Back in the original days of DH racing over in the UK there was a race team of mates called X-Lite, X-Lite was a small company producing original lightweight trick components for those early bikes we drooled over in the 90’s,the team had a real good presence in the race paddock too. Boasting components way ahead of it’s day, X-Lite started to experiment with a new product called Muc-Off, a name known now throughout the world of MTB. Jim brings us the story from the words of his old racing buddy Alex Trimnell; a story of a great success.
“Bloody hell”, it was a much longer drive down to Bournemouth on the south coast of England than I remembered, I was heading to the company HQ of Muc-Off to meet up with old racing mate Alex Trimnell, now co-owner of the company with his mum. Immediately the look of the place evoked a feeling of bling and racing heritage, with old X-Lite DH rigs and products lining the very trendy offices. Everything is plastered in the now very famous, bright pink Muc-Off logos, stamping their authority on the world of bike lubes and cleaners. We sit down with the ever enthusiastic Alex and chew the fat. Alex is still a very keen rider, loving to go out regularly on his Santa Cruz Nomad and road bike, he’s still keeping his high-flying feet well and truly grounded with rides out with his mates. Time goes by and we are kept going with fresh coffee, biscuits and cakes with a great bit of hospitality. Feeling very relaxed and welcome, we get the full story on Muc-Off’s history from it’s start in 1994.
ENDURO: How did it all start for you?
Alex: “Well it started for me back in about ‘89, I was riding schoolboy motocross, not really racing, just messing about really. I had really severe asthma and spent a lot of time in and out of hospital, so realised I really needed to get fit, so I looked at this new thing called mountain biking. Dad was in the motorcycle market then, making accessories for motorcycles and he had this trade magazine and showed me this mountain bike, a Muddy Fox and I was like ‘Oh My God’ that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen; I told dad I had to have one. We basically couldn’t afford a Muddy Fox, so I got an Emelle, it was soo cool, nobody had even heard of a mountain bike back then. So I got into that, started to get fit, then got into cross country racing. At this point dad had sold his business and I had upgraded to a Saracen Toughtrax until it got stolen from school, as I used to ride there. I was devastated, as the centre of my life had been taken!”
“We then went on a family vacation to Florida and all I could think about was buying a bike over there, as the dollar was then 2to1 with the pound. I drove the family mad, as the whole holiday turned into visiting bike dealers for me. We went into this shop that was a Klein dealer and they had some Attitudes and Pinnacles. Dad (being an engineer) was blown away by their polished alloy, internal cable routing, it was mind-blowing that they had that innovation back then. So dad fell in love with those bikes and we realised they were like half the price of over in the UK. We brought one back in our hand luggage and later imported a couple, we couldn’t believe the interest, the phone was ringing off the hook- people couldn’t get enough of these things! So dad started to realise the potential of the MTB market as he was looking for the next business to start. At this time I was riding the Klein Pinnacle, but it had the most horrible rigid cromoly forks on it, dad kept looking at this beautiful bike with forks that sucked, so that’s when he developed the first twin crown fork. Dad came from motorcycle racing and used to build his own bikes in the 60’s, he bonded these bits of knowledge together and I couldn’t believe the result,the steering was so direct. He got the patents on the design and ended up doing a deal with Raleigh as he was such a devout Brit. But they never did much with it really. But from the back of that is where he started developing and then producing the bar ends and calling them X-Lite.”
ENDURO: Ha yeah, I remember owning my first set of those, I was so proud of my first MTB purple bling!
Alex: “It was a really exciting time, I was racing more and more back in those days and it was just great working with Team Raleigh, Barry Clerk, going to Plymouth and watching Tomac and all those guys. There was such innovation in materials and metal matrix back then. Then in about ‘94 we started to think about doing our own cleaner and that’s where Muc-Off was born. This was because back then we had lots of people buying our products and they would phone up telling of how their blue X-Lite stem was turning back to silver after washing it with nasty kitchen cleaners.”
ENDURO: Yeh because back in the day there was no such thing as ‘non-caustic’ washes!
Alex: “Yeh, everyone was using stuff like truck wash, so that’s when we thought about developing our own thing. Dad came up with the name Muc-Off and it was pink to match the X-Lite brand.”
ENDURO: Yes, I wanted to ask about the name, because like Red Bull, that name is just an amazing starting point and a perfect marketing tool!
Alex: “I remember when dad came up with the name, I was a bit unsure at first, as I thought people might take offence to it, but dad was like ‘no no, we’ve got to go for it’. Back then we started to work more with people like Steve Peat and really looked at our product closely, even though X-Lite was the main thing back then and Muc-Off was just a couple of boxes a week here and there. But slowly it started growing, people were buying it and the volumes went up. I remember when we got to the point when we got to sell our first pallet load and I was real excited because we had to buy a pallet truck! There were 528 bottles on a pallet and we couldn’t understand how so many bottles could be used back then! You remember all these milestones, slowly we started to develop more protectants with the product and it grew from there. As it started to really take hold these were my busiest days of racing downhill, where we tested the stuff out to the full.”
ENDURO: I remember the X-Lite team, black Merc van and black caravan with all matching alloys and logos over everything, it looked brilliant, real pimp!
Alex: “Yes, always loving GP and F1, coming into bike racing after seeing how those factory teams did it, as a small family business we really wanted to make it work. Although we only worked out of a tiny little building it was lovely having this interest from around the world for X-Lite products. They were very exciting times and all the racing was genuine development, every race we were testing different shocks, different fork rates, it was fascinating; we had a great time with Andy Pope (team rider)”
ENDURO: So was there a certain day when you thought ‘Muc-Off is now our future’?
