Trish Dromey talks to Dublin-based entrepreneur Aidan Duff, a pioneer of carbon fibre bikes
Taking his passion for biking off the cycle track and into the marketplace, Aidan Duff has become the first entrepreneur in Ireland to manufacture bespoke carbon fibre bikes.
A cyclist who competed professionally in France and with the Irish team at European and World Championship level in the 1990s, Mr Duff identified an unsatisfied international niche demand for carbon bikes which have been customised for individual cyclists and painted and finished to suit their taste.
“The majority of carbon bikes are being manufactured in Asia where the production process is very tight — customers get an option of four or five set sizes and no choice of colour or components,” he says.
Establishing his company FiftyOneBikes in Dublin last spring, he set out to produce bespoke carbon fibre bikes for leisure cyclists in the UK, North America, and Australia, supplying the basic frame for €5,000 and producing complete bikes which cost between €7,000 and €15,000, depending on the finish.
While custom made bikes have traditionally been made with steel, Mr Duff said he opted to produce carbon fibre ones because carbon is the future.
“It is half the weight of steel and has become the material of choice for all performance cyclists,” says Aidan.
His decision to launch this venture was in part prompted by the realisation that the popularity of cycling is now at an all-time high. Working since 2006 in the sale and distribution of bikes, he had observed that in the US, Europe, and Australia growing numbers of people were using bikes for recreation and for fitness.
Although Aidan had imagined that it would be relatively straightforward to set up a company supplying bespoke bikes, it turned out not to be the case.
He hadn’t originally envisaged setting up a manufacturing operation in Ireland but found that it just worked out that way.
He tried, without success, to find a suitable partner in the Far East to produce the bikes and subsequently looked for one in Europe.
“After a long exhaustive search I arranged to visit a workshop in Germany only to discover that it had closed a year and a half previously,” he says.
But he visited the workshop anyway and met a retired frame maker from Italy who agreed to train Fifty-One’s frame maker to produce carbon bikes.
Mr Duff also took the opportunity to purchase all the workshop equipment and ship it back to Dublin.
Using his own funding, he set up the company last April at a facility on the Nangor Road in Dublin, employing one frame maker.
“We made our first bike in June and took it to the UK Handmade Bike show where we won an award which got us off to a good start,” he says.
Fifty-One had its first sale in August when a US customer contacted the firm after discovering it on social media.
“Since then we have had 25 sales to customers who are predominantly located in the UK and Australia and also in the US where the market for bespoke carbon bikes is much more developed than in Europe,” says Aidan, adding that some bought frames and some complete bikes.
Fundraising in order to grow the business, Fifty-One secured investment of €550,000 in December last year which included €250,000 from Enterprise Ireland which identified the company as a high-potential start-up.
The funding was used to purchase plant and machinery, carry out R&D work and hire staff, including an engineer. Now employing a staff of five, Fifty-One is planning to develop sales by selling through a network of distributors and through specialist bike shops.
Aidan recently signed up an agent in Australia and has a sales agreement in place with retailers in the US, the UK, Australia and Canada and is in discussions with an agent in Shanghai.
He is targeting a turnover of €1m by the end of 2019.
Last month, Fifty-One exhibited at a trade show in Salt Lake City and is scheduled to attend Eurobike, the world’s largest bike trade show, in Germany in the summer. Plans for this year involve recruiting two additional staff and selling 120 frames.
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