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Usually, when I sit down to write about a recent visit to a brand headquarters or factory, I’ll start by setting the scene — the location, the atmosphere, the people milling about at the warehouse or on the factory floor. Basically, I try to walk you through how I felt on arriving. I want to share my initial impressions, to help put you there with me.
For my trip to Sweden to visit POC, I don’t really remember that much. Not due to some sort of amnesia-type situation, but because of a life-changing event that was happening thousands of kilometres away. I know the folk at POC won’t take offence when I say that, on a crisp sunny morning back in early May, this brand visit ended up a long way down my list of priorities.
Before I get to that though, here’s what I do remember of the visit …
I’m learning that Stockholm, Sweden is kind of chilly in May. To be more precise, it’s 8:15am on May 3 and it’s nippy enough outside my waterfront hotel that I’m in a winter jacket. I don’t mind the cold, in fact I need it — I’m a sweaty mess. I was supposed to be at POC HQ at 9am, but I’ve just received a call. My partner has gone into labour just a little early.
Fifteen hours earlier, at a hospital in Bayonne, France, we’d just had the last checkup. The nurse explained that all was on course and looking set for an expected arrival in three-and-a-half-weeks’ time … at the earliest. Safe to say the nurse got it wrong!
On towards the HQ
I’ve got my suitcase packed, dragging behind me, and I’m dashing to the POC offices 1.5km away. It’s not going to be a HQ visit now; it’s going to be a lot of phone-watching, coffee-drinking, and nail-biting while I wait for a taxi to whoosh me to the airport where I’ll get the first flight out of Stockholm to Madrid and then on to Biarritz.
And yes that’s the quickest way back home. Well, Stockholm to Paris would be far faster (and the flights are more frequent) but the lovely folk who work on the TGV train service — a service that would quickly whisk me from Charles de Gaulle airport to my hometown in just a few hours — have coincidentally decided to go on strike.
I swear every French person over the age of about 14 must have protesting as one of their three main hobbies … the other two being petanque and claiming that foie gras is actually edible. If you’re the sort of person that gets upset by this generalisation, please keep in mind that my partner and now my daughter are both French … so I think I get a pass on knocking the French!
The POC offices are the modern Swedish delight you’d expect — the furniture definitely doesn’t come from Officeworks and the coffee’s top notch. On top of this, everyone from the lovely lady on the front desk who welcomes me, to the designer at his desk in a full face downhill helmet, are all kind and concerned. All know my predicament and all are ready to give me a mini pep talk along the lines of “you’ll make it home in time!”
In between flipping my phone out of my pocket every 30 seconds, I manage to whip out my video camera and dash around the POC office space. I grab a few sound bites from a select few people that make POC tick. I get a rough rundown of the company and actually meet the people behind a brand that first came into the road cycling consciousness with a helmet that looked like a flat fish with an unfortunate peanut allergy.
Gustav’s lid and venturing into the road market
You must remember that helmet. If not, let me remind you. Back at the 2012 London Olympics Gustav Larsson of Sweden debuted an aero helmet like no other. The wide and bright orange lid looked heavy, odd and caused a minor stir.
The helmet itself was a project for the race rather than a product that was to be viable in the real world. The shape was a byproduct of Larsson’s form and position on a bike; a helmet designed to help the 2008 Olympic silver medalist jump up a step at the 2012 Games. As Fredrik Hallander, helmet designer and engineer explained, “Gustav had the ability to become very narrow over the shoulders. We learnt a lot there [with the project] in fluid dynamics, CFD, and wind tunnel analysis. It helped us to go further”.
It was also designed to be incredibly safe. After all, the Swedish company had started life back in 2005 with a strong mission “to do the best we can to possibly save lives and to reduce the consequences of accidents for gravity sports athletes and cyclists”. That helmet and its presence at the Olympics helped put POC in front of not just cycling fans but the average Joe.
Jump forward to the 2013 Tour de France and Canadian Garmin-Sharp leader Ryder Hesjedal had the vocal cycling fanbase in a frenzy. Again POC managed to get tongues wagging with Hesjedal’s DID casual sunnies — he ended up racing the full tour in a pair of sunglasses from POC’s casual range. At this stage Hesjedal was very much going against the cycling grain — it wasn’t just that the glasses weren’t aero, they weren’t even on trend.
Unlike many who thought this was some kind of marketing strategy, the reality is that it came down to necessity. As a POC-sponsored athlete for the Tour, Hesjedal was due to wear POC’s prototype sports sunnies (which would eventually be the Do Blade). But when the prototypes were accidentally left behind in a hotel room Hesjedal had only one option if he was going to honour his contractual obligation: to rock POC’s casual sunnies instead. Before we knew it we’d see not just POC-sponsored athletes wearing casual sunnies on race day, but also riders who were sponsored by the likes of Oakley and Rudy Project.
Chatting with POC’s eyewear designer Claes Nellestam about the situation it would seem that the prototypes were recovered but Ryder choose to stick with the DID sunglasses. “It was really early in the (design) process for the Do Blade,” he says. “We had a pair that were handmade — [they were] crazy-looking [and] hand-carved from acetate. I can understand why he never competed in them.”
Sure, the casual sunnies trend was a relatively short-lived one (for the most part — you still see the hipster brigade rocking them), but still, it’s a trend that Ryder and POC can lay claim to.
