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Bob Bigelow’s Mounting Company. That’s the original name behind BMC. It was formed in 1986 by an American in Switzerland who built up bikes for Raleigh. Talk about inauspicious beginnings. In 1995, Bigelow lost the Raleigh license, stepped back from the company and established a new name—sort of. It was still known as BMC, but now with a different meaning behind the letters: Bicycle Manufacturing Company. The early days of just building bikes were replaced by a slow move into bike production. However, this evolution wasn’t terribly successful.
Words & images: Jered Gruber
At that time, BMC was following trends, and as such, was consistently behind, barely getting by. Road bikes weren’t even on the radar.
That all changed in 2001 when Swiss entrepreneur and billionaire, Andy Rihs, bought BMC. The direction of the company changed dramatically, but more importantly so did the company’s ambition. Investment was channeled into R&D, engineering, and marketing. Most importantly, Rihs wanted a road bike.
BMC aligned with Rihs’ Swiss professional team, Phonak, and the fateful request came to BMC’s
R&D department: “Please make me a road bike that is capable of winning the Tour de France.”
It didn’t take long for the company to lift off with the investment and encouragement of Rihs. Like the BMC bikes the Phonak team rode, the team grew and improved with each season. BMC made its Tour de France debut in 2004; races fell to the ascending brand’s constantly improving bikes, and then, in 2006, BMC and Phonak reached the zenith: a Tour de France crown. Of course, that triumph was short lived, but it was a crucial testament to what Rihs and his company could manage.
It wouldn’t have been surprising if Rihs never returned to the sport following the Phonak debacle. He had given so much to the sport and gotten something far worse than nothing in return. The man’s passion for cycling was insatiable though, and just months after the collapse of Phonak, the very modest American-based BMC Racing Team began. This team grew slowly over the next three seasons, but in 2010 they returned to the big time with a flurry of huge signings, including Cadel Evans. A year later, Rihs and BMC had a maillot jaune on the Champs Elysees, courtesy of Evans.
The crown jewel in the BMC stable is the Impec. The origin of the Impec (short for Impeccable) came well before Evans’s jubilant parade laps down the Champs Elysees though. The seed was planted before even Landis’s infamous victory.
The quest to make the perfect bike has seen most companies turn to the Far East for help, and why not; the cost is low and the monster factories are the recognized masters of the carbon domain. That option wasn’t good enough for Andy Rihs though. The Swiss entrepreneur has never been one known to go either the traditional route or any direction other than 100% forward. He wanted to build the best bike possible, and to do that he realized that he needed to bring everything in-house with his own factory. So Rihs and BMC created their own facility in Grenchen, Switzerland.
It makes perfect sense if you want to take a seat at the stereotype table. The area around Grenchen, Switzerland, has a long history as a world center for luxury watch production; both Rolex and Breitling are just a little ways down the road. Rihs’s goal to make the perfect bike orbited around one principle goal: precision. Like the world’s finest watches, the solution lies in a great design, materials, and precision, according to Rihs and BMC.
It’s not that the factories in the Far East don’t make good products, it’s just that Rihs saw the future in a different way. His feeling was that while the traditional handmade component of a carbon lay-up is excellent, it introduces unwanted variables in the manufacturing process—chief among them, the variables inherent in any kind of human involvement.
Rihs’s dream was to do away with all uncertainty, all chances for contamination, all possibility of anything other than perfect, so he went all in and decided to mechanize the process. A new facility was created, at a cost of around forty million dollars. While they haven’t been able to take humans entirely out of the process, the Impec manufacturing process is decidedly machine based, with humans only taking the pieces from one process to the next … and it’s a sight to behold.
The machine-based process allows for a number of unique possibilities [for the record, TIME has been doing this for many years]. The process hinges around an incredible two meter in diameter portal of sorts. The aptly named Stargate (a la the sci-fi movie) is a giant carbon-weaving machine. A robot arm feeds the mold around which the giant loom that surrounds it will weave the tube on. Dozens of weaving cylinders rotate in beautiful synchronicity, with the result of their work being a beautifully braided piece of carbon. The spectacle hides a crucial BMC innovation though, which they call Load Specific Weave (LSW), the weaving process that allows for extreme fine-tuning of the tubing by controlling the orientation of the carbon roving.
When the weaving process is done, the carbon feels like a snake sans its internals, or, a Chinese finger trap, if you prefer. The carbon doesn’t take on its characteristic features until the next step in the process: resin injection. Once again, this is a fully automated process, and like LSW above, there’s an acronym for this as well: RTM, or Resin Transfer Molding. The resin is injected into a mold, resulting in a perfect tube in terms of strength and finish—according to BMC.
Now that the tubing has taken shape, now it needs to be cut to specific size and geometry. This is accomplished via a six-axle robot and a diamond saw, which cuts to one-tenth of a millimeter tolerances.
With carbon perfectly braided, resin transferred, tubes cut, they need to be joined. Some would call BMC’s solution to joining the tubes a lug, but BMC prefers to refer to it as the SNC or Shell Node Concept. The lugs, I mean shell nodes, come in two pieces and are made of injection-molded short-strand carbon fiber by another company just down the road.
With the bike built at this point, we’d let BMC off the hook if they went to humans at this stage, but they stay the course with their painting and printing processes. The six-axle painting robot is said to be able to replicate any human movement to perfection, while the pad printing process is the icing on the cake. Fully automated and highly flexible, the visual quality and durability are nearly perfect … without a clear coat.
All that’s left is to put everything together. This is the first time that humans play any sort of real role in the process, and it’s just putting the puzzle pieces together. The tubes and perfectly glued shell nodes are fitted together. The two-piece nodes allow for, once again, a more precise building process compared to one-piece lugs; in this case, the placement of the glue is obviously done by a robot and controlled by a “blue eye” camera. What else?
The result is a beautiful, unique looking bike. There is no questioning the quality of the bike, nor the actual ride. The Impec earns a rightful place amongst the pantheon of the best bikes in the world. The real piece of intrigue though is the knowledge that BMC is still just getting everything dialed in. One has to wonder what’s possible in the future for the machine-based factory in Grenchen. Whatever the creation, it’s bound to be impressive.