Last week in Bergen AG2R’s Benoît Cosnefroy sprinted to victory and became the under-23 World Champion atop a Factor Bikes bicycle. But this victory – a first for both Factor and for AG2R’s development squad – isn’t why the Taiwan-headquartered company is currently so internet famous.
Instead, Factor’s leap into the limelight is of the ostensibly negative sort ("infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it infamy," as Kenneth Williams once said) and getting mainstream billing on the ESPN sports channel wasn’t exactly what Factor’s North America general manager was expecting from the development team’s ride on another race.
"I woke up to [an explosion of] texts and my inbox and my Facebook posts about a certain AG2R rider’s TT bike – extensions had come away from the basebar," said Wittenberg, speaking on the latest Spokesmen industry roundtable podcast.
"I now know what going viral means – I have never seen anything spread like this before."
Wittenberg is an industry veteran (he has previously represented Ridley in North America) and works for Factor via his business development firm Lucidity.
"Everybody was jumping to conclusions, assuming the worst," highlighted Wittenberg.
"What was most frustrating, dealing with the media, was that only one guy bothered to pick up the phone or email and ask “hey Richard, what actually happened?”
What did happen on 10th September in Angevilliers, at France’s Tour de Moselle?
Maxime Roger, a rider for the Chambéry Cyclisme Formation development team crashed on stage two of the race, hitting the deck at speed after the bar extensions snapped from his Factor time trial bike.
"[Roger] had jumped on a TT bike of ours, and on the start line asked the mechanic to raise the extensions," said Wittenberg.
"The mechanic was not the primary mechanic, he was [hired in] for the event; the primary mechanic was on holiday. So, you had a new rider with a new mechanic. The extra extensions bolt directly to the base bar and as you add more spacers you need longer bolts, but what [the mechanic] did was put the extra spacer in there, but he didn’t put the longer bolt in, and so when the rider went over a speed bump, and the less-than-2mm-of threads holding the bar on came loose [in fact it was 5mm], the rider came crashing to the [road].
"[Roger] wasn’t seriously hurt, thank God, but everybody was quick to judge ‘there you go, the industry doesn’t take enough care to make sure everything is safe’ and ‘they’re making products that are inferior,’ and ‘carbon fibre isn’t safe.’"
But, as Wittenberg attests, "it had nothing to do with carbon fibre. It had nothing to do with defective products. It was down to human error, and guess what folks, we’re human, and we make mistakes. The mechanic made a mistake and the rider made a mistake."
Wittenberg sighed: "It showed me the negative part of human nature – how people are so quick to judge."
When the video started to go viral, Factor could do little to, er, stem the tide of misinformation.
"We [clicked] into ‘standard operating procedure,’" said Wittenberg. "Let’s find out the facts. This took time. The team didn’t know [what had happened] at first. There was some concerns in the press that we at Factor didn’t take enough responsibility about it. That’s when [journalist] Patrick Brady of RedKitePrayer.com asked what had happened. His piece goes through a detailed explanation of what happened."
But, said Wittenberg, then the second wave of media hit. "[The video] got picked by ESPN, and [everything] flared up again. The mainstream media just hit share and let it fly."
By this time there had been statements on the Factor website and from Chambéry Cyclisme Formation director sportif Loïc Varnet but these were drowned out by the new wave of publicity.
Not that Wittenberg is complaining too much: "Our biggest challenge facing the brand is building recognition, and so long as people see the brand, but don’t remember why they saw the brand, that’s good stuff!"
Nevertheless, as he told Brady, “[this was] a wake-up call to the industry about education. This isn’t an old Cinelli stem where once you know how it works you know how every other stem out there works.”
Factor is owned by former pro riders Rob Gitelis of America and Australia’s Baden Cooke. Gitelis, now domiciled in Taiwan, has a high-end carbon factory that, for some years, has made bikes for Cervélo, Canyon and other high-end brands. The company was established in 2007 in Norfolk, and was originally an offshoot of Bf1systems, an F1 engineering firm. Gitelis and Cooke acquired the brand in 2014 and moved it to Asia.
"Factor makes the most technologically advanced bikes and parts in the world," said a Factor statement about the crash.
"Our staff is full of ex World Tour riders and we know that rider safety is the most important performance element we can provide. We engineer every part to be as safe and as light as it can be.
"This mandates that the assembly and set up of that product be just as precise. An additional spacer was placed between the base bar and extensions by one of the team mechanics which unfortunately resulted in the handlebar failure. At the time of the incident, incorrect length bolts were used to fasten the bars with the taller stack. The short bolts did not have enough thread engagement and released when the rider had hit a speed bump.
The company warned: "Factor products have precise and detailed instructions of how they need to be installed with correct torque settings and bolt lengths. It is of the utmost importance that every instruction we provide regarding our products must be followed with every element of accuracy to ensure safety and top performance."
Disclosure: I host the Spokesmen podcast.