Interview and Factory Visit With Muc-off MD Alex Trimnell
Muc-off started life as an idea of saving parts from warranty issues way back in the early 90’s when a mad professor (well a dedicated engineer) Rex Trimnell, wanted to improve how bikes were cleaned and protect the anodising on them. Fast forward to the present day and Muc-off are here with a plethora of products and ideas for cleaning and lubing bikes. We thought we would pay a visit to their office and R and D centre in Poole Dorset, on the south coast of the UK, to find out the secret formula of the pink cleaner and what else they are up to.
Where did Muc-off start?
We were a company called X-lite that used to make high end mtb components, my father started it in 1991, that was our family business that we started in a garage. We were making the worlds lightest bar ends. It was our whole business. We started to get problems from customers though with warranty returns because their anodising had faded. We would ask them what cleaning products they had used and they would say things like, “washing liquid or whatever they had under the kitchen sink.” These chemicals back then were full of sodium and salts so were really corrosive. At that point we realised we could make a mtb specific product that was kind to our bikes.
We worked with some local chemical companies and what we found was that most cleaning products were not bio-degradable and my father said, “No it has to be bio.” We are in a green sustainable sport. Eventually we came up with a formula in about 1993. At that time Loctite were trying to develop some similar things but didn’t have the right image so we said we would use their thread locks with our products and insisted that we use our cleaning formula, Dad came up with the Muc off name, and the Pink came from X-lites colour scheme… and we launched it. It started as one case sold in the first month, then it was like “Wow we sold ten cases of this mad pink cleaner!”.
In the background of X-lite Muc-off grew and grew, the loctite thread lock products were way too ahead of their time, so they fell away and we were left with Muc-off. It was being used for all kinds of things, carpet cleaner, cars, ovens… we were getting all kinds of strange feedback for where it was being used, people seemed to trust it.
What was the chemical used, were there mad scientists preparing it?
We always wanted to use the best people and experts in the field, we really pushed the bio side hard with our development team. It took a few years to get it right. At the time it was a different angle on cleaning with the bio-degradability emphasis. We created a unique formula.
How unique is the Formula?
It is a really special ingredient, with some highly advanced nano tech corrosion inhibitors, and additives that stop things squealing etc.
Why do pads squeal then when washed with water?
When the pad material itself gets dry they basically squeal, we have a additive that rehydrates the pad, which we have created over the last years. The product is a slow evolution and has gone hand in hand with the development of the business.
Has the secret formula remained the same?
No it has changed over time, there is always innovation to do. We are really open to innovation and testing.
Jokes aside, do you have a secret formula… can we see it?
We do! It’s like the Kellogg Frosties secret formula…
Do you lock it in a safe?
Yes, no one knows it apart from about three people. So it’s really secret…
Can you reverse engineer your formula?
It is possible to try but it’s a bit like coca cola in a way, you should be able to reverse engineer it perfectly, but no other coke tastes like coca cola… our processes are very special and it keeps our competitors on their toes!
Do you have to worry about industrial espionage?
Yer… we keep our cards close to our chest… we keep what we are doing locked down.
So how do you do R and D on a cleaning product?
We will start by a need for something different that improves the product. Do we want to improve cleaning power etc? Then see how we can go about that. We start with our team of chemists. If there is nothing out there that is available to achieve our goal then we invent it. From that the testing starts, which is around 12-18 months for each product including compatibility testing. Then we try it on our own bikes, then we send it out to teams. Each product goes through a whole process. Finally we test it with packaging UV, daylight, heat, there are lots of factors that can affect a product. It has to be stable in all aspects.
So if we focus on cleaning one thing, like chains, how do you make a chain like it was when it came out of the packet?
New Chains are actually the slowest they will ever be on your bike when they come out of the packet. Because it is loaded with grease and manufacturing tolerances are tight. In fact behind us we are testing a chain right now. You actually don’t want your chain to return to the state it was when it came out of the packet, as in efficiency terms it is very slow.
What does the rig do?
We are doing a 3 hour chain efficiency test on a very advanced lube, that is possibly the worlds fastest chain lube.
The chain has to be fast, and actually the chains that we are testing are going to be for a certain event coming up that these chains will be used for. (Editors note: we are guessing Bradly wiggins hour lap record…) So we can map the drop off of the chain lube on this rig, which is a time trial lube.
If you rode no lube what would happen ?
