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Industry Insider: the development of Michelin’s flagship Power tyre range

Michelin has spent almost 130 years making tyres roll faster and although the French company’s methods are changing its goal remains the same

Punctures are a fact of life for cyclists. Unpleasant but unavoidable, they’re a hated but accepted part of being a rider. At best, a puncture merely interrupts a ride; at worst it can end one. But for French tyre manufacturer Michelin, a puncture is what began its journey towards the globe-spanning, multi-billion-Euro company it has become today.

When a cyclist with a punctured tyre approached Éduoard and André Michelin at their rubber factory in Clermont-Ferrand in 1889, the brothers saw how difficult it was to repair and re-adhere the tyre to the bike’s wheel. The incident inspired them to come up with a better design for a bicycle tyre; one that could be removed, repaired and replaced more quickly.

Two years later, in 1891, Éduoard Michelin, filed a patent for the first detachable pneumatic tyre – the forerunner to today’s clinchers.

Michelin’s flagship Power tyre range was developed at the French firm’s new RDI Campus in Clermont-Ferrand (Pic: Michelin)

The brothers claimed their company’s design offered riders improved speed and efficiency since it allowed punctures to be repaired in a fraction of the time it took with existing tyres. To prove it, they gave a pair to Charles Terront to use for the first Paris-Brest-Paris race, a gruelling 1,196km event.

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Despite suffering punctures along the route, Terront rode – without sleep – to win in 71 hours and 22 minutes, finishing more than seven and a half hours ahead of his nearest rival.

The next step forward

Speed and efficiency have remained at the heart of everything Michelin has produced since then and 127 years after the brothers first set out to improve bicycle tyres, the company is still working to find more speed, more grip and more durability.

And although the company has spread around the world in the intervening years, it’s still based in Clermont-Ferrand. Except now, it has premises all over the city, including the Ladoux Technology Centre, a huge, 450-hectare facility on the outskirts of Clermont-Ferrand containing 79 buildings and 43km of test tracks.

It was at the Technology Centre that Michelin launched its newest bike tyre back in March. Christened the Power, it was heralded as the new benchmark in tyre technology.

“The Michelin Power is a wonderful tyre,” says Pierre Robert, director of the Technology Centre. “It’s a breakthrough because it leans on all of Michelin’s expertise. [With the Power tyre] Michelin has made breakthrough innovations, such as low hysteresis materials that give a very low rolling resistance. And I think our strength is that we can now spread that to all the road bike tyre lines.”

In each of its three guises – the Power Competition, for racing (read our review here); Power Endurance, for sportives and touring; and Power All Season for year-round riding in all conditions – the new tyre is said to have class-leading weight, durability, grip and rolling resistance.

In short, Michelin is saying the Power represents the same sort of step forward that its first tyre did all the way back in 1891. The difference is, rather than being the result of Éduoard Michelin beavering away in the back of a rubber factory, the Power was developed by a team of experts at the Ladoux Technology Centre. A team that was able to make use of all the tyre-making expertise Michelin has accrued over the past 127 years.

“The real value of Ladoux is that it gives us our own R&D facility where we have all the prototyping, the materials, the chemistry, the computer science and physical methods – everything – to develop new tyres,” says Robert. But while having everything in one place means new products can developed more quickly, Robert is keen to point out that that is only one part of the site’s importance.

“The development time of the Power tyre was between one-and-a-half to two years but what’s important is not how long it took but the fact that we were able to lean on very evolved technologies that have been developed for other tyre lines,” he says. In other words, having all the know-how behind Michelin’s car, motorcycle, agricultural and aeroplane tyres in one place meant the team working on the Power tyre had a vast pool of knowledge from which to draw.

Michelin Power tyre (Pic: Michelin)
Michelin Power tyre (Pic: Michelin)
Michelin Power tyre (Pic: Michelin)

Better together

The benefits such collaborative efforts can bring is part of the reason why Michelin added another building to the Ladoux site in 2015. The RDI Campus is a seven-hectare building which cost €170 million to construct, containing a vast atrium, spacious offices and balconies that overlook the rest of the Ladoux site and the Clermont-Ferrand countryside beyond.

“It’s an entirely original building,” says Robert. “We designed it with the architects Chaix & Morel. It’s a building made up of 14 modules that are connected by a ‘street of innovation’.

The RDI Campus was designed with two purposes in mind, Robert says.

“The first one is we wanted to fulfill the management vision for Michelin’s agility, speed, interactivity, interconnectivity [to make it easier for more people to collaborate on more projects and bring new products to market more quickly.] The second aim is to improve the quality of life for our staff, which would not only make our company attractive to new employees but also make them want to stay with us longer.”