Design and multiple red dots
POC’s won a host of design awards in the 13 years it’s been around — you only need to wander through the offices to see the numerous Red Dot awards hung up. It’s fair to say that they’ve never followed other brands’ looks or styles; instead, they’ve forged their own path. The Octal, POC’s first proper road helmet, shows this in spades. It’s arguably a ‘love it or loathe it’ item.
That strong design language is evident throughout the headquarters which oozes that iconic slick Swedishness. From the pastel shades of the kitchen area (that match the ski helmets that sit below the coffee machine), to the neatly placed, dust-free, Lego Star Wars models (not toys) on display, it’s everything you’d expect from a Swedish design house: clean, minimalistic, slightly quirky, and oh so functional.
This aesthetic has also been noticed and appreciated by one of the 21st century’s most famous industrial designers. The man in question is non-other than Jony Ive, the British designer Steve Jobs took under his wing to help design the iPod, iPhone and who’s now chief design officer at Apple.
The story goes that Ive was out shopping, not for anything in particular, when he came across one of POC’s ski race helmets. He was so taken with the design that he felt compelled not just to buy it but also to send a letter of praise to the company. I think we can all agree that Ive isn’t a bad person to get the nod of excellence from.
Since then several staff have visited Apple’s HQ in California and met with Ive in person. It’s not a far cry to claim that Apple has influenced the clean lines and integrated design that POC is well known for — both are fuss-free in design, functional, and premium.
POC has quickly cemented its place in the market as not just a brand with unique-looking items but as a brand that focuses on safety. Their latest helmet tech, Spin pads, helps to limit cranial rotation in a crash.
But talking with Johan Weman, head of electrical engineering, it’s not just racing cyclists and skiers that are POC’s focus. Commuters are a huge part of POC’s business too, and that’s understandable. Even a quick few hours spent in Stockholm makes it apparent why. Everyone seems to commute by bike. Taking with Weman he points out that the commuter market doesn’t have the constraints that road cycling does — there’s no UCI rules to adhere to or trends that dictate design and function. Instead, they can release wild ideas that fulfil POC’s desire to reduce injuries out on the road.
From airbags in clothing — something they hope to bring across from their skiing apparel — to simple yet ingenious uses of technology we all carry around. This is where Apple — or more precisely mobile phone design and integration — crops up in POC’s work. For example, clear, weatherproof pockets on the rear of their commuter jackets can be paired with an app to allow commuters to use their mobile phone as tail and indicator lights.
It’s not just electronic gizmos that help with protection; material choice is also considered. Monica Lindström, senior manager of apparel, has a long history in the textile world and it’s obvious she loves her work. Lindström has worked on POCs apparel range since the day it started back in 2012. She’s the woman responsible for the bright pink kit that POC-sponsored team EF-Drapac has worn in 2018. “We had to fight hard for our jersey design choice with the team’s sponsors,” she explains.
It’s understandable why there was resistance — the pink isn’t exactly in keeping with the slick monotone colours we’ve seen of late in the pro peloton. But as Damian Phillips, POC’s PR and communication manager, explains, there was a “Eureka moment for the team” when they were working with the team in Girona last winter.
“During the off-season when we first were doing some shoots with the team, the riders and staff were surprised at how much more the riders stood out,” he says. “Hundreds of meters more than usual.”
Obviously, this has a benefit in racing — team staff can pick riders out earlier for bottle and musette feeds, teammates are easy to spot, plus it certainly doesn’t hurt commentators’ race-calling duties.
You may think the team kit’s bright, but the training kit is even brighter. Lindström and her team adapted the current AVIP (“Attention, Visibility, Interaction and Protection”) range to include the team’s sponsors and logos so that the riders had the same visibility benefits as their normal AVIP customers out on the open road. “AVIP isn’t just the use of hi-vis colours,” Lindström tells me. “We made some studies and found that the contrast between block colours helps visibility plus the shapes and cut we choose also improves perception from a distance too”.
And that was it for the POC tour: multiple coffees (not good for the nerves, I’d later find out) and a few quick chats with a few key members of the POC staff. It had been a whirlwind tour and not quite what I’d expected. I’d come ready to venture out into the back roads of Sweden to test kit in the brisk chill of the Scandinavian air. Instead, an aeroplane beckoned, so too a hospital, and a significant life change.
It’s inevitable that whenever you need to get somewhere in a hurry you get the slow taxi driver, the time-consuming airport check-in, and the long, drawn out boarding process. Or at least that’s what it feels like.
But what you also get — or what I seemed to get while stressing out about getting home in time for the birth — is a free pass on certain safety protocols. The instructions of “Please turn your phone to flight mode now” seem to be ignorable if you get an understanding air hostess. Phone calls and texts on take off, and even several hundred meters above the ground, seem perfectible acceptable in the situation I found myself in.
Even after the stress of getting to the airport, I would have been happy for that first flight of two to have been delayed, even by 20 minutes. The last phone call I made to my partner, from several hundred meters off the ground mind you, was at 2.52pm. Our baby’s time of birth: 2.59pm.
Have I been forgiven? Yeah — my partner is very understanding. As for me, well, I’m still cross with myself and I’m sure I always will be. But hey, that’s life. On the upside it makes a good story, plus baby Willow got a Swedish moose as a first teddy.
I’ve also put in a pre-order for a POC child’s helmet. Sure they don’t make children’s helmets at the moment, but I’m guessing a range will be designed and on the market by the time my baby girl is big enough for two wheels.
And if she doesn’t become a brand ambassador after all this drama, I’ll be bitterly disappointed.