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Mavic : Factory Visit

Mavic bike
James Witts
23 Apr 2015

Secrets don't come easy but we've peaked behind the curtain to see the Service Course and how a Ksyrium rim is made.

Mavic is as much as part of the Tour de France as trident-wielding devils, indignant gendarmerie and Dutch fans on Alpe d’Huez. Mavic’s Service des Courses – those blazing yellow motorbikes with mechanics and spare wheels hanging off the back – are very much the public face of a French company that celebrated its 125th anniversary last year.

In that time it has reshaped the cycling landscape, with highlights including creating the first complete wheel when tradition dictated rims, spokes and hubs were all manufactured and fitted separately. It was the first to use carbon in wheels; it produced the first aero wheel; the first electronic groupset; and its wheels were seen beneath the Garmin, Cofidis and Katusha teams in 2014. Mavic couldn’t be more stereotypically French if it wore a beret and had a string of onions around its neck. Which makes it a bit of a letdown when I arrive at the French HQ to discover that the carbon wheel range is manufactured and built in… Romania.

Mavic clothing

‘But we make most of our aluminium rims in Saint-Trivier-sur-Moignans, while all the R&D and prototyping is done at our Annecy HQ,’ says Michel Lethenet, a former mountain bike journalist who is now Mavic’s global PR manager. ‘It’s where I’m taking you now…’

Mavic wheels

Mavic’s HQ is unlike any bike manufacturer’s facility I’ve ever visited, partly because most of the mannequins on show at the entrance are adorned in running gear. ‘We’re owned by Finnish-based Amer Sports,’ says Lethenet. ‘It also owns Salomon, as well as brands like Wilson [tennis] and Suunto [heart rate monitors].’ The building measures 17,000 square metres and houses around 900 staff, with 125 of those working for Mavic. Though one of the big players in cycling, Mavic is around a tenth of the size of Salomon. But whether you’re a runner or cyclist, this part of France is an endurance sport mecca with the HQ sitting within the shadows of the Parc Naturel Régional du Massif des Bauges – a huge, mountainous nature reserve.

It’s an inspiring setting for Mavic’s team of engineers to design and test the next generation of wheels – or so I imagine. ‘Non autorisé’ is a common response from Lethenet when I go nosing in rooms and down the many corridors that branch off from the main atrium in search of new products or futuristic testing procedures. ‘Privacy is important. Technology and patents are important,’ says Lethenet. ‘If we create new things and we patent them, it’s to preserve all the investment and effort to create that product. Our innovations aren’t marketing gimmicks.

Mavic is far more open about its clothing and shoe range, created by an apparel department that harks back to this area’s milling heritage. It’s stacked high with technical fabrics, and Lethenet is keen to emphasise the advantage Mavic has in creating functional sportswear thanks to its close association with Salomon. But we haven’t come here to look at jerseys. To most riders the name Mavic means one thing: wheels. ‘OK, if you want history, let’s have a look at the Service des Courses area,’ says Lethenet. ‘And yes, you can take photos.’

Service des Courses

Mavic pro team

C’est formidable. Tucked away in Mavic HQ is a road cyclist’s fantasy. Here is where Mavic trains its team for the neutral mechanical service they’ve provided at Classics and stage races for over 40 years. In 1972, a team manager’s car broke down while following the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré. Mavic chairman Bruno Gormand lent his own car to the manager and the idea was born. A year later, Mavic’s neutral service appeared officially at Paris-Nice and has been supporting races and riders ever since.

‘In 2014 we covered 89 events – professional, amateur, sportives and mountain bike,’ says Lethenet. ‘The Tour is obviously very important but the most demanding is Paris-Roubaix where we have 17 people involved. That’s on top of four cars, four motorbikes, one lorry and 120 pairs of wheels. Tony over there can change a wheel in under 15 seconds, no problem.’ I look through a window at Tony, who’s busy jet-washing a Skoda. The window is framed with route maps of previous Tours and posters of cycling legends. I’m half expecting Ned Boulting to walk into shot, but this is no parody – it’s Tony’s life. He’s been doing it for 30 years.

‘Things have changed,’ he says. ‘A race like Paris-Roubaix, riders are using ever-wider rims – up to 27 and 28 now. That race is unique because we also deflate tyres to just five bar of pressure [72psi].’

Mavic boardman lotus

In the corner of the Service des Courses is a lump of carbon that’s dusted with memories. It’s the Lotus Super Bike Chris Boardman rode to track pursuit gold at the 1992 Olympics and, in the process, awoke British cycling from a medal-less slumber that had lasted 72 years. While design guru Mike Burrows and Lotus rightly received technological praise, Mavic’s contribution is less heralded but equally as progressive. On the rear was a Mavic disc, upfront the Mavic 3G – a carbon tri-spoke wheel – which encountered a unique problem.

‘We were heavily involved in the development of the bike because there was only one fork leg,’ says Lethenet. ‘We had to forge a bespoke hub to cope with the asymmetric torque.’

It also forged a relationship with British Cycling that continues to this day. Since Boardman’s exploits, Britain has bathed in track gold while French cycling has suffered a malaise. It all got too much for the then director of French cycling at the London Olympics. After Jason Kenny had demolished France’s great hope, Gregory Bauge, in the men’s sprint, Isabelle Gautheron complained that GB was using ‘magic wheels’. ‘They hide their wheels a lot,’ she said at the time. ‘Do they really use Mavic wheels?’

The British media had a field day – ‘Quelle Horror’, reported the Daily Mail. Lethenet was more pragmatic: ‘We worked with British Cycling a lot during the build-up to London and continue that relationship today, in Manchester, here and in the wind-tunnel we use in Geneva. We offered the same service to the French guys but they never came. And then they yell.’

Ironically, the new €68million velodrome in the suburbs of Paris is a legacy of France’s failed bid to stage the 2012 Olympics. It’s also a sign that the French are shrugging off a culture of racing from the heart and beginning to embrace technology. ‘They have to,’ says Lethenet. ‘Cycling is only going to become more scientific.’ Leaving the Service des Courses, we head to the car for the 150km drive to the aluminium rim factory in Saint-Trivier. As we walk we pass numerous machines revolving Mavic prototypes at speed with mud and water flying everywhere. ‘We’re testing for corrosion and waterproofing,’ says Lethenet. ‘That’s as much as I can say.’

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