We can all think back to one moment in our lives, a moment when everything changed… one lucid snapshot in our memories that planted a seed and ultimately defined us. For Mark Blewett, founder of SwiftCarbon, it came at 17 years old, while sitting in front of the TV in his lounge, transfixed.
Blewett’s eyes were glued to the Emmy-winning CBS production of the 1987 Tour de France, with John Dockery and Phil Liggett’s dramatic commentary, delivering the story of the world’s greatest bike race. ‘…as they dance on the lower slopes of the Col d’Aubisque…’ Blewett watched the skinny, sweaty, suntanned Spanish and Columbian climbers battling it out in the mountains, imagining himself jousting with them. “I have to do that race!” he said as the credits rolled.
At that point Blewett knew nothing about road racing. Like most kids in the early ‘80s, he owned a BMX and spent countless hours making ramps and riding them with his mates. But alternative teenage pursuits left his Redline in the attic, replacing it with surfboards. “Something happened when I saw that race on TV, I think I awakened a kind of sense of adventure. I wanted to be a climber. Some people are captivated by the cobbles of Northern France and Belgium, but I loved those mountains,” he explains.
He persuaded his mother to buy him a Peugeot Le Mans, for £50 and that afternoon he pulled on his black Le Coq Sportif lace up cleated shoes and headed up towards Kirstenbosch Gardens. “It was about 3km uphill and I very nearly vomited at the top.” Hungry for any morsel of information on his newly adopted sport, he found little on offer. A friend overseas helped out and sent him some old cycling magazines, covering European racing. He poured over them, extracting anything he could. “I tried to decipher some kind of training program, from this mass of new information.”
By a remarkable stroke of luck, a sports science student just happened to be living next door and Blewett became his lab guinea pig at the Sports Science Institute. Fed bags of starch, probed for muscle fibres and tested for what at the time was that magic value, the VO2 max test, he was given a structured training program and diet. This was in no small way responsible for him winning his first ever race. “I attacked on the climb, then eased off a bit and no one came back. I actually thought they’d stopped, so I thought ‘oh well, I’ll just carry on.’”
The pro years
Fast forward a few years and he was doing well on the local circuit. The South African pro scene was strong in the 1990s, with the four weeklong tours getting headline news. Tour riding suited Blewett’s good recuperative powers, and he went on to represent his country at the Milk Race in 1992. “It was crazy racing, a level up. I was in some of the important moves most days, but other stages I blew up and lost 20 minutes. It was a huge wake up call for anyone who had Tour ambitions, and that was just an amateur race.”
This led to a stint on Team Blagnac, a French division one feeder outfit – some may remember the likes of Laurent Jalabert, Didier Rous, Laurent Roux and Frederic Moncassin, who forged their careers in those ranks. It was run by Georges Gay, a pro in the 1950s, riding as Jacques Anquetil’s lieutenant. Based in Southern France near the Pyrenees, it suited Blewett perfectly, training for countless hours in the mountains. His love for cycling, and bikes, deepened. “I often think that those years were my happiest on a bike.”
Two years later, Blewett was offered a ride on Troiamarisco, a Portuguese team, his first pro contract. But the disillusionment that comes with riding for a third division team set in rapidly – as the reality of the pro scene at the time dawned on him. The love of the open road, the freedom and the rich folklore and history of road cycling faded away and he began to feel like a worker, punching the clock.
As a salaried pro, Blewett was cannon fodder. The ritual was the same each time. Hit the front, work like a donkey, then get in the car at the feedzone. He never completed a race. “Cycling has this sheen, looking clean and slick on the outside, but I bit into the other side of the apple, the rotten half.” He was nursing a knee injury during the Tour of Portugal, with little sympathy from the manager. Each pedal stroke was agony and midway through, he climbed off his bike and never raced a bike as a professional again.
His 30s saw him entering the commercial world, as an entrepreneur. In 2008 he headed to Xiamen, China to form a partnership with a bag manufacturer. Moving to such a culturally isolated region was a big adjustment. It was a drastic, but it was a fortuitous move. The enterprise enjoyed significant growth with his Chinese partner, Kevin Chen.
He continued to ride regularly, both in China and on his travels. His passion for cycling endured, but there was something about the bikes at the time that left him wanting. Bicycle frame technology and materials had ‘evolved’ from steel to aluminium and ultimately, carbon. Riding an early monocoque frame, he missed the tactility, handling and responsiveness of his team-issue steel bikes. That was till a lucky encounter in a coffee shop.
“I was sitting at probably the only place in Xiamen where you can drink a good cup of coffee and this Chinese guy pulled up on a BMC Race Machine. We got chatting about the bike and he said, ‘You know they’re made near here?’ He took me to a local bike shop and on the wall there was a row of these super expensive rigs. I thought ‘How the hell can a rural bike shop have all these bikes!’” The owner knew the factory manager, “and off we went to visit. On that factory floor I saw many of the big brands I knew. My eyes were on stalks and in a few seconds all these ideas flooded into my mind: could be… would be?!”
