This feature was produced in association with POC Sports
Stepping out of the lift, I am met with a curiously bewildering sight. Dark greens, heavy on the brass, geometric repeating carpet patterns that make my head spin and strange Egyptian-esque prints that wouldn’t look out of place in “Tech Noir” discotheque in The Terminator. “We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!” I think to myself. Slipping my key card into the door of my room, I’m secretly glad not to be staying in room 666. If David Lynch did hotels, the Haymarket would probably be it. I half expect Agent Cooper to jump out of the shower or Dennis Hopper to be sitting in the corner sucking down on an oxygen mask <shiver>.
However, a few hours and a Swedish style breakfast of champions later, I find myself at the offices of POC in downtown Stockholm. From the outside, there is nothing to mark this out as being the global headquarters of the highly regarded safety innovator that exploded into the public conscious courtesy of Julia Mancusco’s gold medal winning Alpine skiing run at the 2006 Olympics in Turin.
Like an office but better.
However, like stepping through the wardrobe in Narnia, opening the door reveals a world of wonder. My first encounter is of a life size skeleton in POC’s trademark orange and their mission statement writ large on the wall: “POC is a Swedish company with a strong mission to do the best we can to possibly save lives and to reduce the consequences of accidents for gravity sports athletes and cyclists”. As I spend time with people of POC, I come to realise that is no empty claim dreamt up by marketing gurus but is at the very core of everything they do.
Walking into the open plan office, I am in Scandinavian style heaven. Floor to ceiling windows, exposed brickwork, idea walls, low slung, sofas, more current and prototype products hidden in plain sight than you can shake a stick at, effortlessly stylish Swedes at work – I immediately experience a desire to work there. Looking over to the far end of the office, my gaze is immediately drawn to the Ultimate Collectors Series Imperial Shuttle Tyderium and Super Star Destroyer made from Lego. That’s the clincher. When do I start?
Does everyone here speak perfect English?
My host for the next two days is Damian Phillips, a warm and ever cheerful Welshman who is no slouch on a bike and who has a busy schedule lined up for me. First up, a meeting with the founder and driving force behind POC, Stefan Ytterborn. At over six feet tall, he strikes a distinctive and charming figure that epitomises effortless cool – Nike shoes, jeans and a pressed shirt, he puts the smart into smart casual. Jealous? Moi? Ok, maybe just a little.
To cement the Scandinavian stereotype, he looks a good ten years younger than his age and speaks perfect English. Sitting down in the boardroom with Stefan, I cannot help but be impressed by the shelves of design awards. For any other company, they would be front and centre as soon as you step over the threshold with POC there is no fanfare or self-congratulation. Stefan is justifiably proud of them but as I spend time with him, it is clear that they aren’t a motivator for him.
Tour de Force
I start with an easy opening question “How did you come to create POC?” What I am met with is an incredible insight into the world of Swedish design as seen through the prism of Stefan’s life. Starting as a top 50 ski racer, I learn how the design bug caught him young and as we talk Spanish design, the rise of IKEA, the ethos of functionality without excess, the work of contemporary designers such as Mark Newson and how design gives form to ideas. Having lived through the 80s where design was all about excess, he experienced first-hand the collapse in the nineties and its impact on the market. Durability, ingenuity, more balanced and smart attitudes to needs came to the fore. With it came the realisation that Sweden had a creative force that could be a positive force for change in the world.
I scribble furiously as I try to capture the essence of this whirlwind tour. “ Today, we realise that different people have different preferences. We need to target user groups and their palette of preferences. Design is an orchestra playing a piece to activate the user reflecting the idea behind the person who wrote the manuscript”. As he reels off a list of some of the world’s biggest name contemporary brands whom he has worked with, with remarkable candour, he tells me that he reached a point where he realised that “making new crap that wasn’t needed” wasn’t the way forward. His honesty is disarming. As I formulate a suitable response, we are interrupted by Damian who informs me that our time is up. For me, this is something of a problem as we haven’t even got to how POC came about. Fortunately, Stefan is generous with his time and we are able to continue.
So that’s what it means?
POC, which I later learn, stands for Piece of Cake, came about as Stefan sat on a ski lift on the last day of the season when his two boys were young. As a parent with two young children taking part in skiing, the advent of carver skis which meant speeds were noticeably higher than when he was young and coupled with a growing need within society to feel safe and secure, the need for a company such as POC was obvious to him. When he talks about the company he founded and leads to this day, there is a genuine pride in what not he but what is quick to point out the whole POC family have achieved and the positive contribution they make to the lives of athletes day in and day out.
