Think Michelin and the first thing that comes to mind is either A) automobile tires or B) the company’s famed puffy white mascot. But long before its primary business was keeping cars safely spinning down the highway, the French tire behemoth was making bicycle tires. Indeed, way back in 1891, Michelin filed the first patents for removable and repairable bike tires. And it’s credited with developing the first foldable bead clincher tires in the mid 1970s, and first tubeless mountain bike tire in 2000.
But due to some combination of competition, lackluster marketing, and its measured (some would call slow) approach to developing product for new market segments, Michelin isn’t likely the first name that comes to mind when you think bicycle tires, mountain or road.
In an effort to change that, or at least help educate the bike tire buying masses, Michelin entertained a small group of media this fall at its North America headquarters in Greenville, South Carolina. RoadBikeReview was among that group. Here are 10 of the most interesting things we learned.
1. Depending on the year, Michelin (and primary competitor Bridgestone) is the No. 1 or No. 2 tire company in the world with annual sales in the range of 22 billion euro, or about $23.9 billion U.S. Those sales include tires for airplanes, automobiles, farm equipment, heavy duty trucks, motorcycles, and bicycles.
2. Though its global headquarters reside across the Atlantic Ocean in France, Michelin’s Greenville, South Carolina-based North American base of ops is no mom-and-pop shop. Opened in 1988, the multiple campus facility employs 1900 people in sales and marketing, business services and more. And all told, Michelin North America is a $10.76 billion a year company operating 19 plants in 16 locations with 22,000 employees. Of that massive workforce, about a dozen people work strictly under the two-wheel-team umbrella, which includes bicycle and motorcycle tires. “We’re a rounding error in terms of overall company sales,” admits Ross Shields, V.P. of the two-wheeled team. “But it’s a passionate group that really cares about the products it brings to market. We don’t just chase trends.”
3. The primary benefit of being a small cog in such a large organization is the sharing of resources and research. “We don’t operate in silos,” says Yohann Leblanc, Michelin North America’s marketing and sales manager for bicycle tires. “We have access to the information being developed in the other groups.” And indeed, the company allots nearly $1 billion a year for research and development, and all Michelin divisions have company-wide access to rubber compounds and other research. There are even weekly meetings between divisions to bounce around ideas.
4. However, Shields admits that on occasion Michelin lags behind other tire makers when it comes to reacting to new product demand, including segments such as fat and plus. “We’re an engineering company at the core,” adds Shields. “But we are slowly getting better at sales and marketing.”
5. To help support cycling in the area, Michelin is a key sponsor of the annual Hincapie Gran Fondo, a mass start event held on the bucolic rolling roads near Greenville, South Carolina. The 2015 event featured three route options, the 15-mile piccolo, 50-mile medio, and 80-mile gran, which included three major ascents and over 8000 feet of climbing. All three routes were well supported, with multiple aid stations. Fast finishers of the gran ride were done in around 4 hours. Others took 6-7 or more. And of course event namesake George Hincapie was among the several thousand cyclists who took the startline. This year, Hincapie was joined by fellow former pros Cadel Evans, Christian Vande Velde, Ted King and numerous others. Lance Armstrong even showed up, though he did not ride.