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."
The two-wheeled division is a small but passionate group within this massive organization (click to enlarge).
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."
A quick tour of Hincapie Sports HQ in Greenville included this wall of Tour de France yellow jerseys, no asterisks included (click to enlarge).
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.
Continue to page 2 for more from our Michelin HQ Tour »
6. Whether for mountain or road, Michelin says new tire development takes roughly two years, though it prefers to see the process as continuous. There are five stages involved: design and simulation, prototyping, testing, usage knowledge, and then material and semi-finished products. Testing itself is broken down into five areas: lab, machine, subjective/objective, customer, and competition.
7. To further the competition testing process, Michelin is tire sponsor of the Hincapie Racing Team, which is 2016 will be renamed Holoweso-Citadel Racing Team. Besides the marketing exposure, the team's base of ops in Greenville means Michelin can benefit from rider feedback while going through the new tire development or refinement process. Team rider Robin Carpenter claims this past season he had exactly one flat while training on Michelin's Endurance line of clincher tires. "And that's all we really want as racers," adds Carpenter. "Something that is not going to interrupt training, but also isn't so rock hard that you can't confidently corner on it."
Michelin's main outdoor testing facility in Ladoux, France, includes a wet weather track (click to enlarge).
8. Much of the objective and subjective testing occurs on Michelin's primary test track in Ladoux, France. There, metrics such as comfort, general handling, puncture resistance, and wet surface grip are analyzed. The later is done primarily with a special test bike equipped with an out-rigger wheel, which allows the tester to lean the bike hard into wet corners without the risk of tumbling to the ground when/if tire traction breaks loose. Check out the video below to see that ingenious test bike in action.
The 3,300-acre Laurens Proving Grounds site maintains 12 tracks of varying lengths and surfaces for testing tires, suspension system, driver training and event management (click to enlarge).
9. Back in the U.S.A., Michelin benefits from the Laurens Proving Grounds, the company's state-of-the-art testing facility in upstate South Carolina. This massive 3300-acre parcel includes 12 automobile testing tracks that range from wet conditions, to rough roads, to dirt, sand and mud, which collectively allow for analysis of a tire's handling, noise, comfort, adherence and endurance. No bicycle tire testing occurs here, but Leblanc says his team still benefits from discoveries made there when developing two-wheel product. (He also dreams of someday holding a cyclocross race there.)
Jason Griffin lost his right arm when he was 2, but still races bikes and motorcycles at an elite level (click to enlarge).
10. Michelin also sponsors Team RCP (Roger C. Peace), an elite level para-cycling team. The 10-rider squad includes amputees, paraplegics, visually impaired athletes, and riders with traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries. The current goal: representing the United States at 2016 Paralympics in Rio. Among those chasing that Brazilian dream is Jason Griffin, whom we had the chance to ride with while in South Carolina. Griffin, who lost his right arm when he was 2, is as engaging and happy-go-lucky as they come. He's also a top regional motorcycle racer, with the distinction of being the only licensed pro amputee to compete in the AMA Pro Flat Track race series.
For more information, visit bike.michelinman.com.