Sharp-eyed racing fans may have noticed three letters adorning many tubular tires at the cobbled classics: FMB. Founded as a passion play by François Marie, the four-person company FMB is France’s last remaining tubular tire maker to use the traditional handmade process. The B is for boyaux — French for tubular.
Marie created the company as a one-man operation in late 2005. Today there are four employees, including his son Renaud.
Marie sources the rubber treads from France and Asia, but everything else is made by hand in his small shop in the quaint village of Plurien in the northwest of France.
"Our goal is to produce quality tires for competition with the old methods," Marie told BikeRadar. "The treads are glued by hand. We produce casings from the spool of thread. Unlike all the other manufacturers, we work a single thread of cotton for our casings. All others use a minimum of three cotton threads simultaneously. This is three times longer, but it results in an even thread tension throughout the casing, and therefore better performance."
Sewing up the casing, being careful not to puncture the inner tube
In a world where hundreds of thousands of sponsorship dollars are invested in teams, Marie's hand-crafted tubulars are purchased by many top teams for the cobbled classics, including Team Sky and Omega Pharma-Quick Step.
“I do not have the capital to invest into sponsorship," Marie explains, "but I supply the majority of the top teams for their cobbled classics campaign.”
Using natural materials, such as cotton or silk for the casing, and making each stage by hand, results in a high-performance tubular. The natural fibers' low weight, supple and tight weave means that the tubulars can be ridden at a lower pressure for the same drag. This means more comfort and less energy used when hitting sections of cobbles at 50 kilometers an hour. The same principles apply in cyclocross, where supple tubulars also offer the benefit of increased traction over stiffer tires.
François Marie, the man behind FMB
Now in his 50s, Marie is not an age-old tubular maker, having returned to the world of bikes seven years ago.
“I learned to make tubulars when I was in my late teens," he said. "I used to race but was better at mechanics. One day I bumped into Andre Dugast, we got chatting and I spent a lot of time learning the process. Unfortunately I had to get a normal office job due to the financial demands of a family, but when I turned 50 I decided to follow my heart and return to making tubulars.”
François Marie stretches the casing by hand (and knee)
Starting to work on the next season’s orders in June, Marie’s process is slow.
“It normally takes two full weeks to complete one tubular. We work in batches, but with the drying time between each different phase of production it is a slow process. That is why I have never spent one centime on advertising. If I have a higher demand then quality will be affected.”
Does the laborious production method actually make a difference? The teams who purchase the tires seem to think so. And FMB does have a great track record at Paris-Roubaix, garnering five of the last six victories.
Team Sky and other top teams rely on FMB for the cobbled classics
And this association is what returns Marie to his small shop, day after day.
“This work will not make me rich," he said, "but seeing my tubulars ridden to victory in the most prestigious races really motivates me to work each morning.”
FMB tires, waiting for the Hell of the North