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Behind the seams: Endura insider

Trevor Ward
5 Apr 2016

Endura has gone from a budget clothing brand to supplying two teams across the men's and women's World Tour. Cyclist discovers its secrets.

Jim McFarlane still has the business plan he took to his bank manager more than 20 years ago to get funding for his idea for a cycle clothing company. But amid all the profit forecasts and market research, there was one long-term projection McFarlane didn’t dare make – that his company would one day supply the kit for not just one, but two teams in the 2016 UCI World Tour - Movistar in the men's and Cervélo-Bigla in the women's.

‘Having two teams wearing Endura is special for us’ he says. ‘I could be wrong, but I don’t think that a cycle clothing brand has ever before made it to being in the title of a Tour team, so that feels special too,’ McFarlane says in remembrance of the first NetApp-Endura appearance in 2013.

The ‘nervous paranoia’ of success

‘There’s an expectation and a requirement of us to keep focused on improving. Even though we’ve got a product that Movistar is happy with, three years down the line none of this stuff should be the same because we’ll have failed if we haven’t improved it across the whole range.

‘Like all the other WorldTour teams, Movistar is concerned with marginal gains, and one of the reasons they were very interested in working with us was because we’ve got the same ethos of always asking, “What’s the next thing we can do to make this better?” rather than, “Oh that’s pretty good, let’s leave it at that.”’

The Movistar deal back in 2014 was the culmination of two years of top-secret negotiations and product testing. The team had been with its previous kit supplier, Nalini, for 25 years, so McFarlane faced a hard sell. But he knew exactly when he’d cracked it.

‘It was our super-lightweight summer jersey,’ he remembers. ‘We’d done a lot of development on it – put Coldblack [temperature reduction] technology into it, cut the fabric way down, used a special wicking construction that dried out really fast – and we knew the lab numbers were pretty special. I was so excited I sent the spreadsheet to the team, but the riders were hardly going to look at it and say, “Whoa, look at those numbers!”. Afterwards, I thought, “What did I send that for? That’s the dumbest thing ever if I think [the riders] are going to go through all that data about wicking dispersal rates.” 

‘So we sent out some samples, and Pablo Lastras, who did a lot of the testing for us, was out [on a training ride] with the guys on a really hot day. They were going up this mountain pass, and one of the guys suddenly said to Pablo, “Hey, that’s not our jersey,” and the reason they’d noticed it was different wasn’t because it didn’t have a logo on it, but because they were all drenched in sweat and he was bone dry. That was a great moment for us – when the team realised that we understood exactly what they wanted.’ 

For Endura to complete the deal, it then had a race against the clock to analyse and measure every anatomical idiosyncrasy of Movistar’s squad and get each rider’s 44 pieces of kit (see box later on) ready in time for the new season. Two members of staff were sent to the team’s base in Pamplona with four standard sizes of garment. They set up a bike in a hotel room and spent the next 48 hours meticulously noting how bits of kit shifted as Quintana, Valverde, Dowsett and the rest of the team took it in turns to assume their riding positions.

‘These are not normal body shapes – they are kind of racehorses with virtually zero body fat,’ says product director Pamela Barclay. ‘They might be extra tall but with the girth of an XS. For the bibshorts alone, we had to produce 42 different variants of size and leg length. Then, if you consider the components in a team’s kit – such as the 40 different fabrics, 35 types of zipper [seven types in five sizes], different hem grippers and labels – there are hundreds going in. They’re coming from different places, mostly from Europe but also from the Far East, and if you are missing just one you can’t complete that garment.’

Speed suits and fast fabrics

Quantity was just one part of the equation. The other was quality. Endura took some of its fabrics to the McLaren F1 wind-tunnel facility in Brackley to test materials for skinsuits and overshoes in collaboration with aerodynamics guru Simon Smart. 

‘Our relationship with Movistar has forced us to go beyond what most brands are doing, mainly with the aero testing,’ says Barclay. ‘The main marginal gains are to be made from time-trials, so we’ve been putting a lot of work into that area. We’re doing work with speed suits where instead of having seams that create the trips [to improve aerodynamics], we’ve got directly applied silicone lines in specific places.’

