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Catlike : Factory Visit

Catlike Helmets
James Witts
14 May 2015

Famed for the distinctive look of the Whisper, we take a trip to Spain to see Catlike and find out the reasons behind the shape.

Heading to Catlike’s HQ and production plant in Yecla, an hour’s drive from the hotel-scarred coastline of Alicante, is a bit like being dropped into a Steinbeck novel. Dust swirls around parched vineyards, while shops are conspicuous by their ‘closed’ signs, and the roads – the endless stretches of straight roads – echo to the empty sound of a fallen economy. Eventually, our driver, José, turns the car off the lonely carriageways and we’re confronted by a vision – a vision of optimism. A modern, glass-panelled building with vivid orange trim illuminates the flotilla of branded vehicles in front. This is a symbol of stoicism, nay resurgence, in a country that’s seen unemployment reach 25%. ‘Welcome to Catlike,’ says José. As a contrast to the Great Recession, it is indeed welcome…

Careless whisper

Catlike and its helmets are a rare success story in a country whose economy has plummeted so spectacularly since 2007 that even its untouchable cycling heritage suffered. In 2013, in their 20th year, pro team Euskaltel-Euskadi disbanded, the government withdrawing its once-guaranteed funding. It means Spain, home of Contador, Delgado and Indurain, now has just one team on the WorldTour roster. But Catlike shines bright. This year, under the watchful eye of former pro racer and founder Pepe del Ramo, it’s enjoying a much happier 20th birthday than the former Basque team. It has just ‘invested significant capital’ in keeping up with demand and its helmets are worn by one of the strongest teams on the planet, Movistar.

‘We’re now in every continent in the world and nearly 50 countries,’ says del Ramo. ‘Sales have risen 25% in the last year and our staffing numbers are at 55, which is an all-time high.’ That much-needed employment has provided fiscal resuscitation to an area that once relied on crafting sofas and shoes but, del Ramo says, hit rock bottom because of a very European problem: seeking cheap labour in the Far East. ‘Years ago this country made a mistake,’ he says. ‘We took our technology to China and showed them how to create our products. Now they do it, but cheaper, and it’s left us [Spain] struggling. But hopefully things are changing.’ Despite the fiscal appeal of heading east, Catlike remained true to its homeland, with 80% of its helmets manufactured in Yecla and the other 20% – the entry-level models – in Asia.

Catlike design

Catlike might be thoroughly Spanish but it has global reach thanks to the WorldTour, with its partnership with Movistar into its fourth year. The team won 34 times in 2014 from 10 different riders, and Nairo Quintana brought Movistar its first three-week stage race win at the Giro d’Italia. To celebrate, Catlike commissioned pink versions of its Mixino and Rapid helmets for Quintana to match his pink suit, gloves, shades and shoes. The Colombian shrugged off phallic comparisons with the same ease he disposed of the competition.

‘The link-up with Movistar has not only been a commercial success but has driven innovation,’ says Ana Villa, Catlike’s marketing manager. ‘We’ve worked with the riders and the sports scientists at Granada University, refining helmets like the Mixino in the wind-tunnel.’ For riders of the standing of Quintana and Alejandro Valverde, Catlike takes the helmet process a step further. Cyclist is shown into the design room, where mood boards decorate the walls, waiting to be assimilated into next year’s models. Sitting in front of the designers’ laptops is a machine that resembles a rather bulky printer but is in fact a cranial scanner.

‘We’ve only had it two months but it means we can collect dimensions to create custom-made helmets,’ says Villa. Personal sizing, Villa confirms, is the only difference between the elite riders’ helmets and those that are found in the shops. And to prove it, Villa and del Ramo’s son, José Andrés, guide us through the design, testing and production process…

Cranium cooling

Catlike prototype

‘After safety, which is a prerequisite, our design philosophy is based on ventilation and weight,’ says José Andrés. ‘Yes, aerodynamics is important, but numerous studies have shown that on a long stage you enjoy greater gains with a well-ventilated helmet over an aero one.’

