There are a multitude of brands that make up the fabric of the cycling industry. We’re all familiar with the big-name manufacturers, particularly those that make bikes and components, but there are many, smaller brands working just as hard to have an impact in a crowded market.
One such company is Morgan Blue, a manufacturer of bike maintenance products — including oils and degreasers — and sports massage and protection creams.
CyclingTips’ roving reporter Dave Everett visited the Morgan Blue headquarters during a recent trip to the Spring Classics to learn more about the story behind this small but increasingly successful Belgian brand.
Anyone who’s had the pleasure of visiting Belgium, even outside of the wet, cold Classics season, will attest that it’s a country with a unique, ground-in cycling culture. Driving along the motorways of Belgium you’ll spot factories and warehouses dotted along the roadside adorned with company names that are or have been associated with cycling.
They might be the naming sponsor for a team or the manufacturer of a cycling-related product. Either way, names like Etixx, Colstrop, Omega-Pharma, Quickstep, Soudal, Vermarc, Bioracer and Ridley are like an eye-spy game for the enthusiastic (if slightly geeky) cycling fan.
Another brand that’s part of this unique Belgian cycling culture is Morgan Blue.
Morgan Blue doesn’t scream about its products with blazing adverts or huge logos plastered on team kits. But take a look at the partners section on many pro cycling team websites — or if you’re lucky enough to attend a pro race, check out the logos on the side of team trucks and buses — and you’ll come across Morgan Blue quite often.
For a company that started by chance it’s amazing to think how widespread the use of Morgan Blue products has become among the best bike teams in the world. The big boys of the industry — companies like Shimano or Specialized — are able to make it obvious that they sponsor “X” amount of teams with their products, but Morgan Blue quietly sponsors or supplies a vast number of teams. Or more precisely, they supply those teams’ mechanics and soigneurs with galloons of oils and creams each year.
This year Morgan Blue officially sponsors 10 of the 17 WorldTour teams and multiple Pro Conti teams. But having spent a day during the Classics dashing across Belgium with Morgan Blue owner Kurt Tembuyser, it’s clear that several more big-name teams use Morgan Blue as well, despite having sponsorship agreements with brands other than Morgan Blue.
The Morgan Blue story is one that I came across a few years back. I got to know Kurt and his family while I was still racing full time.
Kurt is one of those characters that adds to the unique cycling culture Belgium has. He’s larger than life, humorous and loud, with an endless passion for his business and what he contributes to the cycling scene.
The first time I met Kurt was in 2009 when the business was based out of his home near Oudenaarde, the finish town for the Tour of Flanders. The building looked like an old farmhouse from the front, but wander around the back and you’d come across people mixing oils and filling bottles by hand. It was a company that was clearly outgrowing it’s premises.
Huge canisters of liquids sat on pallets in the garden and a truck was crammed full with boxes. The office space was in the hallway between the living room and front door.
Kurt and his family put me up for a few nights while I was in transit on my way to a new team house. I didn’t know him before then but we hit it off, chatting about every aspect of cycling.
The first morning when I wandered downstairs for breakfast I was greeted by Kurt and a guy in a Team Highroad polo shirt. Most mornings would turn out to be similar — either a Highroad, Quickstep or Lotto mechanic would be drinking coffee and having breakfast with Kurt, chatting about bikes and who had done what on the team. It was part team gossip, part work related. It was an interesting place to stay and also gave me my first insight into the behind the scenes aspect to running a pro team.
This year I returned while the Classics were on, visiting Kurt and his family again. A few years on from when I’d first stayed there, it was quite evident that the brand was going from strength to strength.
The old farmhouse was still in operation but was now being used as an extra warehouse for storage. Manufacturing and the offices had been moved to a purpose-build unit near Brugge; a unit that was already becoming too small for a brand that is growing faster that Kurt and his wife Lieve could have predicted.
Kurt started the brand 20 years ago, and as with all good brands Morgan Blue has a neat back story to it.
Kurt studied mechanical engineering at university and upon leaving he ended up with a job selling machinery oil for the agricultural and automotive industry, mainly to the Russian and Polish markets. This was all done under the brand name “Morgan Oils”.
