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I’m riding around Paal in the Flanders region of Belgium with the Ridley factory Tuesday night ride—a couple of loops around the city, through tidy neighborhoods with perfect lawns and out into classic Belgian countryside—flat, green, tidy. We ride onto towpaths along huge rivers carrying equally huge barge trains covered in containers and ballast and industry downstream. All done in team kit and on Ridley’s flagship road bike, the Noah FAST, alongside the people that design, paint, decal, test, race and love Ridley bikes. And everyone we pass seems to love them, too. Ridleys are everywhere in Ridleytown. Cycling is massive here. All types, all sizes and all Ridleys. Belgians are very proud of Ridley and Ridley is very proud of that.
Ridley was formed in 1997 by Jochim Aerts. Already a frame builder and painter for other bike companies, Aerts took the experience he gained over the years and has turned Ridley into Belgium’s number-one bike company within a few short years. The company slogan, “We Are Belgium,” is true, but “Belgium is Ridley” is also true by the looks of it.
I am free to wander and look and make images to my heart’s content. I love places like this, partly because I live bikes but also because there’s always so much to see, so many little things to notice. I didn’t know it yet, but my trail through the building would take me pretty much through the story of a bike. From arriving from overseas in a container—raw, unfinished, grey—to the people that will dress it and get it ready for the party to those that will send it on its way in life, I drift through all the stages of the bike’s life.
Rough, prototype-looking lines of frames, non-descript and grey, sit along with racks of forks in similar finish awaiting a number tag. The number tag I learn is assigned at this point and stays with the bike throughout its time here. That explains the numbers I’ve seen knocking about all over the place on desks and surfaces covered in paint and masking tape.
As I move into the paint shop past the baking ovens and clear-coat cabin, a loud industrial gong sounds and all the lights flicker out. People emerge from all corners like eerie half-light-like characters in a fantasy film from the ‘80s, but they’re just heading for their lunch in one of the nicest and cleanest staff canteens I have ever seen. After all the British bike companies I’ve visited, it’s kind of weird seeing such efficiency and order in a bike facility. It’s what I imagine a car factory might be like if robots downed tools and went for a tea break. I’m still in the area when the gong, slightly reminiscent of a socialist industrial ideal, sounds again. The lights flicker on and the spray guns in the paint cabins buzz and blast as it all starts up again. Paint is weighed then mixed, loaded and sprayed. It’s impressive how hand-finished it all is; the paint pots are a beautiful installation in themselves. Lines of different blues, greens and reds all in any manner of pots and jam jars, all different sizes and with a myriad of paint splatters and drips. It’s part function and part pop art, but all cool.
Moving through to the design room, I talk to the guys about the decals that seem such a huge part of the Ridley experience. They’re everywhere. Shelf upon shelf of decal sheets await their frame. Noahs, Excaliburs, Icarus, Heliums. X Rides. Huge pages of intricate designs, ornate even. I notice a woman in the next room with a sheet on a large layout table, wielding a scalpel like a particularly confident or psychotic surgeon about to modify a punter. Talking to one of the designers it appears she’s the best in the building at what she’s doing. Whisking through a bike’s worth of decals, cutting them out, removing the unwanted transfer edges and preparing the sheets for the next stage in the process perfectly about as bloody quickly as it would be possible to do it. I notice also she doesn’t have any plasters on her hands and all the digits are intact. Clearly a professional.
Walking through the workshop and into the assembly area, a huge Viking-like man with a warrior beard and a kind of scowl stands in my way holding a pair of delicate looking forks and a massive hammer and a pipe. It could mean something else if I was in an episode of The Equalizer, but as it happens he handles the crown race setting tool. A bang I have never heard the likes of before comes off the delicate looking carbon forks and the Viking bumbles off muttering something about burning down villages and eating whole pigs, to get another poor fork quivering in the corner.
Coincidence rather than a loud electronic gong draws me to the gang coming out of the boardroom in time for some sandwiches that have appeared on the meeting tables in the immaculate showroom. I shake hands with the entire boardroom table, pick my sustenance and chat bikes and rides and cake and life, while wondering which of the steeds surrounding us will be mine tomorrow on the team ride, all the while secretly hoping it’ll be the orange and black Noah FAST with it’s aero brakes and integrated seat post I was asked to provide height information for pre-trip.
After lunch and walking through the workshop—past bar taping and mechanic tuning—I head back downstairs to get a better picture of the truck with the big “R” on the back and notice a large curtain with an equally big fan printed on it and another Ridley logo across it. “We’re very proud of that,” my guide Jo says, having appeared out of nowhere. The whole scene was already reminding me of The Wizard of Oz somewhat and I wonder if she was hidden behind it calling the shots all along. “That’s going to be our in-house wind tunnel specifically designed for testing aerodynamics on bicycles. It’s much more difficult to get the data you need from a generic wind tunnel designed for large models like cars and airplanes, not to mention costly.” A “generic” wind tunnel, who’d have thought it? What a concept. And what a bright idea to make your own, for your own needs. This place is sensible. And it obviously has big plans. The growth that has seen Ridley become such a Belgian success clearly has no plans on slowing down.
Aero is everywhere—it’s a big part of what Ridley is about now, and they’re very good at it. It’s visible in seat posts and head tubes and deep-section rims. But it’s being exploited way further than that, in less obvious and more ingenious ways such as integrated brakes, split fork legs and even the surface of the paint itself. There are surfacing techniques being rolled out here that stick the air close to the frame as it flows along with you on your time trial. Or captures it and moves it away from your spokes and through your fork leg, shooting it safely away from your path and saving you crucial seconds. That is a proven aid to racing, and racing is crucial to Ridley. They have provided the bikes for a team every year since the launch of the ProTour in 2005. That’s no mean feat given the cost of such exploits. But the general feeling is you need to have a presence in racing if you want to make great racing bikes. Makes sense. Racing is everywhere here; even the wallpaper is images of classics being played out on local cobbles. I find out later one of the people I just met is Tom Boonen’s dad.
After poking my nose inside the tour support motor homes and wondering if I now have tour support motor home envy, I am summoned upstairs to the offices to shoot a video interview with Jochim Aerts and Anthony Kumpen. Jochim is a warm and confident man. He knows his business and there’s no doubting his achievement or aspiration. Anthony is similarly friendly and he appears equally successful. Maybe it’s a Belgian thing? He notices my Le Mans 24hr T-shirt and after the interview a conversation about staying up all night in the rain and watching cars go round a track over and over again ensues. Except he doesn’t watch them, he races them—and he’s very good at it. Kumpen, I find out, is a Belgian GT champion, no less.
Bike ride over, videos in the can and presumably high flying meetings concluded, I prepare to head home to the UK. Clutching my goody bags, I wait for my lift to the Eurostar just as the heavens open.