It explains Catlike’s unique aesthetic – a compact helmet with seemingly more vents than structure. There are 39 in the Mixino and it’s generally regarded as one of the coolest lids on the market. Whether that coolness applies to the aesthetic is down to personal preference. Some love the distinctive look, while others think it resembles Swiss cheese. Whatever your stance, rest assured the shape is backed by science. ‘The designs are created using computational fluid dynamics,’ says Villa. ‘It ensures the shape and placement of the vents achieves maximum ventilation as well as excellent aerodynamics.’

Catlike Whisper design

The next step is to transform the virtual into reality, and that’s down to prototyping. For years, Catlike’s helmet development centred on carving out clay models to scale and then to full size. That artisan but laboured craft continues to this day, though the clock is ticking. Catlike has just taken delivery of a 3D printer. ‘It’s made a huge difference, both financially and with the speed of development,’ says José Andrés. ‘It’s also more precise so there’s less time needed for modifications.’

Once the team is happy with the prototype and has created a working model, it’s time to hit the testing facility. Helmets aren’t mandatory in the UK or Spain (except for under-16s), and you begin to wonder why not when you witness 10 minutes of helmet bashing, designed to mimic real-life incidents. ‘Let’s take this helmet,’ says José Andrés, strapping it onto a headform – essentially a metallic mannequin head loaded with sensors. It’s then dropped from a height that generates speeds of 5.2 metres per second onto an anvil and leaves the Mixino clearly damaged.

Catlike shell

‘That was supposed to happen,’ says José Andrés. ‘You can see where the impact is [at the rear]. However, you can see there’s a crack here, at the front. That’s good because it shows the cells are dispersing the impact around the helmet and not focusing it onto one point.’ Impact testing takes place at several different points of the helmet and the headform must not experience forces that exceed 250g, where 1g is equivalent to gravity. Our broken Mixino only measures 144g. That’s in the UK anyway. ‘The maximum figures allowable depend on the standard of the country,’ explains Villa. ‘In the US, for instance, it’s 300g.’

‘We then test the helmets in a range of conditions to ensure they can perform in all scenarios,’ Villa adds, before wandering over to a small white unit in the corner of the testing facility that looks suspiciously like a freezer. ‘This is our freezer,’ she says. Bingo. ‘This is where we keep our helmets. We put them in the oven, too, as you need to test the helmets once they’ve been through extreme temperatures.’ Fail the tests and it’s back to the drawing board. Success and it’s into production. Shelves that stretch high towards the warehouse roof are stacked with transparent polycarbonate sheets, each imprinted with the helmet’s colour and pattern. They’re lined up after rolling through a machine that resembles a horizontal travelator from Gladiators (the one with Wolf and Hunter, not Russell Crowe).

The next step is seemingly the work of an industrial alchemist. An aluminium mould of the helmet – the Mixino in our demonstration – is attached to a heavy machine and lowered. The colourful polycarbonate sheet, which has spent six hours at 50°C to make it more malleable, is fixed above the mould and then, for want of a better word, ‘helmeted’. In other words, after applying a half-bar of pressure and temperatures touching 110°C, the mould fires back up, encased by the polycarbonate sheet that now resembles the outer shell of a £170 helmet. ‘This is how we make all the shells here,’ says Villa, ‘though the Mixino requires two shells because it protects more of the head.’ A robot-controlled laser cuts out the vents, which are then tidied up by human hand and a scalpel. At this point José Andrés’ dad, Pepe, strolls back in to see how we’re getting on.

