Aidan Duff: A Man of Many Facets
Interview: ‘Been there, got the T shirt’ is an overly used phrase, but in the case of Aidan Duff, the shirt fits perfectly. Top young rider in Ireland, Professional in France and now bike builder. Ed Hood caught up Aidan at his carbon bike emporium, Fifty One Cycles.
With Irishman Sam Bennett one of ‘yer men,’ on the scene at the moment, we caught up with one of his Emerald Isle predecessors, Aidan Duff, former Vendee U professional and now owner of Fifty One Cycles – building bespoke carbon frames. ‘Fifty One’? we hear you say. . .
The race number worn by Merckx, Ocaña, Thevenet and Hinault when they won the Tour de France. With tales of Jean Rene Bernadeau, Tommy Voeckler and building custom carbon – not ‘off the peg from Taiwan’ – we cover some interesting ground. Let’s go. . .
PEZ: Tell us how you got a ride with the Vendee U team please, Aidan?
Aidan Duff: I was a pretty good junior in Ireland, winning several national championships – a big fish in a small pond, I guess? Peter Crinnion, who’s a legend in Irish Cycling was my club mate in the Bray Wheelers and I said to him that when I turned first year senior I wanted to go and race in France. Peter spoke to Stephen Roche on my behalf and Stephen advised I should ride my first senior season in Ireland to avoid being machine gunned on the Normandy Beaches! I put his advice in the shredder and headed for Nantes and a team with ‘great structure’ – which turned out to be the French Cycling equivalent of Fawlty Towers. I regretted not following Stephen’s advice but I managed to win 12 or 15 races. At races I’d ride, when Vendee U appeared it was like the Spanish Armada arriving with a truck, bus and team cars. We were like; ‘who are these guys?’ when we first saw them. I managed to get an interview with Jean Rene Bernadeau and told him my palmarès, he gave a Gallic shrug; ‘small races.’ But he warmed to me and said that he’s take a risk but I had to get an ex-pro to vouch for me as being a reliable guy – he knew them all, Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche, Martin Earley. . .
Of course I said it was ‘no problem’ but I hardly knew any of them. But Peter Crinnion spoke to Stephen Roche and despite my not listening to his advice, Stephen phoned Jean Rene for me.
PEZ: How many years were you with the team and what was it like?
I was six years in France and specifically three years in Vendee U. In many ways it was a well-structured, well-funded operation. Bernadeau had taken all the traits from Peugeot and his career as a whole and wanted to “professionalise” Elite 2 racing as it was known back then. He would buy all the ex Castorama cars, trucks etc. We had the best custom built Gitane branded bikes, Campagnolo equipped. He really leveraged his contacts to make sure we always had the latest products. He was very involved in the design of the jersey and the overall teams branding. In that sense he was probably ahead of the game. That was part of his plan.
When we rocked up to a race it was, as I said, like the Spanish Armada. He knew it would mess with lesser funded team’s heads before the race even started. A place in the team was highly coveted and it was very much a band of brothers. His game plan was always to get a bigger budget to go full Pro which he eventually did with the first iteration of the team, Bonjour. The down side was that all the glitters is not gold. So race programs would change at the last minute so you could find yourself preparing to take on a stage race where you had planned to demolish a TT only to find you were going to drive 14 hours to take part in some hilly event. All because the local Super U had agreed to fund the expedition or pay a few extra quid (the sponsors were the local government of the Vendee region and the Super/Hyper U chain of stores).
PEZ: What was Monsieur Bernadeau like?
‘JR’ as he is known is quite the enigma. He was brought up in very poor conditions in a small rural town. I don’t know how he got started on the bike but I do know the story about when he lined up as a junior with all the region’s mafia criterium riders and was told to watch and learn for his first race. He ended up lapping the field and that was the start of his career.
I deal with JR the odd bit to this day as I’m always trying to place an Irish rider or something to that effect. I do a little with Cycling Ireland in relation to their High Performance unit. He was always on the lookout for the next big hope and you could find yourself either golden boy out of flavour pretty quickly. Riders who didn’t fit his “mould” were immediately blacklisted. They may not have known however as he didn’t like conflict. You would need to know his body language or facial expression. Very much old school so riders who were sick (even occasionally) would be considered weak or as having small engines. On one occasion I had a raging fever and he offered some classic advice; ‘head out for a 6 hour spin and sweat it out.’
