Italian Thoroughbred, Hand Built with Care in China

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While walking about town, one of my favorite things to do is to puruse the commuter bikes locked up outside stores and study some of the gems being ridden around.  Sometimes, I come across a really special bike, and marvel at the notion that the bike’s owner might not have any idea what piece of history they’re riding.  For example, I saw an old Vitus, decked out in 7-speed Dura-Ace, beat up and locked up to a lamppost in Ballard yesterday, it’s owner no-doubt unaware that Sean Kelly taught the world the upper limit of the word Hardman aboard that same bike. Then there was the Concorde painted up in PDM colors, which to my knowledge was never available in the States, so I can only marvel at how that awesome piece  found it’s way to be locked up outside a cupcake bakery (also in Ballard).

This past Friday night, I was walking by Prost on my way home from the local market when a full-carbon Bottecchia caught my eye.  This was obviously not a commuter bike, this was a full-fledged race bike complete with the Dura-Ace 7900 groupo.   Had this been a steel steed – like the Vitus – it would have occupied a completely different place in my mind, but I was surprised to find almost nothing interesting about this machine, despite the considerable significance of the name it bore on it’s downtube.

It got me wondering what it is about the old, handmade frames that captures my imagination so.  Am I little more than a hopeless romantic, trying in vain to recapture the appeal cycling had when I was a younger lad?  Am I the Jack White of cycling, trying to get on with Rule #5 and pretend technology does little to make us better cyclists and instead just makes everything too easy?  As much as I’d like to think that’s the case, I also know that I would never give up any of my 10 cogs, brake-mounted shifters, deep-section rims, and stiff frame.   The undeniable fact is that when it comes down to my Number One Bike, it’s Rule #43 all the way.  Besides, Rule #10 implies that all that stuff doesn’t make riding a bike easier, it just makes us go faster.

I think the bottom line is that as more and more bicycle companies outsource their manufacturing operations to countries like China and Taiwan, the allure of the “hand-built bicycle” diminishes.  My steel and aluminum Bianchis were hand-built in Italy, by an Italian framebuilder who cut the tubes, placed them in a jig, and welded them – making little mistakes along the way.  Each of those bikes are completely unique and have a different ride quality from every other bike in the world; that’s the magic of “hand made”.  The very top-end carbon frames still have this same quality to them since the sheets of fiber are laid into the mold by hand and, even though they’re built in Asia, the frames are all still slightly different from one another and you can still sense the human intervention in the assembly line when you study the frame.

But what of the the companies who know and care little for carbon and have turned to producing frames made of it purely to satisfy market demand?  In this case, what does Bottecchia know of engineering a frame not made of tubes, but of fibers?  These companies excelled at picking steel tubesets and identifying ideal geometries through experimentation, not engineering.   To them, frame building was an art form, not a science. Seeing this carbon bike in front of Prost, the first place my mind jumped to was the stories of factories in China that produce identical frames for countless bands, each differing only in the address on the shipping labels.

I suppose that’s why those old bikes laying in dusty piles in the forgotten corners of good bike shops or leaning up against a downtown lamppost hold such intrigue; each are a work of art, with their own history hidden inside their tubes waiting to be retold.

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32 Replies to “Italian Thoroughbred, Hand Built with Care in China”

  1. Perhaps it’s all about where you are in life. When you’re a kid, exotic equipment is exotic because it is far out of reach and is a dream. By the time you can afford that dream technology has moved on and if you are racing you are sucked into to getting the most performance for your dollar. Dreams become irrelevant because you also realise that you get pretty good preformance out of OK kit and that dreaming is for kids. You have club-ride races to win. Style only becomes relevant again when you go “beyond racing” and are able to appreciate the finer points of the sport again, hence the rose-tinted romantic flash-backs. A bit like acid really, it was never that good.

  2. Vitus’ were aluminum, not steel. I never knew how Sean Kelly could ride one of those things as strong as he was. Those frames flexed so much they would nearly shift gears on their own grunting up a hill. They were beautiful to look at though, with the anodized tubes in an array of great colors. Anyway, just wanted to correct the steel Vitus comment.

  3. Frank, you have crumpled my Garzelli Bottechia dreams. But you are right, the name Bottechia does not quite conjure up the funky Italian frameshop of old.

    My old Peugeot was in theory a top of the line steel bike but I know it was built by some disgruntled existential French factory worker, cigarette hanging off the corner of his mouth, trying to braze one more frame up before he could get out the door and head for the cafe. Maybe Bernard Thevenet received the same model build with all the attention to detail the French could muster but I didn’t. What is my point? I’m not sure but I’m glad I’m not riding that bike anymore.

