Words and Photos by Ryan Thibault
I smile at the customs agent. She’s scrutinizing my passport—one glance down at my mug shot, one up at me…and again. The photo is dated, and my Afro has long since been quaffed.
“An’ why are you tra-ve-ling to Ca-na-da?” she asks in a French accent as cute as her face. “To visit Cycles Xprezo,” I reply. “Ah, a moun-tain bi-ker,” she says with a knowing smile while handing back my documents and nodding me past.
There are a number of universal loves in Quebec and the bicycle tops the list, alongside Celine Dione and poutine. Spend even a few minutes in the province and the fanaticism for man’s most noble invention is apparent. This ingrained affinity for bicycle technology has given birth to one of Canada’s homegrown bicycle manufacturers, Cycles Xprezo.
I’m on a pilgrimage to the Xprezo factory. Situated in the town of Bromont, one of eastern Canada’s velo epicenters, it’s a short, 45-minute jaunt north of the U.S. border from Vermont. Driving along the country roads I pass long pelotons of spinning road bikers. Between rural stretches traffic slows to a crawl through villages with main streets adorned with small bike shops. And in their dirt road outskirts, children ride hand-me-down 10-speeds along farmhouse drives.
The resort town of Bromont is nestled in the pastoral hills of Quebec’s Cantons de l’Este (eastern townships) and is a summer refuge for Montreal’s urban elite. But beyond the manicured golf courses and stately lakeside chateaus there’s singletrack, winding through the hillsides. Those who rip through these trails are some of the most dedicated riders this side of British Columbia. The Cycles Xprezo factory sits minutes outside the quaint downtown on the aptly named Bouleverd de l’Innovation. The three-story building looks out of place—it stands alone, a truncated high-rise with a blue glass facade fit for an urban landscape. In stark contrast, Mount Brome’s green face looms behind it.
Upon entering it is clear that this indeed is a manufacturing facility. The reception area is clean and occupied by a receptionist and two young men in adjacent computer stations. Displayed on one of their monitors is a CAD design of a bike frame and the pair take turns pointing at intricacies in the drawing and debating its details in French. It’s immediately apparent that these are the innovating engineers.
Through a door to the left I see Antoine, Xprezo’s marketing director (and my inside man) and just beyond him is Hugo’s (the owner) office. All of the employees are within earshot of one another and through an adjacent door I can hear the whirring of tools on the floor of the machine shop.
“Allo my friend!” Antoine greets me with a smile. He’s a charismatic guy, rightfully holding the position of sales and marketing. Today, Antoine will be giving me the tour of Cycles Xprezo. Like most bike companies, Xprezo came from humble beginnings. In 2004 Hugo Bardou started the company in a garage in Montreal’s Little Italy neighborhood. Hugo had just left the company he had previously co-founded (Balfa Bicycle Company, creators of the revolutionary full-suspension BB7, and early innovators of long travel suspension) because he wanted to take a more personalized approach to bike manufacturing. With a background that also included being a Canadian national champ in both cross-country and downhill, he was ready to apply his experience to a company all his own.
Within a few years Xprezo had outgrown the confines of its urban garage. Hugo soon found himself with a medium-sized, trail-side facility in Bromont. “We’re bigger than many of the other North American manufacturers, though our roots were formed in the same way,” says Antoine. “We’re also smaller than all the mainstream companies. And this is where we prefer to stay for a number of reasons.”
Staying smaller than the “big guys” has its advantages. Competition is tight among leading manufacturers for low-end, run-of-the-mill mountain bikes. But once a consumer is shopping at the high-end of the spectrum, where Xprezo’s offerings fall, the market opens up and margins become more feasible for a 12-man operation to be sustainable. Xprezo has complete control of production, from research and development to manufacturing. This, coupled with superb quality control, no down time due to shipping on slow boats from Asia, and a core crew invested as both employees and participants in the sport makes for a quality product. When asked if everyone at the factory rides, Antoine laughs and nods. “Out of 12 employees two are solid enthusiasts and nine ride at or near professional levels,” he says. “That number would be 10 if Marie-Josée, the company accountant, wasn’t taking some time off to nurture the little biker bun she’s carrying in her oven.”
Phil Benoit, I am told, is one of the most progressive riders in-house. I can see it in his physique. His tawny arms disappear into gauntlet-size welding gloves. Before him he holds up the aluminum chassis of a Super D to a shop light. His welding mask is flipped back and I see the same stern expression as when I met him earlier—one of disciplined concentration. I have seen him smile only once this day, when he handed me a fresh draw off the espresso machine in the small kitchen adjacent to the machine shop.
