Take a straw poll in your circle of cycling friends about B’Twin – go on, I’ll wait. Chances are, if you’ve heard of the brand, you’ll know it belongs to sports giant Decathlon, and that it makes some very cheap bikes.
You might suggest one to a cash-strapped friend looking for a way into cycling, but there’s a good chance you wouldn’t even consider a B'Twin for your next serious purchase – it's basically a catalogue brand, isn't it? Well no, not exactly.
Decathlon invited BikeRadar to visit B’Twin Village, the brand’s immense headquarters in the French city of Lille. The Village houses one of the largest bike shops we’ve ever seen, and it’s also home to B’Twin’s design headquarters, as well as a factory where the company assembles 180,000 of the 3.5 million bikes it produces every year.
The place has an odd atmosphere. Although it’s a shop open to the public (with a workshop, a restaurant and a gym for good measure), most of the people wandering around when we visit are employees.
Those that aren’t wandering zip purposefully past on an indoor bike lane. They’re pedalling, or riding scooters of the kind popular with 12-year-old children. It’s less big-box bike shop, more tech startup in feel.
Behind closed doors where the public cannot roam, there’s a sense of quiet industry. In one area, men and women with fashionable glasses sit at computers tweaking CAD files, sketching components and refining designs.
Prototype bikes and parts are scattered everywhere, and past successes are proudly on display. If you think B’Twin just phones in its products and slaps some logos on them, think again.
In rooms off to one side, serious-looking designers are working on colour schemes for the latest product line-ups, and later we see the fruits of their labours in the paint shop, where colours are mixed precisely and tested before being signed off for production.
In other parts of the facility, research and development is a truly hands-on activity. Prototypes are constructed and tinkered with in one laboratory, while in another, production frames undergo rigorous reliability testing, with frames being tortured on specialised rigs. B’Twin even carries out on-site failure analysis of defective products that have been returned under warranty.
Everywhere we went, B’Twin’s employees spoke with an almost cultish zeal about their affection for, and belief in the brand. It’s easy enough to put on a show for journalists, but nothing about their enthusiasm felt forced.
We came away with the impression that there’s as much passion behind B’Twin’s designs as there as at any manufacturer, and couldn’t help thinking that the company could do more to shout about it – it’s a side of the brand that’s completely hidden from the UK consumer.
On our shores, the bikes have to speak for themselves, and while we think this season’s colourful offerings are worth a moment of your attention, it wouldn’t even occur to many of us to consider one.
There’s no doubting B’Twin’s mass-market appeal, but Decathlon has some way to go in getting the UK enthusiast market to take it more seriously. Some of the latest bikes look fantastic for the money, but the brand is still resolutely Euro, especially on the MTB side of things. For all we appreciate slick XC racers for example, they’re a minority interest these days.
If B’Twin applied its design and budget philosophy to some more hardcore trail-oriented bikes, it’d likely be onto a winner. Without access to its accounts, however, we can’t tell if that would make sense economically for the company – the UK is after all just one of many markets it serves.
Click through the gallery above for more pictures from my visit to B’Twin Village.
B’Twin 2015-2016 highlights
The entry-level Triban 520 now comes is now offered in an ultra-bright orange and white. £450 gets you Shimano Sora nine-speed components.
The £750 Ultra 700 AF has Shimano 105 shifting kit and an attractive aluminium frame.
For £1450, you can have the carbon Mach 740 with Campagnolo Athena.
The top-end Ultra Carbon with Ultegra Di2 comes in at £3000.
The £950 Rafal 720 is a fairly focused 27.5in XC machine, specced with a mixture of SRAM 10-speed components, Avid DB3 brakes, a Manitou Marvel fork, and Mavic Crossride wheels. A Shimano Deore XT-based build is also available for £1250.