The Fifty-One Story
As told by Aidan Duff
“When I was a pro I always got the latest and finest bicycles to ride, from the world’s biggest companies. They were great. But they were never quite what I wanted.
When I decided to create my own bicycles I had a clear and simple vision. I wanted to build unique machines, tailored to express the passion, the personality and the tastes of each individual rider.
It used to drive me crazy that I could never get a frame that looked the way I wanted it. I couldn’t even always get the colour I wanted. So I decided every one of my bicycles would be painted and finished by hand to its owner’s chosen design. Even the logos: no stickers.
But besides making it look good, tailoring a bicycle means allowing its rider to explore his or her full performance potential. And that’s only possible with the latest technology. So – of course – I had to offer the finest componentry, in whatever combination suited my customers best. And – of course – I had to apply the latest developments in the art and science of bike-fitting and frame geometry. But most of all, it had to be carbon.
There is a well-trodden path taken by many bicycle builders. I trod it too. I toured the biggest and most advanced manufacturing plants in the Far East, looking for a partner who could make carbon frames for me. They, and their bikes, were great. But they weren’t what I wanted.
They were making bikes for the whole world. But I wanted to make individual machines, for individual riders. And there is more to that than a bike fit, or a choice of componentry, or a unique paintjob.
So I decided to try a different path. I needed someone who was both a craftsman and a technician, who could provide a fusion of the deepest traditions of frame building with a detailed grasp of the intricate complexities of modern materials science.
I knew someone like that could only be found in Europe. And, after a long, exhaustive and sometimes frustrating search, finally, in a little workshop in southern Germany, I found him: Mauro Sannino, master frame builder. Mauro had absorbed everything the Italian bicycle industry could teach him about steel, and then dramatically reinvented himself as a master of the carbon frame. He was perfect. But, when I visited him, I was stunned by what I found. At 73, with no apprentice willing to pick up the mantle, Mauro had shuttered his workshop. Magnificent frame building machines stood idle under dustsheets. And then it dawned on me. No one else was tailoring individual bicycles for individual riders in the way I wanted, because no one had built an individual business to do it. That’s what Fifty-One had to be. And everything I needed to build Fifty-One was right there in Bavaria. All I had to do was pick it up and take it home to Ireland. So I did.
Now I’m building Fifty-One to be just the way I want it. No standard models, no ‘off-the-peg solutions’, no faceless, faraway partners. And that means I can build bikes just the way I want to: ultimate performance, optimal fit, immaculate design, with a flawless finish. And I’m doing it right here in Ireland.”
Aidan Duff – Founder & CEO
In 1995, as an aspiring pro cyclist, Aidan Duff moved to France without a word of the language or a penny to his name. He stayed for six years, riding principally for Jean-René Bernaudeau’s legendary Vendée U squad. He raced all over the world, and won stages of the Tour de Bretagne and Australia’s Herald Sun Tour. He was a regular fixture in the Irish national team, and took multiple Irish national titles.
Cycling is a unique sport, where it’s teams that compete, but individuals who win and lose. Every team has its designated winner. And the only way for the team to win is for every other member to sacrifice himself in the service of the one. So, when the team members receive their dossards, the leader’s always carries a number ending in ‘1’ – ‘11’, ’21, ‘31’ – a subtle sign to make him stand out from his team mates. First, but not among equals.
For over six decades of Tour de France history, dossard number ‘1’ – worn by the defending champion – was the most prized, and by far the most successful. But then, four times in nine years, the Tour de France was won by the rider wearing dossard number 51. And these were no ordinary Tours. Eddy Merckx rode to his first win, in his first Tour, in 1969. Merckx was absent in 1973 when outsider Luis Ocaña crushed the competition in both the mountains and the time trials, winning by over 15 minutes. Bernard Thévenet effectively ended the Merckx era, and took the Tour, with a dramatic attack on the Col d’Izoard on Bastille Day 1975.
1978 saw the arrival of a new era, as Bernard Hinault took the first of what would become five yellow jerseys. Four of the greatest stories, and the greatest champions, in Tour history.
Ever since, race number 51 has had a special mystique that sets its bearer apart. Awarding dossard 51 is a way for any race’s organiser to honour a special rider, a subtle sign to make him stand out from his colleagues.