During my first few months there I started to suffer from a sore knee. Concerned it could be the new shoes or a bent pedal axle I asked if the team had a local physio I could visit. Bernadeau slapped me on the back and said; ‘Congratulations, you’re now a real cyclist. Get used to having pain and niggles.’ Tactically he was amazing and he took great pride in concocting elaborate plans and breaking the race to pieces at key moments. He was great to have in the car and a fantastic motivator.
PEZ: Tell us about your Tommy Voeckler connection, please.
Voeckler was part of the feeder team and was part of the Ecole des Sports et Etudes. Which meant he continued his education but with a big slice devoted to cycling, training, nutrition etc. It’s a common enough route for French riders who show promise at a young age. We used to collect him after school on the way to races. In ‘98 I had planned for a strong Paris Roubaix. In the end it didn’t go to plan as I had multiple mechanicals but Thomas was the domestique on the team so he gave me his wheel. The best I could do was finish eighth. I think two years later he won that same U23 edition. The interesting thing about Voeckler is he had no real attributes that made him stand out. His Vo2 was normal, he didn’t test particularly well. His muscle mass was again normal. To people who haven’t cycled this may seem as idiotic on my behalf but the point I am making is his true force was his mental strength and tenacity. He was in many senses a reincarnation of Bernaudeau. Made up of true grit. I think that’s why the remained together for his entire career.
PEZ: Tell us about your Herald Sun Tour stage win; who were you riding for?
The first thing is that I shouldn’t have even been there! As a junior I got used to just ‘stepping in’ to national teams but that year was average and I only got to ride because someone became ill. The day I won it was a split stage, each around 90K. In the morning it was like a kermis, a five K circuit around a park and I infiltrated the break – Baden Cooke was there and so was Brad McGee along with a big Belgian guy who I later learned was the national criterium champion; despite the company I was in, I decided I could win – but ended up fourth from four and really disappointed. More as a joke, Ciaran Power said I should; ‘go from the gun’in the afternoon stage. I took it as a ‘dare’ and that’s what I did with a group of perhaps 20/25 forming around me – too big. I went again and there was an eerie silence – I looked back, the whole field was together and ‘piano’ across the road with me 600 metres off the front. Despite my difficult morning, I persisted and got the gap up to maybe eight minutes – with my team manager screaming at me and abusing me from the car I held on to win by a minute!
PEZ: And your Tour de Bretagne stage win; who were you with?
I was riding with Luc Leblanc’s team. It was my last victory as it turns out. A 190km stage and the break went from km 10. It was wet and windy and approaching the finishing circuit there were only two of us left. But the circuit had an 800m wall on it and we were caught by a group of four. We managed to hold on up the final climb and I launched a do or die attack before the last 90 degree corner. I was pretty sure I would be either sipping champagne or spending the night in the hospital. I had always taken pleasure in designing my own bikes and was using a steeper head tube angle. The bike handled like it was on rails so I was sure (almost) I could make it. We were holding first and second on GC but let it slip away on the final stage. In the end I finished eighth, one spot ahead of a certain Alberto Contador!
PEZ: When and why quit racing?
I decided to quit before it quit on me. I had set out to leave a mark and become one of the best. The transition from big fish in a small pond in Ireland to the big stage is an eye opener. You race against guys who are genuinely gifted and have like the X factor. Like they were put on this world to ride a bike. Think Sagan and company, it’s impossible to put into words how talented and awesome these guys are. When everything falls into place and you can’t feel the pedals it’s a wonderful feeling but for me that was maybe three times a year. The really good guys have it on demand. I also found the life somewhat monotonous and a little boring. I could remain super focused up to June but then got a little bored. It’s not the most mentally challenging line of work. I had left my engineering degree to go to France so started studying Business when I was based in Bordeaux. And finally it was an interesting time to be in France. I went in 1995 and was trying to break through into the prime time in 1998. I had regal visions of how great it would be. It turned out to be like the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan. Getting beaten by 40 year old guys. Getting stopped by customs and having the team car dismantled on the side of the road. That wasn’t what I had signed up to.