It wouldn’t be until 1994 when things would start to shift away from the automotive industry and towards cycling. A friend of Kurt’s — Nick Vandecauter, a mechanic for the Lotto team — came to Kurt with a problem. The products the team was using weren’t quite up to the standard required. The question was: could Kurt help?
To solve this problem Kurt pulled out the family BBQ and on a summer’s evening the pair started to mix chemicals and liquids. A few hours passed with the two melting and mixing. Finally they had two different oils for Nick to test on the team bikes.
Two weeks later Nick returned, placing one of the bottles in front of Kurt. “This is the one; it works great,” Nick said. “We want more. We’ll pay you for it”.
“Usually this wouldn’t have been a problem, but the night we made it over the BBQ we’d got drunk,” Kurt says. “I had got too drunk to actually remember what we’d put in [the oil]. It was pretty funny really.”
A few minutes later, with the BBQ out again — this time with Kurt and Nick sober — the problem was solved. Kurt worked out exactly what he’d originally put in the oil. That was to be the beginning.
It was only a few weeks after this that mechanics from the French Casino team got wind of Kurt’s special oil. They came by his home asking to use it as well.
“I had two big teams using the oil but I didn’t have any other products on offer,” Kurt says. “And it wasn’t even for sale.”
From these small steps Kurt decided to call it a day on the automotive oils and focus his efforts on the cycling trade.
A pharmaceutical company that had gone bust not far from his home was the first place Kurt managed to source enough bottles to fill so he could start selling the oil through local bike shops.
“It went well; before long bike shops would come to me and ask for degreasers, so I made a degreaser,” Kurt says. “It was blue in colour. People would ask for ‘that Morgan Blue degreaser’.”
This was the product that eventually gave Morgan Oils the “Blue” in its name. The Morgan part originated from a friend’s son’s first name.
Jump to 2015 and the business is still one that feels very rooted in the ethos of those early days. Kurt still places a high value on the feedback he gets from mechanics of the pro teams and sees this as a reason why so many teams choose to use Morgan Blue.
“The mechanics, they’re the smart guys on the teams. I have to learn from them; you can never learn enough,” Kurt says. “Guys like Etixx-Quick-Step mechanic Kurt Roose or Geoff Brown of Cannonade-Garmin, now these are guys who know their stuff.”
Inside the factory it’s still like the old days; even with the new machinery Kurt is still hands-on in producing the products. In fact, the day I visited Kurt he asked if I’d be around to help make some products that evening. Unfortunately I had arranged other plans — I’d lined up a meeting with the mechanics at the Lotto Soudal team. Kurt, meanwhile, had his wife’s AGA stove in the family kitchen prepped for cooking up a batch of his popular chamois cream.
You can tell that the business drives Kurt and Lieve. They are both in the factory checking out new machinery when I arrive, both seeing how easy it is to label up tins of oil. Kurt chuckles and seems like a kid with a new toy. He’s a happy guy that obviously enjoys the path he has chosen. I ask Kurt about this.
“You have to do what you love in your life; if you don’t you won’t make any money,” he says. “I didn’t like all the bullshit with the cars. I love my job now, I do what I like, and what I don’t like I give to others.
“People in the automotive trade never bothered with making bike oil; they always said that it was too small a business to make money from.”
Wandering around the factory I see a basketball hoop hanging in the loading bay next to a kid’s pedal car. It’s a frantic place to work but there is lots of fun to be had here as well. Nestled among the boxes of oil and other products is an assortment of bike-related paraphernalia that goes with Kurt’s hobby: the Morgan Blue under-23 team.
“Four years ago I started an expensive hobby, an espoirs team. I like it a lot, I spend weekends away in the camper with the guys racing,” Kurt says. “We have Wilier as our bike partner. It costs me money but it’s worth it.”
Kurt’s a man full of stories. Like the one about a big-name Italian rider who demanded his team drop the official team chamois cream sponsor in favour of Kurt’s after using it just a handful of times. Or the one about the staff from a Japanese manufacturer who got drunk on strong beer that Kurt served at Eurobike, all while thrashing out distribution contracts.
It’s anecdotes like these that show the brand is on sure footing, that growth is on the up and above all that the true Belgian passion of producing the best possible bike product — be it a bike, a rider or in this case oil — is still alive and kicking.