  4. There’s a guy in my town who I would love to call a retro-grouch, but it would be a clear disservice to him.

    He HTFU’s in like three weeks; from being at the end of the pack to chasing you on the climbs. He is not human.

    His bikes? a six speed, fendered Peugeot with 34c tires, and a seven speed basso with white C-Record campy non-aero brake levers. These things weigh from the mid-twenties to… I’d like to say 30lbs for the Peugeot.

    He squashes our hopes and envy for getting a new bike, because he still whips our ass on the downhills, the climbs, and even outsprints us on the flats. We’re not talking about someone in their mid-thirties…. This guy is going on 50. he disgraces us all.

    …All while I have my wonderful 6.9kg carbon/plastic frame that I got on ebay from Hong Kong out of the back door of some factory. His abilities just re-emphasize to me that it is all about comfort and fitting… Ride quality goes along with that at #2. Weight and looks are cute, but are nowhere near as important after seeing a guy like this.

    A Bianchi, or a Gios still have a place in my heart, but boy oh boy price and fit just overtake my emotions all too often…

  5. @James
    Right you are, I certainly didn’t intend to imply this was steel; it was that stunning purple anodized aluminum with lugs. Amazing! They also built a carbon one, which Steven Hodge says was soft as well. Apparently, it was stiff at first and softened up quickly, so Vitus gave Kelly a new frame for each race. Sounds like a spendy sponsorship program…

  6. Yup – welcome to the new world. Production bikes, are in a way, becoming a commodity with most frames made by a few factories in China and Taiwan. You have places like Trek and Specialized who design their own stuff, then outsource the manufacturing to Asia – even for the higher end stuff (I think the Madone is still made in the US).

    For mid-priced and lower end stuff found on the bike shop floor, it’s all fairly generic – no? Just paint and stickers. There is some truth to that – I think.

    I give Giant a lot of credit. They design and manufacture all their own stuff – even the carbon. They also build frames for other companies as well. Pretty cool for a production bike based company.

    In a sense, it was Schwinn who helped kick start Giant in the ’80s, when they outsourced their frames to Giant. Now look who’s where. The Schwinn name has been resold so many times, who can keep count. They also make lots of cheap, crap bikes now as well. A shame. An interesting book to read, “No Hands – The Rise and Fall of Schwinn” (I think that’s the title). Story of the collapse of the original Schwinn. Worth a read. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry.

    As far as carbon fiber frames, Taiwan and now China are now the experts with this and at low cost as well. I’ve read that many carbon high end frames from Italy and Spain (Orbea) are actually made in Asia, then “finished” in their native countries – complete with “Made in Italy” or “Made in Spain” stickers. Are those frames crap? No. But there’s something misleading about this. When you buy something with “Made in Italy” plastered on it, you’re also buying into the culture and history – perceived or not.

    My two main road bikes are from Ibis. One is a ’97 Hakkalugi – steel, made in California by the old school Ibis company. My other, a ’07 Silk Carbon – carbon fiber, made in China and designed by the new school Ibis company. Which one is cooler to old school me – the old Ibis. Which one rides better – the new Ibis. No contest. Just the way it is. When I heard Ibis was coming back, I wanted to poo poo the whole thing – plastic bikes from China. No thanks. A few test rides convinced me otherwise, as well as Scot Nicol still being with the company. Take a look at a Ibis Mojo carbon mountain bike – tell me it’s not trick as hell. Yes, made in China.

    There’s some perception that the Asia bikes are crap – and I believed this as well – ’cause years ago, they were crap. No longer the case. Even the cheaper Asia frames are nicer then most old school, old world frames – at least in ride quality and construction. They also make it easy. Design something and they’ll construct it well for reasonable cost.

    However, lame to stick an older brand name with old school history on a cheap generic frame? Yes. Without a doubt. That is lame.

    Still, is something being lost with outsourcing? Yes, for sure. Until it somehow becomes cheaper to make frames in the US (or Italy, etc) again – that’s the way it is. Years past, I worked for two manufacturing companies (as IT Guy) that moved production to China. The manufacturing area now turned into a warehouse. There’s a trade off for lower prices. It also strips some of the culture and history from a company.

    The cool thing is – for bikes anyway – you can still get a custom frame from many builders. Actually talk to the dude who welds up your frame. There’s still a super cool factor to this – though big bucks. I’m a big fan of this type of scene. As production bikes become more generic, it opens up opportunity for custom builders or small volume production shops to fill that void.

    I’m rambling here, ’cause I find this topic – outsourcing, as well branding, and the bike industry itself fascinating.

    Whatever the hell you ride – the point it is – just ride the hell out of it.