Catlike reflexes

Catlike manufacture

Pepe del Ramo is a man who knows his helmets. He founded Catlike in 1996, in the back room of his bike shop that he’d been running for 10 years. Before that he was a professional cyclist whose career peaked in 1985 when he raced the Tour de France for Seat-Orbea. ‘They say if you don’t finish the Tour de France, you’re not a professional cyclist,’ he says later in his office as he gazes at his finisher’s medal. Del Ramo provided domestique duties for Pedro Delgado, who’d finish sixth in the GC that year. It served notice of Delgado’s potential and he won the maillot jaune three years later. ‘I’m friends with Pedro and we still meet up.’

Del Ramo raced for several teams before retiring and starting up that bike shop. Like many in the cycling industry, lube and grit is in his blood: ‘My father was a keen cyclist, too. In fact that’s how we ended up being called Catlike. His nickname was “The Cat” and so was mine. We would have been called Cat but the name was taken, so we chose Catlike. Cycling wasn’t just a family affair, though. I was born and raised in Ontur, 50km from Yecla. The population is only 2,500 but it’s produced 90 pro cyclists.’

Ontur is a farming community, historically a fertile breeding ground for cyclists. Sean Kelly was the son of farmers – and it drove the Irishman to pursue a life away from the farm. ‘I used to enjoy racing with Sean,’ del Ramo recalls. ‘He was good fun and I’m sure I helped him win some races. The helmet Sean used to wear is similar to many on the market today.’ Maybe visually, but that’s where comparisons end. From the cutting room the helmet moves to internal protection, which starts with expanding polystyrene in its original form. It resembles monochrome hundreds-and-thousands, but the application of steam and pressure makes them swell into a mass of tiny balls.

Catlike Whisper

‘We glue the polystyrene balls to the aramid roll cage,’ says Villa. ‘And in the case of the Mixino, this is the stage where we add graphene.’ Graphene is a wonder material that is more pliable than rubber and 200 times stronger than steel but six times lighter. Its purpose is to add strength to the helmet with little extra weight. 

The cage and shell are then fused via more pressure and more steam, the measures of which dictate how much polystyrene expands for each country’s international standard. Then, with one final flourish, the decals are added along with a final spray of paint. And of course, the retention system is glued in place. On the Mixino, Catlike employs what it calls MPS eVo, or Multi-Position System Evolution. It offers four planes of adjustment to fit any head. ‘Each racer has a different head shape but the Chinese have the largest,’ says Villa matter-of-factly. ‘They also have the roundest so they often remove the padding for a better fit.’ Whatever size your head, the helmets are then boxed up and distributed around the world. Or, in the case of Movistar’s Alex Dowsett, Manchester.

‘We’ll be heading over to England to work with Alex on the Hour record,’ says Villa. ‘After much wind-tunnel work, we decided the Chrono would be the fastest.’ Seeing as Dowsett subsequently smashed the Hour record, it would appear Villa’s choice of helmet was correct.

Looking ahead

Catlike mould

For Movistar, the focus will now move to the Tour de France, where Nairo Quintana will look to become the first Colombian to win the biggest race in cycling. As for Catlike, del Ramo has just secured further warehouse space to allow for even greater production from the current levels of 500 helmets a day. Catlike’s shoe range will also receive a boost. The shoes went global this season after being available in just Spain and Portugal for the previous four years. Catlike also has ranges of sunglasses and socks, and it seems that increasing product choice could be a key strategy to strengthening Catlike’s hand.

‘As helmet manufacturers we need to push innovations and our range of goods because of competition from bike manufacturers,’ says Pepe. ‘They have strong bargaining when it comes to retail. They say [to retailers] you must sell 200 helmets to go with the 100 bikes.’ Pepe predicts the innovation he talks about will come from materials rather than any huge advancements in wearable technologies, though he says on-the-fly feedback akin to Goggle glasses could become commonplace on visors. Ultimately, though, Catlike is all about the ventilation, lightness and aesthetics.

‘When I raced, we used to wear leather helmets that looked like you were playing water polo. That’s why no one wanted to wear one,’ says del Ramo. ‘Now riders look strange without them. That’s been quite a turnaround in the last 20 years, and one which I’m proud to have been a small part of.’

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