The co-founder of Festka who says running the production side of things at the company feels like coaching a sports team…
You and bikes. What’s the story?
I‘ve always liked bikes and cycling is one of my favourite sports. When I was thirteen or fourteen I even wanted to join a cycling club. There was one based on the housing estate where I was growing up. I went there with my mum and they told us to come back in a year. They thought I was too young. But a year later the desire wasn’t there anymore for whatever other reasons and I never went back. However, I remember I still wanted to own a Favorit F1 Special which was the best frame you could get in those days. I only got its measly cousin Eska but I did what I could to turn it into – at least what I thought was – a race bike. I stripped everything I could off it – mudguards, lights, reflectors – and painted and repainted it several times. I rode it quite a lot but I never raced. And when I reached the end of my teens I put cycling on the back burner for a long time.
What brought you back?
Bumping into Michael (Moureček) one day is what brought me back. We knew each other and we shared the same circle of friends but I wouldn’t go as far as saying that we were friends then. It was the bar at the Roxy club in Prague where we went for a drink and he started telling me that his parents wanted to give him a bike for his birthday. And that was the moment my interest in cycling was rekindled. It was great to talk to someone about it after such a long time. Someone who was more into it than I was. And we agreed that if he is getting a new bike, why wouldn’t I get one, too. We started to enjoy the idea of getting a bike together and have fun with it. We began to get together outside our shared circle of friends to talk at length about how we were going to go about it…
And how did the "bike for us" project turn into Festka?
It was a gradual process. Michael was this ex-pro racer who knew everything about bicycles while I only knew the names of a few big bike producers such as Scott, Specialized and so on. Initially, we were considering going for one of the big brands but as Michael initiated me into the world of smaller brands and custom builders it felt like coming out of a clothing store and walking into a custom tailors. The big names were forgotten immediately, however, as we dug deeper into what the smaller companies did, we realised none of them had a bike we wanted. There was always something wrong, something that made us not want to ride that bike.
We went to see people with great reputation including Mr. Babický, the very man behind the Favorit F1 that I wanted so much as a kid. He wasn’t making frames anymore at the time but his son and grandson did but we were not on the same wavelength. We ended up in the workshop of another reputable frame builder, Mr. Kovařík, who had built some frames for Michael when he was racing. We told him we wanted two track frames with no paint on them. We wanted to run them as fixies because those were all the rage at the time. And as we both always had an entrepreneurial streak we asked him at one point if he could make two hundred of them. He laughed. "Cycling is a dead business, lads. Put your money in something else if you don’t want to lose it…" On the way home we started thinking. There must be more fools like us! People who look for something different. Why don’t we make it and get them excited? And the decision to try and go it alone was the birth of Festka. We didn’t pop any corks then. It just happened.
It was Michael who came up with the name Festka (meaning "fixie" in Czech). Fixies were cool at the time, Michael had a track cycling background and the .com domain was free so that was that as far as how the name was born. We registered the company in September 2010 and soon after took a trip to London where we spent about £10,000 at BLB on components we brought back to Prague and built our first few bikes with for our friends. We became a bike producer overnight.
So where did you initially fit in in the greater scheme of things?
We became part of the fixie community rather than becoming a typical bicycle brand. It kinda happened by default but we got completely immersed in it and BLB became our model. We went around various student events to look for customers. I remember one in Brno where a storm came and we ended up completely soaked and up to our ankles in mud. The students were nice. They liked what we did but they all had old bikes at home and saw us first and foremost as a great inspiration for what they could do with them. We had some good chats but that was as far as it went.
May student festival
Did you participate in any fixie races such as the Garage Race?
Michael who is naturally an extrovert and likes to meet people was more active in this respect than I. I did take part in a couple of events and had fun. The community we were part of then was much different from that around Festka now. The fixie crowd was punky, rebellious. People with chains around their waists don’t buy road bikes for 7,000 dollars. But we met a lot of interesting people in those days and some of them we’re still in touch with to this day. Like Pepa Kabeš, for instance, who has now been working for Festka for many years. We knew from early on that we wanted to make our own frames and build our own bicycles. And not just fixies but proper road bikes. After all, that’s what we originally set out to do…
So what happened next?
At that time we were based in a garage on the edge of South City – Prague‘s largest housing estate. Michael managed to rekindle a relationship with this guy from Sušice, his hometown, who had a bike shop there. His name was Petr Šácha and he had a frame-building past. He had made a frame for Michael when he was a junior racer and he still occasionally made steel frames. We convinced him to start experimenting with us on the prototyping of steel frames. We bought tubing from various manufacturers and started to play with geometries and various ways of welding. We even went to Columbus to introduce ourselves and to tell them we wanted to make frames from their tubes because of their brand’s tradition. They treated us very nicely. It was sweet and encouraging.
