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‘Fanatical’ about customisation: inside Ribble’s online bike builder

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Building your own bike gives you the flexibility to piece together the machine, component by component, in a way which just isn’t possible with a standard range of bikes from a typical manufacturer.

Want to splash out on a high-end set of wheels with a fast set of tyres to do the frame justice, choose the width and shape of your handlebar, or even the colour of the handlebar tape? If you buy an off-the-shelf machine then, chances are, that simply won’t be possible.

Ribble isn’t a typical bike manufacturer, in that respect, with the company’s online bike builder allowing customers to piece together their own machine without getting their hands dirty, offering more than 13,000 options across its range of road bike and mountain bikes.

Ribble is, by chief executive Jon Owen’s own admission, “fanatical” about customisation. “We want the customer to build the bike which is right for them,” he says.

Ribble operate a direct sales model, where all bikes are sold through the firm’s website

Ribble’s bike builder is available as an option on all of the road frames in the company’s 2016 range, with customers able to choose from a range of Campagnolo, Shimano and SRAM groupsets, as well as wheels from Shimano, Fulcrum, Mavic and Campagnolo – budget training wheels to lightweight climbing hoops and deep-section aero wheelsets. Riders can also choose their tyres, handlebar, stem, seatpost and saddle. Even the headset spacers and inner tubes can be upgraded.

“The level of customisation we offer is far greater than anyone else in the market,” says James Dove, Ribble’s brand and product director. “We’re building every bike individually for the customer in our workshop, so we want to be able to offer the option of tailoring it to suit your riding style, the area of the country you’re in – whether it’s flat or hilly – and even the colour of the handlebar tape to match your club kit, if you want to do that.”

However, Owen also says plans are afoot to further expand the bike builder in order to demonstrate exactly what a rider is getting for their money.

“We give customers the choice of around 25 groupsets, and really keen cyclists will know precisely what groupset they want and why, but new entrants to the market might not, or even know what a groupset is,” he says.

“In future, we want it to tell customers, ‘if you spend another £200 on the groupset then you’ll save x grams and increase the efficiency of your gear changes, so if you’re a competitive racing cyclist then it’s worth the upgrade, but if you’re buying your first bike then we probably wouldn’t recommend it’.”

From bricks and mortar to online

Ribble was first established as a bike shop in 1897 and in the 119 years since has become one of the stalwarts of the UK cycling scene, popular with club riders, sportive cyclists and racers alike. The evolution that has taken place over that time has seen Ribble’s bike builder come to life, alongside the move to an online-only business model.

“Ribble may not have been doing exactly what it’s doing today back in 1897, in terms of customisation and carbon frames, but what it has always done is put customers on the right bike for them,” Owen says.

“There’s a long history within British cycling of riders riding Ribble bikes,” he adds. “In his autobiography Wiggins mentions that the moment he knew we was a proper cyclist was when he got his first road bike from Ribble. Boardman was riding a Ribble in the run-up to the 1992 Olympics.”

Today, Ribble’s sales model, whereby all bikes are sold online direct to the consumer, allows the company to offer excellent value by removing retail margins and overheads. However, Owen says, customers who are attracted by the proposition of a customisable machine and value, soon learn there’s no compromise on the product itself – after all, the frame is at the heart of the bike.

“I’m not going to mention names but if you took a £2,000 bike from a brand which sponsors a Tour de France team and then benchmark it against ours, then we are definitely cheaper,” he says. “So it is true that we offer fantastic value, but then you unpick the product and it’s really hard to see where you’re making any sacrifice for that price.”

Jon Owen (left) is Lancashire-based Ribble’s CEO

Aero engineering

As Ribble has established a foothold in the market, it has moved from open-mould frames and started to design and develop its own frames. For the 2017 range, every road frame will be unique to Ribble, with the geometry, tube profiles and carbon layup developed in-house.

“The 2017 range will be a really big shake-up,” says Dove. “We’re reducing the range down a little but nearly every frame will be new.”

Owen adds: “There are retailers and bike producers out there who use off-the-shelf frames,” he says, “but all of our road bikes are designed by us, for us.

“If you covered up the frame with masking tape and went for a ride, would anyone be able to tell the difference between one of our frames and a well-known global manufacturer?” asks Owen. “We strongly believe no. Actually, if anything, in the comparisons we’re making, we actually come out slightly lighter and stiffer as well.”

The Aero 883 is one of Ribble’s most advanced frames to date and was developed in conjunction with Sheffield-based Performance Engineered Solutions, and is built from a combination of Toray T800 and T1000 carbon fibre.

All in all, approximately 5,000 bikes leave the Ribble warehouse each year and the R872 is one of the best-selling machines in the current range, with a design which seeks to achieve top-level stiffness. The Sportive Racing – one of Ribble’s first in-house designs – is another popular model and looks to combine a performance-focused ride with endurance geometry, while the Gran Fondo, is the popular all-rounder of the range. “It’s been a stalwart of the Ribble range for 3-4 years,” Owen says. “It’s good to race on but also good to do 180km in all-day comfort on.”

At the other end of the spectrum, the alloy 7005 Winter frame continues to be a best-selling option for riders who want a value-focused training machine. “That’s the iconic bike from years gone by and it’s still very popular,” Owen says. “It’s a great winter bike, you can have mudguards on it and go out in all weathers. With a few upgrades it’s around £650-700, but you can get it as low as £570.”

The Aero 883 is one of Ribble’s most advanced frame to date

The future

While Ribble’s history may stretch back to 1897, last year the company was acquired by True Capital Investment, and now the focus is firmly on the future. That investment means improving the customer experience through the website, offering more product information, and giving potential Ribble riders the opportunity to see the range before they make a purchase.

“What we tend to see is that customers who have bought a Ribble and understand the model are passionate advocates of us, but there’s still quite a large element of the market which likes to touch, feel and pick up a bike – it’s quite a tactile purchase,” says Owen.

“We want ways to show people exactly the strength of the product we can offer, whether it’s through showrooming or more exposure at events, without abandoning the direct model which allows us to offer the value we do.”

The company has also set its sights overseas having recently moved into Australia and more with expansion planned – but most importantly, Owen says, Ribble will retain the focus which has made it a hit with UK riders to date.

“Ribble has always had fantastic bikes,” he says. “The combination of building high-end carbon bikes, in a customised way, and at fantastic value, will always been at the heart of what we do.”

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