Cycle roots

Cycling enthusiast Mike Exon pedals over to the Tour de France to find out how Trek, the US bike manufacturer behind Lance Armstrong’s winning ways, works

‘Armstrong knows exactly what he needs. What he’s currently using, or what his rivals are using can be very easily identified, so in some ways this kind of project is actually quite simple in a lot of respects. The more broad-based project, where you have to make something work for people between, say, 25 and 50 years old, who may be using this product in 40 different ways, that’s often much more difficult,’ adds Baumann.

Designer Michael Sagan, who, in Baumann’s words, ‘had the drive and skills to do it’, ran Trek’s latest project with Armstrong. The Madone 5.9 bike is so new that the only models in existence are the ones being ridden on the Tour de France, and Trek hasn’t even had the opportunity to take publicity pictures yet. But a clear aim of a project like this is, ultimately, to get the bike on sale for the public, and this bike will be commercially available (in the US anyway) from September this year.

Baumann himself has been at Trek for eight years now and says he convinced the company to hire him by going to see them one day and talking them into it. He got into design by reading hot rod magazines and falling in love with product form. Now he manages an expanding team and has witnessed the dramatic sophistication of design processes in this market.

‘We have one or two folks who might be the best people in the world at using certain design software applications because the surfaces on our carbon bikes are very complex, especially around the bottom bracket [where the pedals join the frame],’ he says.

‘Our design department handles more than just the bikes: we take care of all the locks, the racks, the packs, the lights and all the accessories available from Trek, so a knowledge of ergonomics and materials is very important as well,’ Baumann continues. ‘Last year we worked on about 40 bicycle products and an additional 100 accessories.’

The designers themselves get to work across the whole range of bike gear for Trek, plus its sub-brands like Fisher, Klein, LeMond and Bontrager, as well as for its collaborations on technical clothing with Nike, co-sponsor of US Postal Service. Take the Swift Spin time trial suit worn by the riders this year, which, it is claimed, produces a 60-second advantage over 55km by redirecting the air flow. It was designed by Rick Macdonald and Matt Nordstrom from Nike, with critical input from Trek’s team.

Recently, the Trek designers have begun to do more with what Baumann calls ‘team design’, whereby up to all six of the group will look at the same problem on their own, then share the results. ‘The trick to our creativity,’ says Baumann, ‘… is probably lots of sugar and caffeine.’

Trek was founded in 1976 on what Baumann calls an ethos of unrivalled customer service that served it very well. But slowly, as its competitors become better in that field, it was time to do some thinking, he says.

‘The management discovered what the designers knew all along: it’s got to be the right product at the right time, with the right features. It’s got to make a person walk across the store, pick up your bike, pay their money and walk out with it,’ he explains. And so industrial design was given its big break at the corporation.

‘Trek could make safe, well-performing bikes without our design team,’ says Baumann. ‘The extensive product testing would take care of that. But what the customer really responds to is the emotional impact of seeing something or using something. And that’s what industrial design is bringing to Trek.’

Trek Time Trial Bike

Weight 8.9kg (19.8 lbs)

OCLV HC carbon frame, developed with aerodynamics specialist John Cobb

Shimano Ultegra 53/39 crankset, deraillieur and brakeset

Bar-end-control Shimano Dura-Ace gear shifters

Aero downtube and flared chainstays reduce drag

Bontrager TT Aero fork to sheer through wind

Optional Bontrager TT carbon disk wheels improve aerodynamics at rear

Steve Baumann’s CV

Job: Trek industrial design manager

Age: 38

Previous jobs: Designing snowboard bindings for Look; cycling shoes for Lake; and a spell at Kruger International designing furniture

College: Milwaukee School of Art and Design, Wisconsin

Next project: An ‘heirloom-quality’ tricycle for children called either Trikester or Trikezilla, which can be adjusted ergonomically as the rider grows

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