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Storck : Factory Visit

Markus Storck
James Witts
1 May 2015

Storck bikes are renowned for their £15,000 Aernario Signature. We head to Germany to meet the man behind the numbers.

‘They’re automated to rise or fall depending on the direction of the sun. They’re pretty neat,’ says Markus Storck as we watch the blinds in his office close to block out the glare. The man behind the German bike brand obviously likes his toys. He’s just reeled off a list of the automobiles he owns – Aston Martin, BMW, Jeep, Harley Davidson – and cited his hero as James Bond.

‘That’s purely practical,’ he says of the blinds, ‘this is a toy…’ Storck unveils a model version of a luxury car designed in carbon by one of his many side projects, called One Of Seven. ‘This is my most exciting project yet… and I can’t tell anyone about it as it’s not in production till next year. Let’s just say I’ll be buying the full-sized version.’

German to the core

Storck history

Markus Storck, who turned 50 earlier this year, has created a company with an enviable track record for building award-winning carbon fibre bicycles. His offices-cum-concept store in the small town of Idstein, around 50km from Frankfurt, is a shrine to the company’s philosophy of technology, innovation and excellence. Everything is gleaming and ultramodern, just as you’d expect from a company that has gained a reputation for sparing nothing when it comes to sourcing material, production and R&D. The current flagship model is the Special Edition Aernario Signature, which starts from £14,999. No wonder Markus can afford all those toys.

‘Only 50 of these frames have been made to celebrate my birthday,’ he says, sweeping his mad professor hair from his brow. ‘They feature many of our patents including the Power Arms cranks. It’s a great ride and weighs just 5.38kg for the entire bike.’ With the Aernario Signature, Storck won the prestigious best bike award from Germany’s Tour magazine for the eighth consecutive year, an award that comes after one of the most scientific testing policies of any cycling magazine. ‘They measure features like stiffness-to-weight ratio, aerodynamics, stability, comfort and lateral stiffness,’ says Storck.

He sits back in his spacious office, the clean white backdrop interrupted by a colourful canvas of Einstein playfully poking out his tongue, and explains the secret to his – and a nation’s – success. ‘Germans are numbers people. It’s why we’re good at engineering. If I can measure something I can understand it and make it better. If I can’t measure it, it’s just an emotion.’

Storck factory

Such is Storck’s pleasure at winning the Tour award so many times, he parodied the infamous Twitter pic of Lance Armstrong relaxing in front of his tainted yellow jerseys, only Storck replaced the maillots jaunes with framed Tour covers. Cynics have suggested that Storck designs his bikes specifically to win the various tests in Tour’s award procedure – that he uses the magazine as an elegant marketing tool.

‘Not a bit of it,’ Storck says in response. ‘We just create bikes that we love and we hope the rider will enjoy them. The price of our bikes is the result of development and manufacture.’ To highlight his expertise in this area, Storck asks me to stand up, gazes up and down my 6ft 3in frame, and then estimates my inside leg measurement, height and waist. He’s spot on. ‘I know the ideal geometry just by looking at a rider. I didn’t go to university. The knowledge comes from riding and spending my whole life in cycling. If I see the numbers on a bike I don’t need to sit on it – I can tell you how it’ll ride.

The power of proportion

With just under 10,000 frames sold this year, and 50% of those in the road market, clearly he’s getting something right. The company has experienced 20% annual growth for the last five years, with Germany, the UK (there’s a concept store in Gateshead) and Asia as Storck’s three biggest markets. Storck’s cheapest complete bike – the Visioner Alloy – starts at £1,549, and with some brands offering sub-£1,000 carbon bikes, the question is: why choose Storck?

Storck prototype

‘Key reasons are proportional tubing, where it’s not just the tube lengths that vary between sizes but wall thickness too. The idea is that every rider will enjoy the same stiffness-to-weight ratio and comfort. There’s also the VVC process – or Vacuum Void Controlled – [which ensures even resin distribution and prevents air pockets that can weaken the material]. This enables us to reduce resin content by one third, explaining the lightness of our bikes.’ Storck bikes are designed in Idstein but made in China. He would prefer to have production in Germany but economies of scale make it impossible, though he’s currently working with the German government on a process that could make it financially viable. ‘Again, I can’t say more about that but it’s very exciting.’

One thing you can be sure of is that Markus Storck really loves carbon. ‘I’ve worked with steel, aluminium and titanium but you can copy any of those frames. You can analyse the material, X-ray them, ultrasound for wall thickness… As a frame manufacturer you have zero security unless you have a patent, which is difficult. With carbon you can have two frames from the same mould that are distinctly different because of the way you use the carbon. There are so many permutations with the lay-up. It’s a bit like DNA.’

Cycling in the blood

Storck paint

Storck’s own cycling DNA can be traced back to 1876. ‘That’s when my great, great grandfather joined his local cycling club. My auntie recently gave me a medal that he received from his cycling club in 1901 celebrating 25 years as a member.’

His grandfather, Willi Muller, was also a bike racer – one of two brothers who raced for the professional Opel cycling team in the 1920s. ‘He won some big races on track and road,’ says Storck, ‘which was remarkable as he came from a poor family.’ The Great Depression cut short Willi’s cycling career but his daughter, and Storck’s mother (Margit), exploited Willi’s passion for cycling at the tender age of 15. ‘She brought home a man six years her elder,’ says Markus. ‘It was my Dad [Gunter]. But he cycled, too, and my mum knew Willi would welcome another cyclist.’

Storck time trial

Gunter Storck’s own ambitions to pursue a professional cycling career were curtailed by German rebuilding after World War II. But as peace returned to the nation, the steel that had been manufactured to create the Luftwaffe could be redirected towards bike production, and soon Gunter began working in the bike industry as a sales rep, before opening his own shop in 1969. One year later, little Markus sold his first bike.

