We are at nearly the one year point in the history of Elcyclista, and every week literally brings us in touch with new people who share our passion for riding and design. A few weeks back I was flicking through an issue of Cycle Sport (I still buy print) and came a cross a full page ad for Franco Bicycles. It looked like a nicely produced frame and prompted me to check out their site, to find they were doing something different and interesting. At the same time, Julian Franco was sending me an email to say he had found Elcyclista and loved what we were doing. Love it when that happens. We swapped emails and crafted a virtual interview, below.
How did you get into the sport?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been into bikes. I vividly remember my 9th birthday when my uncle, who was a big roadie at the time, showed up for my birthday party and had a dark blue Masi road bike that he had just picked up. I remember it had Campy on it and he trained on tubulars. I thought that was the coolest thing ever. That same birthday, another uncle gave me a Murray BMX. I got more and more into it, and I eventually wanted a higher-end BMX bike, but my parents wouldn’t buy me an expensive one. So I “de-tassled” corn (I grew up in the Midwest just outside Chicago) for the entire summer when I was 12 so I could order a new Robinson from Frankford BMX, a mail-order company advertising in the back pages of BMX Plus. I raced BMX for a while and eventually graduated to mountain bikes. Then in college I was racing a 250GP bike as part of the AMA Superbike Series and used a mountain bike to train on when a mechanic friend of mine, Mike Rockwell (another roadie) got me out on an old steel Bianchi to “chase some school buses” for fitness. From that moment on, I loved it and I’ve been on road bikes ever since.
Reading the background on you guys, it sounds like you have put together an interesting business model. How did the Franco brand get started?
My cousin, Hector, and I have both spent our entire careers in consumer goods. Hector on product development as an industrial designer and engineer, and me on the business side. Our experience there was really pretty simple. We would partner with retailers and base every decision on consumer insights, always focusing on the customer needs. That meant if we kept the focus on the customer, the business would take care of itself. Having bought a lot of bikes ourselves we didn’t think that was the case in the bike industry. We’d find what we thought was the perfect bike and then we’d have to try to find it, since our local dealers didn’t always have them in stock. One time in particular, when I was looking for a specific new bike in my size, that meant printing off a list of US dealers for that brand, and calling every dealer from the east coast to the west until I finally found it. I found it in Utah, and since I was on vacation with my wife, she didn’t appreciate my efforts that morning as much as I did! Experiences like this and our network of contacts allowed us to create a company that did exactly what we wanted when purchasing a bike. Franco Bicycles was born.
Tell us about the direct-to-consumer model you have established and what makes it a unique service?
Our direct-to-consumer model, “The Franco Experience,” is unique in that it allows us to custom tailor a new Franco bike to every individual customer. We get to know the customer first and the type of rider they are. What type of riding they will do, the terrain they will ride on, and the kind of experience they want to have on the bike. This may mean building the Ultimate Race Bike, or building up an elite performance bike that delivers real all-day, in-the-saddle comfort. We accomplish this by matching components to the customer needs.
Here is an example, while a build with SRAM Force comes stock with alloy Ritchey Logic II bars, a customer who doesn’t race and wants the additional vibration damping a full carbon bar offers can upgrade to the Ritchey WCS Carbon Curve bar. They can even upgrade to the Ritchey Superlogic Evolution bar if they do a lot of climbing. Or through conversation we might find they might benefit from the slightly swept-back tops of the Evolution bars, which are designed to help you keep your elbows in and head up when climbing. Every part is upgradable at the cost of the upgrade, and not as an add-on. The bike is shipped exactly how the customer wants it. That means they get everything they want from their new bike, and nothing they don’t.
Combine this level of service with a complimentary bike fit using Retul’s 3D motion capture that comes with every complete bike we sell and customers get a new bike that is tailored to them and delivers the performance and experience that they expect when they buy a bike of this caliber.
So one day there was no Franco product and now you are sitting with the Balcom frame: tell us how you went from scratch to creating a product of this quality? What was the design process like?
Once we had decided the type of bike we wanted to create we traveled to Taiwan a number of times and met with manufacturers that we thought would offer the manufacturing capabilities that were most important to our vision and could commit to the quality that we required. This meant touring a lot of facilities and seeing some of their exclusive manufacturing processes firsthand. We then went to work on developing the product. This was a long process that included CAD development using Solidworks and ProE, initial FEA analysis, prototyping, refining and detailing carbon layups, samples and sample testing. Various steps were repeated until we had a rideable prototype. We rode and tested a lot of prototypes before finally settling on the Balcom, which is now for sale. The final steps were deciding on a graphics package and finally offering it for sale! That took just 2+ years!!
