Know your precedents. Know the artists that came before you, those that made it possible for you to be here today. Or rather, know your place in history might be a more general way of expressing it. I went to an art school where this thinking quietly framed every experience. This thinking can be applied to other situations and be equally insightful. Take the bike industry. Knowing its history is an excellent way to understand its present trajectory, especially considering its fundamental (and physical) shift in the last 20 years.
Dedacciai (pronounced: dead uh CHAI, more or less) is an exceptional specimen. If you are into 90′s bikes like I am, then you know Dedacciai. Their tubes were used to make TIG welded steel bikes for Indurain and the Banesto boys, then aluminum for Telekom and Ullrich, then Pantani’s hydroformed Bianchis and continued into this decade with magnesium frames powered by Bartoli and Petacchi at Fassa Bortolo. By my rough calculations, that’s a ton of palmares including a nice haul of Tours and Giros. Dedacciai dominated the 90′s. And despite all of this, the company has a pretty low profile in North America.
It was only a matter of time before I would take a trip to Campagnola Cremasca, a bit southeast of Milan, to visit Dedacciai. It started with an email that I left through their website asking if they would be interested. Italian Sales Manager, Daniele Arosio, called me back within an hour. Repeat: WITHIN AN HOUR! This does not happen in Italy, I’ve been living here more that 12 years and such responsiveness is unprecedented. We chatted a bit and he said that he’d get back to me after talking with the owners. Then Daniele called me back THAT AFTERNOON to confirm an appointment. OK, maybe I’m a bit jaded, but this simply does not happen in Italy. Dedacciai was earning serious bonus points in my story before we even met.
It was a Tuesday morning in early October, with dark rain clouds promising a crappy day, that I drove south from Bolzano to Verona, then headed west towards Milan. Once past Verona, the landscape dramatically flattens. Also the views feature lots of industrial sprawl. This is the part of Italy that works hard, supports the Lega Nord (a right wing political party) and has lots more factories than picturesque medieval hill towns. Approaching Brescia, it was time to exit the freeway (that’s anything but free) and head southwest for almost an hour through a decidedly prettier landscape with small towns and people sitting on steps watching the traffic pass. Odd place for a factory. The sun came out in patches, illuminating dark brown fields, fresh with manure. Hypnotizing, really. So much so that I drove right past the Dedacciai factory and into the next town where I asked a local for directions. Back that way? Got it, thanks.
Andrea Invernizzi (we’ll meet him later) standing in front of The Old Black and White Photos
Starting In The Waiting Room
The small waiting room provided a brief introduction to Dedacciai’s history. There were a couple of black and white scratchy photos from the turn of the century featuring sooty workers. Funny how they seemed to be staring right through the camera’s lens, seeing into this waiting room. Dedacciai tracing its roots back to steel factories in the early 1900′s? Strange, I thought it was a relatively young company. The other framed things on the walls were technical drawings and patents and testing data for tubes, steel tubes. And one document had a bike frame decal on it labeled Dedalo. The first person to greet me was Luca Locatelli with a big handshake and a winning smile. His carefully tussled hair made him look younger than he probably was, a healthy complexion pointed to an active and (quite possibly) privileged lifestyle. But just like that, he was gone and I didn’t see him for the rest of my visit to confirm my hasty first impression.
Daniele, aka Mr. Call-back, was out visiting clients, so I would be guided by Max Gatti (Max Cats, Americanized), Dedacciai’s International Sales Manager. Even though he’d only been with the company for six months, Max knew his stuff. His last job was in sales at a fashion magazine, Max noted that, “the fashion industry and the cycling one are actually quite similar.” Probably more so than we’d like to admit, I added. The tour started with those black and white photos. Dedacciai is completely owned in equal shares by brothers Stefano (responsible for engineering) and Luca (responsible for marketing and sales) Locatelli and their mother. It turns out that they are part of the Colombo family, their grandfather was Martino Colombo, a founding partner in the legendary A.L. COLOMBO company, the first to draw steel tubing in Italy . So logically, Dedacciai had chosen to trace its origins to steel production 100 years ago.
