Initially there were two things that stopped me wandering past Luck’s booth at Eurobike. Firstly the fact I’d not seen the brand’s footwear in over 10 years, since a friend had owned a glistening white pair back in 2001. I’d envied him — they were some of the nicest shoes I’d seen back then. I was happily surprised at Eurobike to see that Luck was still about and producing good-looking shoes.
The second thing that made me stop was the huge sign shouting out that they now make custom shoes, not just for the pros but for the everyday cyclist who wishes to have the perfect fitting shoe with a custom design to stand out from the crowd.
Stashed away inside one of the draws on Luck’s stand, hidden from the prying eyes of the vast majority of visitors, was the latest product Luck was working on; a secret that they were keeping on the down-low. Even in my (very, very) broken Spanish and their much-better English I was able to communicate that it looked really neat and that I wanted to know more.
After a quick discussion it turned out that Luck still produces all its shoes in Spain, and as chance would have it, I wasn’t going to be too far from their factory the following week. There we had it, an invitation to go and check out the manufacturing facilities to find out a little more about the power meter shoe and Luck as a whole.
The history of Luck
The three-hour drive to Rioja in Spain where Luck is based sees some dramatic changes in the scenery and landscape, from the foothills of the Pyrenees where I started my trip to the dusty red soils where grapes for the fine wines of the region are grown. The dry red rocked area looks like a backdrop from the spaghetti westerns that Clint Eastwood starred in. This is where Luck are based and have been since the early 1990s.
The town of Arnedo has a long history of shoe manufacturing. Just like many industries the world over, much of the manufacturing from the town has been moved to cheaper-laboured areas such as Asia. There is, though, a core of strong factories still surviving in the town. Luck is among these select few.
Luck’s is the very first factory you’ll encounter on the drive into town from the south and it’s hard to miss. The dark granite-fronted building with its large red Luck logo planted on the front is in contrast to the cliff face it sits in front of. The modern-looking building partly obscures the historical settlements that are cut in to the crumbling rock face behind.
Luck was established back in 1990 by Juan Jose Pascual yet the story of the brand dates back a little further. The father of Juan was, like many in the town, a worker in one of the factories producing footwear. An avid cyclist and with the appropriate tools at his disposal he started making his own cycling shoes in his spare time.
This, you’d think, would be the start of the company. It wasn’t though — he continued making only small amounts of shoes and eventually opened a bike shop in the town. It’s still there, stocking a full range of his son’s Luck shoes.
But Juan’s father took the shoe production no further. It wasn’t until the late 1980s when Juan, inspired by his dad’s shoes, decided to use the town’s craftsmanship and skill. This is when Luck really started.
The brand grew quickly and has had to move facilities a few times since, outgrowing older, smaller buildings.
Throughout the late 90s and into the mid-00s many pros were seen in the shoes. Legend Oscar Freire was an unknown rider when he took his first of three World Championship road titles in 1999 — he was decked out in a pair of Luck shoes at the time. Several riders from Spain’s super-team ONCE also used Luck’s footwear, as did Pedro Delgado.
Then all of a sudden the shoes seemed to disappear from the peloton. Companies like Specialized, Bont, Shimano and Italian giants Sidi and DMT soon took the limelight.
Luck, though, was busy still producing shoes, helmets and sunglasses. Even if they weren’t as visible in the peloton they still kept a loyal fan base. The business grew until roughly five years ago when they had to make some big decisions. The company had apparently expanded to the point where demand for the shoes was outstripping the rate at which they could produce them.
Three options were at Luck’s disposal. Option one: keep producing at the rate they currently were, potentially causing stagnation in the brand. Option two: move production to China. Option three: shift the business in a slightly new direction.
They decided to go for option three. This involved taking the shoes away from mass production and focusing on what local knowledge and skills would allow them to do. By moving towards the production of custom, handmade shoes, Luck was banking on creating a point of difference between themselves and their competitors.
The powermeter shoe
Obviously one of the major developments that Luck has been working on is that of the integrated power meter. In today’s market, innovation is sometimes a little rare to come by — you may see ideas that seem like innovation but dig a bit deeper and you’ll find that an idea is simply intended to stimulate the market, rather than push it forward.
Luck have been working alongside a technology development centre that is apparently used and invested in by all the shoe factories in the town. The centre is based only a few kilometres from Luck’s main office, allowing rapid development.
The tech centre has helped shoe and material companies with numerous products from nanotechnology coverings to composite material integration and advances in effective waterproof membrane. The whole process of development to where Luck are at now has taken just a shade over a year.
