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Aidan Duff – Part Two; Moving from Riding to Selling to Manufacturing with Fifty One Bikes


In Part One of our interview with Irish rider Aidan Duff we heard about his six years based in Nantes, three of them riding for Jean Rene Bernadeau’s top flight Vendee U squad, his experiences riding with Thomas Voeckler in the team, and his wins in the Herald Sun Tour and Tour of Brittany.

We continue our chat by asking Aidan why he stopped racing and how he moved into the business side of the game, as well as the unusual methods involved in producing his custom-sized carbon fibre frames and bike builds…

Aidan Duff
Aidan (with Ciaran Power to his left) celebrates the Herald Sun Tour stage win. Photo©supplied

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, but 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.”

Aidan Duff
Aidan moved from winning bike races to selling bikes. Photo©supplied

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.”

Are you the only frame builder in Ireland now?

“So for clarification, I (personally) am not a builder. Aaron Marsh and Scott Mc Dermott 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 very 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.”

Aidan Duff
Handmade carbon bikes from Fifty One Bikes. Photo©

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 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 4/5 sizes, lead-times are 18 months and nice paint requires too long masking and drying.”

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.”

Aidan Duff
The lovely paintwork on the Fifty One Aurora. Photo©

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.”

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, and we have partnered with UCD, Dublin’s largest University on the subject.”

Aidan Duff
The carbon tubes are mitred. Photo©

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.”

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 fitted by Aidan.”

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.”

Aidan Duff
Lovely finishing components complete the quality build. Photo©

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.”

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 they can build key characteristics from their previous bikes into it.”

Ed Hood
Ed's been involved in cycling for over 45 years. In that time he's been a successful time triallist, team manager, and sponsor of several teams and clubs. He's also a respected and successful coach, and during the winter months can often be found working in the cabins at the Six Days. Ed remains a massive fan of the sport and couples his extensive contacts with an inexhaustable enthusiasm for the minutiae and the history of our sport.

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