  7. Ahh…let us eulogise the world of fine Italian steel for a moment. The crisp, chromed lugs, the pantographing, the myriad of mysterious, different Columbus tubesets. Square section rims on real Campag hubs…I love them all. Show me a 55cm, steel Somec frame, I’ll show you my wallet, everytime.

    Although in reality, I’ll confess to shoving all new Ultegra and RS80s on my old Colnago master because…let’s face it, that shit actually WORKS.

  8. @john
    On the other hand, I have always harbored a love that dare not speak it’s name for an old Look frame; like the ones Hinault and Lemond beat each other to shit with. Those French, while disgruntled and more interested in Pastis than brazing, sure had their time.

    But, it seems to me that those Peugots were always trouble. We had one in the family that my brother crashed time and again. We called it Cujo, it seemed to make everyone who rode it crash, that bastard. Speaking of which, I’m headed over to the Lexicon to add Cujo to the list…

    BTW, the Bottecchia that Garzelli is riding is a work of art; the one I saw was clearly a Chinese Factory Creation, not the beautiful piece of craftsmanship I’m sure that boy is riding.

  9. @Dan O
    Wow, well said. There’s enough information in there to go a long, long way. What it comes down to is Eddy Merckx’s famous quote, “Ride as much or as little, or as long or as short as you feel. But ride.”

    Not to mention another gem, “Don’t buy upgrades; ride up grades.”, also Eddy Merckx.

    Outsourcing is very interesting; it makes lots of financial sense, and quite honestly, the Chinese have it down to an art in terms of quality control – but as you say, it loses a certain je ne c’est quoi. In my work, I’ve also dealt extensively with outsourcing and one thing I can say about it is that no matter how good the team doing the work offshore is, the quality of the product depends greatly on the the leadership onshore; a good design and well engineered process initiated from the source will produce a better product every time. Outsourcing in no sense implied poor quality in my mind – it still comes down to whoever designed the frame.

    It just so happens that I felt in my gut that with that particular Bottecchia had been designed and built in China with little influence from the Italian namesake.

  10. @Joe
    Beautifully said as well. I almost heard a trumpet in the background, playing a somber tone, as I read your post. The real classics are still building the gems like your Colnago, like this Bianchi, which is part of their 2010 offering – complete with chromed lugs:

    There’s a great piece in the latest Rouleur on Columbus; in the late 1990’s, they were drawing around two million tubes per year; in the mid 2000’s, they drew two hundred, but production is back up. But that’s another story for another time, suffice it to say that in the meantime, steel productions has been outsourced as well so that’s posing it’s own set of challenges.

  11. @Frank

    The Bianchi you pictured – steel with chrome lugs – looks damn simliar to a bike Kona had out, though made in Taiwan:

    Another website I often visit pointed this out a few years ago. They do look pretty similar, don’t know if it truly is the same frame. If so, also supports the suspicion that “Made in Italy” is not always what it appears to be.

    Spend a few hours Googling “where frames are made” and you’ll find some interesting stuff. A few months back, I spent a fair amount of time researching such matters for a business idea. With no capital, it will remain just an idea.

    My view on production bikes has changed quite a bit over the last few years – for the better and worse. Better as in quality stuff for low prices. Worse as in the mystery of where it’s made or how. Bike companies don’t exactly advertise that fact.

    In the end, if I had unlimited dough, I’d still go for a full custom steel bike – made in the USA by a small builder. Old school roots die hard.

  12. frank :@wvcycling
    Who is this mysterious man? Hey, Rob – have you secretly been riding in West Virginia?

    I wish – love them thar hills and WV I want to meet the dude.

    Love that Bianchi but here are the old Raleighs:

  13. @Dan O
    You can post images in-line when you are logged in, which means you have to register an account (free, of course). This whole image-posting thing is a hassle; we have a customized installation of WordPress that we’re using for our site, and I’m working on finding ways around the software’s habit of cleaning out HTML code when a user is not registered and logged in. For now, the best thing to do is to either (a) log in and then post images, or (b) just post links to images and I’ll go through and update your comment to show the image in-line. (For example, I just snabbed that pic off your site and posted it).

    One of these days, we’ll get this working a little better.

    In the meantime, this works, and sweet bike!

  14. @Rob
    Rob, those are breathtaking bikes. Love the paint scheme on the fixie! Love the classic-drop bars; contemplating a switch to that myself. No Benotto tape?

  15. @Rob,
    The Raleigh track bike is absolutely lovely!

    Here’s my old warhorse, just rebuilt with new bits – a delightful melange to ride. I’ll have to beg your indulgence for the pedals, they are in contravention of numerous rules but were all I had around when I put it back together….

