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Not all carbon bikes are created equal: Inside Factor's Taiwanese HQ

16 Jul 2019

Cyclist meets Factor’s Rob Gitelis in Taiwan to find out what makes his bikes tick
This article was originally published in Issue 85 of Cyclist Magazine

Words James Spender Photography Mike Massaro

Twenty-five thousand pounds… you could buy a nice car for that. Or 2.2% of a really nice and really expensive car, such as the £1.15m Aston Martin One-77. Or for £25,000 you could have bought that car’s companion piece, the Factor Aston Martin One-77 road bike.

Made by British motorsport specialists bf1systems, when the Factor One-77 appeared in 2012 it was easily the most expensive, most advanced production road bike of its day.

It had hydraulic lines ‘baked’ into the twin-down tube monocoque frame, and a computer moulded into the one-piece bar-stem that measured everything from humidity to lean angle.

At 9.1kg the One-77 was also rather heavy, the front rotor was on the wrong side and it had all the handling characteristics and comfort of a barn door.

‘We’re car guys,’ its makers told Cyclist when we featured it in the magazine. Yet we couldn’t help but be impressed. It was an engineering marvel. In time, Factor presented a slightly more ‘realistic’ proposition, the £10,000 Vis Vires.

It bore many hallmarks of the One-77, including the split down tube, but by now it was no longer in the hands of a motorsports firm, but was created by a man with significant bike building experience already, honed in the bike producing hub of China.

That man is Rob Gitelis, and we’ve travelled to Taichung City, Taiwan, to take a peek behind the carbon curtain.

Boy from the black stuff

‘I’ve worked in the carbon fibre bike industry for a long time,’ says Gitelis, whose voice carries a twang of film-noir detective that hints he’s not from around here. ‘Four years ago I found myself involved with Factor, one thing led to another and I purchased the brand.’

Brands changing hands isn’t new, but usually they sell to an investment group or bike-related conglomerate and relinquish some control to a higher power. When Gitelis took on Factor, however, the inverse was true.

‘My factory was the manufacturer for the Vis Vires, which is how I got to know bf1,’ Gitelis adds. ‘I set up my first factory in 2002 with a partner, and have owned several out here over the years, big factories making for lots of different brands.

‘I worked with Cervélo, Enve, Zipp, Canyon, Argon 18, Scott… many big brands. But eventually I decided to move away from that contract work and focus on Factor.

‘Rather than having 1,000 employees we now have 100, and we’ve built a small and very specific factory just for Factor Bikes.’

That might not sound unusual, but in the modern mass-production of bicycles, brands making their own products are actually few and far between.

‘So many companies started as manufacturers but have lost touch with manufacturing,’ he says. ‘Trek was a manufacturer, and I think does still make some top-end frames in the US, but it now has a relationship with Giant, just like Specialized does with Merida.

‘There are very few still in control of their own destiny like we are.’

Gitelis believes this is what makes Factor stand out in a crowded market. Although heavy hitters such as Giant and Merida own their own factories, they make for others too, turning out millions of frames per year. Factor, by contrast, seeks to operate in the thousands and control every aspect of manufacture.

Striking changes

Factor’s set-up is indeed small and specific, yet this is not its sole premises. While we are looking around Factor’s HQ in the Taichung Industrial Park, a few hundred kilometres away lies another arm of the business.

‘Our frames are made in our factory in Xiamen, China, 259km from here. In Taiwan we do the research and design, testing, sanding, paint and assembly, but Xiamen is where our factory makes our raw product.’

To that end, the Taiwan HQ comprises everything but the production line. The design and sales offices are here, the showroom, the warehouse full of sparkling new framesets and components all lined up to be inspected, boxed for shipping or assembled into full bikes.

It looks not unlike a pro team’s service course, which is apposite given that at the time of our visit Factor is still sponsoring AG2R La Mondiale.

One room is filled with Meccano-esque machines connected to computers. Next to them sit piles of pristine white bicycle frames alongside boxes of smashed and cracked parts. This is the test lab.

‘With AG2R we were seeing a number of failures in our seatstays – not the frame breaking on its own but as the result of a pile-up crash. So here we quantified how strong our current frame was with our own pendulum drop test – a weight swung from 90° onto the side of the seatstay.

‘Our original frame cracked after one strike, so we re-engineered the stays to be able to sustain eight strikes before a crack occurs, but we did so without adding extra weight or changing the ride characteristics of the bike.’

Smoke and mirrors

If you own your own business you can do what you want, and it’s this philosophy that Gitelis says differentiates Factor from his previous work as a factory for hire, and from the majority of his current competition.

‘A lot more work goes into our products than into products I have made for brands in the past. Back then, many times I wanted to do something better for my customers, but better always comes with a cost, and they wouldn’t accept that.

‘I would want to charge $50 more [to make improvements to a frame], but for them that means they have to add $500 at the retail level. To my mind that doesn’t need to be the case – just add $50 into your cost calculation and it all moves through. But they couldn’t imagine it that way.’

To illustrate this, Gitelis returns to the example of the seatstays. Where other brands may have simply used more of the same material, Factor changed the carbon fibre for a more expensive type pre-impregnated with tougher resin.

‘It’s not just about the carbon fibres, because about 30% of a carbon fibre frame is the resin. Carbon fibres are just very fine filaments, stiff per weight but very easy to snap individually.

