I visited the American Bicycle Group factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee last week and below is what I saw. This company intrigues me partly because of its products, but also the strategic decisions it's made on how to deliver the product, which I will explain.
Some brands have lost faith in any sales channel that involves an ungovernable entity standing between the manufacturer and the end user. This could be an independent bike shop, or an independent sales rep. For these brands a solution might be a fleet of company-employed sales reps. Or, a network of retail stores owned by the manufacturer. Or, just selling bikes online and shipping them direct to the consumer.
Canyon is the obvious example of a smashing success at consumer-direct business. One might think that this makes Canyon an arch competitor of ABG, as that latter company moves its business toward the direct sales channel, but in a way Canyon has acted as an ice breaker ship, plowing a path that has made it easier for ABG to sell its brands consumer direct.
In ABG’s case – and its brands are Litespeed, Quintana Roo and OBED – the company appears to have asked itself what is the cleanest way to make consumer-direct business work, and that is reflected in what I saw when I toured this factory. Yes, ABG does engage in business with retailers, but only when the business fit is ideal, and there may be only a dozen or so bike shops where that is the case.
The decisions ABG has made in how it makes, paints, assembles and ships its product are really with the consumer-direct channel in mind. These have not been strategic choices made whimsically. For example, if you decide to assemble all your bikes in your own U.S.-based factory – which ABG does – you’re committing to a process that is at least a year and-a-half away once you pull that trigger, because of the lead times for component parts. In the pic above complete bike assembly is taking place.
I spent a day with the Brad Devaney, the lead designer and engineer for the brands (I’m the skinny guy in the photos, Brad is the handsome Tennesseean), and we spent a lot of time in the Litespeed area, as this is the brand that gets built from the ground up in that factory. I’m by no means anything near an expert in this process, but I have some experience in how these factories run as I was nominally a manager of Merlin Bicycles in the late 1990s (because of an acquisition). I could not lay down an acceptable weld bead to save my life, but my curiosity into the process did make me a nosy presence in that factory I “managed,” which equipped me for what I saw at Litespeed last week.
What I love about factories like these are the often custom retasked dedicated machines that only fill a particular use, such as the (probably 1940s vintage) horizontal mill that only threads bottom brackets for the T47 BB standard after a Litespeed frame gets made. This post-welding machining reminded me of Hooker’s factory, where a lot of my bikes were made in the late 80s and early 90s, where he machined in the dropouts of his Hooker Elite frame after the frame was welded and heat treated (it was the only way – Gary Hooker felt – that he could make a perfectly straight frame). Gary used to buy a lot of old mill heads at auction, setting them up for dedicated chores, and I saw some of that at the Litespeed plant.
That said, the image above is in the area where centerless grinding and polishing take place.
The big changes ABG made to the Quintana Roo and OBED lines in particular were: painting raw frames to order; assembling complete bikes to order; and shipping bikes via a number of options, depending on the consumer preference, including by courier straight to the door (no box, no assembly, the courier just hands you your bike, ready to ride). These logistical decisions dovetail nicely with the consumer direct sales model. It’s more or less what you’d assume happens in a Trek’s Project One transaction (except with ABG there’s usually not a retailer involved).
There are two paint booths running full tilt, and you see a painter at work in the image below. Interesting to me was that the assembly was pretty old school. What we see in Asian factories is mass production. One guy does only bottom bracket installs. The problem with this – from my perspective – is that you often get workers who don’t really understand the importance of what they’re doing. They don’t understand the results of over-tightening. They don’t know how or when to identify something with the frame or a part that could cause a failure. At this factory, it appeared to me that one person builds a frame into a bike from the bottom up, and I’ve always felt it comforting when the person building a bike – welding a frame, hanging the parts, and all the way back to cutting molds or making tools – understands the purpose of the thing he or she is making or assembling.
There is one discovery I made while at the factory that I believe has big consequences. I'll only gloss over this here because there are processes not yet in place (I don't think) should this feature become as popular as I suspect it will. You are familiar with our Fit Assistance Threads on our Reader Forum, yes? You post in the thread your fit coordinates – chiefly the rise and run from the bottom bracket to your armrest – and our fitters who man those threads prescribe the size of the bike you need, and answer any other questions (and walk you through how to measure). Here is the thread for Quintana Roo, and you'll also see in a sidebar on our Forum with links to similar threads for Canyon, Cervelo, Trek. Here’s my discovery: If you purchase a Quintana Roo PRsix for example, and you let them know when you order what your fit coordinates are, they’ll build the bike up to match those coordinates.
Let's explore this. They build every bike completely up to rideable, at the factory, and then take it on a spin around the parking lot. Then they build it back down, as necessary, for the type of shipping you request. Building every bike completely up helps the factory to make darned sure the bike is actually set up to a user's fit your coordinates. You could place that bike on the floor, level it, shoot a crosshair laser into the bottom bracket, and measure the rise and run to the pad. You could perform the same function on a road and gravel bike, just, you’d probably want to use where we call the “web”, called by others the “grip”: the place where the web of skin between thumb and index finger meets the hood.
I’ll write more about this as this feature develops. I mention it now because the more you think about this feature, the bigger it gets. One could imagine, for road bikes, not just the capacity to ship a bike built to those coordinates, but even options on how to do it (more spacers, -17° stem? fewer spacers, -6° stem). This has implications as well for the relationship ABG might strike with Bike Fitters, as this will be the sort of feature that warms the hearts of those in this community.
This is the latest in my “Summer of Factory Visits.” I just kind of fell into this – seemed like a good idea at the time – and my first of this summer was BiSaddle’s factory. I visited ENVE’s factory not long ago, but then we lost a year-and-some to a pandemic. Now that travel is achievable I’ll be back on the road for more.
Oh, and one more thing, it impresses me and maybe you as well. I mentioned my visit to ENVE: one thing I really admire about ENVE is that these guys are big time riders. Same here. This week you won't find these ABG guys at home, because most of the senior leadership, including the president and Brad Devaney who you see above, are off riding Unbound Gravel (was Dirty Kanza). Two things I like: people who seriously make what they sell; and people who seriously ride what they make.