  16. Many thanks, they are my stable (of big boy bikes the fixie folder is for travel) and I love them and have done for a long time now. A friend did work (and used the track bike for a while) and he was responsible for the tape. Since John posted the Benotto site I am itching to get some and change them both. And why have anything else for bars? Or for a bike for that matter? Yea, Ok if one was racing…

    And yes that classic TI Team Raleigh is the best! Thoughts of Raas, Zoetemelk…

  17. @Joe
    That is one mighty fine steed. The old, classic Flite and steel straight-blade fork…I have visions of Rominger. The chrome lugs, oh dear me!!

    Speaking of which, one of my all-time favorite bikes, which I sadly never laid a hand on, was the Colnago Bi-Tubo. What an example of 90’s innovation! Show me that frame in a 60cm and I’ll show you my wallet.

  18. frank :@wvcycling
    Who is this mysterious man? Hey, Rob – have you secretly been riding in West Virginia?

    His name is Barry Miller. He raced through the 70’s to 80’s, and worked in well known bike shops during this time also. While in Harvard, MA; California, and Nashville, TN he saw the MTN bike explosion happen, has a Fat Chance Cycles MTN Bike with no suspension, just a Girvin Flexstem. He kills us on the trails.

    He can recall PRO races from the 80’s with no problem, relating Sean Kelly and Hinault to today’s heroes.

    I think I have footage:

  19. @wvcycling
    Wow, mate. That guy is hard core. I love the old steel hardtails. It seems to me all the evolution is mountain bike technology since 1992 has gone into going downhill and neglects going uphill. Me? I am all about technical single track and steep climbs; I am riding a 1992 Bridgestone MB-0 with a Softride stem and Thudbuster seatpost. You may laugh, but that stuff works really, really well, and my bike is only about 17 pounds.

  20. @WVCycling:

    The Fat Chance bikes were damn cool. I was a huge fan “back in the day” and still own two of ’em:


    You need to demo some new mountain bikes. They go up and down hills pretty damn well, even with 5 inches of suspension front and rear. Hardtails are fun though and I’ve switched back. I’m digging my new 29er hardtail:

    Also, dude – not sure about a 17 pound Zip, unless you’ve pumped the frame tubes with helium. Those bikes weighed 23 pounds stock. I know this ’cause I owned one. Your exact Zip as a matter of fact (!) :

    Great post and responses. Fun stuff.

  21. @Joe
    Hmmmmmmm, oh yes Joe, that is one fine-ass Colnago. That is the fork that sent me on a straight fork blade course for the rest of my life. I fondled a carbon/plastic Colnago in a shop and it left me cold but this frame/fork combo is the real thing. And years back a friend had a Ti bi-tubo, twin down tubes, very strange frame, it’s the only one I’ve ever seen. Is this the workhorse you ride all over Southern England and leave outside of pubs?

  22. @Dan O
    It was a nice trip down memory lane to see the Fat Chance. Early on (can’t remember the year) Chris Chance was nice enough to let me use one in an experiment to see if it might give an advantage going up Mt. Washington. I was not fit that year (I think big John was with me) and the hope was these new fangled mountain bikes would give some sort of advantage! I remember a time like 1 1/2 hours, nope it was a great bike but it did not hill climb like the above Raleigh 753 (1 hr. 5 mins). The really fun part was they still let you ride down so the Fat Chance was worth lugging up cause the 8 miles down was a blast. Maybe they stopped the riding down because the old ladies might have complained about being passed by bikes going 45+mph?

  23. @Dan O
    I’ll try a few out – interested in the 29er thing for sure, but I’m just too in love with your old Zip.

    The Zips actually weighed 19 pounds stock, but even with that, you’re right about it not being 17 pounds. I must have used the same scale I use to weigh myself to get that number (I use a “happy scale”). I think it’s more like 20-21 as-is. Those original handlbars and saddles were made of lead. I put a carbon bar on there and had to tie the front wheel to the ground to keep the front end grounded..

  24. @Rob
    And the Legend of Rob thickens. Jesus Christ. You knew Chris Chance? You rode the climb in 1hr 5min? Even today, that would have you in the top ten.

  25. @frank
    I believe Rob rode to 2nd place on the stripped down Raleigh that year. Oh, he was peaking. He suffered much less than Gianni who suffered like jesus on the cross on that horrid climb. Not a place for Big Pussies.

  26. Anyway, getting back to where all this started off … outstanding photo, Frank. (Love the guy in the background holding his drink bottles in the air, ensuring it’s not just the four show ponies on the front preserved for posterity.) What are the details?

  27. @Geof

    (Love the guy in the background holding his drink bottles in the air, …

    Its they determined face on guy in the drops for me ..
    Really – what are the details?

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