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Road Racing

France’s FMB, tire maker for the cobbled stars

France's FMB makes, by hand, the tires prized by the cobbled classics stars.

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FMB: Tubular tire maker for the classics
The FMB workshop

PLURIEN, France (VN) — In the modern era of mass production there are few bike parts that can wear the label “hand made.”

FMB tubulars can.

FMB is simply the name of the maker and his products: Francois Marie Boyaux (Boyaux being French for tubular). Tucked away in the small Brittany town of Plurien, Marie is sticking to traditional production and strong personal principles to produce, by hand, some of the best tubulars money can buy. Good enough that top pros, although sponsored by other tire companies, go to him for his products.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at the small workshop tucked behind his house. As I knocked on the door I thought of my initially frosty telephone conversation with Marie earlier that week. He answered: “I am listening!”

But this time Marie opened the door and greeted me with a warm “Bienvenue” (Welcome).

Over coffee the initial concerns slipped away as we chatted freely. From the start I could see the passion at FMB. Their small workshop was warm; French radio played as three skilled artisans worked.

“We are really busy at the moment, many professional teams are ordering for Paris-Roubaix,” he said.

FMB has received much interest from other pro teams after Fabinan Cancellara stormed to convincing wins on FMB tubulars at both Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders last year.

“Ninety-eight percent of pros use tubulars, even if some of them are re-branded as the tires of their sponsors,” Marie said. “Since Dugast sold his name and business to a Dutch company, FMB is the last tubular maker in France. I think we are making tubs just as good as the Dutch Dugast,” he said, looking at me over his glasses with a raised eyebrow.

Coffee finished, I was shown around FMB’s compact workshop. The company expanded into the workshop last year and clearly business is busy; the plaster board on the roof was still unpainted. Rows of tubulars hung from the walls. Some of them were finished, other were in various stages of production or on wheels getting straightened.

Back at his granite-topped work bench Marie explained why tubulars offer better performance and how FMB are the finest, with casings made from either cotton or silk.

“The qualities of silk permit the rider to use a higher tire pressure whilst maintaining great comfort, giving the maximum performance for the least weight,” he said.

Taylor Phinney won his gold medal in the individual pursuit at the world track championships in Denmark on FMB tubulars. Both Cancellara and Boonen have won Paris Roubaix on FMB; no wonder the other teams are starting to catch on.

FMB: Tubular tire maker for the classics
Francois Marie - The FM in FMB. Photo: Philip Gale

The company buys inner tubes and tread. But everything else is made in-house.

“There are a total of 80 steps that go into making one tubular; in terms of man-hours, it takes about one and a half hours, but having to wait for the adhesive to dry means each stage takes about one to one hour, fifteen minutes. That is why we can only produce 130 to 150 tubulars a month. Any more than that and our quality will not be the same.”

Marie’s son Renaud and seamstress Aurelie Crézé are the only other employees. As we spoke, Aurelie sat in front of her sewing machine stitching inner tubes into place. Each was marked “Paris Roubaix 27mm” on the side, reminding everyone of the battleground they were headed for.

“I have never spent a centime on publicity. My belief is that if you make the best then word of mouth will be enough,” Marie said.

He dug out many articles about FMB, some in non-cycling publications, from a multitude of countries. He showed each with the pride of a young boy. On the walls are some of his favorites. “I use these to motivate us.” There are also signed pictures from pros thanking FMB for their tubulars, but it is a modest display. No signed jerseys here, just rough cut-outs pasted on the wall. It reminded me of a young boy who has cut out pictures of his idols and stuck them on his bedroom wall.

“I was invited to Paris-Roubaix by George Hincape because he rode my tubulars. I thought that my workshop was organized but those team trucks are incredible!”

He then added “I think that I might try to get some publicity at the Tour de France stage which finishes at the Cap Frehel.” The stage finish is only 10 kilometers from the FMB workshop. “But of course I will not spend money!” he says to me with that wry Gallic smile again.

FMB: A short history

Marie’s story begins in the 60’s. Growing up around Paris, following the exploits of top riders like Eddy Merckx and the two “tricolores Bernards” (Thevent and Hinault), was the start of his love for cycling. Racing himself and “winning some modest races at modest levels,” Marie started to get his hands dirty; his interest turned to the mechanical side of bikes.

He began to repair his own tubulars as well as those of his teammates. Naturally his path crossed with Andre Dugast (who was based near Paris at that time), and used his tubulars because they were the best. Marie started to pick the brains of his supplier on how he made his tubs and learned how to make them himself.

But commitments meant that Marie had to turn away from this artisanal work to a more conventional profession. He disappeared into the world of business administration.

FMB: Tubular tire maker for the classics
Aurelie Crézé, 27, has been working at FMB since April 2010. Before that she was made clothes. “I am not really into cycling, but knowing that I am making the best is motivating.” She adds, “It makes me focus on doing my best, if things are not sewn straight then the finished product will not be straight.” Photo: Philip Gale

In 2005, Marie, then 40 and living in Plurien, Brittany, decided to change his life. The world of business administration was no longer appealing to him, while life as an artisan was pulling at his heart.

“I have always liked to work with my hands and get to know good men through it. I decided to turn back to my original work.”

The decision was set and FMB was born. His previous colleagues thought him eccentric. “I left rather on a wave of passion, with colleagues calling me crazy.”

Starting from square one was a huge risk. Since the mid 1980’s, clincher use had taken off, becoming the rubber of choice for bikers. Marie believed that there was a demand for his craft, knowing that he was the only person in France to hand make tubulars. He knew that there were people who wanted and would get a competitive edge from the benefits of hand-crafted tubulars.

Marie set about creating his production process, right down to designing and commissioning a custom-made sewing machine (incidentally the only machine that is used in the production process).

In April 2006, his first tubular was stamped FMB and finished, and ever since he has always been working to fill a demand. That small garage where he set up his first workshop has suddenly become the French center of hand-crafted tubulars.

“I did not start this thinking of growth and margins,” he said. “Sure, like an athlete we want more, but at the core is our quality. I cannot cut my price to compete with other brands because I would be losing money, so we compete on quality. I have just heard this morning that a certain Swiss rider who won two classics on our tubulars last year wants some for this season. That is why I do it, I guess our tubulars are so strong they can even be used on a mobylette (French for motorised bike)” he adds with a smile.

I ask whether the pros are sponsored. “I do not sponsor teams, maybe the odd tubular here or there for young riders. Twenty tubulars for a team would be three weeks’ work, let alone the cost of the parts. They buy them from me. I do not want to conflict with their sponsors, but all my tubs are marked FMB.”

“I still cannot believe that I used to sit in my box (an apt French description for an office cubical) all those years. You have to find work which you like, I am happy that I have.”

We chat about the future “I have a few plans to change the range, a couple more ‘cross tires and maybe another seamstress.” He says the last bit louder so Aurelie can hear. She answers “Please! So I can have someone to talk with!”

Marie smiles and continues, “but as you know quality is at the heart of FMB so I need to maintain that.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.