Oval Concepts' Morgan Nicol
Written by: Dan Empfield
Date: Wed Jun 10 2009
Gene Kelly was the American in Paris. You're the American in Italy. More precisely, you're an American on the Swiss-Italian border. How did that come to be?
I was chasing this beautiful, intelligent Swiss/Italian woman. After about 15 trips back and forth across the Atlantic I finally caught her (or she surrendered). Now we have two kids and she runs my business.
I remember you chasing the beautiful Swiss/Italian woman. Back then there were, of course, no kids. How far back was that?
More than 20 years! [daughter] Stephanie will be 16. She is in her first year of Liceo [high school, roughly] focusing on languages. She has both English and Italian mother tongue and is pretty proficient already in French and German. Stephanie has been swimming for six years and swam for the Swiss national team two years ago. Massi [Max] swims also, but would much rather be playing soccer.
Let's talk names. You own the only Italian cycling brand to end in L. the un-vowel-terminated brands I can think of end in C as in Ciocc, or N as in Rossin. Oval Concepts is an English language name in Italy. Was that a benefit or a hurdle?
We are actually a Swiss company with an American designer based on the Italian border. We promote Swiss Quality and American Technology with an Italian Flair. It has worked out well so far.
Let's talk about your market. How much is road versus tri, and what's your sales breakdown regionally?
I need to speak road vs. aero since we sell tons of stuff in the UK to their significant time trial market. This year we are 53 percent aero, 45 percent road and 2 percent MTB. Our aero segment is growing but the road products are growing faster.
Regionally the U.S. is our biggest market followed by the UK, Germany, Japan, and Switzerland. Australia, New Zealand, Spain and Iran are also doing well.
You're the first aerobar maker to fully embrace the idea of modularity, as far as I know. Other aerobar makers have made products that turn out to be modular, but you actually make all your parts—your clamps, stems, extensions, pursuit bars—to mix and match. Have manufacturers and retailers understood your reasoning? Have they used the functionality you've provided for them?
Each retailer or fit coach I have had 5 minutes with has understood our modular system and seem to take advantage of it. For bike product managers and OEM factories the additional effort continues to be a challenge. The other challenge is marketing the system so I do not need to talk to each retailer or fit coach individually and don't scare consumers away. It does look kind of complicated at first glance—even on our 4th generation Modular Aerobar System poster.
Also, the modular system is best sold to an experienced aero bar user. I assume all fit coaches will get it. I need to be careful that the retailer or consumer is prepared for the story. The majority of the market is still just asking for an integrated aero bar—as everyone else is selling it‹and ignoring the fit story. The ideal is if a shop can sell an Oval complete aerobar and let the consumer see, gradually, that they can make every adjustment and upgrade they need.
Technically, such modularity means your sub-assemblies can be purchased in pieces, almost like the components in a gruppo. Do you sell them that way? Has anyone bought from you part of an aerobar?
We sell thousands of aero bar parts—some for upgrades and some to build Modular bars from scratch. Fortunately the U.S. has excellent distributors who can and do inventory the entire parts range and sell enough volume to justify it.
We started selling all the different extension shapes and carbon parts—red and clear—as upgrades to the aero bars that shipped complete only. After a year of complaints from retailers who had a load of the stock alloy extensions and arm rests and brake levers sitting around and after consulting with the Dali Lama of aero bar fit [Nicol refers to the promulgator of a particular tri bike fit system], we started marketing the Modular system with the same parts already available, adding just base bars sold separately.
The whole system of selling aero bars has evolved rapidly in just four years. QBP has done a superb job of stocking and maintaining all the Modular system parts. Hawley and BTI are also getting better [these are Oval Concepts’ importers/distributors]. My challenge now is how to service the fit coaches not attached to bike shops in a more elegant way.
As we have noted in previous articles, Oval Concepts has been the closest to making what we consider the perfect, and first mature, fully functional, shorty bar. But we don't think you’ve pushed the ball over the goal yet. Can you tell us anything we don't yet know about your shorty bar project?
The RBT [Reverse Bolt Technology] stems are the key to the system as their superior strength safely dissipates the added stresses imparted when you torque on the extensions‹leveraging off the arm rests or handlebar. The small tongue on the top of each SCCS clamp also helps dissipate part of this stress into the stem body.
Now we have four models of SCCS clamp. Two models place the extensions under the handlebar, and two models place the extensions over the handlebar. This simple change of SCCS clamp will raise or lower your extensions 60mm, which is a much better fit adjustment to make than adding 60mm of fork spacers and compromising your bike handling characteristics.
Two SCCS models place the arm rests over the bars for a forward aero bike position and two models place the armrests behind the bars for a more relaxed road bike position. After you add all the adjustability in the system, to its ease of installation, to its ability to wrap around almost any shape base bar, you have a massive improvement on the classic clip-on system.
