A factory visit and a chance to meet to president of the company gave James Stout a new appreciation of the Trek brand. It may be one of the major players in the global cycling market but that doesn’t mean it’s a company with no soul. Before the launch of the new Trek Madone, a group of journalists visited Waterloo, Wisconsin to get an insight into the bike and the people behind the brand…
Visiting the factory: watching bikes being born…
– Story and photos by James Stout
It’s 3.00pm on a Monday afternoon and I’m eating a cookie with my good hand, my other hand is occupied by a sling and splint for the elbow I managed to break whilst trying to eat a cookie and ride down a mountain the previous Sunday. They say cookies are bad for you. They aren’t lying. I’ve just finished giving this sage counsel to a man across the room. He laughs and asks why I’m eating a cookie again, I point out that they are delicious and he agrees. He’s got his feet up on his desk and we’re discussing the various times we’ve both fallen off bicycles. He mentions his first proper ride, and a train track related fall. I mention that I broke my pelvis just miles from where we are talking and we get onto the subject of our favourite rides and races, the ones that keep you bouncing back every time you fall over. Soon we’re planning a trip down the California coast. I ask him who his dream riding partners would be. “You can come,” he replies immediately.
My co-conspirator is John Burke, 53, a ferocious ping pong player and the president of Trek, the son of the company founder.
For a brand with such an enormous market presence and prestigious palmarès, the office feels awfully like the sort of bar where you could walk in and make a few friends over a game of darts and a few pints. Of course there are the requisite white walls and one word slogans hanging on them, bikes are displayed like the sweets in jars at an old fashioned shop. In that sense, it feels like a bike company, like the other bike companies I get to visit when they launch new products. But behind the big white walls and the sweet shop exterior lies the real heart and soul of the company, men and women in overalls doing their jobs. After me, they’re the next people he says he’d want on his ride.
Watching a middle-aged man with a beard and dungarees rolling huge sheets of carbon into a jig where he will lay them on top of each other, as prescribed by engineers, before pressing them together feels as far away from the aesthetically concerned and incredibly cloistered world of pro cycling as one can be.
It’s strangely refreshing to be surrounded by the sort of people I grew up surrounded by, people who go to work in factories and on farms and don’t really care about Strava KOMs or marginal gains. They do, however, take a great pride in their work and their output. Their friendliness isn’t forced and their beards aren’t ironic. This seems to be the sweet spot between the bike company which is so “artisan” that you need several tattoos and a moustache before they’ll even put you on the three-year waiting list, and the bike company that is so generic that you feel a little bit like you’re riding the carbon equivalent of a Big Mac.
I’ve been to bike launches all over the place; they’re polished affairs. People say “you guys” a lot and they show you PowerPoints; there are numbers which might mean things to some of the people present. I normally nod like they mean things to me. I look at the graphs and look out of the window wondering if I’ll actually get to pedal the damn thing soon. Invariably the answer is either ‘no’… or translate to ‘not enough’.
I get the sense from John Burke – and from the bikes propped up against various desks and walls – that I am not about to be subjected to a barrage of statistics and that these are the sort of people who don’t go in for PowerPoint presentations, or power meters. In short, it feels like I’m in the company of people with whom I’d like to share a bike ride. With our time drawing to a close John looks up from the YouTube video he’s played me and asks, “Do you have anything you want to ask me? You know, work stuff?” I say no, and he shows me the custom paintjob on a bike he’s building for his wife.
Once I’ve left the office I’m treated to a tour of the facilities. In one room, a group of women hand apply the decals on frames. Apparently the vast majority of people in this area are women, something about patience and attention to detail, I wouldn’t know… I got distracted by a frame painted like a tree and stopped listening.
In the next room a man shows me how he’s hand-painting a frame for a leopard print finish, complete with eyes in the head tube. Whilst he dabs away he tells me about the bikes he’s painted over the years. Woodgrain for a downhill rider, chrome for Jens Voigt… flames, eagles, even a replica of a tattoo. There’s remarkably little judgement in his tone as he lists off his projects. He seems focussed on doing his job and doing it well, regardless of whether the bike is destined for the Champs-Elysées or the coffee shop.
Later, overlooking what has to be one of the more idyllic sunsets I have ever seen, I’m refused a go on the giant swing. My arm is safely slung again and I’m reminded by some of the Trek staff of the noises I made every time I hit a pothole. I take another beer and go inside. John takes us around his home. Pride of place in his new basement is taken by the arcade game “golden tee golf” and a ping pong table. Throw in some stale cigarette smoke and drunk old men, and this could be the working men’s club. Albeit the location is far from any working class city centre I know of.
Trek bicycles has a distinctly Midwestern feel, it doesn’t have the same high-tech glamour as California, nor the gritty urban hustle of New York. It has soul, character and if it could, it would buy you a can of beer and play a game of pool with you. Despite this, the company has enjoyed great success in the past decade.
Concealed beneath the overalls and smiles of the workforce in its Madone factory is one of the most advanced carbon-fibre production facilities in the world. The fact that it lies just metres away from the office allows for more – and faster – prototyping than if the same facility were to be several time zones away. Trek’s engineers give the impression of being the best kind of garage tinkerers but the culture in Trek’s Waterloo HQ has taken the ingenuity that once led Midwestern tinkerers to invent powered flight, and turned into some phenomenal bikes.
Aside from the people, Trek’s other great asset is its on-site production.
Rolls of carbon arrive and race ready bikes leave. I’ve never really seen the process of laying up, moulding, bonding, sanding and painting before and doing so gave me a lot more respect for the artisan nature of what I had taken to be an eniterly mechanical process. Aside from the Kubrickian painting robot which sprays on base and clear coats, all the other processes are completed by hand. Sheets of carbon are pressed into moulds with a speed and dexterity that belies the difficulty of the task. These moulds are heated and joined together before being painted any one of an infinite number of customisable colours. Each piece is scanned in and out of each step, ensuring that any possible faults can be traced quickly. Once the frame has it’s paint applied, a team of ladies painstakingly apply decals and a clear coat is sprayed on. From there it goes through the normal process of pressing bearings, routing cables, mounting derailleurs and, eventually, a new bike is born.
I’ve ridden, crashed, broken and abused more top-end bikes than most of our readers will have owned. Cookie eating accidents aside I spent years racing highly desirable bikes and enjoying an tangential relationship with balance. I’ve always loved riding those bikes but often felt that the bikes themselves were tools to allow me to enjoy that process, just another batch which rolled off a production line in Taiwan. Made by someone who would never sit astride a racing bike and enjoy the freedom it gave me.
After seeing the process through which the Trek I rode home from the factory that night went from concept, through construction and into carbon, I felt something more of a “soul” to the bike. The kind of feeling you get when you start the day with a bag of spokes, nipples and a hub and rim and finish it riding a new wheel. In a world where every other TV program implores us to have a one on one relationship with our artisan cheesemonger, this bike seems to strike the right balance between craft and commerce. It’s not so hip it hurts, but it has soul and a solid working-class character. It might not take you out for a sourdough roll and a flat white, but I bet it could beat you at ping pong.
– By James Stout