Advertisement

Sign up for our newsletter

Advertisement

Bianchi: Factory visit

Mark Bailey
8 Oct 2015

It's been 130 years since Eduardo Bianchi opened his first workshop. Cyclist heads to Italy to see how Bianchi copes with modern demands.

Huddled beneath the soaring bell tower of a solitary red-brick church near the northern Italian town of Treviglio there lies a secluded labyrinth of factory buildings, gates and fences painted in the iconic mint-green ‘celeste’ of the venerable Italian bike marque, Bianchi. This secretive complex in Lombardy is the modern headquarters of one of the world’s most stylish and respected bike manufacturers, which was founded 130 years ago by the Italian engineer and inventor Edoardo Bianchi.

Eduardo Bianchi statue

Proudly performance-focused, the Bianchi brand has historic associations with Grand Tour-winning cycling champions such as Fausto Coppi, Felice Gimondi, Marco Pantani, Mario Cipollini and Jan Ullrich, and its elegant two-wheeled creations have been raced to victories in 12 Giros d’Italia, three Tours de France, two Vueltas a Espana, 19 Milan-San Remos, seven Paris-Roubaixs, four Liège-Bastogne-Lièges and five Road World Championships. Bianchi also oozes an Italian style that appeals to aficionados of fashion and design from the art galleries of Shoreditch to the bustling cafes of Tokyo.

Established in 1885, Bi anchi claims to be the oldest bike-manufacturer still in existence. Its founder was an orphan who was working in an ironworks by the age of eight. A talented engineer and inventor, he went on to manufacture products as diverse as medical instruments and electric doorbells. In 1885, at the age of 20, he established his own small two-room workshop at 7 Via Nirone in Milan, about 35km west of Bianchi’s current base in Treviglio, and began tinkering with bike designs.

The Italian helped to pioneer the development of ‘safety bicycles’ with equal-sized wheels and lower pedals, which offered a game-changing upgrade from the unwieldy and unsteady penny farthings of previous years. The first safety bike had been developed by the Coventry-based inventor and industrialist John Kemp Starley with his commercially successful ‘Rover’ bike of 1885. In 1888 Bianchi added to his own personal bike designs the pneumatic tyres created by the Scottish veterinarian John Boyd Dunlop for his son’s tricycle, introducing comfort as well as safety. By making steadier and more functional machines, Bianchi was able to promote a new model of bike that would dominate the future of recreational and professional cycling.

Bianchi racing frame

Bianchi’s creations were soon cherished by everyone from competitive racers to the landed gentry of Europe. In the 1890s he was asked to visit the Royal Villa at Monza, the home of the Italian Royal Family of Savoy, to teach Queen Margherita how to ride a bike. It was an honour that earned Bianchi the right to a royal seal, one which over time would be developed into the silver eagle that still adorns Bianchi bikes today.

By 1914 Bianchi was producing 45,000 bikes a year, and by the 1930s his factories employed 4,500 people. Today, Bianchi bikes are sold in more than 60 countries. The Bianchi brand also manufactured cars and motorbikes until the late 1960s, but bikes – of all varieties, from road and mountain bikes to electric and city bikes – are the company’s sole focus today.

Throughout Bianchi’s history, prominent associations with successful racers have helped to strengthen the brand. The company’s first sponsorship was of Giovanni Tomasello, winner of the 1899 Grand Prix de Paris sprint competition. Bianchi’s most famous relationship, however, was with Fausto Coppi, the Italian cycling legend of the 1940s and 1950s who won five Giros d’Italia, two Tours de France, Paris-Roubaix and the Road Race World Championships. The late Marco Pantani, who won the Tour and Giro double in 1998, was apparently the most demanding of Bianchi’s sponsored athletes, requesting 30 different frames a year and often demanding minute alterations involving just a few millimetres in the length of his top tube or a few degrees in the angle of his stem. Today Bianchi sponsors Team Lotto NL-Jumbo in the men’s UCI World Tour and Team Inpa Bianchi Giusfredi of the UCI Women’s Road World Cup.

To cycling fans the Bianchi brand will be forever linked with the celeste (pronounced ch-les-tay in Italian) colour that decorates many (though not all) of its bikes. It’s one of the most recognisable shades in the bike industry, though the history of the colour scheme is shrouded in mystery.

