This article is produced in association with Factor
We’re in the car park of Hotel Pic Maia atop the Port d’Envalira at 2400m in the Andorran Pyrenees. It’s mid-May. The next few minutes capture almost everything you need to know about the relationship between the Israel-Premier Tech team and Factor Bikes, and how that partnership shaped the new O2 VAM into the perfect bike for mountain stages.
Factor’s Director of Engineering, Graham Shrive, is here to hand-deliver the very first rideable prototype of the new bike to the team’s high altitude training camp. As he unloads it from his rental car, several riders are gathered around and immediately start poring over it, as excited as any of us would be.
Guillaume Boivin picks it up and exclaims: “Now we’re talking boys!”
This size 54 prototype O2 VAM weighs 6.75kg, with pedals, power meter and bottle cages, and on the new 28/33 wheels (more on those later). Add a transponder and race number and it’s just the right side of the UCI 6.8kg weight limit.
It’s important to remember the difference between race-ready weight with all of these additions, totalling some 800g, and the out-of-the-box weights used by the media. While the latter gives the fairest comparison between bikes, it’s the former that matters to the pros. A disc brake bike that weighs 6.8kg out of the box is considered really light, but it has to be close to 6.0kg in order to be as light as the rules allow when it’s on a start line. Naturally, that’s what the pros want for the big mountain days.
Dylan Teuns asks Graham to explain the new bike and he does so succinctly. “I asked the guys what's stopping you from racing the old O2 VAM and they said aero and stiffness. So, this bike is as stiff as the OSTRO VAM and about 12W faster than the old O2 in the wind tunnel, which is around half the difference to the OSTRO. It’s very close to the weight limit. Nothing this light is as fast.”
Dylan smiles, nods, and swings his leg over the bike – rest day be damned. It’s already set up with his exact riding position so he can carry out some test rides over the coming days. He rolls away into the most sensational quick-spin-from-the-door test route imaginable, on the final switchback and ramps of the Port d’Envalira.
After punching up the steep gradient and railing the corner back down a few times, he pulls up and declares: “It’s really good! The stiffness feels just like the OSTRO. I like the handling, too.”
Guillaume and Hugo take it next and both also find emphatic first impressions. “It's completely different. The wheels are so stiff and responsive,” says Guillaume. Hugo agrees, adding, “When you stand up you can immediately feel the difference. It’s really reactive.”
Chris Froome’s first ride
Chris Froome arrives around an hour later, having ridden up the mountain in near-freezing temperatures that morning to get in his day’s training at the end of his journey from Monaco. As Graham pulls the bike from the team truck to show it to the greatest Grand Tour rider of his generation, there’s a palpable tension. Months of work have gone into the bike, including extensive discussion with Chris; this is a big moment.
Chris looks over it, drinking in the details, eyeing the lines, smiles and says, “That's beautiful. It's really cool. I really like it. I think it was important to do the wheels at the same time. It's a good combo. I can't wait to ride it.
“In fact, I’m going to have a go right now.”
And with that he jumps aboard in trainers and trackie bottoms and powers up the road in 2°C. He’s grinning broadly when he returns.
“You can feel it immediately. The wheels especially are much more responsive. You push on the pedals and it just goes, no delay. You can't really explain it to someone who hasn't felt it. It’s going to be really good for big climbing days.”
The new 28/33 wheels are proving a hit with all the riders, and it isn’t surprising. They weigh a feathery 1146g as tubeless clinchers optimized for 26-28mm tires. They feature differentiated front and rear depths of 28 and 33mm and use carbon fiber spokes. As well as a massive weight saving, they also reduce drag by 10g from the previous version.
Froome summarises the case for a specialist wheelset versus all-rounders: “I don't need a wheel that can win Roubaix when I'm riding mountain stages. These new wheels are a perfect match for the bike.”
Froome’s involvement from concept stage
Later, we sit down with Chris in the hotel’s barely-heated lobby and ask him to tell us about his involvement with the new O2 VAM project.
“It’s really interesting to be involved in Factor,” he begins. “As a pro bike racer for 12 years, you only see things through one lens. Being more involved as an investor has really allowed me to have a different perspective and see what happens behind the scenes from the concept phase to the final product that we’ve just seen. It’s been really cool to be a part of that journey.
