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Wire in the blood: Inside spoke maker Sapim

In-depth
2 Feb 2021
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Belgian brand Sapim has spent 100 years perfecting its spokes, to the point where it’s now among the most revered names in cyclingThis article was originally published in Issue 84 of Cyclist Magazine

Words: Sam Challis Photography: Juan Trujillo Andrades

You would drive straight past the global headquarters of Sapim if you didn’t know it was there. The nondescript building is housed in a nondescript industrial estate on the outskirts of Antwerp, Belgium. On the face of it, you’d think the site of the world’s preeminent spoke and nipple manufacturer would cede a little to ostentation, but at Sapim functionality reigns.

According to managing director Amaury de Cordes, anything superfluous would detract from the company’s primary focus of serving its customers.

‘We recently outfitted and moved into this new building but we were certain we shouldn’t over-invest in luxury,’ he says. ‘It had to be practical.’

Once inside, though, the building is not without its own identity. Sapim’s yellow and black branding is abundant, and in the foyer hangs a display of wheels from seemingly every premium brand on the market.

Zipps, Reynolds, Enves and many more swing gently like a giant mobile.

 

‘It is important to us that we give our workforce context for the products they are making,’ says De Cordes. ‘It increases their ownership over what they make, which ultimately means better-quality products.’ Those products are spokes and nipples.

In 2011 Sapim acquired Ryde, a producer of aluminium rims, but spokes and nipples have been made by Sapim since the company started in 1918 and are still the heart of the business.

‘There’s a phrase we’ve been known to respond with when asked about how business is going: “Spokes are spokes; nipples are nipples”,’ says De Cordes.

While he is implying the products Sapim is best known for are mundane and predictable, it would be unfair to dismiss them as such. De Cordes says the brand is continually innovating.

‘Each month we come up with maybe 10 to 15 ideas of new spoke and nipple iterations. While not all make it to production, our approach has seen our current catalogue expand to cater for any customer and any wheel.’

 

He isn’t exaggerating – Sapim currently produces 22 different spokes in 242,880 possible variations and eight different nipples in 10,944 variations.

‘The size of our catalogue means we have far too much stock, but typically we always have the wrong spoke already made so we are forever producing to order,’ he says in faux exasperation. This isn’t perfect financially but it is more important to do our best to produce something suitable for that customer.’

The story of Sapim

‘We have just celebrated our 100th anniversary,’ says De Cordes. ‘We haven’t organised anything for our customers, but we’re taking all our staff, past and present, on a trip away. Sapim is where it is today because of them.’

The company was founded in 1918 by Herman Schoonhoven who, in naming the company Sapim, demonstrated the understated efficiency on which the company would come to pride itself.

Sapim is simply an acronym for Société Anonyme pour l’Industrie des Métaux, or Limited Company for the Metal Industry.

Not exactly inspiring, yet concise nonetheless.

‘The company unassumingly went about its business for many years and built the foundation for the reputation we have today,’ says De Cordes.

Yet Sapim’s approach lacked the foresight for continued growth and by the early 2000s Sapim was almost bankrupt, despite having just developed two of its most popular products, the CX-Ray spoke and Polyax nipple.

‘The company was bought for just €1 with a lot of debt by a private equity group, who levelled the books and pumped huge amounts of capital into machines and staff. That sent the company into an upward spiral.

‘My business partner and I came to Sapim in 2011 and continued the investment, which we saw as a winning formula to make it more cohesive – R&D working more seamlessly with production, who work better with the management and so on.

‘There has been more investment in the last three years than there was in the previous 97, and as a result Sapim has never been stronger as an international manufacturer.’

 

Sapim has production sites in eight countries, says De Cordes.

‘Our customers are producing internationally, so we must too. The tools, materials and production techniques are all exactly the same, though. There is no difference between a spoke made here in Belgium and one made in Taiwan. Our staff from all the other sites come here for training, and we visit them regularly as well.’

 

Despite the mass exodus of secondary manufacture from Europe to the Far East, De Cordes says Sapim is determined to maintain the heart of production in its homeland.

‘If BMWs can be made in Germany and Bromptons in England, then we should definitely be able to make spokes in Belgium. It means continual investment but it is very important to our identity as a company.’

So important, in fact, that Sapim doesn’t want to jeopardise its position in the market or its relationship with its customers by producing anything other than spokes, nipples and rims.

