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From turmoil to Tour de France triumph: The story of BMC

In-depth
10 Mar 2021
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BMC exudes an aura of Swiss clinical efficiency, but the truth is that the company has undergone years of turmoil

Words: Sam Challis Photography: Tapestry

Think ‘BMC’ and a number of adjectives spring to mind: sleek, capable, innovative, expensive. The image of the company and its bikes is one of precision and professionalism, and it would seem reasonable to assume that this reputation has been built over decades of serene progression.

Learn a little of BMC’s background, however, and you’ll find its outward appearances are belied by its history, which is surprisingly short and turbulent. Yet the adversity it has overcome is precisely the reason why it produces some of the most innovative bikes on the market today.

BMC in its current form came into being around 20 years ago, but the company has known a few different guises since its roots were established in 1986. An American, Bob Bigelow, started things off when he founded Bigelow’s Mounting Company and started building bikes up for Raleigh out of his garage in Switzerland.

In 1994 he lost the licence to build for Raleigh so he changed the direction of the business, rebranding it the Bicycle Manufacturing Company and moving from bike assembly to production.

It wasn’t a successful transition. Back then, BMC didn’t even offer a road design, and the company struggled to make a mark, barely surviving from one year to the next. That was until Andy Rihs, billionaire owner of the hearing aid company Phonak, bought the company in 2000.

‘BMC’s direction and ambition changed dramatically,’ says current CEO David Zurcher. ‘Rihs was such a massive fan of road cycling he poured huge amounts into the research and development of road bikes.’

Highs and lows

Rihs died in 2018, but during his time with BMC he invested more money in the sport of professional cycling than any other individual before or since. At times, though, his enthusiasm for the sport wasn’t the easiest thing to reconcile with BMC the business.

While product output and quality grew to service the Phonak pro team Rihs owned, huge shortfalls were being covered by Rihs himself to keep his commercial venture afloat.

‘The problem was that the work side of things was just not as important to Rihs as the sport, so the company often didn’t have a leader with the vision to make this a viable business,’ says Zurcher.

The scale of investment in product development meant BMC caught up with its competitors and was able to create the bike that Floyd Llandis rode to Tour de France victory in 2006. Unfortunately, it became obvious that the bike wasn’t the only thing helping Landis to win races, and Phonak was disbanded in disgrace.

Undeterred, Rihs returned and set up the BMC Racing Team, a project separate to the bike business, even though it shared the same name.

After a few years of gradual development the team announced grand plans with several big-name signings in 2010. A year later Cadel Evans won the Tour on a BMC and Rihs achieved his ultimate goal.

Yet despite this success, other areas of the business were still being overlooked, from marketing to industrialisation.

‘My responsibility when I was hired in 2014 was to reverse that, with the understanding that I would run the whole business,’ says Zurcher. ‘I’m the eighth CEO BMC has had since Rihs took over, so the company has rarely known consistency.

‘I came from Specialized and found BMC had the same number of engineers and product managers as Specialized did, despite being 15 times smaller. It meant making a lot of personnel changes but over the last few years things have really settled.’

When Rihs died a curtain was drawn on his BMC Racing Team project, and BMC moved to become bike sponsor for Dimension Data (now Qhubeka-Assos) before moving again to supply AG2R Citroen.

‘Rihs is sorely missed,’ Zurcher says. ‘His legacy is BMC’s move towards precision engineering. Despite not forging the simplest path, he ultimately set us up to become the company we are today.’

Since Zurcher took over BMC has been self-financed and now operates like other big bike manufacturers.

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‘Last year we had a nine-figure turnover for the first time,’ he says. ‘Yet the pyramid of the business is upside down. We sell premium bikes like crazy, yet are nowhere at the entry level. With our resources and mindset, though, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

‘Being Swiss means in a market where performance advantages are getting increasingly harder to eke out, we possess the level of attention to detail to set ourselves apart.’