“With the new O2, it started from a conversation with Rob over a year ago, talking about what the next bike is going to be. I put forward a lot of ideas at that concept stage and we’ve been in touch a lot since.
“The OSTRO is an incredible bike – it was smashing it then and it still is, but looking at the whole industry, one of my criticisms has been weight, especially since everything has gone to disc brake. It’s now very difficult to get a race-ready bike near to 7kg. I think it’s great to challenge the industry. It’s one thing to make a bike that’s under 7kg, but we also need it to be competitive on aerodynamics and rigidity, and that’s what Factor has now done with the new O2 VAM. It’s going to be a very, very special bike.”
We ask if he has had the opportunity and desire to influence the design of his race bikes to this extent previously.
“All through my career I’ve always felt like there were areas of the bikes that could be improved, but through sponsor or team restrictions not being able to pursue that was frustrating. Being on Factors, it’s the first time in my career that I’ve had such direct input and communication with the people making the equipment that I’m going to race on. It's something I really enjoy, because you give feedback, you know it’s being listened to, and some weeks or months down the line you see the final product and it will be just what you talked about.”
Feedback never ends
Although many teams and bike brands like to talk about their collaboration, few reach this level: influencing the design so directly and having the most senior engineer fly halfway around the world to present a prototype. This is true partnership, not merely sponsorship.
While this group of riders trains at altitude in Andorra, another squad is lighting up the Giro d’Italia, getting in breaks, standing on podiums and winning hearts. The visibility their performances bring to Factor is fantastic yet it’s still no more important than the team’s input to bike development.
Daryl Impey explains how that happens: “We're always feeding back our thoughts to Factor. Chris put in place a more formal system to do it and that has helped because you don’t feel like you’re pushing past the limits of what you can say as a sponsored rider.”
For Hugo Houle, it’s also a two-way street: “With Factor, it’s more an exchange of information. I will feel some different things and tell Graham about it. He can understand why they happen. When he visits us it’s even better. I always like to talk with him to understand better what they do and to help me make more informed equipment choices.”
Graham echoes this from Factor’s perspective: “Some of the guys asked me, ‘When should we race this bike?’ I try to avoid telling them what to do, just give them all the information, including about the relative aerodynamics of different wheel and bike combinations, how wind conditions come into play, the profile of the finale…and then everyone can make their own informed decisions. We’re working on a calculator that will allow them to input details of the course and conditions and get a set of equipment recommendations.”
Testing the prototype
Over the following days, Dylan Teuns takes the prototype O2 VAM on some hard training rides in the high mountains of Andorra. There is no more structured a testing process than simply riding it hard on the terrain for which it was designed.
The feedback process is similarly informal, as Graham explains: “Some companies use a feedback form or scores, but I’ve never found those very useful. I prefer to chat to the riders to get their comments so I can ask follow-up questions, and I also talk to the mechanics who can relay what the riders have said during training.
“Dylan was really enthusiastic about the bike. He could feel and appreciate that the new O2 VAM matches the high stiffness and precise handling of the OSTRO VAM. Perhaps most telling is that he wanted to keep riding it. Pros simply want the best equipment they can get; if it isn’t a step forward, they give it back, if it is, they want to keep it. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.”
A revealing question for manufacturers presenting new product to sponsored teams is, ‘What action will you take based on this testing?’ That is, are you presenting finalized product that can’t be changed or is it a true prototype that can be further evolved in response to feedback from the pro riders. The difference between the two is significant.
“For us, this test was a validation to go to production,” says Graham at the end of the week. “The feedback has been great, they love the bike, so it’s signed off for production. We’re early enough that we could make changes to the lay-up if they were needed, but at the same time we were confident in the bike. We know what it takes, and we know the aero, weight and stiffness that we’ve achieved.”
That the first rideable prototype is so good speaks to the very high levels of experience and expertise at Factor, not least Graham’s, and also to the close involvement of the Israel-Premier Tech team through the R&D process up to this point. It’s above anything you might expect.
“We have a weekly call with the team and we’re in touch most days,” says Graham. “Every time we go to the wind tunnel, three guys from the team join us. Rob [Gitelis, Factor Bikes CEO] really values long-term relationships, which is rare in the bike industry. We’re with Israel-Premier Tech for the long haul.”
Days – and bikes – like this one underline why.