What is the ride quality like on the Balcom? What type of rider or conditions does it suit best?
The Balcom was designed to be an Elite Performance road and race bike. It’s a super stiff bike that provides immediate feedback when you push on the pedals or hard in the turns, while being comfortable enough to endure long training rides. Can you ride a century on it? Sure. Are there more comfortable bikes out there to complete a century on? Sure. Will they be faster than ours? No.
You spec your bikes out beautifully. What is a typical build weight?
A build with SRAM Red, Ritchey cockpit and Zipp 404 tubulars as shown on our site is 13.28 lbs. We actually have a bike built up right now that is going to be tested by a print magazine that we believe is the ultimate race bike. The bike is full SRAM Force, with Ritchey Superlogic components (including a traditional seatpost), and Hed Stinger 4 tubulars with Vittoria tires. It weighs 13.9lbs complete and retails for less than $4k.
Apart from the Balcom, what other models do you have planned?
We are just getting ready to kick off development of a new road bike, and have started development of a new TT/Tri bike. The Balcom will still be in the lineup with no changes planned for it, but we do hope to broaden the range over the next 18 months.
The Factory Team look like a bunch of pretty mean riders. How do they fit into all of this?
The Factory Team was designed to give us immediate feedback on bikes. Some of the guys on the team are ex-Olympians and current Pros that race Pro 1-2 and Masters here in Southern California, which is arguably the most competitive racing scene around. (Elcyclista: I think there are a few guys in the Park Series here might give you an argument on that.) A few of them had ridden an early prototype version of Balcom back in 2008 and have provided a lot of feedback for the current. As an example, we’re working on a cross bike, so this season we have the cross racers on the Factory Team riding an aluminum version to test out the set-up and geometry and we’ll make the bike available for limited sale next year.
Tell us about the “Nut House” ride–I saw something on your Facebook page about it.
Haha! The Nut House is a stop along our backyard route. We’re based in Camarillo, CA, and the bike’s namesake, Balcom Canyon, is just down the road from us. We often do a ride we call the Balcom/Grimes Loop. Now, I’ll be honest, on most occasions we descend Balcom and climb back up Grimes (below). No matter which way you go, you deserve a stop at The Somis Nut House. Plenty of salty snacks to get you back on the road and home. They also sell Mexican Cokes! Which are especially sweet after a hot day in the saddle.
Are you guys still able to ride and race with all of the success of the brand?
Yes, as much as we can. We both have small kids at home, and a business to run, so it’s definitely a lot harder than it used to be to get the time in on the bike, but I’ve still been able to get in 10-12 hours in per week. Racing can be pretty competitive in SoCal, so if you don’t put in the time on the bike…it’s embarrassing. I learned that earlier this season when I had been off the bike for a few weeks because of an injury and then let my friends talk me into racing the Manhattan Beach GP. It was brutal. I suffered more than I should have, and got dropped. The only way to fix that is to ride more. Plus I have a carrot that lives down my street, I ride to beat Greg Lippert.
Merckx or Coppi?
Merckx. If it wasn’t for WWII, we might say Coppi, but at the end of the day it’s Merckx.
What do you enjoy more, the Classics or the Tours?
The Tours. Even watching from home, I love the entire “Tour watching” experience. The fact that it’s happening every day, the coffee, the way it becomes a part of the daily routine for nearly the entire month. We’re on the west coast so watching the Tour live every day means you have to wake up pretty early to enjoy the entire stage without having to struggle to avoid spoilers online. Especially on the climbing stages when coverage can start as early as 3:30AM PST. Once it’s over, you can go through some serious withdrawals. That said, you can’t beat the tension and the potential for heart break that the classics offer. For so many of those riders, it’s all on the line that one day and so many things have to go right. Where in the Tours there is always tomorrow, and there are 20 opportunities for a win every year, a classics rider gets relatively few attempts at a big win. Can we say both?
If money was no object and you could own any frame you want, what would you order up (can’t be your own)?
Easy. I’d get in line for a bike from Sacha White over at Vanilla Bicycles. As far as carbon goes, ours delivers everything beyond expectation, so I would mix it up and add some variety to the garage with one of his bikes. Have you seen them? They’re beautiful.