Made in China, grounded in South Africa: the SwiftCarbon story

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You probably already know that most of the world’s bike are made in China or Taiwan and that many different brands come from the same few factories. But in a sport where “Euro” is the epitome of cool, the origin of many of the bike brands is often glossed over, if it’s even spoken about at all.

But Mark Blewett does things a little differently. He’s the founder and co-owner of SwiftCarbon, a Chinese-based bike company, and he’s happy to acknowledge where the company is based. We spoke with Mark about SwiftCarbon in the lead up to the launch of Team SwiftCarbon South Africa.

Mark Blewett isn’t your average bike designer and manufacturer. Sure, he’s got an industrial design background, but he’s also made a living as a professional bike racer. As an amateur in his late teens and early 20s he specialised as a multi-week-tour rider in his native South Africa, before getting a guernsey riding for a small French team and then being selected for the South African national team.

His first pro contract came from a Portugese team in the mid 1990s, but with substance abuse and other issues dogging the team, and with a physically punishing workload, it wasn’t long before Mark became disillusioned with the sport and quit.

Over the following decade he worked for a company that imported cycling-related gear into South Africa, building up his networks as he went — particularly in China. In the late 1990s, Mark and his business partner Kevin — real name Chen Chun Gong — started manufacturing nylon bags. It’s a business Mark still continues today, producing bags for the likes of Adidas and Asics.

But in many ways, the bag business was merely a stepping stone. The city in which his bag business is based — Xiamen, a port city near Taiwan – also happens to be the world “epicenter of carbon production for bikes”.

I was sitting in a café in Xiamen one day having a cappuccino and this guy arrives on a really nice bike on a BMC. He said to me ‘Do you know that all the bikes are made in this city?’ and he arranged for a visit to one of the factories. They let me look in the finishing section and they were making a range of ‘European’ bikes.

Looking at the Chinese-made brands with European names, Mark realised he wanted to do something different. Sure, the bike market might have been saturated, but there was a gap there that hadn’t been filled – one based on honesty and transparency.

Everyone tries to hide the fact their bikes are made in China but it’s all smoke and mirrors. In cycling it just seems like all the manufacturing is done in Italy by a man in a coat. The thing I wanted to do, from the beginning, was to not have to BS anyone. This is the fact – we make the bikes here [in Asia].

Rather than setting up SwiftCarbon in his native South Africa and having his bikes built in China anyway, Mark based himself and the company in Xiamen. Being in Xiamen, Mark says, means he can draw on the expertise and experience of the region while keeping a close eye on quality control and product development. The fact that the SwiftCarbon factory is only a few kilometres from steep hills and winding roads — perfect bike-testing terrain — is a bonus.

Shoddy Dave's SwiftCarbon RS-1.

As Mark explains it, the first step for SwiftCarbon was to develop an initial offering for the South African market. With limited funds to begin with — just the earnings from the nylon bag business — Mark had to opt for existing factory moulds to make his carbon frames, rather than designing his own. As he readily admits, it wasn’t an ideal situation.

Doing open moulds from a factory is a marketing exercise. You are slapping your decals onto a product that you don’t know much about. You have no control over the materials, engineering or layouts, you don’t even know if the resin was stored at the right temperature.

At the end of the day a carbon bike is a safety product and you really don’t want a fork shearing off or something like that. Putting our name on a product we weren’t 100% in control of was really scary.

But while SwiftCarbon’s initial offerings were making their way into the South African market, Mark was already making great progress on his own road bike frame: the UltraVox.

While SwiftCarbon has two designers based in Europe, Mark is personally involved during every step of the design process. Designer René might design a bike but then he and Mark will work together to optimise the design and feel of the product before prototypes are put together.

It took 18 months and eight design revisions to get the first UltraVox right, but eventually the bike made it out the factory doors to consumer markets. Today the UltraVox comes in three versions: the flagship UltraVox Ti, the RS-1 and the Attack. But it’s not just road bikes: SwiftCarbon also make a range of TT/triathlon rigs and carbon-framed MTBs.

Mark Blewett personally oversees the design and construction of SwiftCarbon bikes.

But even if you are designing high-quality and desirable bikes, you’ll have little business success unless you start shipping units. Mark describes the past few years as “a big experiment”, a period he’s spent testing the best ways of getting SwiftCarbon bikes to consumers around the world. And as with any experiment, there have been learning opportunities along the way.

When we’ve come up against the traditional distributor model – that is, wholesaler to retailer to consumer – we’ve actually been in a losing battle. Our bikes end up sitting on the shop floor with BMC, Specialized and Trek bikes and nobody knows Swift.

The guy working in the shop doesn’t care about Swift; he wants to make a sale. If it’s an easy sell he will sell Trek or Specialized long before he is going to convince someone to buy Swift.

But as Mark explains, the bike industry is constantly evolving. More consumers are buying their bikes directly online nowadays — a model he’s is keen to explore. Indeed, Australians who are looking to get their hands on one of Mark’s bikes have to contact the company directly as SwiftCarbon doesn’t yet have any distribution channels into Australia.

While the name of the company gives you an idea of the material favoured by SwiftCarbon, Mark and his team won’t necessarily be limiting themselves to carbon fibre in the years to come. New materials are being developed, existing materials are being improved, and other materials — such as very thin alloys — are finding their way into cycling from the automotive industry.

If you look at the crash cell of an Audi R8 you’ll see a bubble that’s made from an extremely light but strong aluminium foam that sets hard. With these materials, bike frames could weight as little as 400 grams and be 20 to 30 times stronger than they are today.

And while manufacturers will always be looking for ways to create lighter, stronger frames, there’s a limit to have far you can push things.

To get a frame extremely light, compromises need to be made. I see Cannondale have a 650-gram production frame and you could even make a frame that weighs 400-500 grams at the moment. But how it would ride? Would you want a frame that light? You might end up with a really twitchy and lightweight but hard frame that is almost unrideable.

So what does the future hold for SwiftCarbon? Well just a few weeks ago the company announced the launch of the South African SwiftCarbon team that will be racing in Africa on the company’s flagship UltraVox Ti model in 2013 and 2014. So why sponsor a South African team?

The only team I would sponsor would be these guys. I am not interested in giving 60 frames to some like Spanish Pro Continental team who will use them and not care what brand they use. It had to have a connection to my past with South Africa.

Mark tells us that many people get confused about this connection, trying to find a simple answer to the question “where is SwiftCarbon really from?” After all, the company’s founder is from South Africa — which also happens to be one of the company’s biggest markets — the design and engineering teams are based in Europe and the headquarters are based in Asia. But in many ways it’s this mixed heritage that makes SwiftCarbon the company it is.

And unlike many other cycling brands that have a similarly mixed heritage — European bikes that are made in China without acknowledging that fact — there’s a real honesty and transparency about the way SwiftCarbon operates.

Sure, a “Made in China” label mightn’t be as appealing as one that reads “Handcrafted in Milan”, but if Mark Blewett has his way, that mightn’t be the case for long.

For more information about the SwiftCarbon design process, check out this great image gallery from BikeRadar.

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