Now Dedacciai’s history leaps to 1992. Luca Locatelli, who had been working in sales and marketing for Columbus, decided to start his own company and wrangled in his younger brother, Stefano, freshly graduated with a degree in nuclear engineering. It was briefly called Dedalo – the “DE” was some guy and the “DA” was another and the “LO” stood for Locatelli. In an interesting and ironic naming twist, the business was renamed Dedacciai (acciai means steels), even though the “LO’s” are the only ones that have remained with the business.
Nuclear Engineer, Stefano Locatelli
The Big Deal in racing bikes in the early 90′s was TIG welded steel. The greatest benefit of constructing a bike without lugs, aside from being lighter, was that it liberated builders. It allowed them to make frames with all kinds of custom angles, which gave birth to compact or sloping geometry – nowadays nearly all frames utilize this geometry. Also tube makers could innovate with non traditional diameters and shapes. Dedacciai capitalized on this opportunity to quickly offer the market a pioneering product. Thanks to Luca’s marketing touch, they had an advantage in working with Pinarello (that was working with Dario Pegoretti, who was secretly making half the bikes raced in the Pro Tour). Their collaboration would yield the Dynalite and then Radius tubesets that Miguel Indurain would pilot to fame. Dedacciai’s success was immediate.
TIG welding allowed for funky shaped tubes and geometries, like on this Pinarello Radius made from Dedacciai’s tubes
Hindsight is 20/20 and in this case it is interesting to speculate about Dedacciai’s timing. In the early 90’s, bikes were already being raced in everything from steel to carbon fiber. Though steel was still King, its preeminence was being challenged. Why didn’t the Locatellis start Dedaluminio or Dedacarbonio instead? Stefano Locatelli answered, “because in 1992, steel was the best technical choice for bike frames.” He continued, explaining their philosophy that guides Dedacciai even today, “since we focus on supplying tubing to companies that build bikes, we listen to their requests, but then take our time to determine whether we can make a better product that offers advantages in weight, performance, reliability and ease of construction before committing to the investment.”
In The Factory
Max and I passed through a few offices and entered into the factory space where we were greeted by two rows of carbon fiber frames on display stands. Now might be a good time to clear up Dedacciai’s corporate structure. While they started out entirely supplying tubing to the bicycle industry, as the Italian bike boom declined Dedacciai branched out into other markets that require specialized, light, strong tubes. Today, the company is divided into two parts: industrial and the other… let’s call bikes. The industrial part offers tubing and metal work for health care, fitness, home furnishings, automotive and other sectors and accounts for 60% of their business. Within the remaining 40% bike part, half of it is supplying steel, aluminum, titanium and carbon fiber tubing to manufacturers. The remaining 20% consists of selling bike frames either under their own Dedacciai Strada brand (established in 2009) or as OEM frames. All carbon fiber work, including forks and their newly introduced wheelset are made in Asia. Deda Elementi, the company that sells stems, handlebars, seatposts and so on is another legally separate company, formed in 1999, yet owned by the same shareholders (Luca, Stefano and Mother Locatelli, more about this later).
Max Gatti with Dedacciai Strada’s offerings
My first misconception and letdown was that Dedacciai does not take raw chunks of metal and draw their own tubes. They come in straight gauges from Germany, Italy and China, though they are made according to Dedacciai’s recipes or chosen for specific applications. The tubes are designed and tested and formed and manipulated and butted and treated and cut here in Campagnola Cremasca. Which is certainly Something, but not Everything. Ok, I soon got over that disappointment pretty quick. Then came my next one: the part that I was most interested in about Dedacciai accounts for only 20% of their business. “The days where Bianchi or Raleigh manufactured thousands of bikes every day on European soil are long gone and they’re never coming back,” I was told later in the day.
I kinda knew that, but I somehow imagined that it would be bigger and louder and hotter here. Though there was plenty of space and lots of machines, most of them remained idle. Accordingly, there are only seven guys on the Dedacciai factory floor together with a couple of engineers and product designers. If you add up everyone, including sales and secretaries, you’re still well under 15 for the whole company [note: De Rosa is another company that employs about the same number, yet seems larger]. And today was especially quiet because their hydroforming machine was down and the Boss, in person, was fixing it. So I wasn’t going to get a lot of time with the Ingeniere Stefano. But what I did get was plenty (and a follow-up telephone interview).