De Cordes says development as a company will come through geographical expansion and technological advancement, not from diversifying the product catalogue.

‘When we took over Ryde in 2011 our customers assumed we would move into producing wheels, but we assured them this wouldn’t be the case,’ he says.

 

‘Our core business is in wheel parts, not wheelsets. We are very aware that our biggest and best customers are producing wheels. We don’t want to compete with them – that may have been the path of some of our competitors but for us that just wouldn’t be good for business.’

At this point Cyclist is joined by technical manager Michael Vlaeminckx, who is keen to share his passion for the entire Sapim product range.

‘Talking about our products will only get us so far though, I think,’ he says. ‘To properly get a sense of what we do we need to get onto the factory floor.’

Sapim’s bread and butter

Vlaeminckx leads us back under the lazily swinging wheelsets to a sturdy set of double doors. He swipes his staff badge to unlock them and we step into a vast, open-plan industrial unit.

We’re immediately greeted by the bangs, clicks, thumps and clatters of an efficient production line. It’s quite a din but after a while it all melds into the kind of rhythmic white noise you could imagine would lull a baby to sleep.

 

To demonstrate the journey a Sapim spoke goes on, Vlaeminckx guides us over to a huge spool of steel wire. It’s being pulled into a large machine that looks to have been well used over the years.

It cuts the wire to length, stamps the head, adds a J-bend and cuts the thread. Within a few seconds, a completed Leader spoke rattles down a chute into a waiting box.

‘We’ve got two of these machines here and each can churn out 100,000 spokes a day,’ says Vlaeminckx. ‘These are just the tip of the iceberg though.

 

‘We’ve got three categories of spokes: Basic, Butted and Aero. These Leaders are in the Basic category. Our more advanced spokes get more extensive work done to them.’

We follow Vlaeminckx down to the next section of the factory. He addresses every employee on the way personally and each responds with a smile and a joke.

When we reach the next part of the factory, where Butted spokes are made, it’s demarcated by another deposit of giant wire spools.

‘Each type of spoke starts from the metal in its raw form – it isn’t a case of adding more features to our basic spokes,’ says Vlaeminckx.

‘We believe we can more closely control the quality of the end product by having an independent production line for each design.’

Harmony of old and new

So far production has seemed appropriately traditional for a company with a 100-year pedigree. The machines look heavy and they clunk methodically, their metal so deeply burnished it shines like seasoned wood. Yet in the next section it all gets a bit more hi-tech.

 

Elongated octagonal metal-and-glass chambers house arms and appendages that zip around long lengths of wire, moving frenetically but with clinical precision.

‘These machines are proprietary – my team and I developed them,’ says Vlaeminckx with the excitement of a child with a new toy. They are one of the most tangible outcomes of De Cordes’ approach to consistent investment.

‘They essentially work in the same way – lengths of wire are compressed, then pulled, reducing the diameter of their middle portions – but our new machines are much faster than the old butting machines, which we mainly use for small-batch or special orders.

‘The new ones can produce 10,000 Lazer, D-Light or Race designs in 24 hours.’

Watching the machines dance and spin as they turn out spoke after spoke is slightly hypnotic, but before we can become mesmerised Vlaeminckx is off once again. He strides towards another small room.

‘This is how our Aero spokes are made,’ he says with an air of reverence once we are shut off from the rest of the factory. This is where the world’s most popular spoke, the CX-Ray, is created.

 

Three huge machines sit in the room, each with a small port in the centre where a cut spoke is placed in a die. It is then punched really, really hard.

‘There’s 300 to 400 tonnes of pressure behind that,’ he says as the machine makes a sharp shriek that’s followed by a deafening clang. A now perfectly bladed spoke is removed and inspected.

This operation is governed by experienced and specialist employees who can make 5,000 CX-Rays or CX-Sprints in an eight-hour shift.

 

Vlaeminckx approaches one of the machine operators and tucks the label of his Sapim-branded jumper in.

‘We’ve got guests, Lucien, we’ve got to be presentable,’ he says, patting the spoke-stamper on the back as the pair share a laugh.

As Vlaeminckx guides us away from the factory floor he stops to chat several times, the pride of introducing every person he speaks with evident in his manner.

This seemingly small touch is something he believes is vital to the success of the business.

‘Between 60% and 70% of the pro peloton are using our spokes, and I believe that is ultimately because of the working environment here. Happy employees always make the best products.’

With a philosophy like that, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Sapim still going strong in another 100 years.