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Michelin – the history of the tyre

Michelin hq in Clermont-Ferrand
Pro2 Race being put through a rolling resistance test

How to make a tyre

It all begins with latex, the sticky gooey sap sourced from certain plants. Latex was discovered to have certain great properties, like its malleability and thermal resistance, but it took sometime before being used in tyres. If latex isn’t treated it’ll rapidly degrade, so it wasn’t until 1839 when Charles Goodyear (he actually sold his invention to a company which later adopted his name as a mark of respect) accidentally invented vulcanization. He discovered that heating the latex and adding sulphur made it much more stable, it was longer lasting and improved the resilience and elasticity. Today other compounds like carbon and silicon are used with the same effect.

Michelin made an art of sourcing latex from trees, having plantations across the world. Now though most tyres are created synthetically, though Michelin still has traditional plantations across the world for some use.

Watch out for a future article when we get to grips with how a tyre is constructed…

The floors are clean enough to eat off, the walls immaculately white, and it’s quiet. Very quiet in fact. We’re at the Michelin headquarters in Clermont-Ferrand, a now peaceful industrial town nestling beneath the hills in southern France.

It’s a beautiful place. On the horizon you can you make out the Puy-de-Dôme, a dormant volcano guarding the town. The roads are mostly empty with the occasional car, and I’ve spotted three cyclists so far. Hard to imagine then, that this is the heart of Michelin, where one of the most significant contributors to the current shape of cycling began its life.

History time

Now time for a bit of history. The company has certainly come a long way since brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin took over a rubber factory in 1889, but you have to go back a few years to 1829 when it started.

It was Charles Mackintosh’s daughter who introduced rubber to her husband, Edouard Daubree. She had been using rubber to make play balls for children, but Daubree, together with cousin Aristide Barbier was quick to realise the potential of rubber. They soon opened a factory in Clermont-Ferrand and began manufacturing industrial items, from gaskets to valves and tubing for farming applications.

The brothers took control of this company in 1889, and their first dabble into the world of transportation was the introduction of a rubber brake for cars, which then had wooden wheels. Their involvement in cycling happened quite by accident though, when one day a local cyclist heard about the Michelin factory. He visited searching for materials to repair his tyre, and Edouard Michelin was astounded at the length of time it took to make the repair, with the necessary overnight drying of the tyre to the rim.

Rewind a year and John Boyd Dunlop had invented the pneumatic tyre, revolutionising cycling. These were unsurprisingly popular amongst cyclists of the day as they were far superior to solid tyres then prevalent – downsides though were the cost and difficulty in making repairs. The Michelin brothers quickly set about working on a solution to the long repair times, and introduced the world to the first detachable pneumatic tyre. Repair times were now a much more reasonable 15 minutes – a special rim and tyre combination worked with small bolt and clamps holding the two bits together – the clincher was born.

The debate between clincher and tubulars can be hotly contested at times. The pros favour the speed of a high quality tub but Michelin made the clincher a popular choice. During the ‘80s an innovation battle took place as leading tyre manufacturers developed high performance clincher tyres. Michelin released the Hi-Lite in 1985, the first race ready clincher tyre – its performance was a match for tubulars, at least the cheaper models then available.

Michelin spend a lot of time and money on development, and also use professional racers to test their products and get them in the public eye. Today they supply a couple of pro teams with their Pro2 Race tyres, but their first foray into the world of cycle racing was in 1891. Charles Terront rode on Michelin rubber in the Paris-Brest-Paris classic, a 1200km ride. Terront actually punctured in the early stages of the race, but with nearby technicians was able to make a quick repair and got going again. Terront won the race, riding for 71 hours without stopping for sleep, an impressive achievement. The performance benefits were obvious to all in that race, he suffered less punctures and when he did, repairs were much easier. The brothers rightly so had a lot of confidence in their product, and so organised a race from Paris to Clermont-Ferrand. To make things more interesting, they scattered nails across sections of the road.

It’s all in the development

Ladoux testing facility is huge

Development has been a key factor in Michelin being a leading tyre brand. The Ladoux test facility north of Clermont-Ferrand is an impressive place. They’ve built all sorts of roads, long straight, narrow and twisty, circular ones, used different grades of tarmac, and they test everything here. We got to test the latest Pro2 Race Service Course on a small part of the course while here, and even though it rained that day the technicians had the water sprinklers turned on – they can make the course as wet as they like, so we had several centimetres of wet stuff to ride through. Great.

Over the hill, the main facility houses about 4,000 employees, all tasked with the job of testing tyres, sometimes to destruction. We were allowed to see only a tiny part of the plant, as much as we would’ve loved to see everything that goes on in there. The bicycle tyre test is fairly simple. A large rotating drum with the tyre sitting on type allows the engineers to run a host of tests, and specifically they can do long-term durability tests and check the rolling resistance of their tyres. And you can bet they test their competitor’s tyres on there too…

Who’s the Michelin man?

The Michelin man

We all know him. The Michelin man, his actual name Bidendum (Latin for drinking to be done), is the big jolly character we’re all so familiar with. He was born out of an observation by the brothers of how a stack of tyres, if some arms were added looked like a person.

The original poster shows Bidendum drinking a glass full of broken glass, metal and nails, while beside him sit two deflated rivals. Underneath the caption reads, ‘Michelin tyres put away obstacles’. In 2000 Bidendum received an award for ‘the greatest logo in history’, quite an accolade.



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