Dedacciai let me go wherever I wanted, ask whatever I wanted and photograph anything I wanted. Their surprising responsiveness was now matched by their surprising transparency. There were a few guys working on stuff. One guy was inspecting Asian frames, inserting headsets and cable guides and re-packaging them for shipment. Another worker was cutting tubing. A third one was doing finishing work on aluminum bottle cages shaped like the company’s logo. Mighty cool things. And another guy was cleaning up – keeping the factory tidy is always a good sign.
This guy was polishing up some bottle cages
Polished cages ready for paint
History Lesson, Part 2
Now let’s get back to our history lesson. Dedacciai was not given a lot of time to bask in the glow of success with their steel tubes, because by the mid 90′s the bike world wanted aluminum. Lighter, stiffer and newer. Dedacciai was late entering the market because they were not convinced that the 6000 series aluminum was suitable for frames, despite requests from customers. Only after the 7000 series was introduced did they create a tubeset. In fact, Dedacciai went a step further and developed and manufactured a hydroforming process that pushed aluminum tubes into whatever shapes customers desired.
A selection of hydroformed tubes
By the early part of this decade, Dedacciai had “figured out” magnesium. Though it is lighter and stronger than aluminum, it’s a tricky material because it corrodes easily and is flammable. Immediately, Pinarello took advantage of this unique tubeset (and their exclusive rights to it) for the Dogma frame which won the 2006 Tour de France. This will most likely be the last metal frame to win that race… unless the bike world dramatically reverses its course.
The last metal frame to win the Tour?
Lunch with Max and Andrea
Joining Max and me for lunch was Andrea Invernizzi. I’d call Andrea the Newer Things Engineer at Dedacciai, while Stefano is in charge of the metal ones. Andrea turns others’ ideas and designs into products, usually in carbon fiber and all made in the Far East. You can tell that he’s got lots of frequent flyer miles. Andrea is a big guy, easily 190cm tall and 85 kilos, with that gentle giant demeanor. One of his responsibilities is to test things (oh those poor things), “I try to break stuff,” he said flashing a child-like smile. Like everyone else at Dedacciai, Andrea was completely open about everything. I asked a bunch of technical questions and got direct answers. Andrea explained that some of their ideas like a crankset, just didn’t work out. Honesty in the bike industry is pretty rare and quite refreshing. The boys, trying to maintain their fitness, ate light lunches, while mine suffered a larger meal and some minor pangs of guilt.
After lunch, I went to visit Deda Elementi – they do stems, handlebars and other components. They are located in another building, less than 100 meters away from Dedacciai. Deda Elementi is inseparable from its Managing Director, Fulvio Acquati. Fulvio is a Character, as my mother would say. In fact, he has now been added to my list of Cycling Luminaries That I Would Most Like To Dine With, or CLTIWMLTDW for short, others include Pegoretti and Balduzzi. For the first 15 minutes, Fulvio actually interviewed me until sufficiently satisfied that I was passionate enough about cycling for the tables to be turned, “because it’s passion that sustains us in this industry,” he noted. Quite true, indeed. Accordingly, we exchanged places and I was made to sit in his big chair behind the big desk.
Fulvio worked at Cinelli in the 80′s, Campagnolo in the early 90′s and then Bianchi before helping the Locatellis launch Deda Elementi in 1999. Once again, they garnered immediate success with their Newton stem and anatomical handlebars. These featured innovations like titanium bolts, computer controlled machining, and most importantly, oversized diameters (26mm was no longer stiff enough, the world needed 31.7 clamping). The Newton was developed with and for Lance and the US Postal team. Since they won a few races with this stuff, the bike world noticed. Then, of course, everyone had to have oversized and anatomical bars. Deda was propelled into the role of leader.
