With most bikes in these globalised times being produced in the Far East, it took some searching before we arrived at a farmyard in the middle of nowhere to observe some genuine artisanal bike production in action. Take a look behind the scenes of NICOLAI.
In these times of throwaway goods and rapid consumerism, it’s pretty telling that even marketing hype now shies away from declaring that they’ve created a product “for life.” These days we’re after a quick fix, a shot of dopamine for a budget-conscious purchase, and it’s the same story from the supermarket aisle to bike-shop browsing. Aluminium was once ‘the new steel,’ and now carbon is the new aluminium. The fascination with carbon is huge, but it’s also unfortunately no more than hazardous waste. We can’t change that, but there is still a ray of hope.
It’s 8 am as we finally enter that 134-year-old farmyard, having twice driven right by the entrance to find ourselves once more in a German hinterland of fields, marshes, and woodland. We’re at the HQ of NICOLAI GmbH in Lübbrechtsen, one of Germany’s oldest villages, now just home to 160 residents. In a strange way, the old farm emits a striking yet somewhat disgruntled demeanour. The absence of cows and tractors is disarming, and you half-expect to see a corpse lying amongst hay bales. It certainly isn’t the sort of place you’d associate with one of the cycling industry’s most innovative and radical-thinking bike manufacturers in Europe. In the same manner as Steve Jobs, NICOLAI founder Karlheinz Nicolai, aka Kalle, also cut his teeth shaking up the industry’s status quo in his garage. In Jobs’ case it ushered in a new computer era, whereas Kalle sparked a mountain bike revolution. His creations have won Downhill World Championship titles, he’s behind the first dirt bikes and mountain bikes with belt drives, and most recently, he invented one of today’s most radical eMTBs: the NICOLAI E-BOXX.
“The shame of riding an eMTB doesn’t exist any longer.” Kalle
Reaching the pinnacle of the industry doesn’t mean jumping onto every trend, which is why NICOLAI has consciously skirted around carbon. In their eyes, there’s still a lot of scope for potential for aluminium. Pairing high-tech modern methodologies with tradition and a real love for engineering, their unconventional recipe lends itself to a distinctive brand image. While the farmhouse can tell some stories from its exterior, there’s a lot going on inside with CNC milling machines working alongside skilled welders, bikes being assembled by hand, and developers putting final finishes to paint jobs. ‘All done in-house’ clearly applies here. In total NICOLAS counts twenty employees on a day-to-day basis, and innovation appears to be in every detail. We watch tubes being masterfully and lovingly welded, adding to the brand’s already strong reputation for these pieces of art. Powder coating and paint jobs in all manner of colours are carried out with the same finesse that floods into the brand’s nothing’s-too-much service approach for clients. Should an issue arise with a NICOLAI bike, then you’re not just welcomed, but encouraged to bring it directly to HQ for immediate servicing. Often riders come back to the brand with bikes that are already over a decade old, which speaks volumes for their durability – and it should. After all, NICOLAI strive to make bikes for life.
“I’m fifty now, and I want to focus on doing things that make me happy – which happens to be bike development.” Kalle
As society evolves, the future for NICOLAI is heading in a similar direction to many other manufacturers… with the addition of an upper case E. Their new E-BOXX is in the starting blocks right now, kitted with a Bosch PowerTube 500, a significantly sleeker silhouette, and a complex double-walled frame construction to retain the same stability as the earlier model.
Throughout our day at NICOLAI we overheard visions of electric motocross bikes, crossed the threshold into new company buildings, and witnessed first-hand the spark in Kalle’s eyes. It’s a brand that’s pulling out innovation from tradition. In touch with its roots, it chooses not to wallow in the past but continue a dogged pursuit towards progress. They’re still committed to conventional mountain bikes, and we caught glimpses of exciting developments in the pipeline. But motorised or not, we’re certain that NICOLAI are going to keep launching visionary products in the future.
Nice one, Kalle! NICOLAI proves that quality – despite globalisation and consumerism – is still worth more than its price tag.
Words & Photos: Valentin Rühl