Endura has also collaborated with German research lab GebioMized to produce individually customised seat pads for Movistar’s riders. The aim is to minimise pressure on riders’ sit bones, increase comfort and reduce superfluous padding. ‘We’ve had hours of fun feeling people’s arses,’ laughs Barclay. Another challenge faced by her team came from an unlikely area – the team’s choice of colour. 

‘That rich, navy blue is actually very difficult to achieve. Each panel of jersey we’ve created is actually a different, subtle shade of blue, so that when the jersey is stretched across
the rider’s body, it gives a uniform shade of blue,’ she explains.

To cope with high temperatures, the team’s summer jersey required a fabric that didn’t exist in Endura’s library. Garment technician Michelle Dennehy trawled textile mills across Europe and Asia before finding the answer. The result is that three different fabrics are used in the summer jersey and it is treated with Coldblack, a technology designed to reduce darker colours’ temperatures in direct sunlight by up to 4°C. This was the jersey Pablo Lastras secretly trialled at the end of last year.

Hands up

On the day of our visit in January 2014, Endura’s 110-strong workforce is busy producing the latest batch of Movistar kit for the team’s official launch in Madrid at the end of the month. On the factory floor, grandmother-of-three Susan Smith has her hands up Nairo Quintana’s bibshorts. ‘I don’t think I’d know him if I saw him in the street, but I’ll be hoping he wins a race this year so I can say I made his kit,’ she says as she deftly completes the flatlock stitching (less bulky and more comfortable than conventional stitching). 

On a noticeboard is a picture of NetApp-Endura rider Leopold Konig winning stage eight of last year’s Vuelta. ‘If any of our teams’ riders win, they put a picture up. It’s a way for us to share in the success,’ says Smith. (A photo of Quintana winning the Tour de San Luis was destined to be pinned up shortly after our visit.)

The 60 sewing machines being operated by Smith and her colleagues are evidence of Endura’s commitment to manufacture more kit in Scotland than ever before. As well as the Movistar and Team NetApp-Endura kits (except gloves, caps and socks, which require specialist factories), the brand also produces its Superior Brentjens MTB Racing team kit and all its customised club kit orders at Livingston. Most of the rest of Endura’s range is produced in the Far East. McFarlane employs a permanent staff of 25 in Shanghai to monitor quality control at its factories.

McFarlane regrets that he can’t complement this level of domestic production by sourcing good-quality fabrics in the UK. ‘When I came into this business 20 years ago, there were still some British mills, but there just hasn’t been enough investment to make the technical products we require,’ he says. ‘It’s not a case of the British market not being competitive – you just can’t buy the product here.’

Knock-on effect 

During the course of an extensive tour of the custom-built, 4,000 square metre premises, we learn how a lot of the company’s research and design for the Movistar contract will eventually trickle down into its main range. ‘We’ve been working with Movistar for two years. It would be crazy not to use the fruits of those labours, all that design, testing and feedback from the pro riders, further down the line,’ says McFarlane.

By the time you read this, amateur riders will be able to reap the benefits of Endura’s research into dynamic saddle pressure with GebioMized.

‘Our new Pro SL bibshorts have multi-width options on the 700 series pads that can be customised according to your sit bone geometry and riding position,’ says McFarlane. ‘We’ve developed a fitting system in which it takes three minutes in-store for you to sit in a liner short on a saddle and a computer will tell you the best pad option out of our range.

‘That level of sophistication would never have happened in our business ten years ago. The appetite to create these kinds of solutions – and three or four others may have fallen by the wayside but this one made it through – is a good example of where our mindset is at as a business: it’s proper innovation, hardcore R&D.’

While Endura’s Scottish HQ remains at the heart of this process, the testing of its prototypes takes place elsewhere. As well as GebioMized’s laboratory in Germany and Simon Smart’s wind-tunnel, Endura is soon to start using an environmental chamber – where different weather conditions can be simulated – at the University of Kent. ‘But we have a group of staff here who will go out riding to test our gear in real-world conditions too,’ says Barclay.

An extra 3cm for José, please

During our tour we see the Movistar kit evolve from CAD patterns on a computer screen into pieces of printed fabric being stitched together on the factory floor. The distinctive navy blue and green jersey design is printed onto a high-quality grade of sublimation paper that was produced specifically for this project by a Dutch paper mill. Meanwhile, the raw fabric – pure white in colour – is being cut into panels (some of which bear the names and specific requirements of particular Movistar riders, including ‘Rojas +3’ on a pair of bib straps). Operations manager Alison Aitken tells us the state-of-the-art laser cutting machine will produce around 15,000 pieces in a week – enough for more than 3,000 garments. 