Saving lives and reducing the consequences of accidents is at the very heart of POC. As we continue to chat, I come to realise that optimising protection without compromising the ability of the athlete to perform is why POC products are at the very top end of the market. POC products are clearly designed with safety and performance in mind and not built down to hit a price point.
Now in full flow, Stefan tells me how POC takes a three stage approach to safety. In the first instance, they look to reduce the likelihood of an accident occurring. In the event of an accident, the active phase goal is to reduce the impact while in the post- accident phase, the objective is to find post-active solutions that lead to a more rapid search and rescue.
As I frantically scribble, he launches into a rapid fire history of the first ten years of POC – from the initial dipping of the toe into the ski helmet market thru the launch of the Trabec bike helmet which marked a step change in focus from being a ski company into a ski and bike company thru the road focused Octal as worn by the Cannondale drapac team in multiple Grand Tours and the AVIP line of helmets and clothing.
Throughout all, the overriding impression I get is of an organisation where everyone contributes to making the best product they possibly can with roles overlapping. At POC, it becomes abundantly clear that an engineer is not just an engineer nor is a designer just a designer. Roles merge. Moreover, Stefan and the team aren’t shy about working in collaboration with experts and technological start-ups where they don’t possess the skills and knowledge in-house.
Here comes the science bit.
In POC Lab, they have created a scientific forum that brings together some of the world’s foremost experts in brain science, sports medicine and spinal injuries to help advise on developing what POC aim to deliver as the most advanced protection in the world in the biking and skiing markets while working with their team athletes and experts in materials technology to optimise the final products when they finally come to market.
Laughing, Stefan throws his arms out wide and says that they could build the safest helmet in the world but it would be this wide and nobody would buy it. I instantly have visions of me sporting a bright orange helmet that makes me look like the Mekon after one too many sunbed sessions, completely failing to get out of the door to ride as it is too big to get through the door frame. Safe? Yes! Practical? Hell no!
In WATTS Lab, the focus is upon optimising performance and aerodynamics in their products allowing riders to go faster for the same amount of energy expended. Working with experts drawn from Semcon, Volvo and the Cannondale-Garmin pro road race team, they have a proven record of sporting achievement, the latest being Emma Johannsson’s Silver medal winning ride in the Olympic Road Race at Rio while sporting POC’s latest aero road helmet and national kit.
Safety without compromise
With all of this going on, I begin to get an inkling as to just why POC are at the top end of the price range when it comes to ski and bike products. Somewhat directly, I ask the awkward question of why POC doesn’t make helmets and products for the mid and lower end of the price scale. A smile comes across Stefan’s face. “We could do it but to do it would ultimately be a compromise on our mission.” Good enough is clearly not good enough for POC.
With over 10% of their gross income spent on Research and Development, there is an uncompromising desire to be the best in the field and to never cut corners in working to improve rider safety. I sit back and reflect. Stefan’s honesty and genuine passion for what he and the team do is refreshing. It’s no exaggeration to say that with the Trabec, POC moved the goalposts when it comes to helmet design. Today, there are very few helmets on the market that don’t owe a nod to the Trabec in terms of aesthetic and improved levels of protection. However, rather resting on laurels, there is a clear acknowledgement that there is so much more to learn and improvements that can be made. And with that, my time is up as Damian, as if by magic appears like the shopkeeper in Mr Ben, to inform us that my next interviewees await.
Delivering the future
In quick succession, I meet with Oscar Huss, Head of Product Development, Monica Lindstrom, Senior Manager Apparel and Johan Weman, Digital Business and Partnerships Manager. As I have now come to expect from my limited time in Sweden, they all exude that effortless smart casual cool, the healthy glow of an outdoors lifestyle and do of course speak perfect English. If you want to spot the tourists in Stockholm, just look for the unhealthy looking ones!
Where Stefan was about the big picture, these guys are all about the detail and the more we chat, the more questions I seem to have than time to answer them. I learn about their work with Volvo, the thousands of hours that go into computer modelling and data analytics as they build up a detailed picture of impacts upon their products and how to minimise their effects. POC don’t offer a helmet replacement programme but given the detailed modelling that they are able to do, having a broken helmet returned with limited details about the nature and forces of the impact means that they are of limited use in improving safety and performance.