Uniquely Swiss

Rihs certainly agreed with this, which is why he plunged millions into setting up BMC’s ‘Impec’ (short for impeccable) lab in Grenchen, Switzerland, a decade ago. The area has a long history in luxury watches – Rolex and Breitling are just down the road – which sat well with Rihs’s aim of total precision. Originally the plan was to fully automate the bike production process to introduce hitherto unheard of levels of consistent quality.

‘Unfortunately on an industrial scale the project failed,’ says Stephan Christ, BMC’s head of R&D. ‘Yet a number of upshots came out of it. We recycled all the carbon tooling, CNC machines and computer simulation software and turned it into an engineers’ paradise, an R&D lab to rival the best in the world.

‘It means we’ve been able to try ideas and turn over prototypes far more quickly than working with partners in Asia. The more we can experiment, the more polished the result can be in each product cycle.’

Christ explains that further to the improved internal development, it also helps when upscaling projects for full production in Asia.

‘It moved us into a position with suppliers where we could have a conversation with them on a more mature level. Because we have also made product, we know the intricacies involved. Today our product, process and supply chain is comparable to what our competitors do, despite some of them having done this more than twice as long as us.’

The investment in the Impec lab is a key part of that, and has been from the start – Christ says Evans’ 2011 Tour win was a direct result.

‘I joined BMC in 2006 so I was pretty involved in this success and worked with Cadel from the day he joined the team. He was always the guy who knew exactly what he was looking for – very particular with details and materials. For us it was a natural match because this is also how Swiss people are, caring about the details and usually not satisfied with the first solution.’

This relationship was a crucial element in the development of how a race bike should ride. Evans helped BMC understand that comfort was just as important to performance as stiffness and weight when it came to a three-week Grand Tour.

‘Hallmark BMC features such as dropped seatstays came out of the push he gave us to make complete race bikes,’ says Christ. ‘It is one of the reasons our bikes juggle conflicting attributes so well today.’

A design in which this journey and experience is clearly embodied is BMC’s Timemachine Road. The first iteration of the aero road bike was quick and light, but Christ admits it rode harshly.

The latest version takes compliance far more seriously and is all the better for it. Plus, in keeping with Zurcher’s efforts to make a successful business, the bike is also far better suited to the regular rider.

‘Over the last few years the whole aero road market has woken up to the fact that going fast is not just about aero frames, but balance,’ he says. ‘And we do not only make bikes for athletes.

This will always be what guides us, but we are all riders and so are our customers. If they were to have a fast bike that doesn’t ride nicely we would consider that just as much a failure as a bike with a bad stiffness-to-weight ratio.’

While aero race bikes remain individual to each brand, the same cannot be said for lightweight race bikes. BMC was among the first to adopt the blueprint of the modern race bike in the Teammachine, and Christ is not surprised that in this area bikes are becoming more similar.

‘Everyone has to optimise for low weight, high stiffness and comfort, and everyone has the same materials and technology to work with, so this type of bike was bound to converge,’ says Christ.

‘We ran more than 30,000 iterations in our software of different frame shapes and carbon layups, so we covered pretty much every way you can marry the three attributes. Nothing massive will change unless the UCI changes its rules.’

That suits BMC, says Zurcher: ‘It’s natural for us to drill down into minute points of difference. The Impec lab allows us to do it, so if there are advancements to be found we’ll find them.

‘Every chef has access to the same ingredients to make a dish, but everyone uses a different recipe. My experience in the industry tells me we have the best recipe.’

Clear difference

One of the main features on most lightweight race bikes’ checklist right now is wider tyre clearance, afforded by the move to disc brakes. Bigger tyres can tame a race bike somewhat, providing more comfort and traction and potentially making it accessible to a wider range of riders.

Yet BMC has just released a new Roadmachine, an endurance bike that might be seen to fill the same space in the market as a wide-tyred Teammachine. Christ still sees clear water between the designs.