Gradually we visited various other famous companies. Selle San Marco among them. We thought it would be good to introduce ourselves, get our name on the map. We started to tend more and more towards road cycling. We bought some semi-finished steel frames and we built steel frames from scratch, too. And we began to realise that if we wanted to make proper race bikes we would need to go into carbon. But in the meantime, we kept selling bikes from the garage which alternated as a workshop shop, a paint booth and a showroom at the same time.
And then there was the bike for Rapha…
Sometime in 2013, Stefan Rohner, who was a Rapha ambassador got in touch. I think he saw one of our early creations at the Berliner Fahrradschau. He told us Rapha was working on a project involving small frame builders from various corners of the world. He wanted us to build a steel frame for him. It was a new experience for us because he was very demanding. He knew exactly what he wanted including a specific geometry and design scheme but he gave us some free hand on the last point. It was a bit of a process but in the end, the bike got built and it got great media exposure. I can’t say that orders for more started pouring in immediately but it was a definite turning point as far as awareness about Festka in the cycling world is concerned.
How did the switch from steel to carbon take place?
After a few false starts, we figured that crowd-funding should be the way to go to avoid ploughing more of our own money into it. We couldn’t go on Kickstarter at the time because of their international restrictions and there was nothing comparable available in Europe at the time (2013) so we decided to try and organise it ourselves. With the help from our friends in the media, we launched PROJECT 200 within which that number of carbon frames would be pre-sold and made. The price was set at 25,000 CZK/1,000 eur. We built a website and, to our pleasure and surprise, orders started to pour in immediately. And the people ordering were a completely different crowd to the one that Festka catered to previously. Most of them already had a road bike, wanted to support the idea of a Czech-made carbon frame and were comfortable with risking 1,000 eur.
Now we had the money, we had to start worrying about how we were going to deliver on our promise. Luckily, we bumped into someone who could help us. His name was Honza Novák and he was a life-long tinker. He loved modern materials and he had a history of making all kinds of things ranging from fibreglass canoes to carbon disc wheels for track bikes. He was instrumental in the making of the all-important carbon lugs for the Project 200 frames.
The next lucky find was CompoTech – the Czech producer of carbon composite tubes. They were recommended to us by professor Milan Růžička from the Czech Technical University where we went looking for advice on how to work with carbon fibre. CompoTech was already strong in some areas such as carbon composite yacht beams but they had no clients in the bicycle industry and they kindly adopted us. Michael told them in great detail what he wanted from a bike frame and they went and did their calculations and modelling and soon there was the first set of wound carbon fibre tubes for Festka.
Was that the end of your garage days, then?
It became blatantly obvious we had to move somewhere else. We only had the nearby wood for a toilet and the constant converting of the space was also becoming a chore. We came across this space in Vinohrady which is a popular residential area in central Prague. There used to be small factories, printworks and car repair shops in the yards of the apartment blocks there. These are now being turned into all kinds of businesses such as gyms, yoga, clubs, photographic studios and what have you. One such space, a former tooling workshop, became available and the owner liked us better than the other applicants so it was us who got the lease. This is where our production and back-office is still based while our showroom has its own space a 15 minutes‘ walk away.
Apparently, you did a lot of physical work there yourselves…
There’s a lot of our sweat and blood sunk there. And in my case quite literally. We needed to knock down quite a few walls to make the space suitable for our purpose so we took the jackhammers and went for it. As the saying goes, to chop down a forest, splinters will fly. A chunk of one wall dropped on me and knocked me off the ladder. I ended up in a hospital but it wasn’t serious. It still makes me happy that we did so much there ourselves. And that we still do when possible.
But back to PROJECT 200…
OK. So we had a showroom and a core team composed of Michael, myself and Tomáš Hnida, our art director who jumped on board very early. We were joined by Tazzy who built the frames and Lukáš Svoboda who worked on the frame design. We had the lugs, the tubes, pretty much everything together. We could deliver on our promise and we did.
The next natural step was developing ZERO, our first model made by us from A to Z. We had a great starting position but fate dealt us a huge blow when Honza Novák got killed in a car crash. We had to regroup, readjust and start again. Our friends at the Czech Technical University recommended Tomáš Ponížil, an outstanding student there, for the job of product designer. And then the European Space Agency invited us into their business incubator which helped us go into proper R&D. That helped us make a giant leap in terms of product design.
Festka is admired for its graphic design and paintwork. Don’t you wish there was more appreciation for the R&D and the material from CompoTech?