This stem was a Game Changer and it immediately put Deda in charge
It is quite ironic that while Deda Elementi (in small part) aided and (in great part) profited from The Lance Effect, Dedacciai and the rest of the Italian bicycle industry would be ushered into decline. Although there were several factors, a significant one was the market’s acceptance and demand for monococque carbon fiber frames which are labor intensive, or rather, unskilled labor intensive. Though probably inevitable, we would not have been so quick to adopt this technology if a certain Texan had not won seven Tours with it – or at least crossed the line first with it.
The need for unskilled, cheap labor combined with timely advances in technology facilitated the bike industry’s transfer to the Far East. As Dedacciai was founded at the right moment, taking advantage of the shift from lugged steel, Deda Elementi was also an opportunity created just in time for this new market order. Their directive: design innovative products and then find the best partner to manufacture them, whether they be in Italy or Taiwan. This was fairly revolutionary thinking back in 1999.
Remember, Dedacciai only offers a product if they can add value to a customer’s demand, as Stefano noted, “the greatest benefits from carbon fiber are in monococque construction, so we went looking for a manufacturer with this expertise and found them in Taiwan. First we started with forks and then tubes and then whole frames.” Fulvio clarified, “this is the reality of today’s industry, bicycle components are labor intensive. But it’s not only a cost issue, by now the quality of Asian manufacturing is undeniable.” Andrea also confirmed this assessment, “nowadays, you can get exactly what you want in China – assuming one selects their subcontractors carefully.” The corollary to this point is perhaps even more interesting: now, any company offering inferior products has most likely chosen to do so. Finally, Max drew perhaps the most damning picture of the situation, “some of our frames are painted in China and some of them are painted here in Italy. And the ones from China are better.” Really, why? “Because they want our business, they try harder while the Italians tend to be a bit more careless.”
The Future of Dedacciai
The year 1999 marked the high point for Dedacciai in terms of selling tubing to bicycle manufacturers, the romantic part of their business that Stefano and I care about most. He calculated that it would roughly equate to 140,000 frames, whereas today’s output totals around 30.000 to 35,000. Hey, that’s not bad, especially considering that it is all high end tubing, no longer entry or mid range stuff. After the 90′s boom ended, most Italian bike companies either folded or moved production abroad, or at least their bread-n-butter entry and mid ranges. However, Dedacciai focused on finding new markets and applications for their light, high performance tubes and manufacturing. Supplying industries like fitness and healthcare has even allowed them to expand and hire additional workers.
These Dedacciai titanium chain stays are the most elegant you’ll find anywhere – it’s not easy to work these tubes into these shapes
This year they are adding another hydroforming machine and are gambling on the market to grow. The Dedacciai Strada brand of frames is doing well and this year’s catalogue includes Italian made frames in titanium and (coming soon) in aluminum. Even though all signs indicate that Dedacciai is doing well, it’s just a different kind of success than before. It’s really quite simple in cycling because we measure a manufacturer’s success by their racing success. Look no further than this very same article. We can say that Dedacciai dominated the 90′s because the teams that used bikes made with their tubes won a lot of races. Obviously, you need capable products, but you also need victories.
Dedacciai Strada’s newest offering, the RAN builds up quite nicely, well under the UCI limit
Before leaving, Fulvio gave me a book that he knew I’d like. It’s Guido P. Rubino’s “Italian Racing Bicycles” and it profiles 40 historic brands, including Dedacciai and Deda Elementi, with lots of color photos and some PR spin (PEZ reviewed it: here). The coffee table book contains highlights from Italy’s cycling past and then attempts to tie these legends to a dazzling present and promising future. Yet, the most important question is: how can Italy survive Asia’s dominance? Rubino’s answer: “More and more, Italy’s craftsmen have responded to the question with customization. As standardization has become commonplace in Asian production, where the interruption of the assembly line cannot be tolerated, Italian bike manufacturers have reemphasized their ability to personalize the bicycle… the fully customized Italian bicycle is again a viable proposition.” Personally, I hope so. If this really is the future of Italian manufacturing and the Locatellis seem to agree with this, then Dedacciai with its customized tubing is in the right place. It’s just a much quieter place than it used to be.
I’d like to thank everyone at Dedacciai and Deda Elementi for their time and openness. Stay tuned, there is another chapter to this story that involves some beautiful tubes.