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Insider: Custom carbon bike maker FiftyOne Bikes

Dublin-based FiftyOne has taken a fresh-faced approach to the custom carbon bike market

James Spender
19 Dec 2017

‘Is Quaidy alright? ’ says Aidan. ‘What do you mean?’ asks the other Aidan. ‘Well, I was in Duff’s and he actually sat down with me for a pint and cracked a smile,’ replies the first Aidan. ‘I think there must be something wrong there.’

We’re standing in Aidan Hammond’s Bikefitting Ireland studio as this deadpan exchange takes place, made all the more intriguing when Aidan Duff explains that ‘Quaidy’ is ex-UCI chief honcho Pat McQuaid.

But it’s not surprising. In a country of fewer than five million people, with membership to the sport’s central body peaking at 14,000, Ireland’s cycling community is a tight-knit bunch.

Proving this point, Duff explains that behind Hammond’s bike fitting studio, in the grounds of Kilmacanogue church, is buried Shay Elliot, Ireland’s first yellow jersey wearer in 1963.

Hammond has fitted many of Ireland’s greats, including Stephen and Nicolas Roche, and his father-in-law is Peter Crinnion, one of Ireland’s first professionals who went on to become Stephen Roche’s manager.

The pub in question, stuffed with all manner of cycling paraphernalia from Sean Kelly’s jerseys to Roche senior’s bikes, is Duff’s of Bray, just down the road and once run by the late Ken Duff, one of Pat McQuaid’s closest friends.

And Aidan Duff – though no relation to Ken – is something of a local legend in these parts too.

A one-time continental pro with the Vendee U team and ex-national champion, Duff is the first person to bring custom carbon framebuilding to the Emerald Isle in the shape of FiftyOne Bikes.

It might seem like a bold step, but with Hammond as his go-to fitter, 15 years in the trade and a contact book that encompasses US composite engineers, research fellows and expert painters, it’s an equally bold person that would bet against him. 

51 ways to name your bike brand

‘The name comes from the dossard,’ says Duff, a genial six-foot-plus figure who might bear striking resemblance to Miguel Indurain were Big Mig to laugh more.

‘The defending rider at the Tour always wears the number one. But there was a period of nine years when the number 51 finished first several times, pinned to some serious legends: Eddy Merckx [1969], Luis Ocaña [1973], Bernard Thévenet [1975] and Bernard Hinault [1978].

So that number has a special mystique among racers.’

Like various aspects of cycling, the rationale behind the 51 dossard (often called the dossard anise after an aperitif launched by Pernod in 1951) is tenuous, not least as number ones have won the Tour 26 times.

However, save for the paint, which we’ll come to later, this appears to be the only flight of fancy Duff has afforded his bike brand.

His process has been of some rigour, and although FiftyOne only officially became an entity in 2015, it has been decades in the making.

‘I raced until 2002 on Vendée U with a team that included Thomas Voeckler, and then when I retired I got into distribution with brands such as Raleigh, Felt and Enve.

‘I was happy enough, but I eventually realised there was this thing staring me in the face.

‘I’d been going to the Taipei trade show [where distributors and brands meet with the factories making their wares] for over a decade, but I suddenly realised that, despite being surrounded by all these amazing bikes, I was more interested in hitting refresh on my phone to check out the latest creation at NAHBS [North American Handmade Bicycle Show].

‘That got me thinking about the market, and I suddenly realised it just didn’t make sense to me any more.

‘Maybe 15 years ago the price gap between stock and custom was pretty big, but with people prepared to spend eight grand on an S-Works Tarmac, why would people not look at custom geometry for a similar price?

‘When I was racing every bike was custom, so the thought of consumers spending all this money on stock didn’t add up.

‘You wouldn’t come to work for eight hours a day and sit on a pallet and surround yourself with cardboard boxes, you know?

‘People were spending thousands and they couldn’t even choose the colour. The bike retail model was broken.’

According to Duff, the change came when Lance Armstrong pedalled a stock Trek 5500 to first place in the Tour de France in 2003 – ‘that result was a manufacturer’s dream’ – but it’s something FiftyOne is determined to repair.

‘What we wanted to do was totally flip it on its head. Strip away all the constraints.

‘People say, “You can’t do that because it’s going to cost too much. You can’t do that because it has to go back into the paint booth three times.”

‘F*** off! It doesn’t matter how long it takes, how laborious. We’re going to make the best bikes we can. That attitude isn’t rocket science.’

Getting the company set up, however, came fairly close.

The German job

Like many bespoke builders, FiftyOne is located on an unassuming industrial estate, this one on the outskirts of Dublin.

Much of the machinery appears well-loved, old even. There are one or two conspicuous signs of modernity – an engineer busily running a finite element analysis program on his laptop, a chest freezer for storing the carbon pre-preg and a giant oven for curing frames – but otherwise there’s little to distinguish the shop floor from a steel framebuilder 30 years ago.

That might sound at odds with a company determined to make the best bikes in the world, but it’s because he wants to make the best bikes, says Duff, that things are how they are.

‘It’s simple. If you want to get the best spoke nipples, what do you do? Do you try and make your own, or do you go to the company that’s already making millions of spoke nipples a year?

‘When we started FiftyOne we didn’t want to go down the road of “we’re building custom bikes so we’ll assume we’re the best bikefitters in the world, the best painters in the world, the best carbon tube makers in the world”.

‘It’s all about sticking to your course and playing to your strengths.’

This begs the question: why is FiftyOne making bicycles at all? Why not just buy in custom frames from established manufacturers, get them painted up and sell them on?