Bianchi motorbike

In the Bianchi factory canteen, where motherly Italian figures ladle giant portions of pasta, pizza, fish and cheese onto plates for the assorted Bianchi workers, Claudio Masnata, a former Italian track cyclist and now Bianchi’s marketing and communications manager, explains the most popular theories of the origins of the Bianchi celeste. ‘There are two versions, one romantic and one more practical,’ he says. ‘The romantic version is that Edoardo, who was the official supplier to the Italian kingdom, made the colour to honour the colour of the eyes of Queen Margherita, whom he was teaching how to ride a bike. The less romantic theory is that Edoardo acquired a huge quantity of grey and blue paint left over by the navy during the First World War and he mixed them together to form the celeste. Nobody knows for sure.’ 

Into the blue

Our tour of the Bianchi complex begins in the distribution warehouse. With its towering shelves of boxes it resembles the final resting place of the Ark of the Covenant in Indiana Jones And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark. ‘These bikes are being shipped to everywhere from France to Canada,’ says Masnata. ‘We are very popular in Italy and America but the Asia Pacific region is the biggest growth area now. Bianchi has a lot of fans in Japan. It’s huge over there.’

As with most Italian bike brands today, Bianchi’s frames are manufactured in Asia to help keep costs down, but the bikes are designed, tested and pieced together on site in Treviglio. The factory is an Aladdin’s cave filled with racks of bike frames, boxes of components and trays of shiny new wheels. The factory staff – who are mostly dressed in T-shirts decorated with flashes of Bianchi celeste – assemble about 100 bikes per day, with a total annual production of 25,000 bikes. Bianchi sales grew by 20% last year. The brand’s road bikes range from the high-end Oltre XR2 and Oltre XR1 to the race-focused Infinito CV and Sempre Pro, the Aquila CV time-trial bike, the Dama Bianca women’s range and the entry-level Impulso and Via Nirone 7.

Bianchi prototype

If you own a Bianchi it might well have been built by a tall, bald man called Giovanni who works in the Treviglio factory. Giovanni has been building Bianchi bikes for 27 years. He says it takes him about 20 minutes to piece together the components needed to make one bike. ‘Every bike is put together by hand,’ says Masnata. ‘We call it a vertical assembly process, with one man per bike. It’s about responsibility and quality control. If a bike has been assembled by the same person we can identify who made it and we know it has been well looked after. It is also a tradition that the Bianchi eagle sticker has to be applied by hand. It is not a Bianchi bike without the eagle.’

Entering the inner sanctum of a major bike factory can be a revealing but slightly frustrating experience. Any visitor wants to learn about technological innovations and production methods in order to discover what makes a particular bike brand special. But invariably in-house staff are wary of revealing too much, in case rival brands get a sniff of new designs or important secrets. Today our poor guide Claudio walks the tightrope between hospitality and security, and my dictaphone is filled with a series of nervous pleas: ‘Sorry, not here.’ ‘This is off limits.’ ‘Don’t photograph this one please.’ ‘Not that frame, it’s not out yet.’ Before he finally begs: ‘Don’t hate me, please.’

Innovation and technological advances have always been important to Bianchi - from the introduction of its novel front wheel calliper brakes in 1913 and the development of special folding bicycles for the Italian military in 1914 to the adoption in 1939 of Campagnolo’s Cambio Corsa derailleur, which helped riders switch gears without removing their rear wheel. ‘Edoardo Bianchi was like an inventor and that spirit of invention is still in our soul,’ says Masnata. ‘We always want to be innovative and to stay on top of technology and advanced materials. Since the beginning, Edoardo wanted his bikes to be tested in races. The first CEO of Bianchi was the rider Giovanni Tomasello, which just shows the importance of racing to the company. That is why Bianchi has such a big history with riders like Coppi and Gimondi.’