What did you do between quitting and ’51’
I started working in the bike business. Initially retail then I got involved in distribution. I started to learn the ropes of procurement, managing sales people etc. It was a great experience.
PEZ: Are you the only frame builder in Ireland now?
So for clarification, I (personally) am not a builder. Aaron Marsh and Scott McDermott are our builders. We were helped by Ken Maye in the early days. Ken and his father Des founded Rapparee cycles back in the 70’s. So for me they were the original Ice breakers here. Their frames were beautiful and highly sought after. But like many steel builders of their generation they were wiped out during the industry’s transition to Aluminium in the 90’s. I think there are two other builders here also building in steel.
PEZ: Could you not establish a link with the Far East because it’s all moulded frames out there?
Well, I had spent 15 years working with main brands and Asian production. With the offshoring of all this production has come very restrictive processes and an overall in my view has diluted the experience for the consumer. Typical case of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Spending five, six, seven grand on a bike and not being able to choose the colour, bar width or how you would like the frame to handle. There are no bad bikes out there but a five grand bike in 54cm, is it built for an 18 year old aspiring racer or a 60 year old sportif rider? The reality is it’s a diluted version of each. For me it’s a little like Concorde in terms of progress. We’ve taken a step backwards. All because a factory can only deal with four or five sizes, lead-times are 18 months and nice paint requires too long masking and drying.
PEZ: How do you spec. and source the carbon tubes?
We use ENVE tubing. They have been instrumental in our development. We now make our own head tubes, BB shells and rear stays.
PEZ: Is a tubed/bonded carbon frame as strong as a monocoque?
The main feature for our process is the ability to cut each tube to exact measurement. Bike fits have become so popular in recent times but for what? To still sell the 56cm bike you have on the shop floor? We are dealing with experienced fitters who have the expertise and confidence to take it to the next level. We can increase comfort, eliminate back pain. We build key characteristics into the bike; how it should handle, corner – head tube angle, seat tube angle, chain stay length. It’s like we discussed above. When everything falls into place and there is a flow. That’s what we are doing with the bike. So unlike the norm where the consumer buys a bike and makes him/herself fit it, we start with a blank canvas and build the bike around the individual. We use a 3 step process to bond each joint. It’s extremely time consuming but its belt and braces. Our frames are certified 200% above the ISO required standard.
PEZ: Is Graphene something you’ve looked at?
To be frank, no. At the moment I feel it’s more marketing than benefit. We are heavily involved in plasma treatment however. This increases bond strength and durability. We have partnered with UCD, Dublin’s largest University on the subject.
PEZ: All the machines on your Fifty One Cycles site gallery are ‘race’ design – are mountain bikes and single speeds something you’re looking at?
All road bikes. We’ll look at cross and track. But no fatbikes, tandems or unicycles.
PEZ: How big a part does your bike fitter Aidan Hammond play – how do you translate the potential client’s dimensions into a frame design?
Aidan is fantastic and has also been a great help. He’s not just one of the most experienced and passionate fitters in the world, he’s a physio’s and one of Cycling Ireland most experienced coach’s. We can take fit data from anywhere in the world but many of our customers have come to be fit by Aidan.
PEZ: Some of your paint jobs are radical – tell us about psychometric testing please.
Well, our whole ethos is trying to bring old school frame building methods and an authentic almost holistic feel back to the creation of a dream bike. Something akin to building and owning a Swiss watch. But we are using modern material and technology. The testing allows us to create rapport and get to really know who we are dealing with even if they are on the other side of the world. We specifically use the psychometric testing in unison with a Pinterest board to verify we have a congruent design brief. The process is very intimate.
PEZ: Where do your enquiries come from and how’s the order book looking?
The main markets are UK, US Australia. We’re good on orders. Too much and we wouldn’t be in a position to deliver. The process is very tedious and demanding. It takes time to create someone’s dream bike. And that’s the way it should be.
PEZ: Why should I buy a ’51’ and not a carbon frames from a big ‘name’ firm who have a Pro Tour squad to prove the product?
Like I said, there are no bad bikes out there. Our customers tend to be people who have gone through five or six brands and different bikes. They finally have the confidence to create their own bike and build key characteristics from their previous bikes into it.
More information on FiftyOne Bikes at: fiftyonebikes.com
Bike photos by deanella.com, thanks to the other photographers.