I do. At least from 2015 onwards, starting with the ONE model, I believe our technology tops the graphic design. Our carbon frame production technology is so unlike anybody else‘s that we decided to concentrate solely on carbon because that’s where we can offer a unique product due to the combined strength of our and CompoTech’s R&D. It is only the carbon frames where we can define exactly what we want, what qualities the bike can offer to the rider, the strength, the comfort, the agility, tho lot…
With Festka Ti Asphalt in Corfinio
Weren't you sorry you had to discontinue steel and titanium Festkas?
I was but... I look at it from two perspectives: speaking as Ondřej the cyclist, I’d love to have a titanium Festka in the garage and I‘d also like to own a steel bike from Festka one day. But as Ondřej the manager, however, I know that if you want to achieve perfection you need to focus. And our focus is on carbon frame production now because that’s where we can make a difference. But who knows? It may make sense to dust the titanium and iron production in ten, fifteen years‘ time...
How do you run the current Festka team?
I see myself more and more like a sports team coach combining various sets of skills and personalities to compose a formation capable of winning. I believe we have the right composition of people who love to contribute and who are not in it just for the paycheck. I'm really happy about that.
Do you get to ride your bike at all these days?
It goes in waves. Michael thinks we need to ride with our clients and friends more often. But given the way we share resposibilities, it’s his domain rather than mine. From the company's point of view, riding is not one of my duties. Just occasionally for a photoshoot somewhere in the hills of Italy or France. When that happens, I suffer. But I try my best not to show it. For both Michael and myself Festka comes first. It is our third child for both of us. I have a son, Jáchym, who is a year older than Festka, and Laura, who is a year younger. And for the benefit of our third child – Festka – we are able to forget about our personal needs. So it sometimes happens that I forget that I founded the company because I wanted to ride a bike. But I’m determined to change that this year. But I’m no slouch, man! I run regularly and do a lot of cross-country skiing in winter.
Do you have a bike of your own or do you ride what’s available?
I hadn't had my own bike for a long time but now I have a beautiful new one in this recently introduced the mustard design scheme. It is a pleasant experience. I love it. But I can imagine that a client will come along one day and rid me of it because it’ll be the fastest option to make someone happy.
Cycling takes many form these days. Which one do you like best?
I’d say cyclocross. Going full throttle for one hour. Battling with the terrain and your rivals. No help from team members, just you against everybody else. I don’t do it but I’m attracted to it. I can also enjoy riding for five hours on smooth roads. I even think I might enjoy doing a bit of downhill. At the end of the day, it’s about the two wheels, the pair of pedals and the handlebars. Everything that falls under this is cycling for me. I don't care what shape handlebars it is.
Is there a road cycling destination you love?
The French Alps, for sure. With all those famous climbs such as the one to Galibier via the Col du Telegraphe. First, you suffer 30 km uphill, you fight with yourself, you suffer, you swear you’ll never do this again, you feel like tossing the bike down a ravine. But then the view opens and you see a beautiful lake with clear water and blue sky above it. And then comes the reward of the long long descent. This is the kind of cycling I love best and would like to experience every year.
Have you ever had a serious bike accident?
I’ve had a few crashes but there are two that are worth mentioning. The first one happened when I was 14 or 15. I was with this bunch of lads and someone suggested we try and jump over a ditch. I was probably too scared to gather enough speed and ended up plunging my front wheel into the hole and flying off my bike face first. I only know the rest of the story from the accounts of my mates because I passed out on impact. I came to with my head in a sink full of blood and cold water. I got taken to a hospital in an ambulance but luckily I only suffered a concussion and a broken nose. My second accident happened in the services of Festka. Michael and I were being filmed riding on a track for a promotional video and we tried to propel each other forward as the racers do during Madison. A minor bike handling error knocked me off my bike and bang! Black! Another trip to a hospital. But you get up, dust your knees and climb on again.
In the hills of Abruzzo
We are talking just a few weeks after Festka's tenth birthday. What would you like to wish her in the future?
May it remain a fun project for all those involved. I know that the years of euphoria we experienced when we first started can’t come back. But the spirit continues and I want it to keep it going. The early years were totally up and down like a roller coaster ride. Looking at a newly completed bike knowing you managed it all yourselves was utter joy. The next minute you realise you are still broke. Then your bike wins a prize somewhere and the media everywhere write about you… But we’ve managed to clear all the obstacles thrown in our path for over ten years and we’ve stuck to the belief that you can strive to succeed and have fun at the same time. And it must stay that way.
And what would you like Festka to do for you?
I would like Festka to allow me a little more space for myself. I want her to mature to becoming a slightly more tolerant partner. So I can spend more time with my family… And, of course, the steel and titanium bikes in the garage.
written by: Jan Krofta
photo: Jan Krofta, Tom Hnida