People who regard the first week of a new year as an opportunity to ease back gently into the rhythms of the working world have less demanding jobs than Michelle O’Connor.
When we speak on an otherwise nondescript January day, Endura’s Head of Garment Technology has already finished making final adjustments to a bespoke chrono suit for Nairo Quintana.
“Nairo is very particular, but that’s only because he really cares. He's not 'difficult'. He just knows what he wants.”
Movistar Team’s two-time Grand Tour winner will wear this bespoke garment in the often critical time-trials of WorldTour races and Grand Tours, in his quest for still greater success in 2017.
“The shorts in Nairo’s suit are size XS, but XS is too small in the body, so he has XS-and-a-half, if you like,” O’Connor explains. “It’s tweaked to fit him exactly.”
It is she who does the tweaking, such is the level of her skill and experience. But this is no special privilege reserved for Quintana, or even one he might share only with co-leader Alejandro Valverde.
“They all get exactly what they want,” O’Connor says, describing in the simplest terms the service Endura offers to each of the 28 riders on Movistar Team’s roster.
O’Connor’s neat summary of Endura’s comprehensive support for every rider on the squad is only part of the story. It’s a precis that dramatically downplays her own importance to the task of ensuring that the world’s number one ranked professional cycling team retains its place at the pinnacle of the sport.
Rewind three months and O’Connor was directing operations at Movistar Team’s traditional end-of-season gathering at a hotel in Pamplona.
“What we learn from Movistar Team trickles down to the consumer range. Their feedback makes our products better.”
Wielding her tape measure with dexterity, and, perhaps subconsciously, to underline her authority among a clientele of world class athletes, O’Connor gathered feedback from the Spanish squad’s elite cyclists, and, where necessary, reiterated Endura’s expertise in the matter of clothing the best.
She sees a clear demarcation between the distinct areas in which she is entitled to advise.
“Comfort is a personal choice. I can say a garment looks too tight or is too short, but at end of day, the rider is the one who has wear it,” she explains. “One of the riders asks us to remove the droptail from all of his jerseys and jackets. Although it’s strange to us, and is something that we’d never do for our consumer range, I can’t say that it’s wrong.
“But when it comes to aerodynamics, where we’ve worked closely with [aerodynamicist] Simon Smart, tested in the wind tunnel, had 3D body scans made of all the riders, and invested a huge amount of money, the riders have to trust us. And over the years, we’ve built up that trust.”
More than 100 victories in the first three years of Endura’s partnership with Movistar Team, including Quintana’s two Grand Tour triumphs, will do that, of course. But at a level of the sport so intently focussed on performance, aerodynamics hold the key to a wider relationship. And it is O’Connor’s highly specialist skillset that holds the key to Endura’s relationship with Smart Aero Technology.
Simon Smart has built up an enviable reputation as the cycle industry’s go-to aerodynamicist, and his work with Endura and its athletes is arguably the most advanced of his projects within the Drag2Zero facility at the Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 headquarters in Brackley, Northamptonshire.
“The riders on Movistar Team do such a massive amount of riding, it’s hard to get that level of feedback anywhere else.”
It is O’Connor who turns Smart’s calculations into garments, realising his vision with the skill one might expect a classically trained pattern cutter. It’s unlikely that she envisaged one day designing patterns to accommodate the strategic placement of ‘trip seams’ when studying a post-graduate course at the London College of Fashion, but it is her meticulous work with Endura’s (literally) cutting edge, computer controlled pattern cutters that turn Smart’s vision into reality.
“The chrono suits are very sophisticated,” she concludes, with characteristic understatement, and it is in these crucial details that the limits of accommodating a rider’s preference are reached. While almost any adjustment can be made to the fit of a garment, the aerodynamic technologies are off limits.
Towards the end of our conversation, O’Connor points out that her work with Movistar Team does not represent the whole of her duties for Endura, a fact, I suggest, that would surprise many.
Clothing nearly 30 of the world’s best cyclists certainly sounds like a full-time occupation, though she laughs at the suggestion, and concedes no more than it is the most demanding part of a varied role.
“The fabric in Movistar Team’s latest waterproof jacket is now used in a number of products in our consumer range.”
Mother to a one-year-old daughter, O’Connor finds time to keep an eye on her athletes via social media and by watching the races at every opportunity, though her analysis is specialist, to say the least.
“I like to see how garments perform, and how they fit when you see the riders in the peloton. I‘d notice straight way if they were wearing something they’re not supposed to, although there hasn’t been a time yet.
“I know exactly all the products they have!” she laughs. “And I like to see that their garments fit better than the other teams.”
We return, metaphorically at least, to a hotel in Pamplona; a temporary and informal theatre of operations to which Endura annually sends a small delegation of experts. O’Connor, needless to say, directed proceedings at the most recent gathering.
This three-day period in November, with the racing ended for another season and the next competitive engagements still six weeks or more away, present a brief but valuable window of opportunity to O’Connor and her colleagues. Riders are measured, garments tried, notes are made and feedback gathered. Back in Livingston, garment technicians in the sewing room set to work on turning the data gathered by O’Connor and her team into race wear for the coming season.
“I know exactly which products the Movistar Team riders have, and I like to see that their garments fit better than those worn by the other teams.”
Information for use in the longer term is gathered too. Endura has twice updated the fabric of the waterproof jacket in response to feedback from the team, and material from the latest iteration is now used for garments across the consumer range.
“They do such a massive amount of riding that it’s hard to get that level of feedback from anyone else,” O’Connor explains. “The fabric in their latest waterproof jacket is now used in a number of products in our consumer range. It has a very high waterproof rating and really high breathability. The fabric has improved because they kept coming back, and there’s been a bit of give and take.”
The fabric is a keen example of how the paying customer benefits from Endura’s support for Movistar Team, and how O’Connor’s time with this most select clientele is time well spent. Working with such demanding clients is likely to have been far from her thoughts when she worked as a pattern cutter for a supplier to many of the High Street’s best-known fashion chains.
She enjoys the challenge of working with technical clothing: garments of greater intent than the those intended only to satisfy the whims of the fashionista. The riders of Movistar Team have an infinitely more serious purpose for their clothing.
None are more serious in their approach than Quintana. His fitting session in Pamplona was one of the longest, and to watch O’Connor manage the process of kitting out one of the best riders of his generation was to witness a meeting of minds.
“He’s very particular,” she says of the most celebrated of the team’s Colombian contingent, “but I can see that’s only because he really cares. He’s not ‘difficult’ - he just knows exactly what he wants.”
“The shorts in Nairo’s suit are size XS, but XS is too small in the body, so he has XS-and-a-half. It’s tweaked to fit him exactly.”
Quintana’s feedback is only a microcosm of the whole. While for many suppliers to the teams of cycling’s elite UCI WorldTour, the reflected glory is reward enough, for Endura it is the world’s most demanding test bed.
“Their feedback makes our products better, and so it’s important to gather their feedback,” O’Connor explains. “If I was to tell them what they should be wearing, there’d be no point in going to Pamplona each year. What we learn from Movistar Team trickles down to the consumer range.”
There will be more valuable experiences ahead in this fourth season of a hugely successful partnership.
When O’Connor tunes into the races, or catches up on the latest developments with social media, it is to gain a valuable insight into how the garments designed, developed, cut and stitched in Livingston perform in the high peaks of the Alps, Dolomites, and Asturias, and on the unforgiving cobbles of Flanders and northern France.
Such responsibilities mean there is no gentle start the new year, but, to use her own words, “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“It’s very demanding,” she concludes, “but I quite like it like that.”