Nearly ten years ago…
The previous evening’s Eurostar arrival after dark and subsequent confusion with taxi collection involving a side of the economy best left forgotten seemed like ancient history. I was 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, neat. We ride onto towpaths along huge rivers carrying equally huge barge trains covered with industry in containers headed downstream. All decked out in team kit and on Ridley’s flagship road bike of the time, the Noah FAST, alongside the people that design, paint, decal, test, race and love Ridley bikes. And frites – proper Belgians all. And everybody we passed seemed there to love them too. Ridleys are everywhere in Ridleytown, Belgium. Cycling is massive there. 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 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’ could also be leveled.
I was free to wander, observe and make images to my heart’s content. I loved places like this, partly because I live bikes but also because there’s always so much to see and little things to notice. I didn’t know it yet, but my trail through the building would take me through the a part of the story of a bike. From arriving from overseas in a container — raw, unfinished and grey — to the people that would dress it and get it ready for the party, to those that would send it on its way in life. I drifted through various stages of a bike’s life.
Rough, prototype-looking lines of frames, non-descript and grey, sitting along with racks of forks in similar finish awaiting a number tag and a frame to hang off. The number tag I learned was assigned at this point and stayed with the bike throughout its time there. That explained the number tags I’d seen knocking about all over the place on desks and surfaces covered in paint and masking tape.
As I moved into the paint shop past the baking ovens and clear-coat cabin, a loud industrial gong sounded and all the lights flickered out. People emerged from all corners like eerie half-light characters in a fantasy film from the ‘80s, but they were just staff heading for their lunch in one of the nicest and cleanest work canteens I’ve seen. After all the British bike companies I’ve visited, it’s kind of weird seeing such gong sounded 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 once again 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 once more 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 messy and 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 on to the design room, I talk to the team about the decals that seem such a huge part of the Ridley experience. They’re everywhere. Shelf upon shelf of decal sheets awaiting their frame. Noahs, Excaliburs, Icarus’, Heliums. X Rides. Huge pages of intricate and ornate designs in neat piles. I noticed 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 appeared she was the best in the building at what she did. 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 also noticed she didn’t have any plasters on her hands and all the digits were intact. Clearly a professional.
Walking through the workshop and into the assembly area, a huge Viking-like man with a warrior beard and scowl stood in my way holding a pair of delicate looking forks in one hand and a massive hammer in the other. It could have meant something else if I was in an episode of The Equalizer, but as it happened he handled the crown race installations. A bang I have never heard the likes of before came off the delicate looking carbon forks and the Viking bumbled off muttering something about burning down villages and eating whole pigs, to grab another poor fork quivering in the corner.
Coincidence rather than a loud electronic gong drew me to the gang coming out of the boardroom in time for some sandwiches that had appeared on the meeting table in the immaculate showroom. I shook hands with the entire boardroom table, picked my sustenance and chatted bikes and rides and cake and life while wondering which of the steeds surrounding us would be mine the next day on the team ride, all the while secretly hoping it’d 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, walking through the workshop—past bar taping and mechanic tuning—I headed 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 bearing another Ridley logo. “We’re very proud of that,” my guide Jo, having appeared out of nowhere, said. The whole scene was already reminding me of The Wizard of Oz somewhat and I wondered 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? But a bright idea to make your own, for your own needs. This place is sensible. And it obviously has big aerodynamic plans. The growth that had seen Ridley become such a Belgian success clearly had no intention of slowing down.
Aero was everywhere—it’s a big part of what Ridley is about, and they’re very good at it. It was visible in seat posts and head tubes and deep-section rims. But it was 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 were surfacing techniques being rolled out there that stuck the air close to the frame as it flowed along with you on your time trial. Or captured it and moved 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 was everywhere there; even the wallpaper was images of the classics being played out on local cobbles. And speaking of the classics, I found out later that one of the people I had met (and bragged about accidentally cheating in a 24hr MTB race) was Tom Boonen’s dad.
After poking my nose inside the tour support motor homes and wondering if I now had motor-home envy, I was summoned upstairs to the offices to shoot a video interview with Jochim Aerts and Anthony Kumpen. Jochim was a warm and confident man that knows his business and there was no doubting his achievements or aspiration. Anthony was similarly friendly and it appeared, equally successful. Maybe it was a Belgian thing? He noticed 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 ensued. Except he doesn’t watch them, he races them—and he’s very good at it. Kumpen, I found out, was a Belgian GT champion, no less.
Bike ride over, videos in the can, high flying meetings concluded and presumably notes taken on how not to accidentally cheat in MTB races, people dispersed. I packed up to head home to the UK. Clutching my wearable ‘R’ logos I waited for my lift to the Eurostar just as the heavens opened and hoped the underside of the economy stayed at home in the rain.