In recent years the name Ridley has become synonymous with high end professional bike racing, no more so than when it comes to the cobbled classics.
As a brand Ridley struck out through its no-nonsense ultralight aluminum frames, and made their mark and marque when the likes of Robbie McEwan and Cadel Evans rode them to major victories. They’ve gone from strength to even more strength for less weight ever since.
Lotto-Soudal are their primary field testers these days, a traditional and slightly old school Belgian team who ride these classic Belgian bikes. Yet Ridley actually shunned away from their national image of frites, mayo and mullets in their early days.
We caught up with the man behind Ridley, Joachim Aerts to find out how and why Ridley came to be.
CC: How did you get started as Ridley?
JA: As a frame builder. I started building frames under the Bioracer brand name. My older brother was a shareholder of Bioracer Belgium, and there was also Bioracer Holland. Belgium concentrated on the clothing, and Holland on custom geometry bikes.
Bioracer Holland sold part of the company, and now it’s known as Bikefitting.com. I think they are the largest fitting system in the world.
There are thousands of places where you can get fitted by them now, but originally we were doing high end custom geometry steel frames – back in the 1980’s. The frames were built in my father’s garage here in Belgium.
CC: And what was your entry point into cycling?
JA: I was a bike racer since the age of 14 through until 19, and I used to race on a Bioracer frame, as my brother was a shareholder.
When I reached the age of 18 I was into my last year of school, and wanted to be a professional cyclist. But, my father said; "You can do it, but I don’t want you just to train for 3-hours and then be lazy and hang around; you have you work at something".
My brother came up with an idea; he said his colleagues in Holland wanted to expand the range to a lower level, and they needed a painting solution for the frames. I was just 18. I was good with my hands and liked working with my bike so thought why not.
My thinking was that I had nothing to lose, and could learn more about working with bikes. I already did my own maintenance and had stripped and painted my own frames. My first bikes were second hand from my brother as he was a pro rider.
At first, without and experience, I made a lot of mistakes and had to keep re-doing things until I learned. The anticipated half-day for training and half day for work just did not exist any more. The dream kind of ended, but I also realized that my talent was not so strong to be sure of becoming a pro.
Looking back, it was a generation when Belgium was not so strong. I won a lot of races, but knew what it meant to be a pro, so at by the time I was 19 I’d founded a company with my father and brother and started building custom geometry frames.
I must say that I had a good teacher in Holland, explaining how to deal with molds, how to work with head tube angles, BB set up, drop outs, how to read a custom geometry from the information Bioracer provided and how to make that into a frame.
Without realizing it those were probably the most important years of Ridley, because you learn, play, and really figure out the fundamentals of what a good racing frame is.
CC: Is this when Ridley came about, and where did the name come from?
JA: I already had the brand name registered. The inspiration came from Ridley Scott, one of my favourite film directors. Everybody was using Italian names for building frames then, even using their family name and trying to make it sound Italian. I had registered it as a name to sell my painting.
We already sold the odd frame here and there, and put a few in a local shop. Just a few a year, but we had them from our other customers. It wasn’t really active. I thought whether or not to look for another big paint customer, but then I thought why not try frames myself.
Of all of my customers none were bike racers. I was still on a bike every hour I could find. None of them had good relations with athletes, but many of my friends still raced and were professionals. They also knew nothing about geometry, as they had never made a custom frame. We even created designs for them, so I thought why not do it myself.
CC: Italian frames always sounded sexier and back then Belgian branded bikes had something of a staid image. How did you overcome this and thrive?
JA: It’s a combination of things. First we came with an aluminum range, not a steel range. Colnago, Pinarello, and De Rosa – they came 3-4 years later with alloy. Colnago was extremely early with carbon – with the C40. The pro’s said that it was the perfect bike for Paris-Roubaix, but on a descent it was very dangerous at that time.
So we came with alloy and a very good price point. Our top alloy frame was the same price as a top steel frame, and the same down through the range. But our entry-level alloy frame was lighter than the high-end steel frame, and looked nicer.
Having been focused for 6 years on design and painting helped a lot. We created a little bit of an Italian look, with an American sounding name and in aluminum.
Now we say that we are Ridley, we are Belgium, we are cycling. In the beginning we said we are Ridley... nothing else. A lot of our early adaptors here in Belgium assumed they were riding an American bike, which appealed to them as Trek was just pushing the market, as was Cannondale, even Scott, a Swiss company realized that is was a good idea to put Scott USA on their bikes.
Italian bikes were nice looking, glamorous, had a nice feel – but the Americans came with mountain bikes and aluminum, and very different looking frames.
The very first alloy bike I saw was a Cannondale (when I was about 15) with the long stays and big down tube. I remember seeing it in a race and thinking how ugly it was, and that the guy was riding a mountain bike.
After that alloy frames became more elegant. I went to Columbus in Italy and seeing how you could customize tubes by size and squeezing and though let’s do it. I think by re-designing things and that early American image, plus the fact that we were a lot cheaper than a carbon Colnago (even our cheapest alloy frame was lighter, stiffer and more durable than their Master frame).
Basically we bought in a superior product, a new material, and fashionable painting at a cheaper price.
CC: How good were those early Asian made frames in comparison to the European made versions?
JA: Within 2 years we had frames that were lighter, stiffer, and more efficient and were near unbreakable when compared to those made in Italy. By the time we were making in Taiwan the competition (Colnago, Merckx, Gazelle), they were slowly starting to move into Italy and aluminum, which was why we were ahead and able to make that jump.