Part 3: “It was always about making the best products that we possibly could”
After decades in the carbon bike industry, Rob Gitelis acquired Factor Bikes in 2015 driven by a simple desire – to build the best bikes in the world. This is the story of Factor’s fledgling years and the unique experience that defines our culture.
Factor Bikes is built on principles. Its foundations are poured from passion and nothing whatsoever is placed ahead of making the highest performing bikes that deliver the greatest customer experience. It’s easy to say, but it isn’t true of every brand. In fact, the erosion of these values from the industry, replaced by business models driven by accountants, was the motivating force for Rob Gitelis to buy Factor Bikes.
Imagine in your mind a Venn diagram of bicycle industry personnel, the leaders and the well-known. There’s a big overlap of those two groups. For a long time, Rob Gitelis existed in a small space as one of the most important figures in cycling yet entirely unknown by the public. As the owner of a factory that made bikes for brands including Cervélo, Focus, BH, Canyon and Parlee, to name just a few, Rob was a major player in the bike business, talked of with both great respect and fondness by insiders. Speaking with him, it quickly becomes clear why that’s the case.
“In the past 25 years I worked with so many of the entrepreneurs who launched key brands such as Cervélo, Zipp and Santa Cruz. Those guys are still my close friends, so there was always this friendship and trust. There was hardly ever a discussion of costs; it was always about making the best products that we could and then at the very end we talk about the price.
“Then big companies started buying up these brands, and all they wanted to talk about was price. Whoever offered the lowest price, that’s who they’d work with. That just wasn’t interesting for me. I had always been the domestique of the bike industry, working behind the scenes. When the industry started changing, I decided that role was no longer really for me.”
It was time for a new venture, one that would allow Rob to return to building bikes the way he wanted, with a culture of quality over cost. He had the experience, the expertise, and – crucially – his own factory. He just needed a way in.
Photo: S.YOUNG Bike
MEETING FACTOR BIKES
When Factor Bikes was born in 2012 (as told in the previous installments of this series), Rob’s factory had been recommended to founder John Bailey as the ideal manufacturing partner, and Rob remembers his first impressions of the bikes.
“Like many people, I had seen the Factor 001 concept bike and thought it was really cool. They were the first to do direct mount disc brake calipers and hydraulic road levers.
“When I saw the Vis Vires production bike, I knew it was going to be a very big challenge. The complexity of the Twin Vane downtube was in the mould design. Usually it’s a clamshell, a top and a bottom piece, sometimes with one or maybe two ‘slide moulds’ added for complex areas. The Vis Vires had 11 additional slide moulds to create the Twin Vane downtube. It’s exceptionally complex to get everything into the mould and to design that mould in the first place.”
John’s vision and Rob’s execution were rewarded at the 2013 Eurobike Show, where the Vis Vires won the Gold award for design. It was also the first time the pair met in person and, while it represented the end of that bike’s development journey, it was the beginning of something much bigger.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
In 2014, the demands of running a new bike brand alongside a very busy motorsports operation were becoming impossible to juggle for John. At the same time, Rob’s manufacturing operation was also seeing major changes and his soon-to-be business partner, Baden Cooke, was looking for a next step of his own having just retired from a long and successful pro cycling career. It was a timing trifecta.
Still, the switch from making bikes for other people for 20 years to running your own brand is a big one. Rob recalls what catalysed it.
“Right from our first conversations about Factor, we always said that it was a goal to be in the WorldTour”
“I can trace the decision back to a single event. I had produced the Cervélo bikes from the time the company was launched until the time the company was sold. The same group also bought Focus and Santa Cruz, two more clients of mine. They didn’t recognise the value that we brought and decided to move the production to reduce costs. Two-thirds of my business had just been yanked out from beneath me, so I thought ‘Do I want to pursue new clients for contract manufacturing or do I want to change direction?’ I chose to be in control of my own destiny.”
The deal was completed in 2015 and work began immediately. The first step was to develop the Vis Vires into the One, with a new, more refined front end, and then to get the bike out in front of the public by sponsoring the One Pro Cycling team for the 2016 season. If that sounds like a steep progression, they were only just getting started.
THE O2 ARRIVES
With the aero ONE blazing a trail, it was an easy choice to make its first stablemate a lightweight all-rounder that could lead the brand into battle against established names in theatres from club rides to Grand Tours.
“As a bike company, we all ride bikes,” says Rob. “We thought about, living somewhere hilly, what bike do we want to ride? My factory had previously been making the Cervélo R5, so I thought, ‘What’s going to be my R-series?’ And that was the O2.”