According to Juan the power meter system itself was relatively simple to build, to begin with. The scaling down and refinement is where the hard work and considerable time has gone.
The finished power meter will allow you to transfer it from shoe to shoe — interchangeable from race shoe to winter training shoe. In this way the worry of replacing a whole system in the event of ruining a pair of shoes in a crash will be eliminated.
When visiting Luck the guys I spoke to were obviously a little cagey about fully explaining how the system works. All they’d say is that it uses “flexible pressure gauges”. The shoe will be ANT+ compatible, and syncing it with a smartphone via Bluetooth will also be possible. A smartphone app is being developed. The pods are fully waterproof and rechargeable by a simple USB dock. The full package comes in at 30 grams per pod for hardware and sensor.
The prototype that they had on show, which isn’t the fully finished product, had an error range between 10-15%. Not great, but I imagine this will be ironed out before the release date rolls around.
The integrated powermeter is Luck’s first foray into electronics and already they’re working on adding to the product so it will be able to measure heartrate as well. The problem they are running into at the moment is that getting an accurate heart beat from the foot is a little tricky.
Systems similar to Lazer’s Lifebeam, which takes the heartrate reading from a small pressure pad in the front of the helmet, could have the technology that allows a breakthrough for Luck.
Also on the cards for future development is the goal of producing the lightest cycling shoe on the market. And yes, they were aware of and suitably impressed by a certain Mr Hansen’s home-made kicks.
Set aside on the ground floor of Luck’s building is a show room where they measure the feet of riders who are buying custom shoes. The team at Luck tells me they’ve spent three years working with biometrics professionals in developing their fitting systems.
For the top-end, fully custom shoe, a whole imprint and cast is taken of the rider’s foot. They use a sock that wraps around the foot and this is eventually set solid by a resin. This allows them to produce a cast that is an exact replica of your upper foot. The imprint of the rider’s sole is taken too.
On top of this Luck now offers custom prints as well — riders now have the ability to design and make a shoe as garish or as flash as their imagination can conjure up.
Back inside the factory it feels almost like a jump back in time. The only clues that we are still in 2014 are the on-trend colours of the shoes sitting on the racks (then again, it could be 1989). The machinery filling the factory floor looks like it has been well used and maintained.
Solid industrial sewing machines were sat against the wall closest to the office and design rooms. It seemed slightly odd that one side of the partitioned wall had a group of women with a skill set that has been unchanged for years, busily making shoe uppers, and on the other a side of the wall a group of younger people sat staring at computers, researching and developing the latest tech to pour into these shoes. The combination of the two shows just what’s needed to produce custom cycling shoes in this day and age.
Compared to what I expected, the factory floor was a quiet and calm place. The experienced-looking women all had their heads down and were focusing on the shoes in front of them. All that was needed was a swift “burrrr” from the off-green machines to complete the job at hand.
Away from this were racks upon racks of shoe casts — the plastic moulds looked like a museum of false feet. All were numbered with the size and model, some even had names of riders from years past and present, stirring up memories of World Championship wins and Classics results.
More machines were scattered around the building. Two men worked on separate machines that took the uppers leathers that the women had been sewing and formed them into a more recognisable form. Smoothing, banging and forcefully pushing the shoe into shape, the men at the machines took the process from what could quite easily have been a very mechanical process to the much more handmade approach. The shoes quickly took shape, each inspected closely before being placed upon racks ready, eventually, to be passed to the next guy in the production line.
From here the shoe’s underside was tidied, thick nylon threads trimmed and the soles were attached.
I’d arrived in the factory on a Friday. This being Spain meant it was a relatively calm day, winding down for the weekend. The fact that the factory I was in was the second in the production line meant I was seeing the last items for the week completed.
That well observed time of the Spanish siesta was just moments away and that would be it for the working week. Leathers, carbon soles and tools would be put to one side until Monday morning. The traditional ways clearly didn’t only relate to the skilled handmade nature of the shoes, but also to the working hours.
I’m grateful that I’ve been lucky enough to visit a few factories this year. It’s particularly pleasing to visit a company like Luck — a company that doesn’t have the clout of brands like Specialized, Shimano, Bont, or even Italian shoe manufacture Sidi — that is not only bringing custom shoes to the masses, but also innovations such as their power meter shoes.
Sometimes the smaller guys can compete — they can slowly get traction with an idea, develop it under the radar and then release it to an unexpecting cycling public.
We will see what happens come December when Luck will hopefully have its shoes sitting on shop floors, ready to take on the likes of Quark, Garmin and Stages.