Tech feature: Malvern Star launch, July 3, 2008
In what is indicative of the increasing investment in the bicycle industry in Australia, a division of the local congolmerate Pacific Brands Limited has re-launched what is unarguably the most well-known bicycle brand in Australia, Malvern Star.
And it has enlisted no less than the name of the country's greatest-ever cyclist, Sir Hubert Opperman (1904 - 1996), as well as the country's greatest living cyclist, Phil Anderson, to spearhead the push of the brand's new 'Legend' series and capitalise on the growth of cycling in Australia.
At a launch held in Sydney just prior to the start of the Tour de France, Pacific Brands' Leisure and Fitness Division unveiled the 'Legend Series', including the top-of-the-range model, the Le Mauco. Looking every part the sleek modern racing bike, it is based on a full carbon-fibre frame fitted with a selection of top-shelf components from Shimano (Dura-Ace), Mavic, FSA and Selle Italia.
The Le Mauco is a bike that could be raced at any level of the sport, said Anderson. "It's bloody great," was his summation to Cyclingnews. Anderson had been riding another high-end carbon-fibre bike worth twice the cost of the AUD$3999 Le Mauco, and said it was easily comparable. "These bikes, for the price, are just as good as anything that's double (the cost). I've ridden it a lot. I've decended on it, climbed on it, it's beautiful (to ride)."
'Le Mauco' is the name of the cafe where cyclists commenced the brutal Paris-Brest-Paris race in 1931, a 1161km (726 mile) event that Sir Hubert won in 49 hours 23 minutes - riding his Malvern Star non-stop.
'Oppy' is considered one of Australia's greatest-ever athletes, and he was equally popular in France. At his peak as a cyclist, he was voted Europe's most popular sportsman in 1928 by over half a million readers of l'Auto, the then owners of the Tour de France. He set distance records that stood for over five decades.
There is significant Australian cycling history and tradition in almost every angle of the 'Legend' series' carbon-fibre frames. The bicycle company Malvern Star was founded in 1898 by the cyclist Tom Finnigan, who used the prize money of 240 gold sovereigns when he won a track cycling event called the Austral Wheel Race (still held each year in Melbourne) to start a bike shop in the Melbourne suburb of Malvern.
By 1922, a young Hubert Opperman joined Malvern Star as an employee and sponsored cyclist, and so began an association that has become indelibly linked to Australian cycling success. Malvern Star bicycles have been ridden by Australians to countless victories, including World Championship and Olympic gold medals. In market research conducted by Pacbrands, the brand name Malvern Star was said to have a 66% recall rate among the Australian population.
It's believed that the combination of Oppy's name - featured in large white decals on the downtube - and the Malvern Star brand will have considerable appeal. One could say they've got the credibility angle covered.
"When I was asked to be involved, I was really supportive," Anderson said. "I said to them, 'this is a sleeping giant, we've got to get this going'," he said of re-launching a high-end range of Malvern Star racing bicycles.
It seems that the local market agrees. It was revealed that Pacbrands is holding pre-release orders for some 6000 units among Australian retailers. Maurice Wulfsohn, general manager of Pacbrands Leisure and Fitness, told Cyclingnews the launch of the Malvern Star 'Legend' series represents a "nearly seven-figure investment' for the company, covering product design, development and marketing.
Pacific Brands itself was founded on the popularity of the bicycle and dates back even earlier than Malvern Star. In this case, it started in 1893 by making Dunlop bicycle tyres. It now has a market capitalisation of AUD$882M and owns some of the most well-known brands in Australia covering footwear, clothing and homewares. Wulfsohn said the company's initial plans was to successfully launch the Legend series, and then look at rider and team sponsorships in 2009.
Given the timing of the launch, the inevitable question was asked by the event's MC: will we see Malvern Star back in the Tour de France? Sir Hubert Opperman rode Malvern Stars to distinction in two Tours de France (1928 and 1931) and Anderson said, "I've got a lot of confidence in it (the Legend series). You could definitely take it to the Tour de France," he said.
The day after the launch, Anderson himself left for Paris with a Le Mauco among his luggage, as he set off to meet some 40 guests he showed around France on a cycling and cultural tour of the country.
The tradition continues
For a company that was founded on race winnings, Malvern Star's association with Australia's top racing cyclists wound back in recent decades as the company focused on the family market.
Previously, its links to the racing community was at the highest level of the sport, with riders from Oppy at the TdF through to legendary track cyclist Sid Patterson in 1950s, and to the Australian team pursuit squad that won gold in Los Angeles in 1984 (riding steel-framed Malvern Stars).
The first bicycle owned by many Australians was invariably a Malvern Star and among those young riders who lusted after a racing-spec Malvern Star was a young Anderson, who recalls riding his "postie-standard" training bike past a bicycle shop in Melbourne and dreaming of one day being able to own the genuine powder-blue Malvern Star that hung in the window.
In keeping with its 'family bicycle' approach, the Legend Series is keenly priced, with the Dura-Ace-equipped Le Mauco coming in at just under AUD$4000, while there is an Ultegra-specced Lyon (commemorating Oppy's win in the Lyon-Geneva-Lyon race in 1931) and the 105-equipped Bol d'Or (Oppy won the 1928 Bol d'Or 24-race, covering over 950 miles). Each specific frame has details of these victories just below the seat clamp.
The race is on
To launch the Legend Series, Pacific Brands staged two events - one each in Melbourne and Sydney - where it pitted Anderson against local celebrities all riding Oppy models and hooked up to a Computrainer system with a large flat screen display.
In Melbourne, Anderson was actually beaten in the simulated 'race' by a local Australian Rules Football (AFL) player, but he bounced back to narrowly take the win in Sydney against a very fit television commentator, Tom Williams, with co-compere Zoe Naylor (who both host the TV show 'Gladiators') coming in third.
The launch was held at Sydney's Bar Coluzzi, an espresso bar opened in the 1950s by Italian migrant and then middleweight boxing champion, Luigi Coluzzi. The Italian's skills as a barista meant his cafe became a favoured haunt of the Sydney cycling scene in downtown Darlinghurst and indeed, was considered instrumental in the rise of the cafe scene in Sydney.
The usual interesting mix of locals filed past during their lunch-hour (or day-long lunch-hour, for some of the more colourful inhabitants) as the assembled guests watched the trio of cyclists furiously pedal away. As in Melbourne, Pacbrands also offered an incentive to the guests, with an Oppy le Mauco being given away.
In Sydney, it was Ian Bryant of Fraser's Cycles who picked up the brand new bike, while at the Melbourne event, it was taken out by Ian Opperman, the son of the late Oppy. Indeed, the Opperman family has been fully supportive of their late father's name being used on this new range of racing bikes.
"One only wonders what Oppy could have done had he the same bicycle technology as today," said MC, Michael Roberts.
This significant new move by Pacbrands by launching the Legend Series follows other major investments by major corporate players into the Australian cycling market.
Just last month, the leading auto parts retailer 'Super Cheap Autos Limited' announced it had acquired Australian bike retailer Goldcross Cycles for AUD$6 million, and also took a 50 percent stake in importer Australian Bicycles for another AUD$1.4 million.
In May, the country's leading airfare retailer, Flight Centre Ltd, secured the Australian distribution rights for the Merida and Indi bike brands. Flight Centre said the initial AUD$150K investment was part of a strategy to diversify the company's revenue streams.
With more bicycles than cars sold in Australia in 2007, it would seem that corporate Australia has found that there's a growing market on two wheels.
For more details on the Oppy Legend series, please see its website.