I had been meaning to come here for an age. This unassuming square silver box on the edge of an airfield in southern Germany houses arguably one of the most sought after production lines in cycling, Lightweight wheels. Based at Friedrichtshafen airport, it sits opposite the hangers and under the flightpath of the legendary Zeppelin airship company which create a pleasant old fashioned ambiance as they whirr and float above with their muted propellers swivelling.
Dog tired from a long stint of Autobahn the night before which saw me arrive for dinner with the Obermayers late to find them eating vending machine sandwiches in the hotel lobby, insisting on waiting to greet me none the less, I pull into the car park passed the first space, reserved for a shiny large Porsche Panamera Turbo. I notice this seems to be a bit of a thing in cycling circles having seen at least four heads of state (including Fausto Pinarello and Axel Schnura) in these barges recently.
My guide Frank Jeniche welcomes me and runs through a history I can already see on every surface. As you’d expect there’s carbon everywhere but it seems to be of a mostly practical nature not decoration as such, coasters, table legs, coat hangers made from 700c rims, the mirrors in the bathrooms are Obermayers (presumably seconds – if they exist), even the runners and skirting boards of the steps and walls on the stairwells are carbon. Not showy, in fact I needed them pointing out to take notice but when I look, it’s everywhere. We sit at a large table with a wheel printed on it and a slideshow of trophies past and future projects is reeled out in front of my slowly re-caffeinating eyes. As with many of these tech companies what you know them for is a just small part of the puzzle. Here is an operation that makes everything from crop sprayers and architectural structures to satellites. When they say structures, they actually mean whole pieces of building made completely from carbon fibre. I am handed, slightly awkwardly, a full roof truss that even given it’s 4m length I can hold with one hand. Satellites though? I suppose had I thought about it, I would have assumed things floating around space were probably metal, but this is a much larger part of the jigsaw here than purely those dream hoops on Weight Weenies threads.
Resident engineer Thomas Leschik explains to me the return on investment in the different areas at this end of the composites market. Cycling isn’t bad, you might get a competitive and worthwhile return per kg saved in the top end of the bike industry, agriculture is also good. To be able to reduce the weight of a crop spraying trailer arm enough to mean it won’t sink a tractor into a wet field like a steel one or flex and cause uneven payload will solve problems but it’s space that is clearly their new frontier, although a small percentage of their time currently, the reward is potentially huge so presumably that will grow. The amount a space agency will reward you to reduce the weight they have to lug up to the stars begins to look very attractive from a market place with an ever increasing amount of new mass produced players looking to take a bite out of the history boys like Lightweight. I am handed a part of a satellite and realise the seriousness of all this. I ask about whether the extreme temperature changes of space aren’t a bit iffy for what seems to me basically a plastic spaceship? “Carbon is actually a very good material for space application, metals will expand and contract considerably as they come into and out of contact with sunlight that far from earth. Composites will remain in shape much better, as long as a resin is capable.” I ask about the motor industry. It’s future must be in weight saving? The resounding shrug says it all. “There is little return in the automotive world”. Quietly I ponder how long weight and fuel will remain a concern of the stars before it becomes a necessity back on earth.
Talk moves to bikes as I am handed a Meilenstein Obermayer front wheel and Frank shows me the reason for the then radical but still contemporary rim profile – the straight path of the spoke all the way to the rim. Along with the other composite Germans I realise you can just trust this lot to know what they are doing when it comes to your Sunday best wheels if they spend a bulk of their time making sure the objects orbiting the earth bounce your phone calls back home ok.
Wide adjoining spaces are almost entirely taken up with enormous rolls of sheet carbon being laser jotted and cut out automatically. Offcuts land in buckets at the ends of conveyors collecting the valuable but redundant shapes like five star recycling bins. Alongside a guy threads spools of carbon fibre strands onto a weaving machine that spins into life in an aggressive but rhythmic dance movement, robotic arms and legs flaying around until something a cyclist can recognise starts to appear at the other end.