Alex: “Yes there was, it was starting to happen around 2000, we were getting lots of motorcyclists saying how much they loved the bike cleaner, why don’t you sell it in the motorcycle market? So we did, and wow, we found it so hard initially to get into a new market. It was like starting all over again in a different market, so it was back to that original volumes of boxes at a time, not pallets, it was quite an eye opener. Eventually by about ‘02-03 the motorcycle market was starting to kick in and the bicycle market was growing steadily, but we still did not export Muc-Off at all. X-Lite was now getting harder and harder, as US brands had gone to Taiwan and invested over there, so we ended up with no margin compared to them on the tooling and manufacture.”
“In 2004 dad died and it was a real shock, totally out of the blue and very quick just after he had signed the papers to buy a new factory. It was a crazy period in time then, Dad had gone. I was helping him run the business, but he was the driving force back then, and I was by no means any kind of a businessman!”
ENDURO: What happened to your dad?
Alex: “He felt rough for about a week or so and it turned out he had acute Leukemia, he thought he had a bad dose of the flu and one day he just literally got up then keeled over with a brain hemorrhage at the age of 60. We were like best friends back then, we went enduro motorbiking together and all sorts. He was just getting to the point where he was thinking about retirement too; as he worked so hard. The shock of it put us all in a day dream and the week after Dad’s funeral we had to move the whole factory,moving a factory and production is like hell at the best of times! So we moved and I kept X-Lite going a bit, but just felt in the end I was doing it a disservice, as Dad was so innovative and I didn’t want to damage the brand.”
“At that point Muc-Off was booming and I was heavily involved in the marketing side of it, so the decision was made to make that our main focus. So we went out and bought all state of the art blending and filling equipment and we had 7 or 8 people working for us at the time. Although we still only had 3 or 4 products back then, that power of focus from the loss of Dad was what brought us all together as a great team. In business terms, after the worst things happen to you in your life you become quite a risk taker; we just went for it in Dad’s memory. We did every event going, pushing the product like mad and it started to grow more.”
ENDURO: So how did you come up with the ideas for certain products?
Alex: “Well quite often people ask me how we came up with the ideas and it’s simple, as a rider if something bugs me, I want to create a solution for the problem, as I’m sure that would annoy other people with the same problem. If I wasn’t a rider and didn’t live for riding, then that part of things would be really hard to do,I think that’s why there wasn’t a lot of competition previously,because unless you are a rider it doesn’t work. There are lots of people with kind-of chemical backgrounds out there, but you need the two to mesh together to create something like Muc-Off. It really has been a labour of love, a very challenging field to be in, as there are lots of chemicals involved with lots of legislation. Now selling all these chemicals around the world in places like America and Asia and having to get it there in perfect condition can be quite challenging.”
ENDURO: So your product range now must be huge?
Alex: “Yes, we now have 150 products with lots of variants of that too, we have lots of kits too, kits for Wiggle, Halfords, dealer kits, Boots the chemists; all sorts. We do all the creative designs in house now, so we have videographers, graphic designers and all our marketing team. I remember persuading dad to buy me our first Mac, we had no money and he invested £1000 on this thing that I was going to do all the design on and I didn’t even know where the on button was! (laughter) I had to pretend I knew what I was doing at first, as I took all these night courses at college to learn how to use it! But although design and marketing is such a big part of Muc-Off, the formulation and what’s inside the product is everything to us, as no amount of good marketing can make a bad product good! It all starts with a huge amount of testing, probably 30-40 variants of every product before we reach a usable product, even the most straightforward of products will be at least 12 months of development. There’s testing, instability testing, UV testing, packaging testing, leak testing.”
ENDURO: What about your ventures into the big sponsorship nowadays?
Alex: “Well we have got the British Superbikes now, we have been partners in Formula One for three years. We have all sorts of partnerships behind the scenes, some of which I can’t talk about. What has been the coolest thing is how we have so many doors opened because of our core market of cycling, you wouldn’t believe how many of the F1 guys are mountain bikers.”
ENDURO: What about your sponsorship of the grass roots riders out there, how is that nowadays?
Alex: “It’s critical to us, yes we have the team Sky, but you can never get too big and I think if we ever got an edge of complacency or arrogance, then that’s when a brand starts to go a bit wrong. Because we’ve come from nothing and built it up and I’m an ex-racer I find it more rewarding to help people who are funding racing themselves. They are out there in the middle of this weather in a field of mud, to me that is the beating heart of what we do. Our tentacles are stretched right through from that to the pros and we like that the guys like to show off what they are using. People like Red Bull have to have really strong principles of who they sponsor, but we can be a bit more laid back and open about who we help out, we just love to work with people who have passion and energy and like to extend that back to us.”
ENDURO: What about keeping an eye on your competitors?
Alex: “We take everything seriously, we look at everything, as it’s our market, competition is always a threat, it’s a bit like racing, you always have to keep an eye on your fellow racers. But ultimately you have to focus mainly on your own path as well, for us it’s a bit of a balance of not being arrogant thinking you are the best, but not wanting to let that steer the way in which we move forward. We now work with some amazing scientists and professors, so we definitely feel we are at the cutting edge. We are in a good position now when it comes to market share, but that isn’t reason to sit back and get lazy.”
“Alex then goes on to tell us all about the chain they have worked on for road cycling that was used in Bradley Wiggins’s mile record and how this will be developed over towards the MTB market, but all this is to be saved for our sister road mag Gran Fondo, as right now, it is more road bike specific. We had an amazing time at Muc-Off and after learning Alex’s history in the business we can really see why they are the market leaders.”
For more information visit the Muc-Off Website.
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Words: Photos: Isac Paddock