The cut panels are taken next door where they have the Movistar ink designs applied to them by heat press. The process turns the ink gaseous and effectively dyes the fabric. And in-keeping with Endura’s environmentally aware ethos, because the ink is water-based, the paper can be recycled afterwards.

Finally, the printed panels are taken to the sewing room where they are put together by hand. 

Back upstairs, McFarlane is reflecting on just how far his company has come since the days they were seen as just about ‘Spandura shorts and wet mountain biking gear’. The Movistar deal is helping shift those perceptions: ‘The goal for us was to re-clarify what our business was: that we do road, we do technical, and we’re not just a foul-weather or MTB clothing company. We have a clean sheet abroad, we don’t have the history, the perception of being just mountain biking, so our race teams – from Endura through NetApp and now Movistar – have been important as a spearhead for introducing ourselves in Italy, France or Spain where they have long legacies of road cycling culture. The race credibility was important to us while introducing ourselves to those markets.’

Dressed to impress

‘For us to have the Endura name featured in Vuelta stage wins [with NetApp-Endura in 2013], that is progress. We could never have achieved that as a Continental licensed team. Ultimately, after that, it’s where can you go next, and that’s WorldTour status. So we had visits to and conversations with three or four teams – some of which no longer exist – and in the end we’re glad it worked out with Movistar.’

When asked about the only other British brand currently providing kit for a WorldTour team, McFarlane raises a wry smile. ‘Aah, the R-word,’ he says. ‘It’s nice that two British clothing firms are supplying the two highest-ranked cycling teams on the planet. [Sky finished 2nd in the UCI rankings last year]. Rapha has done a cracking job in borrowing or adopting the European heritage of road cycling, but we have a less intense message, because we do commuting, foul weather and mountain bike as well as road. Endura is about the best possible, working, functional product that delivers consistently without a crazy price attached to it. It would be easy for us to forget the core of what we do because there has been so much growth and hype around high-end road cycling. We have a bunch of people here who cycle and you only have to look at the types of bikes downstairs to see what we’re about. There’s cross, mountain, road – a really good mix. We’re about cycling.’ McFarlane himself is a diehard roadie who rides one of the former Endura Racing team’s Giant TCR SL bikes.

Back to the future

The Movistar deal comes 22 years after McFarlane gave up his career as a management consultant – ‘it was very “suity” and money-orientated’ – and walked into his bank with his idea to produce clothing for cyclists. Last year he found his old briefcase from those days, still containing his pitch.

‘It’s funny because you’re writing it to impress the bank, but when I read it back last year I realised, actually, it’s all true. Everything I said was correct,’ he says. ‘It was about how there’s going to be more infrastructure for commuters, more social responsibility, climate change, health and welfare, how cycling’s likely to become cooler, how fuel prices will rise and traffic will become gridlocked. The bit that wasn’t in there was the UK’s rise in competitive cycling. But if I’d said 20 years ago that our cyclists were going to win the Tour and the Olympics, I’d have been laughed out the door.’

Movistar kit list (with replacements throughout the season)

3 short-sleeve jerseys (winter, summer, standard)

3 pairs of bibshorts (winter, summer, standard)

Race gilet

Long-sleeve winter jersey

Double-front winter jacket

Windproof Roubaix medium winter jacket

Windproof medium weight L/S Jersey 

Windproof medium weight S/S Jersey 

Winter gilet

Waterproof jacket

Waterproof gilet

Winter bibtights

Speed suit

Arm warmers

Leg warmers

Knee warmers

Race mitts

Time-trial mitts

Mesh mitts

Luminite winter gloves

FS260 Pro Nemo gloves

Liner gloves

Aero overshoes

Winter overshoes

Waterproof overshoes

Waterproof toe covers

Winter neoprene overshoes

Thermal headband

Thermal skull cap

Windchill bibtights

Thermal neck tube

Printed multi tube

Race socks

Winter socks

Fishnet base layer

Translite S/S base layer

Frontline base layer

Transmission base layer

Race cap

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