Work on the Power tyre began before the RDI Campus was fully up and running but it’s the first product to come out of the newest building on the Ladoux site. Not only that but it shows what can come out of the collaborative efforts the building has been designed to facilitate.

“Michelin has always had a very balanced approach, working in all the different parts of the [tyre production] process – materials, tyre physics, mathematics,” explains Robert. “But in the past I would say we kept these things more discrete. There was not such a desire to gather people and make them work together in order to be more efficient and creative.”

And the people working on the Power tyre needed to be efficient and creative given the two-year lead-time for the project and the challenges they faced in producing a completely new performance tyre.

“We had two main challenges,” says Vincent Ledieu, one of the Power tyre’s designers. “The first was to improve the robustness but keep a weight that’s good for the market, which was not so difficult.

“The second, and biggest challenge for us, was to keep the high level of grip we have [with the Pro 4 tyre] while offering the best rolling resistance on the market. That was really our main target because we knew that the Pro 4 was a very good tyre for grip but we had to improve the rolling efficiency.

“For us, it was really important not just to optimise rolling efficiency if it meant losing grip. We weren’t willing to think that way. So the challenge became to improve rolling efficiency and grip in parallel.”

Overcoming that challenge meant looking at other sorts of tyres that Michelin makes and seeing if any benefits they provide could be applied to bikes, as Ledieu goes on to explain.

Michelin was founded by brothers Éduoard and André in 1889 (Pic: Michelin)

Two years ago we started speaking with all the departments in Ladoux and the aim was to add everything we could find out together and to adapt it to the bicycle use.

“For example, the low hysterisis [rolling resistance] compound came about through lots of discussions with our car tyre designers because we have very good performance in that area. But we had to adapt the raw materials to the needs of the bicycle because a bike is not the same weight as a car – a car is in the region of 1,000kg but a bike with a guy riding it is much more like 100kg.”

The result of those discussions was a blend of rubber inspired by the silica and elastomer compound Michelin uses for the energy-efficient tyres it designs for electric passenger cars. According to Michelin’s tests the Power Competition tyre, which uses the new low-rolling-resistance compound, can save you 10 watts at 35km/h – an improvement in efficiency equivalent to a weight saving of 1.5kg.

Given that today it seems even the tiniest performance gains are eagerly pursued in the hope of tipping the balance in your favour, a saving of that size is a noteworthy step forward. And while Michelin’s engineers and experts were ultimately responsible for that improvement, it seems the collaborative approach the company is taking – and the new RDI Campus that embodies and engenders it – was a key to the process.

Which isn’t to say that the process has finished. As Ledieu points out, work on the second-generation Power is already underway. “For sure we have started to work on the Power II, if that’s what we’re going to call it.,” he says. “We’re still working to optimise road tyre performance.”

Michelin Power tyre (Pic: Michelin)
Michelin Power tyre (Pic: Michelin)

Filling the gap

Exactly what that optimisation might entail is likely to involve discarding the inner tube. Back in March when the Power tyres were unveiled, there were a few eyebrows raised by the range’s lack of a tubeless option. The development currently underway is seeking to address that omission.

“We know that tubeless is really important for the road market and we need to work on that,” says Ledieu. “It’s really important to improve the tyre seal and prevent air loss from tubeless tyres because we know it’s quite a bad point of some tyres on the market. So that’s something we are working on.

“We have to follow the market and respond quickly to it. So, for sure, [Michelin needs to have] tubeless-ready tyres with optimised rolling efficiency, optimised grip and optimised robustness.”

Tubeless road tyres, like disc brakes, divide opinion, with many riders convinced they offer no major benefit. Nevertheless, Michelin, like most manufacturers, is progressing with tubeless tyres, and have what sound like convincing reasons for doing so.

“We know that the road activity is developing in many new countries,” explains Ledieu. “And in many of these emergent markets the roads are not so good so we really have to improve the tyre’s robustness.”

But even the most robust tyre is prone to pinch flats if it houses an inner tube and so it makes sense to develop a tyre that can function without one to improve its performance in these conditions.

Michelin’s Ladoux Technology Centre, which incorporates the RDI Campus, covers 450 hectares and includes 43km of test tracks (Pic: Michelin)

Ledieu admits there’s less of a case to make for tubeless tyres in the European market where “the roads are good, quite clean and well maintained.” But elsewhere, in places where the roads are not so well looked after, a tubeless tyre becomes quite an attractive prospect.

The underlying idea is simply to make a better a tyre and, in so doing, improve the speed and efficiency of the person using it. It’s the same idea that got the ball rolling in the first place when a rider brought his punctured tyre to the Michelin brothers’ Clermont-Ferrand factory 127 years ago.

Read more of RoadCyclingUK’s Industry Insider features here

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