Trek Bicycle Corp: Tour de Force

By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld Print this article Print

The Wisconsin manufacturer has cranked out a series of 'ultimate road bikes' for Lance Armstrong—boosting its bottom line by selling to everyday cyclists wanting to own them.

The day was sunny and warm in Waterloo, Wis., a low-key place where a truck stop operator can commute to work on a 16.5-horsepower Craftsman riding mower.

It's 1997. Paul Andrews is taking a 20-minute spin on a Trek Y-Foil road bike. The bike is black, revealing its unpainted carbon fiber tubing. Attached at three strategic spots are sensors. These sensors, affixed to the bottom bracket, the head tube and the chain stay, are wired to a small "data acquisition unit,'' a black box attached to the frame.

In effect, Andrews that day was taking an electrocardiogram of the bounces and stresses his route took up and down the hills of this farming country.

The sensors are strain gauges, and the output of that day's ride was fed into a database of approximately 5,000 other rides taken by Trek testers in the past dozen years. The goal: to provide enough information on where real rides put torque and pressure on real bikes, in order to design lighter yet better bikes.

Andrews, who stands 6 feet 2 and weighs 195 pounds, had no idea at the time that his uneventful ride would ultimately benefit Lance Armstrong, a 5-foot-11, 165-pounder who just happens to be the only American ever to win the world's most difficult race, the Tour de France, five times.

By the time you read this, Armstrong will be in the midst of trying to become the first cyclist of any nationality to win the Tour six times—and do it in consecutive years.

To that end, Armstrong spends six hours a day or more training on his bike, mostly in Spain and southern France, to be in shape to beat younger riders eager to knock him off his throne. He is his own engine.

But the vehicle he rides does matter. Saving the 32-year-old Armstrong as little as 10 watts of energy over the course of a 120-mile stage of the Tour will speed his trip by one minute. Not much? Last year, in his record-tying fifth Tour win, he edged German rival Jan Ullrich by 61 seconds after 2,125 miles of racing.

That was his closest call yet—and a clear notice that he will need every ounce of energy and reduced weight he can muster if he is to stave off such gathering competition as 26-year-old Iban Mayo of Spain and Tyler Hamilton, a much-respected American who finished fourth last year while riding almost the entire race with a broken collarbone.

Designing a 'Secret Weapon'

This is where the 5,000-ride database of the Trek Bicycle Corp. comes into play. Using a combination of three-dimensional modeling software from Alias, once a unit of hardware maker Silicon Graphics; mechanical design software from SolidWorks; and low-cost, high-performance personal computers running Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices, senior industrial designer Michael Sagan and a project team of 12 worked from December 2002 to April 2003 to simultaneously design bikes that would give Armstrong an edge in two consecutive Tours. The first, which became the basis of Trek's Madone line of bikes, was Armstrong's "daily drive" in the race pack, a.k.a. peloton. A second is to be his secret weapon in this year's Tour, a version of the Madone called the SSL that is specially designed to race uphill.

The reason: The key stage in the 2004 Tour de France is likely to occur on July 21. That's when each racer will face cycling's "race of truth," an individual time trial. Each rider departs two minutes apart and races against the clock, without the protection or aid of any teammates. And this year, the key time trial is not on flat ground or mild inclines. It will be a 15-kilometer race up the legendary 1,780 meters (5,840 feet) of L'Alpe d'Huez—described by cyclists as "21 hairpins of pain."

The ride database helps Sagan and the Project Orion team compute "fluid dynamics," to understand what happens to the "dirty air" that flows past and through Armstrong's always chopping legs as well as surrounding tubes, cranks and pedals. The data also allows the team to perform "finite element analysis,'' showing them the exact locations of stress on the carbon fibers that make up the frame—and where layers of carbon fiber can be reduced.

To this end, the Orion team, which included composite engineers Scott Nielson and Brian Schumann and carbon fiber frame pioneer Jim Colgrove, produced a breakthrough in the company's drive to develop ever-thinner sheets of carbon fibers. This year, some layers of carbon will weigh just 55 grams, or a little less than 2 ounces, per square meter. That's only slightly more than three times the weight of the plastic that wraps a deck of playing cards (15 grams per square meter).

It's also about a third of the weight of the production model Trek bike that Armstrong used in his initial Tour victory in 1999. In that bike, the carbon weighed 150 grams per square meter.

Even this year, the bulk of Armstrong's latest specially made bike will use sheets of carbon fibers that weigh 110 grams per square meter. But here's where the sensors and strain gauging pay off. Nielson and Schumann looked carefully at the results of stresses placed on every finite element of the frame and were able to replace 110-gram sheets with 55-gram sheets in locations such as the socket that joins tubes together near the handlebars, the rear fork and the seat post.

Once any identifiable weight is shaved off, the design of any Armstrong bike then must factor in Armstrong's own preferences. After all, this is a fellow who can instantly tell if the wheelbase has been altered by 3 millimeters. To provide the desired stiffness, the team will rely on benchmarks from tests performed on the flexibility of the rear load-bearing arms of the bike known as the chain stay. To achieve comfort, the team relies on measures of the stiffness of the frame itself. And to predict jitter—the uncomfortable feeling that the bike is out of control on a serious descent—the Trek team relies on results of frontal impact deliberately entered into the database from crash tests.