By using lube you are creating hydro dynamics that keeps metal to metal from happening. So you have efficiency. But if the lube is too viscous, then the chain will be slow. So the balance is creating hydrodynamic effects that last. It’s a fascinating field. We have spent 12 months perfecting lubes that give durability but low viscosity. We are proving this in data now. There are only two of these rigs in existence.
What is the rig measuring?
It’s measuring the amount of torque that is being applied to the chain in a different way that you would not see if you loaded up the chain in a normal way. It is a very fine measurement we are taking. We are actually building different modules to test all variables like humidity etc.
You now work with road bikes?
Yes we work with Team Sky, and we provide them with data on chain lubrication that no one has done before.
You seeing differences in formulas then?
Massive differences, yes, the energy savings are huge. For what this chain is being used for, a 1 or 2 watt saving will create a 16 second saving. Which will make a big difference. We can tell you exactly what each saving will be per chain, we treated all of Team Sky’s Tour De France bikes last year. We grade chains from the brands and show the speed differences in the chains and pick the fastest chain for the top rider. We take a chain completely clean it, then grade and treat it for the racers.
They are not just pulling a chain off the shelf?
No, it’s really high tech… I think as a business we are mad about engineering, which we brought to the chemical market then back to engineering. To prove the principles we want to do. It’s an obsession. There are different ideal lubrications for each use of a bike.
How many companies are doing this?
From what we know no other company is doing this type of research and taking data then fine tuning it from there. We are at the absolute cutting edge.
Are you giving then bike racers different chains and lubrications for different stages of races?
Yes. We test for the time trial, but also for yellow jersey riders. We fly out the chains to the races then once they have finished take the chains off then analyse them post race.
Will I be able to buy a box with ten different lubrications according to how I am going to go and ride?
Absolutely, that’s where we think will be the next step, or offering a service to do that. For time trialists these things are big differences. Marginal gains, we worked in Formula 1 for a while with Force India, and some of those ideas fed back into mountain bikes. We are open to different industries and feeding off all the things we do.
What about the average Joe user?
In terms of cleaning and lubing it is regular cleaning that keeps a bike running, once per month or leaving a muddy bike to dry is going to make it harder to clean and maintain.
In MTB does it make a difference for fast chains?
The next step is about proving the same in MTB riding.
Can a rider feel the difference?
We defiantly can’t tell the differences between one or two watts, that’s why we have the test rigs. But we can tell the differences with sound for some lubes. With Bradly Wiggins he is very good at development, he can certainly feel the differences in formulations with dry and wet lubes.
How environmentally friendly can all this be?
Lube and degreaser can both be Bio, we proved from working with Team Sky that their old degreaser was damaging their mechanics hands, so we developed our product so that it would not be harmful and clean well and quickly at the same time. Racing is really important and will feedback to products that users buy at the local bike shop that are safe.
How important is racing to your program?
We don’t just pay a team to use our products and have our logo. That to us is not genuine we are not big enough to do that, we have to get something back, so working with the Sky Team led to us developing better products which we live or die by. We have to be for our own peace of mind constantly developing and improving. We love challenges and fuels our business. Our 21 year old formula has been developed constantly.
How important is Nano technology?
It is fundamental in how it breaks down a product, if we used something caustic, it would attack the dirt head on, but would probably damage the part it is trying to clean at the same time. Safety is important, and the challenge is to have a safe product that does work properly otherwise people won’t buy it again.
Are jet washes a good idea when cleaning?
Jet washes are not a good idea, if you use common sense and you are on a fan setting fairly far away, then its possible but if you are up close to a bearing the pressure will risk the bearing seals being damaged. When we do bike cleaning events, that we show how to use a low pressure jet wash on a fan setting… ideally a mist/firm pressure hose is better. The human element is the problem.
What about scrubbing?
To be honest pretty minimal scrubbing on the frame is needed, we designed brushes to be gentle on frames.
Anything else you want to tell us about your secret formula?
We are just really passionate about making good products, and we want our products to live up to people’s expectations, we get upset if they don’t… we are in a unique environment. We are not just marketing we spend a lot of time on our own testing and believe in our principles. We feel we are energetic and confident, we are ultimately looking to grow constantly in the right direction and we survive off feedback from teams and people we work with and people who buy our product.
Thanks to the Muc-off team for their support and showing us around, we didn’t discover the secret formula unfortunately.
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