On a recent trip to Germany for the annual cycling Disneyland that is Eurobike, we took a detour to the town of Koblenz, sitting on the banks of the River Rhine roughly an hour west of Frankfurt.
For many it’s just an ordinary German town, but for bike fans and especially German cycling fans it’s a destination — one of the major players of the cycling world has its operations and sales showroom situated here, employing over 700 workers.
We’d been invited to visit German bike producer Canyon, their headquarters and their brand new assembly facility.
Many of you will know Canyon through the brand’s sponsorship of the Spanish Movistar squad and the Russian team Katusha. And as has been announced recently, the company’s huge range of bikes will soon be available for the first time in Australia and New Zealand.
Unlike most brands, which distribute bikes through a network of dealers, Canyon has chosen the path of distributing direct to their customers via the internet. The company was first to the game with the advent of online sales and has carved itself a place in the European (and part of the Asian) market that several brands are only now venturing into.
With Trek announcing this year that they’ll be selling via the internet (in a slightly modified way where bikes will be shipped to dealers) it seems that this trend is only increasing.
There aren’t many companies of Canyon’s size that can claim to have been started from the back of a car, or more precisely from a trailer. Founder Roman Arnold, the now CEO of the company, used to race bikes. When he was racing as a junior back in 1985 his brother Franc Arnold (no longer with the company) would stand at the roadside selling Italian bike products. Two years later the first Radsport shop opened (note: “radsport” is German for “cycling”).
It wasn’t until 1994 when they acquired a container full of OEM mountain bike frames which they labeled under the very 90s name of Radical that the business started taking a more familiar shape.
With the company under the guidance of Roman Arnold the first branded Canyon bike was produced in 1996. With US brands being a dominant force in that era — as is still the case — the name was meant as a nod towards the country’s famous geography. It wasn’t until 1998 that Canyon actually designed and built its own bike: the FS 1000 full suspension mountain bike. Since that time Canyon has adopted a direct sales strategy via the internet.
The turn of the new millennium saw a rapid growth in development and a plethora of new bikes to demonstrate Canyon’s intention. In 2003 a partnership with the University of Pforzheim was forged to give Canyon access to testing premises; a partnership that has now grown to help the company lead the way in internship placements. Intern involvement in R&D has had the result of giving the business a relatively young and vibrant workforce.
A move to larger premises in 2008 — premises that Canyon quickly outgrew — roughly coincided with Cadel Evans taking the rainbow stripes aboard a Canyon. Partnerships and Canyon’s sponsorship of teams grew to the point where two WorldTour teams now put Canyon bikes through their paces, as too does Katusha’s Continental feeder team Itera-Katusha.
The company’s history isn’t something that’s immediately obvious when you wander around the massive, modern concrete building. There are a few special bikes on display in cabinets as you walk into the shop, some signed jerseys hanging in a few hallways above the shop, but on the whole — and unlike many other brands who like to showcase their heritage — it’s all quite subtle at Canyon.
Instead Canyon allows its history to trickle out. When you start looking about and start adding all the little pieces together, you realise it’s a lot: a world-championship-winning bike from Cadel, a pink bike from Nairo Quintana’s 2014 Giro d’Italia win, Alex Dowsett’s hour record bike … It’s only when you put together the pieces of the puzzle that you realise how active and successful Canyon has been in the sport.
As you’d expect from any self-respecting German company, one aspect that is heavily focused on at Canyon is the technology. To guide us through the company’s multiple technologies and testing procedures was Gordon Koenen who works with the R&D and quality assurance team. When it comes to bike design at Canyon, particularly on the mountain bike side of things, Gordon is one of the men leading the way. Away from the design offices Gordon takes us to the testing centre, a place of noise and destruction.
Inside a secure room sit multiple bike torture tests; machines that see how a frame responds to not just the industry safety standard (ISO 4210) but above and beyond to what Canyon feels is suitable. The sound of pistons forcing carbon in multiple directions and frames being abused make it a deafening place to work. The bikes are tested by a total of 12 machines across two areas.
One of those is the aptly named ‘non-destructive area’ where all the NDT takes place.
“There we are handling all the performance characteristics of the bikes,” Gordon explained. “Here we test weight, comfort, BB stiffness, headset stiffness, fork stiffness – and even hanger stiffness – which is something we have learnt from our pro teams as before it [hanger stiffness] wasn’t a goal for us.”
“Only two out of the 12 machines are purchased as pre-built testing rigs. The rest are custom designed … with the help of the University of Pforzheim.”
Gordon expands on this:
“In the stress-testing area a bike will take half a day to fully test. In the destructive testing it takes much longer, maybe a week because some of the machines can run for a day, or a day and a half … it depends on the testing.”