Out of the Tunnel

All in all, the process of building an Armstrong bike no longer needs the aid of the Oran J. Nicks Low Speed Wind Tunnel at Texas A&M University. By the time Armstrong gets on a new bike, airflow, responsiveness and road feel have all been factored in.

Supposedly. Even after going through the "wind tunnel in a box,'' the true test is when the "rubber meets the road,'' says Andrews, a prototype technician, almost blandly.

That means not every computer-driven attempt to produce an "ultimate road bike" succeeds. Also produced by the Orion team for Armstrong this year was a bike designed for a special stage known as a team time trial, where he and his teammates jointly race against the clock.

When Armstrong earlier this year rode the team trial bike, he loved its acceleration, Sagan says. But he didn't like it, overall, because he "couldn't maintain watts.'' In effect, Armstrong was fast off the starting line but lost power over the long haul. Reduced rear-end spacing of crank and pedals produced, for Armstrong, less efficient transfer of energy from leg to pedal.

By the Tour de Georgia in April, Armstrong was back to riding last year's bike, upgraded with 2004 components.

Even his secret weapon for the 2004 Tour is no longer so secret. In his favorite tuneup for the Tour each June, the one-week Dauphine Libere stage race, Armstrong used the same uphill time trial bike that he will use at L'Alpe d'Huez. This time, though, the uphill time trial was on the barren Mont Ventoux, a forbidding peak that appears regularly as part of the Tour de France route.

Armstrong was two minutes behind Mayo, who won the stage. Mayo also won the tuneup overall, by two minutes over Armstrong.

All is not lost for the Orion team. The bike Armstrong does not like is favored by his United States Postal Service teammate Viatcheslav Ekimov, who hopes to ride it not just in support of Armstrong in this month's Tour but to a repeat gold medal victory at the Olympics next month.

The Big Payoff

Even if Armstrong fails to capture his sixth successive yellow jersey at the end of the Champs Elysee in Paris this month, the payoff for Trek is incontrovertible.

Ten years ago, a typical high-end Trek road bike sold for $2,200, according to Andrews. This year, a typical price tag is $4,800.

Rolling out of its frame factory in Waterloo this year are versions of the bike Armstrong rides that will sell in stores across the country for up to $7,000, and possibly more.

The Madone bikes are named after a hill in southern France that Armstrong uses as his test each year of whether he is prepared for the Tour. They have been given an airfoil design that not only saves weight but stokes emotions. Customers "like it. It looks cool. Lance rides it. How can you beat that formula?'' asks Sagan.

Last year, Trek produced 3,800 of the Madone bikes for commercial sale. This year, it will produce in excess of 30,000. "There seems to be a limitless tolerance'' on price, says Sagan.

But it's imperative, too, for Trek to move up the price curve. Ten years ago, Trek only imported bikes that cost less than $400. Now, with increasing competition from foreign companies on mass-produced frames and components, Trek imports all bikes that it sells for less than $1,000.

At its plant in Waterloo, tubes are still joined together by hand. Defects are sandblasted, then polished away by manufacturing engineer Zippie Huxtable and other factory hands. Paint is still applied by man, not vat. Decals are affixed by hand.

The handmade quality allows Trek to offer customers a lifetime warranty on its frames. But that also means the company constantly looks for ways to raise the average ticket price. One promising tack: Project One, where individuals come to Trek's Web site and design their own custom bikes, from paint jobs to frame size to component choices. That can add a couple of hundred dollars, sometimes more, to a product before it gets built.

Of course, its mainstream customers are not buying speed, even though they want the lowest weight and the latest models that offer it. "I just came from L.A.,'' says brand manager Zapata Espinoza. "It's all about status.''

Even for pros like Armstrong, the look of the bike matters, almost as much as its physical characteristics. "If you look tough and fast, psychologically you're tough and fast,'' says Sagan.

What Sagan and his team may be recognizing, though, is that there's almost no weight left for them to slice off the bike for pros such as Armstrong. The International Cycling Union regulates the size, weight and other dimensions of competitive bikes, much the way the United States Golf Association and The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews do for golf equipment. The minimum weight of a road bike eligible to compete in the Tour de France is 14.96 pounds. The latest effort by the Orion team for Armstrong weighs a couple of tenths of a pound above the minimum, Sagan estimates.

The Holy Grail? A 2-pound frame. In practicality, that can be achieved today, thanks to the arrival of 55-gram carbon fiber sheets and the element analysis that can constantly identify points of least stress. But the effort to break that barrier will proceed carefully. "There would come a point where [the frame] is unreliable,'' says Sagan. "We might not be able to do much [more].''

Trek Bicycle Corp. Base Case

Headquarters: 801 Madison St., Waterloo, WI 53594

Phone: (920) 478-2191

Web site: www.trekbikes.com

Business: Bicycle manufacturer

Design Technology Officer: Michael Sagan, senior industrial designer

Financials: Privately held. Estimated 2003 sales of $500 million (OneSource Information Services).

Challenge: Design and make bicycles in America at a profit.

Baseline Goals:

  • Raise average ticket price of a high-end bicycle beyond $5,000.

  • Reduce weight of frame, to two pounds.

  • Help Lance Armstrong win sixth consecutive Tour de France.

    This article was originally published on 2004-06-28
    Tom was editor-in-chief of Interactive Week, from 1995 to 2000, leading a team that created the Internet industry's first newspaper and won numerous awards for the publication. He also has been an award-winning technology journalist for the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
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