‘The resin allows the carbon fibres to become usefully stiff by binding the fibres together, and adds toughness itself.’

Materials are crucial to a bike’s properties, yet Gitelis believes that within the industry there’s a lot of bluff and misdirection when it comes to the black stuff. 

‘You hear so much about high-modulus carbon fibre,’ he says. ‘That doesn’t necessarily make a good bike. Or ultra-high modulus, which in engineering terms doesn’t even exist!

‘Then you have “aerospace”. That just means your carbon fibre comes with a certificate saying it has been approved for aerospace use, but you can buy exactly the same carbon fibre without the certificate for 25% less.

‘There’s so much marketing speak that isn’t rooted in reality. On top of that, you have companies buying three different materials with three different resin systems and mixing them in one frame.

‘I question that, because those resin systems may not bind together well. You can have the best fibres in the world but if they don’t have the right resin system you’ve wasted your money.’

Therefore, instead of buying off-the-shelf material to make its bikes, Factor gets its carbon fibre yarn from Japan from companies such as Toray and Mitsubishi, and has it sent to Korea to have a specific resin system applied.

But if that’s a better model, why aren’t other companies copying?

‘A company like Toray has a salesman who says to the factories, “This is our new fibre and we’re supplying so and so,” and the factories say, “OK, we want the same.” So everyone ends up with the same material and no one necessarily questions what has gone into it.

‘You hear all this T700, T1000 talk, but really those are very standardised materials. High-modulus material is so stiff it will break if you try and lay it into acute angles in a mould, so it’s not good for every part of a frame. It’s also so brittle a worker can break it as they’re placing it into a mould, without even realising.

‘Then you hear talk of other materials like Kevlar,’ he adds. ‘Now, Kevlar is useful for impact strength, but it has been around for a long time and it doesn’t fuse well with carbon fibre.

‘Or nanotechnology. When I worked making for Zipp we developed a handlebar with nano, but to use it in a way that made a noticeable difference added $200 to the cost of a handlebar.

‘So it’s like graphene now – there is potential but it hasn’t been commercially realised yet. But that doesn’t stop brands from sprinkling it in and saying it’s there.’

Primarily, though, it all comes back to money. Better materials cost more and require a skilled workforce working at a time-consuming pace. Then on top of that there is some considerable waste that also needs to be accounted for.

‘We use more complex shapes for the individual plies in our layups to create lighter, stronger, stiffer frames. I hate to say it, but around 25% of the material we buy in ends up in the garbage as scrap.

‘Other companies can’t fathom that idea, so they use much simpler shapes for their plies to keep waste at around 5%. But their frames won’t be as optimised as ours.’

Gitelis rues this aspect of carbon fibre manufacture, but he does point out that Factor’s waste is taken away by a company that grinds it up and adds it to concrete as reinforcement.

It’s still not ideal, ‘but unfortunately you can’t recycle carbon fibre, so at least this way it’s not simply going to landfill’.

The long game

Over the course of our tour it becomes evident that Gitelis has a wealth of experience in carbon fabrication, which begs the question: why swap a lucrative trade as a contract manufacturer for the more risky business of owning your own brand?

‘The industry I started in was exciting, working directly with people like Phil White and Gerard Vroomen [Cervélo founders], Andy Ording [Zipp] and Jason Shiers [Enve], but it all changed when companies were sold and the bottom line was price. It became sterile.

‘I look at Factor as a chance to prove a point about what bikes should and can be. For example, our O2 bike went through more than 60 iterations of different rideable layup designs.

‘There’s no way I could have done that for another brand – they would never have been able to account for that level of research and development in their margins.

‘It would take a contract vendor two weeks to get an iteration out to a brand for them to test, because they are working for lots of brands all at once. Focussing on just Factor, we can make an iteration in a single day.

‘Manufacturing our own brand means we can combine the manufacturing and margin with the retail price, so it still works out financially but we can offer a better product than our competitors at the same price.

‘The scary thing of course is it’s all your own money invested. But it’s not a gamble, it’s a calculated risk. I’ve got 23 years of experience in this industry. I live here. I know it.’

What’s in a factory?

Not all carbon fibre bikes are created equal

Most names on the down tube haven’t actually made that bike. Rather, that bike was designed by the brand name then executed by a contract factory, most likely in China. It’s a good enough model, but there are pitfalls, says Gitelis.

‘You have about five really big players [factories] in carbon fibre, then about 50 smaller players. To be part of the big five you have to be a Trek, Specialized, Scott, Cervélo… You need to be doing significant volume.

‘If you’re a smaller brand you’re with the 50, and there’s a significant gap between the big factories and small ones. If you’re in the 50, you really need to keep an eye on what’s going on in terms of quality control and expediency.

‘Then there are open moulds [where anyone can order a batch of blank frames from a stock catalogue]. Those are one step away from the copies, the fake Pinarellos.

‘If you read anything like, “This comes from the same factory as Cervélo,” that simply isn’t true. No premier factory makes open moulds – it would put off their premium customers.

‘I know it seems odd that a big manufacturer like Giant makes bikes for its own competitors, but it’s in everybody’s interests. It’s economy of scale. The Giant brand plus the Trek brand enables everybody’s costs to go down.’