Of course one problem is when the stem has a rise or is adjustable because the extensions follow the stem angle. I am working on some cool solutions to that challenge. Second is how to supply the ultimate shorty extension for different road bars and different personal preferences. Third is marketing all the benefits of the SCCS system to the world.
I'd like you to comment about the Cinque Terre TT [the 60.6K, rarely flat, 600-turn,TT midway through the just concluded 2009 Tour of Italy]. You'll note that 3T is making progress with its "shorty" bar.
Most Italians are still in the stone age, with DiLuca not even using a clip-on—the only one in the top 25 to ride that config—and Cunego having the most stupid clip-on set-up I have ever seen.
Most people ran very short extensions while smarter guys—Columbia, Astana, Saxo, Cervelo, Fuji—respected the 75cm limit. Only Basso was longer, pegging his extensions, according to his mechanic, right at 80cm. HED shorties were well represented on Astana, Columbia and Caisse D'Espargne.
Your SCCS clamps, were Fuji-Servetto riders using that sort of bar in the Cinque Terre TT? What did they do for armrests?
Only Fredrik Kessikov rode the R910 Aergo road bar with no arm rests. We discussed that this set-up would allow the quickest transitions between hand positions, which would be vital on this constantly changing course. Time and logistics did not allow us to change other riders to the R910 Aergo road base bar. Kessikov also rode the R900 JetStream road fork to help counter the added drag of the lighter weight, lower profile wheels used to minimize the power requirements of near constant climbing, accelerating and decelerating.
Six Fuji-Servetto riders rode A911 OverUnder SCCS with extensions under and arm rests over the handlebars. Three tried the A910 UnderOnly with arm rests mounted behind the bars but they were worried about hitting their knees on the arm rests while standing and climbing, even riding 140mm stems! One rider rode the A921 DoubleOver SCCS because he liked the higher aero position.
Four Fuji-Servetto riders used s-bend extensions, three used double bends and one used single bends.
You've hung your parts until this year on Silence Lotto's bikes, and on Slipstream's bikes. What's the future of Oval Concepts in big time road racing?
I think being on one good ProTour level team is critical to develop, test and promote top level road and aero product. The road market is much larger than the aero market so we have always focused on the more competitive, less flashy road product segment, even though we may advertise our flashier aero products more.
The exposure you get sponsoring a road team is huge compared to what you can get with triathletes [though Oval is underneath Michellie Jones, Belinda Granger, Virginia Berasategui, Joszef Major, Stephen Baylis, Reinoldo Colucci, Fabio Carvahlo, and other triathletes]. The television exposure for road and TT stages of the major tours is immense, especially in Europe. Triathlon is just not covered near as well. Even more important, the road magazines cover the technical details of the road and aero products better than the tri magazines.
We got out-bid big time at Garmin-Chipolte by 7.5 times our last year's cash investment! So we lost that great relationship. I don’t sense Silence-Lotto appreciated the work that Ridley and Oval did for them in 2008. Ridley moved to Katyusha. We likewise could not match the big cash handlebar offers with the Russian team.
It seems road teams are chasing the cash instead of technology from their technology sponsors, which is a mistake in my book. They need to chase results from their technology sponsors and more cash from their title and co-title sponsors who really benefit from those bigger results.
We were immensely fortunate to grow into two Tour de France level teams last year but it was too much for our small company. We supported the teams well. We learned a lot, got some great results [two of the top four Tour spots], and fine-tuned our product direction; but it cost us over half of our marketing budget which is too much.
We will sponsor one ProTour team in 2009, Fuji-Servetto, and try to help that team to smoke some time trials. Wish us luck.
I hear you about the road teams chasing cash. Just a few years ago it just took bikes and a few hundred thousand U.S. dollars to sponsor a team. There are now two teams that I've heard are getting about $6 million and $4 million respectively from their bike sponsors. I think it's a bad sign when the team owners are hitting up the endemic companies for cash instead of big non-endemic brands. Do you expect the riders to suffer as a result?
I don't know if the riders will suffer but their results will. We tried working with a new ProTour team who is out promoting its huge annual budget. I felt they were willing to compromise their handlebar, stem, post product simply for more cash. And they truly did not understand the added value of the aero fit consulting they would receive. I wonder how their title sponsors are going to feel about that?
The top triathletes are far ahead of all except the top six road teams in terms of aerodynamics, training and nutrition. The top fifty male and female triathletes in Kona know more about aerodynamics than 12 of the 18 ProTour teams. The road teams torture the equipment much more than the triathletes and their dedicated road mechanics love to have someone help them solve problems and improve equipment. Being deeply involved in both top level road and triathlon racing is critical.
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