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I sit in the driver’s seat of a big Mercedes-Benz that was supposed to be a small economical VW Golf, trying to get to grips with the flux capacitor in a foreign language.
The Russian-sounding voice is not giving any clues as to how to get out of here, or indeed even ignite the car. Other travelers pack up and head out of the dark concrete parking hall of Munich Airport leaving me behind to switch off the lights. I tap and prod my way around the cabin of the big Merc and start to wonder what all the fuss is about. This doesn’t feel any better quality than something half its price these days. This is a $60,000 car and it creaks when I push its buttons. My disbelief is interrupted by relief of finding my native tongue appear on a screen and borne out in all manner of settings now making sense. Suddenly I am among friends once more…for a while.
I can sum up driving on the autobahn simply as like watching Tron, on fast-forward, with a splitting headache.
Up to this point I had never actually driven on an autobahn. I had toured or been toured around most of southern Germany as a bored teenager, but we’d largely avoided the limitless concrete and tarmac of the king of highways in our outgunned little French car. Here, now, I was about to understand what it is to ’bahn storm and I was to hate every minute of it. The thing that struck as really nuts about the autobahn system is not the 250-kilometer-per-hour Audi RS6s piling passed you constantly, lights ablaze, or even the 300-kph Ducatis behind them, it’s actually the trucks. A nonstop solid line of articulated exports that just pulls straight out into this chaos, mixing it up with no warning, means that the middle of the road actually feels far from it.
On arriving at my B&B not that late, but too late for rural southern Germany it seems, and preparing for a night on the back seat, a knock at the window means rescue and shelter by a nearby farmer, gun in hand, patrolling his fields and checking out big black cars arriving after dark.
Awaking to a huge German Frühstück and an awkward conversation comprising of gesture, smile and about nine words, I head out into this lush green rural backdrop to find some carbon. The AX-Lightness factory is a square modern building in a field in the middle of nowhere. It’s actually not that far from Nuremberg here, but it feels like another world. So much space and quiet. Ancient farm buildings lean into their twilight years just across the small road cutting through the vista that occasionally a lone car thrums down. I am greeted by a smiling Nils Weidermann and thankfully shown straight to a coffee machine. Nils is neat and precise and friendly and appears every bit the efficient and confident face of Germanic-ness so familiar in Europe. An infectious laugh accompanies a “getting to know you” coffee as I’m shown around the brain of the operation before the heart of the machine, finding myself amid a history-of-motor sport-turned-office-decoration as I enter the office of the boss Axel Schnura—the name that puts the AX in Lightness.
Younger than I had imagined, Axel has a warm and confident aura. Clearly another very successful, handsome, charming Porsche-driving cycling exec, but there seems little ego playing out here; he is as polite and genuine seeming with his staff as he is calm and gentle to me. Hanging up the phone to his best mate, DTM (the German touring car championship) and Le Mans race driver Frank Biela, and putting down the lump of awkward-shaped carbon prototype they were presumably talking about, Axel continues the tour of the paraphernalia: Sebastian Vettel’s first F1-championship-winning brake ducts, prototype all-carbon Audi wheels, BMW Sauber nose cones, Porsche Motorsport tubs…. I get the impression he needed an office this big just for this stuff. All-carbon shot glasses and tray on a carbon coffee table are a touch; Jan Ullrich’s signed saddles are dotted about; but it’s the Porsche rev-counter desk clock that gets me, given as a gift by Porsche legend Walter Röhrl.
Heading downstairs into the factory, I realize I haven’t been asked not to photograph anything yet, so I check: “This is okay”? “Yeah, sure,” Nils says. “No problem. We are proud of what we do here, we want to show people the real processes.” Well that’s reasonably rare so I don’t complain. We begin by donning hairnets and overshoes and entering a double-door airlock into a climate-controlled clean room with about 10 people seated quietly focusing on intricate tasks.
There’s a contented feeling but a seriousness to the job in hand. It seems weird to find this NASA-like clean room actually houses people sitting on wooden stools, listening to a quiet old radio crackle away in the background, layering up thin expensive carbon sheets into intricate shapes using specific handmade wooden tools and big pairs of scissors; but also there is a balance here of the new and inspiring and the old and reliable and it’s reassuring in a way to see that cutting edge can be crafted and tailored. It’s often assumed that this level of craftsmanship and care is fine for the best car seats in the world or one-off items of furniture, but a contender for lightest road bike in the world really ought to be created in a lab by a robot and a wind tunnel somewhere, not a guy called Carsten with a ponytail and a wooden spoon.
Opposite us, a seat tube is being created and introduced to the remainder of its main triangle and bottom-bracket shell. It looks like a very fine, sticky piece of black Plasticine being carefully and perfectly laid one part at a time and then being prodded and pressed into place before being trimmed with scissors and another bendy flat sticking plaster of the stuff being picked up with tiny tweezers and flopped on to the last one, and so on. It’s like watching someone play a mixture of “Operation” and “Play-Doh Barber Shop” but with someone’s $10,000 racing bike. I imagine there to be Scotch-tape moments where it’s wrapped over and over by mistake and it sticks on itself and in annoyance someone scrunches it up and chucks it in the bin to start again; but I suppose that doesn’t happen when you’re an expensive sheet-of-frozen-black-Scotch-tape professional.
Passing by the methodical process of prototype wheels being laid up in large circular metal casts, I’m introduced to the hands that make the saddles that Ullrich insists upon using. Not conventionally comfortable I’d imagine, they are apparently really something to perch on. They are also something to perch on a scale too—at 62 grams all in. The hands explain to me, in no uncertain wavering and gesticulating, the pride involved in having made these saddles this way for years now. More wooden tools are accompanied, I would imagine, by lots of patience and doubtless oodles of skill. The gloved hands place the one I’m holding back on its baking tray with the rest of the batch as we are drawn toward the warmth of the autoclaves.
