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Q&A: Ugo De Rosa

James Spender
16 Oct 2018

He has made bikes for the sport’s greatest riders, creating one of the most coveted names in cycling in the process. Meet Mr De Rosa

Photography: Mike Massaro

Cyclist: You’re one of the most noted names in the bike-building business, but everyone has to start somewhere. How old were you when you began?

Ugo De Rosa: I was very young, 20 years old, when I sold my first bicycle in 1953.

My uncle was a motorcycle mechanic and in those days, just after the Second World War, bicycle and motorcycle frame construction methods were very similar, so I learned from my uncle, then I taught myself.

Cyc: Now De Rosa is a three-generation framebuilding family, so presumably you became a teacher too?

UDR: Yes, my sons Danilo, Doriano and Cristiano joined the business as they grew and they learned on the job.

Danilo is still here designing frames, Cristiano looks after sales and marketing and I supervise. I’m 84 years old now so I do not build, although I did teach Cristiano’s son, Nicholas, to TIG weld, and he makes many of our titanium frames now here in Italy.

I can’t think there are many 25-year-old titanium framebuilders in the world today. 

Cyc: Nor many framebuilders that can count Eddy Merckx as a customer. How did that relationship come to be?

UDR: I met him indirectly at first, around 1968, when I was working as a mechanic for another team.

It was in the days when it was possible to say, ‘Hello, hello, ciao, ciao,’ during a race because the riders were not so protected, and of course he was always easy to find in a race – off the front!

But officially I worked with him from 1973 to 1978. He took me from Molteni to Fiat to C&A. Before me, Ernesto Colnago made his bikes, but in 1973 Eddy asked if I would please make him De Rosa bikes.

Cyc: When Merckx won, did you get to celebrate with him?

UDR: No, because the directeur sportif did not spend the money to buy champagne. With the number of races Eddy won he would have been bankrupt if he did.

Cyc: Merckx was famously fastidious with his bicycles. How did you manage?

UDR: I tell you a story: Eddy used to carry an allen key in his jersey pocket. We were at a race in Rome and the seat bolt I put in the frame was a different size to the allen key he had, so we had to go looking in all the shops to find the right size tool.

It was not simple to find this tool, but Eddy had to have it.

He was always a gentleman and he knew so much about the bike. He understood geometry, technology, components. I loved working with riders like that.

It was normal for him to ask me every day for a different bike, and during racing for me to make the little changes overnight to his set-up.

If you make even the smallest change to the frame you change all the geometry, and every racing bike made had to have a spare for the car, so I would make him 50 bikes a season, or more.

Most riders had three in those days. Even now it is maybe just five or six bikes. So there would be times in season when I was building for Eddy every day. 

Cyc: How fast a framebuilder did you have to be?

UDR: A normal frame would take me a day, but with Eddy I could make a frame in four hours if needed.

I also made frames for many other riders, and also sometimes for riders I did not have a professional relationship with.

At the Trofeo Baracchi in 1974, a rider called Roy Schuiten, who was partnered with Francesco Moser, had his bikes stolen the night before the race.

Although I did not makes bikes for Schuiten, I built and painted one for him in 12 hours so he could race in the morning.

I did this because I have respect for all riders.

Cyc: Did you ever refuse to make a frame for someone?

UDR: I would never say no, really, but maybe to people who did not have empathy for the bike or had no humour.

Cyc: Did you sell bikes to the teams, or did you have to provide them for free?

UDR: They had to pay me. I had three sons and I needed to eat! It is not like now where you hand teams bikes and €2 million.

In those days a bike was a month’s wages, but now it is ten months’!

The price started to grow when Campagnolo introduced titanium to parts of its groupsets in the early 1970s, and all the new materials and technology followed.

Cyc: How do modern and old bikes compare in your eyes?

UDR: Everything was steel, of course, so there was only so much you could do, not like today with all the shapes you can make with carbon fibre.

We always had a trade-off. For example Eddy would want a heavier, stiffer bike for a race that finished on a descent, because these bikes are safer.

I saw Luis Ocaña crash on a descent in the Tour [in 1971, when he looked set to win] because his bike was too light and he got speed wobble, so I’d put in a stronger, heavier down tube and chainstays for Eddy.

The bike would be under 10kg still. Sometimes builders would make very light bikes, but these were ‘newspaper’ bikes. They didn’t race.

A light bike for a climbing stage would be 200g lighter because of the tubes. But riders would still ask me to drill out parts to save weight, like the bottom bracket.

This is actually the story of the De Rosa heart logo: I would drill three holes in a triangle on the underside of the bottom bracket or lug, then cut out the material in between.

People say the logo is all because of our passion, but it from this technical thing that saved maybe five grams! But it helped the riders’ heads.

Now with carbon fibre we can make many amazing frames, and I like very much the lines of our carbon bikes.

But until a new material comes along we are close to the limit with frame design. Componentry is the biggest place for innovation, this is the most interesting right now. 

Cyc: So you like disc brakes?

UDR: I do not like. The style is one thing, but the performance is dangerous. Show me the state of the disc brakes in a race where there has been 25km of descending.

The temperature of the discs gets so high, the rotors so hot, it is dangerous to the brake system and the riders.

And the wheel changes are too slow and problematic. 

Cyc: And what do you make of e-bikes?

UDR: It is not correct to ride these bikes! No, I am joking. For people who have health problems it is very good.

But I like the beauty of the bicycle as it is. Just two triangles and a rider.

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