“As luck would have it, the Xiamen area just happens to be one of the top carbon bike producing regions in the world, making all these great bikes. I was naïve, just like I was going to Europe to race. We spent about six months thinking about doing something that could work, but we never sat down and wrote up a 10-year business plan – it just evolved, as a passion thing. There are other industries where you could put in as much energy and make far more money! Already this was already a saturated market but I knew I could do better.”
Blewett began with testing all the factory designed frames he could fine, ones that any brand could use for a small fee, without having to front up the proprietary moulds. He narrowed it down to nine different frames from three factories, aiming to select just two for the first bikes in the 2008 SwiftCarbon range. “These showed the characteristics of what I was looking for in a racing bike.”
Blewett then began visiting trade shows to gather intelligence on the market, making the decision early on that he’d develop his own mould, rather than rely on other manufacturer’s. “I had a good idea of the distinct attributes I wanted in a bike.” He then set out to recapture that ‘soul’ – to tune the ride quality using the very latest composites available.
Tired of feeling illegitimate with his open mould bikes, Blewett accelerated the development of SwiftCarbon’s first high-end exclusive design road bike – the Ultravox. “If I added up the man-hours, I should have earned the salary of a management consultant,” he says. He commissioned Rene Baretta to design it, briefing him on the look he was after, and also the ride characteristics. From an idea sketched in a notebook to a finished bike sprinting up a 5km climb, the Ultravox enjoyed a relatively short (albeit intense) development timeline in industry terms. “There’s 25 months of my life in that frame.”
After the UVox frames had undergone safety verification, Blewett set about his favourite step of the procedure, the testing. “From the beginning I wanted it to be up there, wanted to be proud of it so I was hypercritical. I rode it with 10 types of wheels, carbon, alu, tubular, clincher, heavy, light. I used different groupsets. At first I wasn’t happy with the fork, so we added material to make it track truer, and so it went on. With almost nine months of tweaking, adding and subtracting, a pre-preproduction UVox was ready. We went through nine versions before I was happy. As a former racer, I like a bike that feels fast, so it would always have a performance bent, and having tested it, that personality comes through in the first pedal stroke. Because I am so uncompromising, I thought it’ll get shot to pieces so I when I got great feedback from the media, I was more relieved than happy!”
Indeed, the Ultravox received rave reviews from the cycling media. One in particular placed it in the top 5 of the year. “This came from guys who’ve ridden all the best brands. But I still thought the bike could still be better...” The SwiftCarbon was set – then then on, ride quality was prioritised above all. Designers would always chase that holy grail – the blend of stability and responsiveness.
In the following four years, the range expanded to include a TT/triathlon bike, an endurance and an aero road bike and a mountain bike range. Sponsorships of Drapac Professional Cycling and NFTO (UCI Pro teams), Brent McMahon and Kyle Buckingham (long distance triathletes) and Henri Schoeman (ITU triathlete) yielded World Tour victories, Ironman titles and an Olympic medal.
While racing and winning at the highest level is certainly the ultimate product test, the ultimate durability test came when Blewett and three other riders broke a mind-bogglingly gruelling world record: Project Carocap – crossing the African continent in under 40 days, human-powered. “It was quite stressful with the news crew following us. If anything had gone wrong with the bikes, it would have been a very public fail!” Three of the four made it to Cape Town, completing the journey from Cairo in just over 38 days on the same Ultravoxes upon which they began.
Although the brand was punching above its weight, the harsh climate of the bike business exposed the vulnerabilities of a small bicycle company. In order to meet the high expectations of customers and move up to the next level, Blewett and his business partner Kevin Chen began to looked for new horizons for SwiftCarbon.
A new boost
Showing off the 2017 range, the pair met with Henrique Ribeiro, co-owner of Brazilian company Grupo Lagoa (a 33-year-old consortium manufacturing and distributing motorcycles, parts and accessories). The former professional motorcross rider’s passion for all things two wheels had extended to include the self-powered type, and he’d just founded Sense Bike. Ribeiro says, “Within 3 years, Sense’s growth meant it was time to expand the range – it was at this time that the Brazilian cycling market was really awakening.” He’d hired former cycling professional road racer (there’s a pattern forming here…) Pierre de Tarde as head of product, to accelerate carbon development.
A collaboration was formed. Sense Bike accessed SwiftCarbon’s design and composite know-how and took advantage of the strong logistics, financial and network backing of Grupo Lagoa. “The carbon project proved to be a huge success, with the brand showing remarkable growth, unprecedented in the bike industry,” says Ribeiro.
As a natural progression, Grupo Lagoa acquired SwiftCarbon, with Ribeiro aiming to consolidate, then gear up for further expansion. Forming S2 Bicycle Industries (making up SwiftCarbon and Sense Bike) he headquartered the brand in Porto, Portugal in 2018, with a satellite development office in the first home of SwiftCarbon – Cape Town, South Africa. Ribeiro’s passion shows in the deep investment into the next generation of SwiftCarbon bikes, “of course it’s important to keep pushing the limits of technology in the new bikes, and just as important is remembering our roots – to make sure the same DNA in the first Ultravox lives on through the whole family.”