The ISO 4210 standard requires manufacturers to test a bike for a rider of weight 120kg plus backpack, and with the expectation that the bike will be used for five years.
“For us though it’s hard to say, as we have customers who are riding 20,000 km a year and customers who ride 100 km a year,” Gordon said. “But we get really good information from our pro riders as it’s ridden really hard. Plus for the pros we have no special bikes or forks for them. They get the same mass production bikes as everyone else gets.”
Canyon’s partnership with both Katusha and Movistar is something that is obviously drawn upon in the development of the company’s bikes. Previously they sponsored the Pro Continental team Unibet and Silence-Lotto where Cadel Evans took the world championship win aboard an Ultimate CF Pro. Being a company that works directly with the teams can sometimes throw up unexpected problems when a new model is available, as was the case with the new Aeroad.
“Sometimes we have too many bikes for a team so they go back into stock, but other times too little,” Gordon said. “For example last year we brought out our new aero bike, the Aeroad and we expected one or two riders from Katusha and Movistar would like to ride it.
“Then all of a sudden all the riders wanted to use it, so it’s hard to calculate. Then they get new riders with a new contract so they need different bikes. It’s tough but we have to adjust to it and try to plan for it.”
Off to one side of the testing room sits a hulking great machine, beside which stand two men with a box full of road forks. With a clunk the doors slide open and a fork is removed. What we’ve just seen is the CT scanner in operation.
Canyon has two CT scanners, one in Germany and the other in Asia at the factory that manufactures the company’s high-end models. The device is an industrial X-ray machine, in which each carbon fork that is intended for sale is checked for defects. It’s a labour-intensive job but it is pointed out that recalling a fork would cost the company more than the €500,000 the machines cost. As Gordon explained, it’s particularly important that forks are 100% quality checked as it’s a single point of failure.
As well as forks, a sample of production-ready frames, handlebars, stems, and other products are all checked for defects and to see if the carbon assembly is up to Canyon’s standard. Canyon claims that they are the only bike manufacturer to carry out this level of quality control with a CT scanner.
With Canyon growing at a rate quicker than expected the company has already outgrown the Koblenz assembly plant and found temporary premises while their new state-of-the-art assembly and warehousing facility is ramping up to capacity.
From all accounts, employees are exceptionally keen to get the doors to the new factory open and the warehouse running at full capacity.
It’s a 15-minute car ride from Koblenz to the new location. Once past the electronic gates we were inside a very German-looking factory floor, clinically clean and well organised. While we were there testing was being undertaken on the high-tech conveyor belt system moving bikes from frameset to finished product and then on to the massive shelving space in as little time as possible.
At each of the 18 stations along the conveyor belt a mechanic has 60 seconds to place their component on the frame. At the end of the belt is a long but slim indoor road where the bikes get a “road test” before being boxed up in Canyon’s ‘Bikeguard’ boxes. At the temporary assembly premises 400 bikes are being built per day but this is expected to increase substantially when the new premises are open.
Back at the head offices and sitting with Markus Imhof, the man who’s in charge of getting the Australian and other international markets off the ground, conversation turns to the cycling culture among the staff. Rows of staff town bikes line the racks at the side of the building, with more expensive personal bikes kept inside. As you’d expect, nearly all of those bikes were Canyons.
There are weekday staff rides for both the road and MTB enthusiasts and three “Pure Cycling” events a year: two for staff and one major day for staff, their families and keen customers. As with many brands we’ve visited in the past, it’s evident that the company lives and breathes cycling internally just as much as it projects a love of cycling externally.
Markus also points out something we’ve missed: a mini dirt track at the side of the carpark — a perfect location for customers who want to test the latest mountain bikes. It’s obviously been constructed with staff in mind as a lunchtime playground. Prototypes are tested and lunchtime calories burned, as is the case when you get cyclists together.
“With the circuit, because its built as two figure-of-eight courses you can race,” Markus told us. “It can get pretty competitive at times; we’ve had dislocated shoulders and broken bones,” he laughs. “The most recent was one of the product managers — he dislocated his shoulder after dialling in a new bike for (pro mountain biker) Thomas Genon.”
Canyon is a brand that is slowly but surely disrupting the market with its purely online sales strategy. The Koblenz facility is the company’s only showroom in the world and the rest of the markets depend on Canyon’s website as their point of sale and use after-sales service centres.
Canyon says there’s no plan in place to deviate from this, and after seeing inside the company’s two premises it’s clear the supply chain and sales model is working for them. The company’s culture, infrastructure, sponsorship of two WorldTour teams, and focus on innovation has seen Canyon grow from a mid-range brand to a powerhouse in performance cycling, and it’s only getting stronger.