Outdoors

Cycling’s current technology started but could not stay in northern Maine

Posted Oct. 26, 2016, at 7:49 a.m.
Last modified Oct. 27, 2016, at 7:03 p.m.

VAN BUREN, Maine — In northern Maine, tucked away on a back road, is an old building filled with the dusty artifacts of the early days of modern bicycling. The building and its contents hail from a different time, when the small factory in Van Buren, Maine, was on the cutting edge of bicycle frame manufacturing.

For more than two decades, a combination of lightweight durable materials, unique design and quality assurance ranked Aegis Bicycle frames among the cycle components to own for serious bicycling enthusiasts, triathletes and racers. But costs, competition from larger manufacturers and riders demanding increasing lighter-weight frames eventually became too much, and the company went out of business in 2010.

Today, that factory is locked tight, and the current owner uses it for storage. But much of what made Aegis Bicycles so cutting edge is still there.

Machines that pressed molds and turned out components for frames stand silent and idle. Some unpainted bicycle frames line the walls, others sit in packing boxes waiting for build-ups that never happened. Banners and signs for “Aegis Bicycles: Competition Composite Bicycle” hang askew from the walls over bins of custom-designed and fabricated parts.

“We did pretty much everything right there at the factory,” former employee John Desjardins said. “Every single bike we made was built completely by hand.”

For years Aegis enjoyed a solid reputation in the cycling world, one derived from pioneering work in composite materials. The forerunner of Aegis was founded in 1971, when brothers Levite and Delano Duplessis of Van Buren created Graphite Technologies Inc. and developed the methods, machinery and tools to produce a hollow graphite tennis racket.

Two years later, Rossignol Ski Corp. contracted with the company and employed its engineers to manage a tennis racket division in Van Buren. In the mid-1980s GTI split from Rossignol and turned its attention to the cycling market after losing market shares to cheaper Asian-made rackets.

Initially the company, still operating at GTI, produced carbon fiber tubing for bikes, which it sold exclusively to Trek Bicycles. Soon, however, GTI improved the design of the carbon bicycle frame and ended its relationship with Trek.

GTI then began producing its own lines of bicycle frames for Basso, Profile, Peugeot and Iron Horse.

In 1993, the Duplessises introduced the Aegis line, changed the company’s name and committed themselves to exclusively producing and marketing their own products.

In 1995 the brothers sold the company to Boothbay businessman and cycling enthusiast the late Keith Baum, who operated the business until he sold it to Camden businessman Peter Orne in 2000.

Attempts to contact Orne were not successful.

Desjardins, 58, was with Aegis from the beginning and said he did everything from manufacturing to marketing to customer service.

“We were just seven or eight guys working there,” he said. “But we could roll out close to 1,000 frames a year.”

What made those frames special was a unique design developed at the Van Buren factory that is now the industry standard.

For years high-end bike frames were made out of metals such as steel, aluminum or titanium. But in the 1980s Aegis began using carbon fiber — a composite of thin stands of pure carbon — combined with resins to produce a strong, lightweight material that was being used at the time primarily in the aviation industry.

“We were the first ones to make a bike frame out of carbon,” Desjardins said.

In addition to its light weight and strength, a carbon bicycle frame also dampens the effects of vibration when riding over long distances and produces a more comfortable ride.

As more cycling companies started jumping on the carbon fiber bandwagon, Aegis kept one step ahead for a while developing what is now known as the “monocoque” frame that was molded in a single piece as opposed to separate sections that then had to be glued together.

Over the years the technology was applied to the company’s Aero Svelt, Victory, Trident, Shaman, Swift and Zero models.

For a time the West Point cycling team and top triathletes in the country were riding Aegis bikes.

The problem Desjardins said, was despite the company’s dedication to producing a quality product, the owners were losing money on every bike rolling out the door.

“They did not do the math,” he said. “For every frame they sold, we lost $100. You can’t do that as a company and stay alive.”

Things really began to fall apart in the early 2000s, he said when the 80 to 90 bicycle dealers with whom Aegis had been dealing started looking elsewhere for carbon-framed bicycles.

“Suddenly, no one was calling us,” Desjardins said.

“In its heyday, Aegis was the cutting-edge bike to have,” Lyn Michaud, owner of The Ski Shop in Van Buren, said. “It was a unique, handmade product in a world of mass-produced bikes.”

Michaud was an Aegis dealer for years, going back to the company’s first mountain bike frame marketed under the brand “Bik.”

Offering a made-in-Maine product was good business, Michaud said, but the handmade frames were not without challenges.

“Every part of that frame, every component was made in house,” he said. “So to get replacement parts could be difficult [because] they were not available outside of the factory.”

When a customer purchased an Aegis, Michaud said, they got a frame and it was up to them to work with a bike shop to add on all the other components such as gears, pedals, wheels and seats.

“Over the years I built up every Aegis bike you’d see on a brochure or at a bike show,” Michaud said. “At the time, that brand really compared to the best that was out there.”

But sales continued to dwindle until 2010, when the company shuttered for good.

“Part of the problem was riders were looking for lighter bikes. We were producing a really well-engineered frame, but it was not the lightest one out there,” Desjardins said. “Some of those bikes out there today, they are so light, no way I am going to sit on one.”

There are still Aegis bikes on the road, and riders remain loyal to the now-defunct brand.

“I’ve had my Aegis since 2006,” Dawn Bragdon of Madawaska said. “Lyn Michaud walked us through the whole process [and] brought us to the plant to show us everything you need to custom-build a bike.”

Bragdon, who said the Victory model Aegis was a 50th birthday gift from her husband, said the locally made aspect was a key selling point.

“When I did my first Trek Across Maine, everyone that saw the bike recognized the brand,” she said. “I love the idea it was made in Maine and especially that it was so close to home.”

Today, that Van Buren factory is closed and dark, with the current owner using it for firewood processing and storage.

“I believe there could still be a market for Aegis bikes,” Desjardins said. “But at the end there were some bad business decisions being made and too much other competition out there in the market.”

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