‘I was six years old,’ he says. ‘My parents were unloading a truck and I was in the shop. A man wandered in looking for a bike. He asked my advice. I gave it. And when my parents came back in, he bought the bike.’ When he was 14 his parents set up another shop, predominantly run by the precocious youngster after school. ‘Business was brisk, helped by the Didi Thurau boom.’ Dietrich (Didi) Thurau was a West German road cyclist who in 1977 caught the imagination of his home country by winning four stages of the Tour de France and holding the yellow jersey for 15 stages. Two years later he won Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Everyone wanted to be like Didi. (Just to taint the story, in 1989 Thurau gave an interview to Germany’s Bild newspaper where he revealed he’d doped throughout his career including the use of amphetamines and testosterone.)

Name on the frame

Storck testing

Gunter Storck’s shops included bike brands from all around the world – Bianchi, Raleigh, Colnago, Koga Miyata – but it was when his father began customising and rebranding imported Italian frames with the name Storck that Markus gained experience as a developer and designer. ‘When I set up my own distribution company in 1988 – Storck Bike-Tech Trading – we stopped making these steel Storck bikes and closed the brand. I did import a huge amount of other brands, though. Merlin, Fat Chance, Ritchey, Crank Brothers… we imported a lot.’

Storck Bike-Tech also produced its own bikes, first importing frames from Taiwan before switching to Japan for ‘quality reasons’, where Storck headed for several weeks to live and learn from master framebuilder Yoshiaki Ishigaki. ‘I worked with steel and aluminium, and we had tubing made to our own specifications. I knew if you just bought products like many manufacturers did, you could change your geometry but not how it feels at its heart. And it wasn’t long before I started playing with carbon.’

In 1993 Storck launched the Power Arms, the first carbon cranks to hit the market. Weighing just 280g, they were the world’s lightest cranks and a real statement of carbon intent. Incarnations of the Power Arms are still in production today. In fact, Storck claims that he resists the trend for bike companies to change models year after year. ‘We’re innovative and ahead of the game,’ he says. ‘We don’t need to change every year. That’s why models like the Adrenalin were produced for nearly 17 years.’ The Adrenalin mountain bike and its lightweight bedfellows may never have come into existence if it wasn’t for a stroke of misfortune. Despite the relative success of Bike-Tech, Storck’s distribution business relied on Klein mountain bikes, which added five million deutschmarks to Markus’s turnover. All that changed when Gary Klein sold up to Trek in 1995.

Storck special edition

‘I’d been assured that there’d be no change to the contract, but immediately Trek stopped distribution.’ Storck took out a lawsuit, even taking out a temporary injunction against Trek from exhibiting at Eurobike – a show that Storck had a role in launching. It was enough for Trek to pay compensation but Storck had reached a crossroads. ‘Every other brand had decided to leave me. So I was more or less standing alone, which was a disaster. But I rolled with the punches and that same year launched Storck Bicycles. That wouldn’t have happened if I was still distributing Klein.’ 

The story 

Storck’s reputation for mastering carbon soon took off. In 1996 Dutch rider Bart Brentjens won Olympic MTB gold on a Storck Rebel. In 1998 Storck launched the Scenario Pro, weighing less than 6.5kg. In 1999 the company produced the Stiletto Light road bike fork – with a weight of just 280g it was the world’s lightest fork.

But reputations don’t make the loan repayments. Come 2001, Storck needed extra finance to expand – ‘moulds aren’t cheap’ – so they contacted the Frankfurt branch of 3i, a venture capitalist. No money was forthcoming but the company invited him to enter the ‘3i Innovation Challenge’. Storck’s idea was to develop carbon leaf springs, now seen on its brakes, and fit them into the bicycle chassis. ‘I didn’t hold out much hope but we reached the final round in Solihull, which included four British companies and me. Unbelievably we won and with it £500,000. It changed everything.’ That’s not to say it was all plain sailing, however.

Storck scenario

En route to becoming a revered manufacturer of carbon, Markus Storck has overcome a hospital’s worth of ailments including having just one kidney, a curvature of the spine and having a tumour removed from his head after Eurobike 2010. ‘It didn’t stop me from going to Interbike that year, though!’ Seemingly impervious to obstacles in his way, Storck is focused on the future where his ambitions include selling up to 30,000 frames a year. By breaking America, perhaps? ‘That’s a different story. In the US, many retailers are, “No ProTour team, no stocking.” That’s ridiculous because it doesn’t take into account quality.’

So will Storck hook up with a World Tour team? ‘The economics don’t add up. If I were the customer, would I spend an extra €500 per bike to help the brand I’m buying sponsor a top team? I’ve looked at those figures and that’s how much it would cost us. The owners of Cervélo had to sell their business to Pon Holdings because of their outlay sponsoring a team. ‘We spend everything on development,’ he adds. ‘See the size of our company and the number of carbon fibre products we have, there is no one like us, no one this efficient. Look at the amount of moulds. Monocoque production, handlebars, stems, seatpost, crank arms, power meter system…’

Yes, Storck is developing a power meter that he promises will blow the market away. He’s also working on a new E-engine and developing a new process of manufacturing frames for city hybrid bikes. He says he’s extending the carbon leaf spring technology from the brake into the rear end of some 2015 models, and he’s continuing to build his clothing brand, launched in 2003. He also has some very ‘interesting ideas’ on improving comfort and compliance of road bikes. ‘Sorry but, again, I can’t tell you what they are.’ Three things are certain though: carbon will be at its heart, it’ll be very light, and it won’t be cheap. But, as Markus Storck would argue, that’s the price you pay for innovation.

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