Large sci-fi doors swung open reveal deep metal tunnels in these pressure chambers that make bicycles. This, I have heard said, is possibly the only bike company using these aerospace autoclaves to produce bike frames. They are part contemporary industry, part Flash Gordon super futuristic. One is unloaded in front of me: a slab of what looks like silver foil baked cake wrapped in a kind of medical-vacuum-packed, pink-and-blue surgical wrap with colored tubes sprouting out at odd angles. It is like something from a Bond movie, and my expectation is of dry ice and a gasping sound as the instrument of destruction is brought to life by an evil doctor. Carefully unwrapped, it starts to take the shape of a matte-black main triangle. As it loses its colored straws, and even more plastic bags are pulled from within it one by one, it appears surprisingly neat and finished. I suppose if I were to think about it I would imagine there to be a lot more goo and glue at this stage, but it appears to have barely wasted a drop being baked.
As its stays are born on the table behind it, I pick it up, still warm but solid feeling. I am astounded by the lack of weight. I know it will be light but somehow the brain does that thing of assuming one thing logically in order that you can still be surprised when it’s another. I notice it’s the same guy who was creating the dropout earlier and I’m told he will see his frame through to its next phase, jumping up from tailoring a bb shell when the alarm clock goes off to fish a frame out of the oven so as not to overdo it.
Another set of airtight doors with bright red numbers next to them, like a DefCon traffic light telling us the world is safe, and we are in the frame-building space. This feels different to the pre-cooked preparation. Much more relaxed and noisy—perhaps it’s like, “Now the dinner’s cooked, you don’t have to wash your hands quite as often.” People swan through carrying grams that cost thousands in their arms; rims are neatly stacked everywhere; there is chat and joking in here but the head of the department stands overseeing the antics. Somewhat serious looking, he could come across as a bit scary, but I see a wry smile in his eye as he catches my view through a long lens from my position at the other end of the room. It smells slightly of glue and paint and polish in here as all areas of construction and finishing take the bikes from square blocks to triangles to boxes and on to customers.
Looking closely at the finished article, Nils guides me through the reasoning for the different parts of the visible patchwork-quilt-like construction on this, an exclusive view at the new Vial Evo Ultra frame. Flat to touch, but visually layered sections of carbon under the surface mean differing qualities in material performance. The slightly marbled tubes illustrate a multitude of black fabric strips, kind of like a bandaged limb. We weigh it and the scales read 574 grams. “That is not quite the whole picture,” Nils tells me. “There is the mech hanger to come; that is an additional 9g.” Artisans sit patiently painting glue into lugs and tube ends with tiny brushes under magnifying glasses. I imagine it to be what a model aircraft builder might look like: highly focused, concentrated on the minutiae that no one will likely ever see but perfecting it nonetheless. This is obviously a model aircraft that will actually fly so this utmost care reflects a safety perspective, but there is no doubt that there is true pride here in doing it as well as it can be done, by hand, with a small brush and another small wooden-spoon-like tool.
Conversation shifts to a large block of carbon and titanium brought into the room by an engineer with a puzzled look. I notice it is Carsten again, this time without hairnet, working on a gearbox for an upcoming Lotus Le Mans project. Here’s something not to photograph, but not something new to AX. Axel shows me a room full of Porsche Motorsport parts and I ask about the balance of bike to car for AX’s production. I’m met with an unsurprisingly candid response about the subject, explaining motor sport’s rush deadlines and politics have meant a focus toward a similar high end, but on two wheels.
There’s a lot of making-for-other-people that goes on here, but under any name you’ve got to be pretty committed to your bike build to buy a 600-euro stem. Not cheap, and before I’d seen the care and conviction going into them, I’d have nervously laughed off a sub-600-gram road frame as a snapper sooner or later. But what I’m shown next reassures further that perception of German engineering integrity—if they believe in it, you can probably believe in it too. Other people’s dissected bike parts sit on Axel’s desk for private comparison. Aero wheel sections, head tubes with chopped top and down tubes like diagrams of the human heart, stems and bars, painted in pretty colors but stripped back, reveal some darker truths. “We are not a bike company that got into carbon, we are a composites company that got into bikes,” Axel says. It’s a good point, and one you can trust in I would imagine. These guys have got a lot of experience in this field. And if you are going to ride a bike that’s frame weighs 574 grams down a mountain road, fast, then I’d imagine that’s the point at which you’d want those words to have come from someone who’s been doing this for a while, at even higher speeds on the Mulsanne Straight 24 hours nonstop at Le Mans.
And that is what I take away from this place, presumption informed and converted. Getting back into my big fat expensive Merc with its plastic dash, I realize, in this aspirational and shouty world, it’s the soft-touch plastics and the GPSs, the electric seats and parking sensors that sell cars, not the engineering excellence underneath. People want to show off their reversing cameras to a neighbor not explain that the suspension struts will outlive the car on the next drive. It’s hard to sell the nuts and bolts of the operation as sexy when your competitors have caught up on the shiny stuff, but those are the bits that really matter. I suppose there’s an element of that at work here. Having seen it actually made, I can now see why you’d pay that much for a stem. These people clearly believe in it; I just hope that message isn’t lost in translation somewhere. It deserves not to be. Maybe they should throw in a factory tour with every frame purchase? Just, if you are coming, best avoid the autobahn.
Buy issue 45 here.