Through some air locks, the space outside is home to large round autoclaves that resemble some sort of sci-fi decompression chambers, doors swung open, large lock wheels and pressure gages on stand by for the next hull breach or lunar landing. These enormous ovens have slide out baking trays being loaded up for the next cooking slot. Bike parts shrink wrapped in plastic bags sit in shiny expensive looking metal moulds waiting for the afternoon shift like some futuristic 1970s space utopia movie scene. People in hair nets, latex gloves and white coats quietly navigate the sterile environment while I wait for Charlton Heston to run through and alarms and flashing lights go crazy. He doesn’t. They don’t.
Every now and then Heinz Obermayer wanders passed clutching a frame or a set of wheels. Seemingly always smiling, his white shirt crisp and almost out of place here. I get the impression he’s pretty down to earth. This is a chap that seems at home wandering the length of the engine room solving problems rather than in the boardroom on the phone, a guy after all I have found to be happy to eat a lobby sandwich for dinner at 11pm when his guest hasn’t shown. I ask, in a nutshell, what it means to Lightweight to be doing what they are doing, “it’s all about atoms” I’m told. “Corralling atoms into straight lines. We are Atom Shepherds“.
The hair netted people are dotted about in all stages of the process. It’s very hi-tech but it’s also reassuringly human. A white coat walks in and collects a spool of rims with spokes sticking out in all directions. Looking like a fishermen holding onto giant lobsters, legs and tentacles jutting out all over the place, carefully and expertly he clumps them together and moves to a workbench where they await testing for tolerances presumably so German in their specification they are of course done individually. Frank demonstrates a machine measuring each and every wheel for perfect alignment and weight distribution. It’s remarkable but this is actually measuring the amount of material is the same at all points on the brake track to guarantee smooth revolution and equal wear, I point out my concerns over uber-expensive factory wheels with their ever diminishing brake strip and Frank reassures me that I need not worry, “You can have the brake track replaced here” Pointing to a rack of waiting patients he tells me “these are all having new brake tracks added, some are not even that worn, but there is new technology that can be applied to older models that will improve performance without needing to replace the entire wheel set“. I’m not sure this goes very far to allay my concerns but I figure were I to be able to measure my cycling success in tenths of seconds and have winter wheels that cost this much I possibly would sleep better at night knowing they weren’t quite as disposable as they could be.
The top secret nature of the operation results in only a handful of the photographs I am picturing as I walk round actually being recorded. Even harder is that I am allowed to witness some of the processes both surprisingly simple and unbelievably clever, yet not disclose what or how to anyone. It feels like having a secret you wish you didn’t know. I am privileged to have been exposed first hand to these stories of cycling myth and legend, but they are like a burden in a way, something I now know, want to share and yet must preserve unknown and intact.
On my way out I catch up with a still smiling Mr Obermayer. One of the better surnames in the business let’s face it, hands me a coffee and sits me down in his smart but unassuming office overlooking the runway outside. Talking about the history of Lightweight, he shows me cuttings and photographs from various points in his career. The now famous images of him in his blue overalls baking hubs and wheels in a domestic oven in his garage are here as little photos in a scrapbook. Tinted like decades remembered just as old prints get, they have an honesty about them, a humbleness that goes to add to my feeling that this very successful pioneer of composite technology is still a bloke that does it all because he loves it. There is a grandfather quality to Heinz Obermayer, here he sits with his wife Traudl showing me in their Bavarian accents the work equivalent to his family photo album, it’s not slick and presented, it’s not a book or a slideshow or a tv documentary, it’s a crappy old A4 album of memories that sits in a drawer in his desk ready to show the next cycling passer by.
I am drawn to a particular stage in his life about ten pages in involving cars he worked on. Namely that ultimate 1980s addition to any super saloon, the body kit. A couple of sections dedicated to Merc W124s and E28 Beemers with their oh-so-German side skirts and spoilers (that it appears he manufactured). I remember some of these models too, if I dug out the car books of my childhood I’d probably realise I had been lusting after this bloke’s handiwork decades before I first saw that aero rim profile. Homeward bound I see the Panamera’s moved off. Not this cycling boss then. Somehow it doesn’t quite fit the grass roots engineering mind, I imagine he’s probably got a straight forward no nonsense black E Class Estate instead. I like to think though that he might perhaps also fly an airship, like you could imagine an interesting energetic engineer grandfather possibly just might.
©Augustus Farmer 2015.