I learn about their Map of Conflict which they work with Volvo on which effectively breaks down the high risk situations which cyclists may find themselves exposed to and which can then be applied to product design. It finds a home in the AVIP range which stands for Attention, Visibility, Interaction and Protection. Aimed specifically at road cyclists, the line has been developed adopting a rigorous scientific approach – visibility, risk perception, colour and contrast, digital technology, communication, psychology – all have had a critical role to play in the development of the line. However, the ambition is not just to make safe products but ones which perform at the highest level.
The Fabric of Success
With Monica, I learn about the importance of fabric choice, cut, material strength and resistance to abrasion, waterproofness, and breathability – all play a key role in the final product.
Details such as adding silicon inserts into bib shorts can have a marked impact upon rider comfort. I have to admit that I was a little sceptical when I was offered the opportunity to try them but after two months of riding, they have become my go to bib shorts of choice. Like a moth to the flame, I am drawn to a rail of prototype clothing which will form a key element of the 2017 range. Waterproof jackets, race shirts, bib shorts – every one as smart as the next and luckily in my size. As I try on all manner of apparel, doing my best Derek Zoolander, much to Monica’s amusement, she points out some of the finer design details which go into each product. Secretly, I am glad these are only prototypes and I’m not in a bike shop as my credit card would be maxing out if I was left to my own devices.
Envisioning the future
As a self- confessed technophobe, the advent of the smart phone has left me cold. I’m more than happy with my phone with buttons and long battery life, thank you very much. However, as I start to hear more from Johan about the integration of POC clothing and helmets with smart phone technology, I began to waiver in my resolve.
Working with small start-ups, POC was first to market with ICE dot technology. Simple in concept, in the event of a head impact, the technology works with your smart phone to alert your emergency contacts of your location thus reducing the time to locate you should you be out cold on the side of the trail. We then start talking about light technology built into clothes and the use of Recco stickers built into helmets and clothing which can help speed up location times by search and rescue teams. When we move onto developments in proximity sensor technology for use on the road, I find myself looking at my phone with a growing sense of disappointment.
And breathe………..my brain is now racing. I’m left to hang out in the offices, deep in my own thoughts. As a long time POC user on my own dime, I have always liked the way they did things and what they brought to the market. Their body armour has saved my skin on several occasions while I still have my very broken full face helmet which saved me from serious injury when I decided to use my head as a brake in Verbier. Top tip kids – don’t try it at home!
Having spent the day with them, I come away genuinely impressed by what they are trying to achieve and the manner in which they are going about it. Safety is at the very heart of what they do, day in, day out. Their products are expensive but they make no apology about that. Having witnessed first- hand the dedication, enthusiasm and commitment that goes in to what they do, I feel reassured that whatever POC product I buy next, my hard earned pennies will be spent on one that is designed and developed without compromise where my safety and wellbeing are paramount. That’s no small achievement.
Today, we ride!
As if to cement my feelings, the following day I am treated to a guided ride around Hellasgarden forest on the outskirts of the city of Stockholm. Having ridden here once before, I knew I was in for something of a treat. Imagine the best singletrack trails you have ever ridden, add in a healthy dose of roots, add a side order of sections of ultra grippy granite bedrock, garnish with small lakes, cook in 22 degree sunshine and serve. Et voila! Trail perfection.
As I rode around the trails in the company of Damian, Oscar and fellow employee and trail ripper Frederick, I was grinning from ear to ear.
Every twist and turn brought a new vista, a new section of technical trail to clear and in one somewhat unexpected instance, topless sunbathers in what felt like the middle of nowhere. Quite why they chose a super fun rolling granite bedrock above a picturesque lake to catch some rays, I don’t know but I do know that we were both equally surprised and taken slightly aback by each other’s presence. Evidently, “Taps aff” in Sweden is somewhat different to the fat, sweaty Glaswegian male that I am more used to seeing back home. Personally, I think the Swedish stereotype version has more to commend it!
As I sit typing this, I reflect on my visit to POC. I was not sure quite what to expect when I met with them but having done so and got to see them at work and play first hand, I cannot help but reflect that if Carlsberg made bike companies, they would be POC. With a stated aim of transitioning from a ski company that does bike products to becoming a bike company that does ski products, the competition will need to keep a close watch if they want to compete with POC.
This feature was produced in association with POC Sports