‘That was the initial idea. My business partner Aaron Marsh and I knew distribution, so we thought we’d outsource to someone in Italy.

‘But we went over there, travelled around and we came back totally underwhelmed by the craftsmanship.

‘This was 2014, and we’d hit this roadblock, so we started to think, what if we did it ourselves?

‘Aaron had been making his own steel frames for years but had no experience in carbon, so we set out to learn how to do it.’

The pair’s journey led them to Germany and an Italian framebuilding stalwart named Mauro Sannino, who they believed was making custom frames in a small factory for Bavarian bike giant Corratec.

Duff persuaded the company to ‘let me be super-nosey, come over, take loads of photos, ask loads of questions,’ and he was all set to leave when fate dealt him an interesting hand.

‘The day before we’re about to fly out I get this email saying, “You do know we haven’t used this facility in over a year?”

‘I was like, “Why didn’t you tell me this? What a waste of time!” But then the penny started to drop. If these guys have all this equipment and I can still track down Mauro…

‘There’s this scene in the original Wall Street film where he says, “Life all comes down to a few moments, this is one of them,” a shit-or-get-off kinda thing.

‘So we went there, and by the end of the day we’d done a deal to acquire all the plant machinery.’

Marsh as lead builder still had to learn how to fabricate in carbon, so what followed was months spent in Bavaria under Sannino’s tutelage as he learnt to transpose steel building into tube-to-tube carbon fibre construction.

Finally, when both parties were happy, the factory machinery was broken down and loaded onto two 40-foot trucks bound for Ireland.

‘Mauro came over to Dublin one last time and gave us his blessing, if you like, and then it was up to us.’ 

Do it better or not at all

By all accounts the learning curve was steep, and it was a full year before FiftyOne had honed its practice to the point Duff felt happy bringing bikes to market.

That involved calling in expertise from friends at Enve Composites, drafting in the bikefitting skills of Hammond and becoming a test bed for University of Dublin’s composite engineering department.

But even then there were sleepless nights.

‘The first four frames were perfect, and we’re all like, “Wow, this is easy.”

‘So we do the first customer frame, Aaron brings it upstairs like something out of The Lion King, but as it starts to cool down you can hear this ticking.

‘Basically the seatstays were starting to implode. We can’t believe it, so we do another one. Same thing.

‘It turns out the resin in that batch of seatstays is different from the previous so it needed a different curing cycle.

‘Why? It was the same Italian-designed part, it was just coming from two different Chinese factories. It was a massive confidence knock, but it’s the reason we now make our own seatstays.’

Here Duff returns to the philosophy mentioned earlier: if someone else can do it better than you, let them. But if they can’t meet your expectations, you’re going to have to learn how to do it yourself.

It’s this that has led FiftyOne into developing a new bottom bracket along with its own chainstays for flat-mount disc brakes.

Yet by this logic, won’t FiftyOne soon find itself making tubes?

‘It’s great doing some of these things in-house, but would we be bringing anything new to the table if we started to make our own tubes?

‘I know there are guys who like to say they do everything in-house, but if we can spec our own tubing from Enve, is there any need for us to go further?

‘People talk about that stiffness tuning thing, but for me the real stiffness comes from the joints around the head tube and bottom bracket, the tubes are stiff enough already.’

In some ways the FiftyOne business model is a tough sell. Beyond disc brakes and hidden cables you’ll find no concessions to trends for aero or integration, and as such there is only one ‘type’ of FiftyOne bike.

As Duff says with a laugh, ‘Making just one product is probably catastrophic for a business!’

But look at it another way and each FiftyOne bike is by its very nature unique. It’s this that drives Duff, and what Duff feels will drive his business.

‘We have accredited bikefitters such as Aidan at Bikefitting Ireland making sure the bike works physiologically; me as a racer bringing my knowledge of bike handling to the table; Enve with the tubes; us with some other components and a skilled team headed up by Aaron doing the building.

But the deciding factor among it all is the client. It’s their bike. And that’s where the paint comes in, as important a piece of the puzzle as any.’ 

Realising the dream

When it comes to painting the bikes, Duff’s approach is once again a mix of the pragmatic and fanciful.

Although he bought a full paint booth from Corratec he’s yet to unpack it, citing it as another facet of the custom process best left to experts.

Yet like all things FiftyOne, he hasn’t been able to resist giving it his own slant.

‘We do a lot of things to try to get under the client’s skin: phone calls, meetings, emails, Skype… But one thing that has really worked for us is Pinterest.

‘We invite clients to start and share a Pinterest board with us, adding any pictures that inspire them: cars, buildings, sculptures, plants, Greg LeMond’s sunglasses, you name it.

‘From there the designers we use extrapolate what it is you really like, and create designs that are going to resonate on an amazingly personal level.’

Yet that’s nothing compared to another recent addition to the FiftyOne nexus.

Duff is trialling psychometric testing, which he hopes will better enable him to understand his clients and their aesthetic persuasions.  

‘We’re going to run 100 tests and with the test supplier’s help try to establish the relationship between the client, the data and the creative outcomes.

‘We’re trying to take that old-school idea of the 1950s framebuilder, where you go round, put the kettle on and have a slice of cake, and hone it through technology.

‘I understand that many people won’t get that, but that’s probably what FiftyOne is – a lot of people aren’t going to get it.

‘It’s not a mainstream thing. But for those that do we’ll continue with our mantra that everybody’s got a dream bike inside them, and we’ll help pull it out.’

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