Very light and elegant yet far from merely a climbing specialist, the O2 was conceived as a multi-talented race bike, drawing on all of the combined experience of Baden and Rob to balance comfort and aerodynamics with low weight. The seatstays and fork blades were kept very thin for both comfort and aerodynamics; power transfer was assured through a large downtube and beefy, asymmetrical chainstays, all with maximised junction areas at the bottom bracket; the fork crown integrated into the downtube, itself shaped with a subtle truncated airfoil to substantially reduce drag versus a round-tube frame; and the whole was made from the best materials available.
In short, no corners were cut. It was only possible because Factor Bikes owns its factory. Compared to the traditional business model with which Rob lost patience, the margins saved allow Factor to make every choice for engineering reasons rather than costs.
The O2 was an immediate hit with the press and customers. That much the team had dared hope for. What they hadn’t, was that it would also catch the eye of one of the world’s best professionals and open the door for Factor Bikes to challenge at the pinnacle of the sport.
RACING IS IN THE BLOOD
The competitive spirit runs deep at Factor. As well as the influence of Baden Cooke, a Tour de France green jersey winner, Rob himself also raced professionally in Europe and the US. It means they insist upon the very highest performance from the bikes and greatly value the exposure and feedback that a pro team brings. “Right from our first conversations about Factor, we always said that it was a goal to be in the WorldTour,” says Rob. Simply, racing improves the breed.
“Right from our first conversations about Factor, we always said that it was a goal to be in the WorldTour”
“AG2R hadn’t been happy with their old bikes,” notes Rob, “and Romain Bardet in particular. The team asked him what bikes he wanted to try, and he said Factor. At that point the O2 had only been out for a few months, so it was cool that he knew about it.”
Bardet loved the bike and you could say that the rest is history… but that would be to gloss over the effort it took to make it happen. For a start, a WorldTour team demands 280 bikes per year, plus “a couple of million euros”. On top of that, they needed a time trial bike and Factor didn’t yet have one.
“For AG2R, it was a bit of a risk, because they didn’t know us,” says Rob. “The SLiCK TT bike was still in development and not yet ready, but when I told them about the TT bikes that I’d manufactured in the past they took it on my word that they would have a good TT bike in time to start the season.
“It was one of those deals that’s too good to pass up, but in hindsight we shouldn’t have done it. We created a lot of demand that we weren’t able to fulfil. We didn’t really have a sales channel yet. It’s a lot of money to be spending when you don’t have a sales channel!”
There was a flipside to that equation, though. “Once the season began, people started approaching us wanting to sell our bikes. Had we not sponsored AG2R, building that sales channel would have been a lot slower.”
The mindset behind the brave deal is captured perfectly in a maxim that was written along the toptube of Bardet’s own bike at the 2017 Tour de France:
‘Take the risk or lose the chance.’
Photo: Scott Mitchell – Romain Bardet at the Tour de France in 2018
For both Rob and Romain, the reward for their risk came on stage 12 of that Tour, a 214km haul across the Pyrenees from Pau to a summit finish at the Peyragudes ski station. The day’s six categorised climbs included the cat 1 Col de Menté and Col de Peyresourde either side of the hors catégorie Port de Balès. The finish line stood atop a cruelly steep 20% ramp which delivered on its promise of upsetting the GC standings within the last minute of a near six-hour stage. It was the ideal launch pad for Bardet. Timing his effort to perfection, he kicked clear of the world’s best climbers to win the stage on his Factor O2.
Even more remarkably, on the stage 20 time trial, riding the new SLiCK, Bardet produced the TT of his life to hold on to an overall podium place by a single second. It was a dream debut at the world’s biggest race for Factor Bikes.
“I was in France on the day Romain Bardet won that stage,” remembers Rob. “That was a great moment. After only 18 months, one of my bikes wins a stage of the Tour. It was quite something. I’m usually pretty reserved, but that one was so exciting to watch.
“It’s been a lot of work, but moments like that, the GC podium, and the second place at Paris-Roubaix the following spring, have made it so rewarding.”
2008 Work starts on 001
2009 Factor 001 concept revealed
2011 First media test of Factor 001
2011 Collaboration begins with Aston Martin
2012 July; A-M One-77 launched to compliment £1m hypercar
2012 August; Work begins to create the Factor Bikes brand
2013 July; First media test of Factor Vis Vires
2013 August; Vis Vires wins IF Gold award at Eurobike trade show
2015 Rob Gitelis and Baden Cooke acquire Factor Bikes
2016 Introduction of ONE
2016 Professional racing debut with UK team One Pro Cycling
2017 Introduction of O2
2017 WorldTour debut with AG2R
2017 Tour de France debut, Romain Bardet wins a stage and is 3rd overall
2019 Introduction of O2 VAM
2019 Entry to Women’s WorldTour racing with Parkhotel-Valkenburg team
2020 Return to WorldTour with Israel Start-Up Nation team
2020 Introduction of second-generation O2
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