Bianchi fork testing

Today Bianchi is particularly proud of its Countervail technology: a vibration-cancelling composite, developed in conjunction with the materials company Materials Sciences Corporation and tested in NASA facilities, which features in the Infinito CV and Aquila CV bike models. ‘Countervail is a kind of elastic carbon material that cancels vibrations by up to 80%,’ says Masnata. Research has shown that vibrations, as well as causing discomfort, can also increase muscular fatigue. ‘This is a very successful patented technology, which is particularly good for the Classics such as Paris-Roubaix and Flanders. Juan Antonio Flecha said the Infinito CV was the best bike he ever had in the Classics and when he retired he came to Bianchi to buy one for himself. Of course, we gave one to him, but it shows how much he loved it.’

As we tour the factory, Masnata points out the Ultra Thin Seatstay technology on the Oltre XR1, Oltre XR2 and Sempre Pro models, which helps absorb shock, reduce any impacts and limit overall weight. The Oltre XR2 also features Bianchi’s X-TEX Cross Weave system, which uses extra carbon strips moulded into the structure of the head tube and bottom bracket to increase torsional rigidity and improve power output.

The factory itself is an endearing mix of cutting-edge machinery and old-fashioned, wood-handled tools. ‘We still use a lot of the machinery and tools that were developed over the years in-house by Bianchi,’ says Masnata.

Bianchi frame testing

The ‘Laboratorio Tecnologico’, hidden behind a ‘Restricted Area’ sign, is where the Bianchi bikes are tested and monitored. On the promise that we’ll cover our eyes at the sight of Bianchi’s 2016 models, we are invited in for a quick exploration. The facility resembles a medieval torture chamber for bikes, with components and frames being yanked, pulled and shaken about by ominous machines. One poor seatstay has big yellow and green weights dangling off it. A fork nearby is being repeatedly pulled to check its resistance to horizontal force, while another one is being subjected to repeated vertical impacts to mimic dropping down a curb.

‘We do four main performance tests,’ says Andrea Valenza, engineering and quality manager at Bianchi and an aerodynamics expert who used to work for Airbus. ‘We test the bottom bracket, the chainstay, the headset and the rear triangle. We are very thorough. If the standard fatigue test involves 100,000 movements, we will do 150,000. The most important part for performance is probably the bottom bracket. For stability, it’s usually the headset.’

Secrets of success

Feeling a bit sorry for the bike components being tested to destruction, but reassured that the finished bikes can hold their own in the real world, we finish our tour with a visit to the design centre on the other side of the factory. There’s a quick check of the whiteboards to ensure we don’t see anything we’re not supposed to. All new Bianchi bikes are designed here by a team led by product manager Angelo Lecchi. Fabio Belotti is the creative designer who completes the finished look of the bikes.

‘We have CAD [computer-aided design] software and rapid prototyping machines to create models so we are able to optimise the geometry and improve the design, shape and engineering of the bikes here at the factory,’ says Masnata. He shows me a bike frame made from blue resin, which has been produced by a 3D printing machine. It looks as though it has been constructed from melted Smurf bodyparts but this kind of technology has proved to be a huge help to bike manufacturers worldwide. ‘With these prototypes we can do extensive testing before the bike gets produced,’ says Masnata. ‘Only then will it go to production.’

Bianchi bottom bracket

Prototype models are also examined in the wind-tunnel at the Magny Cours F1 race circuit in France, enhanced using Computational Fluid Dynamics and tested by a team of eight professional riders. ‘In one week we can turn an idea into a real model,’ says Masnata. ‘But the feedback from riders is still one of the most important parts of the process. Every bike has to be good and efficient and enjoyable to ride.’

Examining the Bianchi bikes enshrined in the factory’s reception area, from Fausto Coppi’s vintage 1953 Bianchi Corsa to the slick, carbon Oltre XR2 of 2015, it is easy to see why the company continues to appeal to style aficionados as well as world champions. Bianchi now has fashionable branded cafes in Milan, Stockholm and Tokyo for urban bike enthusiasts to visit, and has teamed up with glitzy partners such as Gucci and Ducati to produce special-edition products that look like they could be showcased in the Tate Modern.

‘Our most distinguishing trait is that we try to perfectly combine technology and performance with Italian design and passion,’ says Masnata. ‘We are Italian and we want to be creative. This is a country rich in fashion and artists so it’s part of our culture. Bianchi bikes have to be technologically advanced and ready to race. They also have to be beautiful.’

Bianchi.com

Read more about: