Amidst the globalization of bike building, it seems harder to find builders who still payoff the old badge of true frame-building honour – ‘handmade in our own factory’. Reknowned Italian marque De Rosa continues to do things the ‘old fashioned’ way by a creating a number of his top end bikes in the tradition that made many Italian brands famous – building ‘em by hand in their own factory in Milan.
De Rosa make the Idol in house, and while not unique at this, it’s worth mention in a day and age where you not usually sure if you’re buying an Italian (or French, German, American, etc) product or simply the design service or logo. While several fantastic bikes are built over-overseas, the Idol is absolutely hand made Italian craftsmanship from nose to tail.
Click the thumbnail at top for the Big Bike view.
Actual shot of me and the Idol on the Zoncolan taken by a true tifoso. The sad part is I lost the email from the photographer before I had a chance to thank him… If you’re reading this – thank you very much!
I had the distinct ‘pleasure’ of riding the Idol on a few stages of this year’s Giro, including around, up, and over the brutally steep Zoncolan climb on the 17th stage. The bike’s sexy curved tubes, clean lines, and pearlescent finish attracted a lot of attention, and not only because I was one of very few spectators allowed on the closed upper sections of the climb (thank you press pass!), or because I was even able to pedal the bike on the 15-22% slopes (which handily offered ample time for fans to admire the bike). I was well-acquainted with my 34×25 climbing gear by the time I reached the top.
Good thing for me that going up was one thing this bike does well. It’s also pretty good at going down the other side, and keeping you comfortable through the whole ride. It’s a classic all-rounder that earned instant cred under the rejuvenated legs of Stefano Garzelli who won two stages that both involved some hard to serious climbing and attacking from the lead group.
But as much as I liked riding the Idol, the real kicker is that it rolls straight out of famed builder Ugo De Rosa’s Milan factory – every step of the build from cutting the proprietary spec’d raw carbon tubes and bonding them into frames, to ‘cooking’ the frames in their giant ovens, hand-finishing the joints and complete painting, to build-up and boxing for delivery – even quality control is done on their own testing rigs. There aren’t many brands who do all that and come with a 50 year (the half century is 2008) history in cycling.
• The Idol boasts some clean lines, curved as only Italians can, an integrated seatpost, and a finish that puts a new twist on painted carbon.
INSIDE THE FACTORY
The DeRosa factory is located on the outskirts of Milano, just off the A4 autostrada, in a non-descript industrial area. Like most places in that country, it’s hard to find unless you’ve been there, and although all the locals know where it is, they all have a different idea of how to get there. Even the sign is hard to see.
But this is consistent with the effort that goes into producing some of the most well-known Italian race bikes (some branded as De Rosa, some branded with ‘competitors’ badges) – little is wasted on fancy marketing or attention grabbing pr schemes – the true focus is building great bikes.
The factory is fronted by a retail space lined with De Rosa bikes and clothing, and when I arrived at 2:30, the lights were out and it seemed no one was home. Luckily the buzzer worked and I was soon greeted by Cristiano De Rosa himself – son of founder Ugo, and now in charge of the family business – where everyone, including Ugo himself still works.
The handbuilt carbon frames, including the Idol, are built in this atmospherically controlled room.
Cristiano is low key and obviously had lots on his mind (orders for the new Idols have been piling up), and entertaining a visiting journo was likely not the most important thing on his list, but he welcomed me graciously and led me through the storefront to the factory – which immediately struck me as a place where everyone I saw was damn serious about what they do.
Although Italy has recently joined the smart-list of countries who’ve banned smoking in most public places, the factory seemed to have that smoky, murky atmosphere I associate with a true craftsman’s workshop. This was my first time witnessing the creation of handbuilt carbon frames and I sensed the experience was about to impress.
Most surprising was the lack of high tech machinery I imagined was needed to build these frames. Inside a controlled atmosphere room (to keep the air clean and at a constant temperature), the custom built frames were being layed up and glued in precise fitting jigs. The process is a lot like frame welding without the flame…
• Tubes are cut to measure by hand, then glued into place in frame jigs.
The Idol is a tube-to-tube construction, where individual tubes are cut to measure, then glued together in a jig. Joints are then wrapped with thin sheets of carbon fibre ribbon. From here they’re literally baked in a giant oven at the back of the factory, bonding everything into one super-strong bike frame.
This Tube to tube construction is being used by several manufacturers, but it’s the extensive labor that makes the fact that it’s being done by De Rosa, in Italy even more special.
Tech Ed Charles Manantan Adds:
“The general benefit of tube to tube construction is that it can be a better (cleaner, leaner) build process than some companies are using for molded frames. To use a mold process usually means a shaped bladder inside the raw materials (carbon & resin) of a frame, and then the bladder is inflated, squeezing all the stuff in to place against the walls of the mould.
• Glue to all joints is applied by hand – even here in the bottom bracket.
The problem with some molding processes is the complexities of the joints. There are lots of aggressive corners as a mould looks to transition from tube to tube. While there are absolutely some very good, very light monocoque front triangles rolling out today, (Kuota’s KOM is a fantastic example) there are also a few others that simply can’t get the process detailed enough to squeeze the excess resin, air bubbles, etc from tight corners. (New ways to add pressure from the old “air blown” bladders now include liquids and even Silicone to try and up the pressure). It’s also a bit tougher to maintain perfect fiber direction and various wall thicknesses (however this is also a potential upside to molding when you get it right, as there isn’t much “fiber orientation’ differential in most tubes). Some lesser molding processes simply mean left over resin, air pockets and the use of more material to reinforce critical areas…
What tube to tube build brings is a very low waste, high strength process and, as you can see, it also requires a ton of skilled hands-on labor. It leaves very little excess resin and virtually no air pockets or voids. Tube to tube brings you bikes like the Scott CR1 (the pioneer of tube to tube), Cervelo’s R3, France’s Cyfac as well as other forms of tube to tube (lugged or partially lugged carbon) that bring you fantastic bikes like Parlee’s Z1sl. Again, there are some fantastic molded monocoques that bring low weight and high performance, but nobody should tell you that tube to tube isn’t making fantastic bikes or imply that simply having the word “monocoque” means the bike is better or worse.
Once the joints are bonded, they’re wrapped with thin, cut-to-measure pieces of this carbon fibre ribbon
In De Rosa’s case, we get to see a bit of a “next step” in tube to tube that I would fully expect from Italian design. Rather than the minimalist “stealth assassin” look engineered and manufactured in the far east, De Rosa have taken the time to bring style and are not afraid to add a few grams to ensure ride quality. It’s not particularly easy to take curvy-sexy (functionally) shaped tubes and place and miter them accurately in tube to tube construction. But it is particularly expected of De Rosa to do it well and by hand in-house (er… ‘casa’). While some of its tube to tube cousins are “brutally efficient”, it’s no particular surprise at all that De Rosa have chosen to go with “Beautifully efficient”…”
The Idol is offered in 6 stock sizes (at least one should work for most of us), but custom sized frames are also available, for an amazing price of only US $250 above normal retail, as long as you’re request is within reasonable parameters.
• The standard sized frames are molded in another DeRosa facility nearby, then mated to rear triangles and finished here. I gotta say, that seeing stacks of unfinished – and finished frames like these – never gets old.
ONTO THE BIKE
Like I said, this bike attracted a lot of attention – there’s no denying The De Rosa name is one of the most respected brands on the planet, but based on the reception this bike received on the roads of the Giro, the marque ranks up there somewhere near the Pope in the eyes of Italians.
It’s easy to see why – Ugo De Rosa has been building racing bikes for almost 50 years – (49 to to be exact), and the list of riders who’ve adorned his frames is awe inspiring: Geminiani, Van Looy, Nencini, Motta Merckx, Moser, Argentin, and many more.
The frame uses De Rosa’s ‘arc-slope’ design, with arched top tube and set stays that aid in soaking up the road buzz.
Aesthetically, the Idol is a combination of graceful curves and unusual but not overstated graphics. The top tube and seat stays form an arc that visually runs from the head tube to rear axle – it just looks like it’s gonna be a smooth ride. The oversized headtube, down tube, and tall profile chain stays put the mass where it’s needed to create a stiff, stable platform for every type of racing.
• Graphically, the carbon weave finish is left exposed as a strip running along the top of the main tubes, with the De Rosa and Idol labels knocked out of the paint to expose the carbon weave beneath – very nice.
• Unlike a lot of carbon models these days, the head tube is about as straight-forward a head tube as you can get – no fancy shapes added for aesthetics here. Its large diameter provides plenty of surface to anchor the top- and down tubes, while the clean lines work perfectly with the rest of the frame.
• The bottom bracket is not the biggest we’ve seen, but it keeps the bottom end stable without looking overbuilt or heavy. The taller section of the stays means an increased overall contact point and that helps bottom end stability
• The integrated seat tube looks exactly like it belongs on the bike – in keeping with the sweet lines of the Idol.
• The ‘arc-slope’ design runs from the top tube through the seat stays. Both sets of stays are wish-bone shaped.
• Nothing like a row of fresh frames lined up to show off the sexy curves of the rear stays.
• The seatpost adjusts up and down (up to 2 cm) by that single bolt in the back of the seat tube, while saddle clamping is handled by a head-scratch inducing two-bolt system that requires both an allen key and a 10mm spanner to access the hard to reach front adjuster – definitely not made for on the fly adjustments. The saddle is Fizik’s famous Aliante – a nice choice for riders who like a curved (vs. flat) saddle platform.
• My test bike was built up with full 2007 Campagnolo Record gruppo – shifters, derailleurs, crankset (compact 50/34), and Euros wheels. Everything worked flawlessy, as you’d expect from Campag, and I really liked the Euros’ feel in a variety of conditions that ranged from torrential downpour to the hardest climbing efforts I’ve done, to 15km twisting mountain descents. They were light enough at 1550 grams (claimed for the set) and plenty stable for my 140lb mass.
• Cristiano has a lot to smile about – Stefano Garzelli was winning Giro stages on the new bike, and orders were straining the factory.
Team Acqua&Sapone race bikes in Bergamo at the ’07 Giro.
Overall I really liked the ride of this bike – it carries it’s weigh very low in the frame meaning it felt lighter than I’d expected for an 1100gram frame (claimed weight), never flexed in any way that concerned me, and offered up a ride quality that lasted me comfortably on my 6 hour epic on stage 17. And it’s that comfort and the sexy curves that are generally not a part of tube to tube design.
My test bike was one size too big (and you guys know how particular we are on size and fit), so my true evaluation of the ride quality is limited, but even so, I still enjoyed riding the Idol and would consider it worthy of ownership. Head and seattube angles vary by frame size, but the bike handles like a classic Italian racer – quick handling but stable, and built for all types of fast riding.
I spent a good 3-4 hours of climbing on this bike – notably in the rain on the 26km Passo San Marco into Bergamo, and then the 10km Monte Zoncolan with its middle 5km at over 15% average… ugh. I thought this bike was an excellent climber – it accelerated fast and I never felt like I was fighting the bike, no matter how steep the pitch.
The ride quality was superb. For me it was stiff enough that even standing and forcing the pedals to turn over on 22% pitches – I never felt anything flex unexpectedly. Even the Campy wheels refused to rub the brake pads on those insane slopes. I found the comfort level really high for a race bike worthy of Stefano Garzelli and the Acqua & Sapone team to ride through the Giro.
US distributor TrialTir reports the Idol is their best selling bike in ’07, and demand has not slowed. And although they do offer custom for a pretty sweet price, be ready to wait the full 8-10 week (or longer) for delivery.
• Price: US $3500 Frame/fork/seatpost/headset
• Custom: add $250, 8-10 weeks delivery