‘We work with different carbon fibres on the Roadmachine,’ he says. ‘It has a distinct effect on compliance. Our MTT concept [Micro Travel Technology – vertical frame flex, put simply] is far more pronounced. The geometry is also different.

‘Lightweight race bikes are moving away from a fit commercial customers are looking for. Watch how pros sit – so low at the front and forward in the saddle. It isn’t what the market needs. That’s why we make our Roadmachine racier than the average endurance bike, giving it an accessible fit and ride quality in a faster package.’

If the Roadmachine stands slightly apart from the endurance bike crowd, BMC’s new URS gravel bike is in a whole other venue compared to others within the new genre. It features a rear suspension unit and radically progressive geometry.

‘For us, gravel is totally new ground,’ says Christ. ‘On purpose we wanted to push the envelope a bit further than other brands who’ve slid into that segment more naturally. Maybe what is most noticeable is how different the geometry is. With the URS we’ve come back from XC MTB geometry, rather than just pushed forward from road geometry.’

Again with the Impec lab helping to facilitate rapid prototyping, Christ and his team found a longer wheelbase is beneficial off road, so that meant a slacker head angle and longer top tube to create a longer front centre (the distance from the BB to the front axle), but a short stem to keep steering responsive. The geometry is so far off a road bike that a size large is outside UCI rules, meaning it can’t be raced.

‘That was one of the things we decided very early on – we don’t care about UCI rules,’ says Christ. Considering the original Rihs-driven remit of making pro-level race bikes, that’s quite the statement to make.

‘In some ways it feels like we are just getting started as it has taken us 20 years to get organised,’ says Zurcher. If this is the company just getting its act together, it will be exciting to see what it does next.

BMC TimeMachine Road

Time-saving bottles

To make the Timemachine Road faster, BMC says it uses ‘functional integration’ such as this ‘aero module’. BMC partnered with Italian accessories brand Elite to produce a bottle and storage system that sits in the main triangle, and which the brand claims enhances aerodynamics.

‘The bike tests fastest in the wind-tunnel with both bottles and storage pack installed,’ says head of R&D, Stephan Christ. According to BMC’s published data, this design should save riders around 8 watts at 40kmh.

Buy the BMC TimeMachine 01 Road Three from Tredz here

BMC Roadmachine

Explorations in space

The original BMC Roadmachine brought some innovative features to the endurance road sector, however one feature that dated the bike was its 28mm tyre clearance. This latest revision pushes that up to 33mm, but that doesn’t mean it’s becoming a gravel bike.

‘Getting the best out of both disciplines requires two very different bikes,’ says head of R&D Stephan Christ. ‘We just wanted to give the option to the rider of performing well on rougher or unpaved segments of road.’

Buy the BMC Roadmachine Two from Tredz now Or, buy the BMC Roadmachine 01 Four from Tredz here

BMC URS Gravel

Suspended reality

While most brands develop gravel bikes by adapting their road models, BMC chose to go the other way for the URS, dialling back from mountain bikes. That resulted in a slack 70° head tube angle, long top tube and short stem for stable handling characteristics, paired with a ‘Micro Travel Technology’ suspension unit at the top of the seatstays for bump absorption.

The unit uses two aluminium shafts covered with an elastomer to facilitate vertical flex in the chainstays, which BMC claims increases traction and comfort.

Buy a BMC URS Gravel Bike from Sigma Sports here

BMC Teammachine

Quick off the mark

‘The Teammachine is one of the best examples of the speed at which we can prototype in our Impec lab,’ says head of R&D Stephan Christ. ‘It meant we could nail down the best combination of stiffness, light weight and comfort really quickly.’ One result is that BMC was among the first to go with dropped seatstays on its lightweight race bike – a feature that has since been adopted by virtually every other brand.

‘With everyone chasing the same goals, and using the same materials, it’s no wonder bike designs are converging.’

Buy the BMC Teammachine SLR01 One Ltd from Tredz now