as a body: Gilles is the head, and takes an active part in day-to-day affairs. The engineering department, composed of seven full-time employees, drives the innovation as well as the look of Lapierre’s bikes. And the core is the skilled labor force who build the bikes in their 3400 square meter Dijon facility.
|We are a part of a big group, but still driven like a family company. That is the secret I think. When you come here, you feel this company spirit, and we are talking about ONE team. I am used to saying that I pay much more attention to the quality rather than to the quantity. - Gilles Lapierre|
While Lapierre is always quick to explore new technology (like their cutting edge e-shock system), Lapierre’s investment in its workforce is a huge part of what makes the brand what it is. Some of the Lapierre employees have been working there for over three decades. It may be 'blue collar,' but working at Lapierre is a widely respected career job in Dijon. Factory workers are valued as a component, and not one that is easily replaced. Building Wheels
Lapierre uses pre-made wheelsets from the likes of Mavic for some models, but most of their wheels are made here in the factory, The build is divided into both hand and mechanical stages to speed the process along, but final tensioning and truing is done by hand. The process gives Lapierre more build options to customize its wheels for various models and a greater level of control over the quality of the finished product. Laboratory Testing and International Standards
Every company that manufactures bikes or bike components has a slew of medieval torture devices on hand to make certain that each item that bears the company name meets or exceeds international standards for strength, durability, and safety. Liliana Morgado, head of Lapierre's safety testing, was happy to show off the crowning glory of the factory's medieval bike testing devices.
The machine, shrouded in a green safety enclosure, has no name, really. It's sole job is to test a frame for strength and durability up to and then beyond the international standards by slamming it up and down repeatedly with massive weights attached to key parts of the frame. Frames are tested to what is considered "safe" for the public - and then to failure - in order to gauge how much margin of safety there is left.The green machine is not the only device that Lapierre relies on for testing their products. A number of other machines stress the frames and components in a manner designed to determine if the product meets international safety standards. Once those safety standards have been met, the item being tested is again, taken to its failure point.Racing and R&D
Lapierre’s skilled labor force is one component, but equally important is the R&D department. If you want to make the best, so the saying goes, you need to work with the best. Since 2001, Lapierre has worked with the professional road cycling team of FDJ. That means hammering the road bikes in the crucible of the European spring classics and the grand tours. For mountain bikes, that means working directly with the legendary Nicolas Vouilloz—the ten time DH World Champion who officially “retired” in 2002. But that doesn’t mean Nico’s lost much, if anything:
|Nico could easily be a top ten or top five rider if he were still racing. I mean, this is one of his test tracks, so he really knows it, but still, there are two sections where he just drops me, and I have no idea how he's doing that. - Sam Blenkinsop during suspension testing outside of Nice|
Nico works directly with Remi Gribaudo and Herve Layes, the two lead suspension engineers at Lapierre. They take his input and use it to tweak their two main suspension designs - OST+ and Pendbox - in order to maximize performance for the various bike models they produce. Nico, in turn, takes the test 'mules' out to his various test tracks and Enduro racing events to push the bikes to their limits. Once his input has been added, the Factory Team then puts the bikes through their paces. Pinkbike's thoughts:
|Employing both engineers and professional athletes to develop and test new designs is similar to the methods that world's best brands operate, however, being able to tap into Nico's expertise, as well as the exhaustive product testing that the factory team has done, has been a huge plus in getting Lapierre's mountain bike range ready to take the next big step - the North American Market. That's right - Lapierre mountain bikes will soon be available in the US and Canada. I've had a Lapierre Spicy addiction going on 4 years now, and I, for one, can't wait to see more of their line of bikes available here in North America. - Colin Meagher|