I live in the world of product management. That is, when I am not with my wife and kids or on my bike getting in the efforts. What is that world? Well, it is like the proverbial ‘swivel chair’ situation….where you are a breed of person that are required to swing radically to face different constituencies…all with different attitudes and motivators…. in an effort to get something created, marketed and shipped. We face customers, empathize with their plight and challenges and conversely get inspired by hearing their needs….and quickly swivel that proverbial chair around to face our internal folks…likely engineers who need to translate those requirements into a realistic and actionable plans which lead to product. But all the while there is iteration….
And this is an archetypal story of iteration...and consumer/racer inspired product design. After sitting with Donn Kellogg of Challenge USA tonight and hearing the history of the making of the New 2008 Fango, Challenge's recently launched mud-specific tire, it is clearly about listening to what people want and giving them it.
First, some history that Donn walked Matt Pacocha, Technical Editor for Velonews and I through (FYI: stay tuned for Matt’s extensive testing of these new products on VeloNews.com!). Loosely documented here, The Challenge we know now is an Italian-based company which had its roots created from the historic Clement tire manufacture of yore. Roughly 8 years ago, Pirelli Tire Corporation had purchased the assets of Clement and then moved their production to Asia, where in recent times, they decided to exit themselves from this niche vertical and spun off the bicycle tire manufacturing assets. These were then acquired by the major shareholders of Challenge and Challenge USA, a combination of efforts between Mr. Alex Braun and Mr. Donn Kellogg who is based here in the US and a veteran of the industry for more than 35 years.
Once these assets were acquired and operations set up here in the US, it was very clear that Challenge saw the US market as a viable place to put a stake in the ground and fundamentally set their sights to be the premier purveyor of cyclocross rubber…but in a method that didn’t require secret handshakes, trips to Europe, and offering next of kin for the suppleness of handmade tubular tires. The rising popularity of cyclocross here in the States and the clear void of cross-specific parts and equipment was becoming increasingly frustrating for core racers. Local bike shops could not supply a demand that was clearly not going to stop as the word was out that tubulars rule the day for the cross specialist. So someone had to give the people what they wanted.
As part of this process, Donn and the Challenge team listened to their consumers. At first this was primarily hardened racers from teams like Fidea and sponsored rider and Danish National Champ, Joachim Parbo. The feedback was roughly the same: The Grifo is a timeless tread pattern, often copied and suitable for a variety of courses and conditions. But (there’s always a ‘but’), not suitable for the way cross courses were changing and becoming increasngly jmore technical. Sand (e.g. Koksijde) and relentlessly muddy fields (e.g. Hamme-Zogge) were forcing the riders to move towards other brands which offered variety in tread pattern…’stretching’ sacred contracts to the limit of what the definition of a contract's ‘exclusivity’ really means. Dugast’s Pipistrello and its Rhino were game changing for their new patterns could now help their pilots float across sand and grass with nearly zero resistance or rail the muddiest of corners with the Rhino’s new mud specific side 'paddles'.
A reaction had to occur and Challenge stepped up to the…challenge. As stated simply by Donn: “We wanted to produce the best tires in the world at the most realistic price points with the most diversity in our line-up and deliver it all in a manner that makes these products available to any racer looking for performance advantages right from their local bike shop”. That is a business plan any company can hang its hat on.
As part of this reaction, Donn leveraged his ecosystem of hardened US racers….as passionate about their sport as they come…and certainly have lots to say about product requirements for our backyard courses. Donn reached out to Katie Compton, Mark Legg, Brandon Dwight and Matt Pacocha along with Joachim Parbo while here in the States and started planning for an aggressive tread pattern, tough enough for many of the US-based ‘dirt crits’ we experience here in the US in addition to matching up with the handling characteristics of the Rhino in muddy conditions.
Iterations began like all good ideas do: Scribbling on a piece of paper, the very paper seen here.
These ideas were then circulated to the various 'team members’ during each stage. As an example from the transferring of that scribbling to true CAD designs…
...and from the CAD designs iterate into tooling/mold prototypes to begin to gauge knob size, placement etc.
From here Donn worked as pointman in all capacities....as 'field intelligence gatherer', pit crew, marketer....you name it....to learn about the needs and conditions and continued to vigorously communicate with this team of influencers until the product met its criteria and production run begun. Start to finish: Roughly less than a year. Incredible in any industry...especially manufacturing.
You have clearly seen some of those initial photos of the Fango Tubular on places like CXMagazine, however behold, I am happy to inform you all that Challenge will offer that SAME Fango tread pattern as a clincher! A Mud and Cowbells exclusive.*
So what is the moral of the story here? It is obvious to me that this is a company which wants dominance in a market...the large and still growing US cyclocross market. Further, they are doing what they need to with the unbelievably small resources they have to get it done and push towards offering the best product which will meet up to the standards of the worst conditions.
As mentioned, stay tuned for Matt P's tests of the Fango and deeper technical descriptions of the product.