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London, England, 1988. One of the first things I lusted after to upgrade my then quite ordinary mountain bike was a set of Mavic Paris-Dakar rims. Cool gray anodized, in a pack complete with that headset, teased the advertisements. The look, name, packaging, it all seemed so exotic compared with my rapidly appearing naff, silver stock wheels. I had already envied my skinny-tired friends with their Rossins and Pinarellos adorned with gray Open 4CDs, but here was a military-looking wheel set for a mountain bike; things were moving forward, Mavic was on my radar.
French Alps, 2014. I arrive at Mavic’s Annecy Design Centre and promptly reverse into the car park—the solid part, rather than the spaces in between that you are supposed to aim at. It is quite an impressive car park actually. Having your own multistory concrete car park is pretty impressive in itself to be fair, but I must admit to having a slight leaning toward the brutalist concrete car park as architectural statement. I don’t generally crash into them, but this one is so full I’ve had to take the last remaining non-space and squeeze my little Fiat Cinquecento into it. Not that little, it would appear, either—walking away, I notice there is a bit of it now on the ground, so it is getting smaller.
I’ve always wanted to come to the House of Yellow. There are a few brands that have been there my whole cycling life, but Mavic is one that’s always been alongside, consistent. Neither out of reach, nor left behind. In fact, I think we’ve kind of evolved in tandem. It’s taken 25-odd years, but here I am. I have finally arrived—and crashed into the building (hoping there’s no cctv!). As I stand in an immaculate reception area before my guide Michel arrives, the most sublime of French accents offers me coffee and a seat on some incredibly cool modern furniture while I wait. French style is famed of course, but I can’t help thinking sometimes that the heyday, and the part we are all clinging to, is about 1986. Because, perhaps, if you look closely at French car design, or architecture, or street fashion, it could all be considered a bit of out of date. They’ve always been on the subtle side of the fence compared with their neighbors, but currently they seem not to be able to let the shape do the talking. This is true of my beloved French car industry, none more so than Renault that seems to have left its design mojo somewhere in a service station on the D36 about eight years ago and hasn’t been back to pick it up.
But this is not true of Mavic. In fact, it is quite the opposite. The company seems to have encapsulated all that is modern and crucially contemporary about design, graphics, photography, filmmaking, branding, packaging and constant evolution of product, and it seems to deliver it over and over again with apparently effortless aplomb, all served up in a dish with “Made in France” stamped on the outside. I’m really interested to see how much of that just comes naturally and how much is worked hard for, because it seems to have been really consistent over the years.
My tour begins with a drive to the rim facility about an hour away in Saint-Trivier-sur-Moignans. This is where Mavic was once headquartered and where it has made its aluminum wheels since 1966, and continues to do so, while the rest of the operation has set up camp in Annecy. Although it feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere on a lane by a farm, once past the openly dated entrance the plant is very alive. In an age of Far Eastern autonomy, it’s always reassuring to find more than a two-dimensional existence in Europe, a real, tangible thrum of energy and noise and smell. Life for this village, hope for a continent perhaps.
Earplugs. Smiles. Hand shakes. I stand, surrounded by huge slabs of stacked black and silver aluminum. Ksyriums in the flat. Everywhere hang bundles of hoops ready for the next stage of their journey, bound like hay bales trussed up for their winter hibernation. In front of me stands the most enormous robot I think I’ve seen. It’s hugely impressive. I say stands, but it doesn’t stay still. It swings up, rolls, spins, pushes, grabs, lets go, swivels, machines, drills and scoots down with agility and precision and sometimes violence in such a way that it is almost human. There is even a sort of face that engages as it descends to our level and pauses for a second to stare through the cage back at us, its audience. I feel kind of sorry for it but then I think it seems quite happy really. It reminds me somewhat of the machine in the movie “Flight of the Navigator.” Probably talks when no one’s around.
As we walk on, I’m told the engineers had the robot built specifically for them. How and for what, I am told, are for eyes but not lenses; so I am left with impressions rather than records—which is a shame because a little video would probably be mesmerizing. All around, rims are pinned together by human hand and robotically welded seamlessly then machined away. One by one, flat square pipes become 26-inch, 29-inch and 700c circles before my eyes. Ksyriums and Crossmax machined into those smooth scalloped shapes, the familiar milky coolant washing over them as they become exposed silver again. It’s all so familiar from workshop to workshop, but it never ceases to captivate me.
Before I arrived, I kind of hoped the lady sticking on the decals would be a lady sticking on the decals. And she’s here. And with such hand-eye coordination, she could be a jet fighter pilot. Anyone that’s stuck new decals to a pride-and-joy frame will understand how (for mere mortals) it’s a “measure a hundred times, stick twice, buy more decals” procedure. But this master sticker is more of a “glance once, stick once, next” kind of a person. Obviously when you’ve done them for years it might get easier, but Michel points out that Mavic encourages people to do different jobs around the process to keep things fresh. Makes a lot of sense, and it’s all the more impressive if she’s only been doing it two hours….