A sense of “all business” radiates from Phil but the others have assured me he is the opposite on the trail. Phil has just come off a manufacturing binge, having worked six to seven days a week all winter to meet spring deadlines. He’s a dedicated employee and for good reason: he is Xprezo’s original employee. Having mastered his welding skills building frames for Hugo at Balfa, his migration to Xprezo proved to be one of the company’s strongest assets. Phil is charged with, almost single-handedly, producing all of Xprezo’s fames. The machine shop is his home. He builds the jigs required for production. He welds both the aluminum cockpits as well as the steel swing arms. Occasionally, he is helped by an intern, back-up welder, or by Hugo himself. Phil is ultimately responsible for the quality of each and every frame with the Xprezo name stamped on it.
“So what makes Xprezo unique?” I ask. Antoine lists a number of things. “For a small manufacturer, Xprezo offers a huge variance in bikes. The factory cranks out 400 plus frames yearly. We offer three to seven sizes in over 12 models for all disciplines of cycling, including road, cyclocross, downhill, and the gamut of 26-inch and 29er cross-country bikes. And with many build kits available, we pride ourselves on being able to offer bikes in an á la carte fashion, ensuring bikes are tailored to a rider’s personal needs.”
Xprezo has also bucked a number of industry trends. A glaring eccentricity is the mix of both steel and aluminum in all their full suspension frames. The steel allows the swing arms to be more durable than aluminum counterparts and gives their bikes a more supple, vibration-absorbing ride. The resulting aesthetic of the pencil thin swingarm’s tubing is a bit disconcerting, but Antoine assures me that the marriage of materials creates a bike that is durable and has a ride quality that is unique to Xprezo. When perusing the lineup of full suspension frames another detail becomes apparent, the lack of a complex suspension design. While other companies race to develop new ways to suspend bike frames, Xprezo’s entire line uses a very basic single-pivot suspension. Why?
“Xprezo has stuck by the system because it is simple, light, and efficient,” explains Antoine. “As riders, we like to spend as much time on our bikes as possible, not tinkering with our suspension in the shop.”
Xprezo also goes above and beyond traditional warranty programs with its Frame Actualization Program. Once you have purchased an Xprezo and beaten it mercilessly for a few seasons, send it back for reconditioning, or more accurately, remanufacturing. Your frame will be stripped to naked steel and aluminum, inspected for fatigue, repainted in any color that tickles your fancy, and repacked with fresh bearings. For as little as $375, your bike will be returned looking like new. Now that is customer support! Lastly, Xprezo is 100 percent “fabrique au Quebec” and they have no interest following the industry overseas. In Antoine’s opinion this is one of their most important assets. “Our branding and reputation depend on it. Our strongest support comes from the local Quebec community,” he says.
Quebecers are a proud bunch, and with that pride comes a solid fan base. Ask any native cyclist for an opinion of the company and words like “qualité,” “élite,” “superb,” and a resounding “bien oui” abound.
Word is spreading, too. As intrepid Quebecers adventure to other locales brand recognition is increasing. With its sites set on an increased presence in the U.S. market Xprezo is making its first foray into the States.
Antoine and I are perched atop Mount Brome, looking out over the “magnifique” view, and discussing the crisp, new bike I am sitting on. It’s a citrus green Super D constructed by Phil a week prior and assembled by Antoine minutes earlier. This is a bike well-equipped for the descent we are about to embark on. But this is not strictly a downhill excursion. We have just climbed, in some instances straight up the mountains grassy ski trails, and are now poised for a half-hour singletrack plunge down the mountain’s flank.
This is Xprezo’s testing grounds, and we are on the factory crew’s idea of a cross-country ride. Sitting there, feel like I’m 15 again and about to take my driver’s test. As we wait for Phil I scout around the first corner. Within a mere 100 yards from the misty trail entrance lies a precipitous 30-foot rock roll down with an off-camber run in. Cross-country my ass!
Phil appears clad in bike gloves instead of welding gauntlets and wearing a grin instead of his all-business face. We talk a bit more shop and then drop in as the daylight wanes. The roll-in sets the tone for the ride. The trail flows downhill in a succession of raucous turns, gaps, and rock gardens. Phil and Antoine blaze ahead and kick up roosts of loam around every corner. My Super D seems to be in its element. Rolling along I am impressed how the bike emits nary a creak, clunk, or moan over the jarring terrain.
I make chase and reflect on the day’s events. The big picture is now clear—from the factory floor to the local testing grounds—Xprezo is a rider-driven company to its core. It’s no coincidence that the company’s efforts have garnered a diehard following among the cyclo-centric Quebecois and, as I bank through yet another berm, I realize that far more than steel and aluminum contribute to the unique ride that is Xprezo.