Back in the car and back to the mountains, the conversation turns to my seeming obsession with the subtle differences in culture between Europe’s various next-door neighbors. Mavic it seems to me is in some ways really French, and yet in others, so un-Gallic. It’s clear on one hand it doesn’t feel a want or need to engage full-on into social-media marketing and drive a yellow presence through the Twitterscape, but on the other hand, it has that great copywriting, graphic, packaging, design and product design so dialed-in. Mavic is seriously cool. The employees know it, but they don’t blow it. Or at least they don’t seem to blow that trumpet themselves that much. That’s an admirable trait, definitely, but I worry if they need to do so a little more….
It is an increasingly digital world after all, and that means an insatiable appetite for now-ism that does tend to forget quickly and reward the sharp-witted current trumpet blower. It doesn’t sit quite right that Mavic has gone to all the trouble of building that yellow square into something really podium, and then it’s being subtle on getting there. But, talking with Michel, I realize the company may have a point, not so much tortoise and the hare but definitely a confidence and a courage of conviction that may just transcend the latest “cross platform marketing.” Now, I think it would be honest to say, France has a slight reputation of a confidence that can appear to blur the line of arrogance to some people not familiar with the country first hand, but from my experience you need to live in France to understand it properly. There is a live-and-let-live approach at ground level in this country and I think what is often misinterpreted as nonchalance, is actually just a relaxed confidence with themselves that they just don’t need reassurance and so don’t seek or, indeed, reject it. I also think the French get on with the British better than most in Europe’s happy/normally dysfunctional family too. We understand each other, and we laugh at each other of course, but we do so as close friends, closer I think than any other two European nations. I am always reminded that I like this place, I like the people, and I know it will be my home.
It would also be fair to say that this confidence at Mavic is founded in part in a history of French engineering often unjustly overlooked in favor of their German neighbors, but there is great tradition of innovation and revolution in French engineering history. Mavic is one of the oldest bicycle industry companies, dating back to 1889 and, although perhaps not shouted from the rooftops, there is a fair bit of playing on strengths back at Annecy. As we walk in past the yellow “sorry we’re riding” sign hanging on the door into the prototype area for clothing, I get the gist of the sense in sharing a corporate umbrella with premier outdoor and climbing brand Arc’teryx and footwear expert Salomon. The development of materials and processes goes back and forth across all three brands regularly. “It makes a lot of sense to share these technologies and discoveries,” explains Michel as he shows me a prototype Mavic Galibier shoe with what now appears to be obvious Salomon touches. “Sometimes in finding something doesn’t work for one brand, we find it actually works really well on another line from another brand.” That’s a serious hand to play too, a kind of outdoor person’s royal flush if you will. It’s at this point, I overhear reference to the staff clearance outlet store and get a wash of a feeling of not so much kid-in-a-candy-store excitement as man with an Arc’teryx problem in an Arc’teryx-outlet-store excitement.
After walking past molds for ski boots and cross-country shoes and skis on every surface, we enter the bit where they assemble the hubs, skewers and wheel sets. Basically, the metal stuff. There is some carbon in here too though—the prototype and development wheel-set workshop, while the main carbon production takes place in Romania once the designs are set. Shame I won’t see the CC40s and Ultimates getting glued into shape this time, but then there is something of particular interest I spot: the man who makes the Comete wheel. His desk is like a Fisher-Price activities center of carbon-wheel-building fun. A handmade personalized work station-cum-tool wall (made out of a couple of Comete discs and some jam jars!), reminiscent of a 1970s table rotunda for condiments but built on an SLR hub. It’s crude, but it’s also brilliant.
Opposite him sit a couple of steady-handed women with the world’s smallest hammer patiently knitting together the spokes for R-Sys wheel sets. The complex and high-tech woven Kevlar-and-composite tube design seems unbelievably simple in assembly: pull, measure, cut, thread, hold tight, press cap, smack with hammer. I’m sure the designer of the composites spoke had NASA-type modeling and aspirations, but down here, among the oil and the metal, it’s hammer time, sorry mate.
As we near journey’s end, there’s one more stop before I get to go and retrieve my wedged rental car from its concrete confines: the museum. This is in many ways often the most interesting part of a visit like this, not so much because you are looking backward after a day generally spent in the future, but because at my age in cycling years, I was part of that past as much as I am hoping I will be present in its future. A disc wheel from the ’88 Seoul Olympics, the first Crossmax, a velodrome tri-spoke wheel, now a clock, proper jerseys of cycling royalty past being thumbed through by very present heroes, Dan Martin and Mike Cotty. The service course neutral yellow bikes and wheels all neatly stacked ready, then another hero, Fabien Barel, sitting reading the entries of his peers in the visitors’ book. It’s all here today on this 125th company anniversary. But the thing that grabs me the most? Well, it’d be neat to say it was the Paris-Dakar rims package, right there, as they appeared in those ads I saw, with that headset, but it was actually the Mavic Zap electronic group on an old Look bike in the corner. Functionally ugly, probably didn’t work amazingly well, heavy no doubt, but what vision, what engineering ability, what design confidence those people had (and have). Conviction in what they do, who they were, who they are. Not fly by night, not rebranded, not going anywhere. Invested. Pro and they know it. La Maison Jaune translates. Mavic is cool.