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One man brand: behind the scenes at Basso

14 Jul 2021

Basso Bicycles is the quintessential Italian marque, and even still makes its bikes in Italy. Meet the man whose name is on the down tube

Words: James Spender Photography: Mike Massaro

‘You will be only the second people outside the company to see this,’ says Alcide Basso. ‘The others were from Tour magazine.’ No surprise; if it was anybody it would have to be journalists from a German cycling publication. Basso likes the Germans.

The catalogue he shows us is from 1978 and on the face of it might be any catalogue for a bike company of that era, featuring steel bikes made by Basso at its factory in Vicenza, northern Italy, and with pictures of men with brazing torches to prove it.

The bikes are skinny steel while the parts are proudly Campagnolo. Basso likes Campagnolo a lot too, but there is a striking difference here.

Long before the interested customer gets to see the bikes in the catalogue they’re treated to a long discussion on bike position, geometry and biomechanics, followed by several sections that look more like white papers than marketing material.

There is a lengthy exposition on brazing, including close-up magnifications of steel tube structures as well as explanations of the heat-treating techniques that best serve Columbus SL tubing.

‘The depth and scope of our research was unprecedented at the time,’ Basso adds. ‘I needed to find my own road among my competitors, I was young and there was already Ugo De Rosa and Ernesto Colnago. I needed to understand materials better than anyone, so I studied every welding style that was known at the time to find the best solution.’

On the wall outside Basso’s office is a photograph of a man with serious eyes stood next to a fair-haired kid and a man in Basso-badged overalls. They’re all looking at a frame being brazed.

‘That’s me with Eddy Merckx and his son Axel in 1979. I had opened my first factory and Eddy was opening his own in Belgium. They came to Vicenza and they visited me and Campagnolo.’

Here was the great champion, not three years retired, seeking out guidance from someone who had been in business for little more than a year. It would appear Alcide Basso was already forging a reputation.

The Manc

When it came to bike manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s, Italy was Europe’s China, not just home to the likes of Campagnolo and Bianchi but the very place these huge companies actually made what they sold. Business was booming and the rest of the world was in Italy’s thrall, and that included the UK.

‘This was my first big sale, in 1978. Do you know where? To Harry Hall Cycles in Manchester. I met him at our booth at the Milano bike show and I remember he asked where my factory was. I didn’t have a factory! It was a garage, but he wanted to come with his wife to see me make a frame – they drove this green Jaguar, and his wife... I was just 22 years old, you know… this car, this blonde… wow!

‘He went back to Manchester then one week later I received a telegram and a cheque for 35 bicycles. I said I cannot make this, I have just one employee, I can’t take your money. But he said buy the tubing and he will wait.’

It was a big break for the young framebuilder, and one that still makes the 64-year-old misty-eyed.

‘Ten of the bikes Harry Hall ordered were gold-plated steel. It was a fashion at the time and Ernesto had done it. I had a friend who worked in jewellery who had access to a gold-plating machine so I made these gold frames and built them with a special-edition Campagnolo Super Record groupset – highly polished cranks, beautiful.

‘One of these bicycles came up for sale on Ebay 30 years later from a man in Switzerland and it sold for €8,000. A 30-year-old bike, can you believe that? Then I was told later it was valued at €60,000.’

However, while the relationship supplying Harry Hall with bikes of all colours would continue for many years, it wouldn’t prove Basso’s golden ticket.

The German connection

As much as Italy’s bike industry was booming, it was also highly competitive and framebuilders were ten-a-penny. Few got to have their names on down tubes like they did in the UK, where shops imported from Italy, as per Harry Hall, or had small-time builders serving the locals. Basso knew his name did have more currency than most in Italy, but he still needed to find a market.

‘I have two older brothers, one was a professional racer, Marino, and the other, Renato, was studying in Germany. So I went to see Renato.’

You might think the smart move would have been to stay in Italy and get his brother Marino to ride a Basso bike in the big races – he had won stages at all three Grand Tours as well as being crowned Road Race World Champion in 1972.

But of course, like all pros, Marino Basso was under contract, likely riding Ugo De Rosa-built bikes (even serviced by Ernesto Colnago) on Merckx’s Molteni team. No, Alcide Basso needed a different plan.

‘I know that Germany has Audi in Ingolstadt, BMW in Munich and, near my brother’s university, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche in Stuttgart. I thought these companies have local customers who appreciate their engineering of cars so they would also have a mentality for high-end bikes.’

It seemed sound logic, but there was a problem: in Germany no one knew who Alcide Basso was. So he and his brother went door-to-door.

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‘I knocked, I pushed, I went to shops, dealers, I spoke to the car factories. I had my catalogue [the one with the material studies in] under my arm and a frame over my shoulder. Then two important people opened their doors. One was Brügelmann and the other was Stier.’

At the time, Brügelmann was something like a mail-order Decathlon, dominating the German sporting goods scene, whereas Stier was more of a boutique distributor, dealing near-exclusively in Italian cycling companies.

‘Brügelmann was so powerful they could dictate the price in the market. They had this huge shop near Frankfurt station and the joke [because of the company’s dominance] was that the Brügelmann shop was the home of European banking. Every dealer, shop and mechanic had a copy of the Brügelmann catalogue in their desk drawer.

‘Stier was very different – they had more than 2,000 dealers and managed to supply Communist countries: East Germany, Poland, Russia. I remember Herr Stier lived on the first floor and his mother would send down his breakfast from the second floor on a rope and pulley! But they had an excellent reputation.’

Three hundred frames were ordered by Stier alone, and Basso says Germany is still one of his company’s biggest markets to this day.

‘And you know why? Because as we say in Italy, “We put our face next to our company.” There was one time a frame I made had gone out of alignment. It was snowing so hard we could not drive, so my brother and I walked through the snow at night to the man’s house and collected the frame from him. By the following evening it was straight and he was riding it again.’

Modern times

Today Basso is still based in Vicenza, albeit operations are much larger and it is carbon, not steel, that dominates the catalogue. Yet while the majority of Basso’s contemporaries have switched production to the Far East, Basso’s carbon frames are all still very much made in Italy, at a partner factory nearby in which Basso has invested.

Even its high-end stems are CNC’d by a local company, a pretty serious undertaking in a margin-driven world. But then margins, it seems, are not what drives Alcide Basso.

‘My very first employee only retired in April; everyone stays with me, 30, 35 years. But before these people retire they teach the next generation – I make sure we overlap our employees by several years.

‘It’s more expensive, yes. I could go to Asia or somewhere else in Europe where labour is cheap, but why? We have all the brains here to build bicycles and I want my employees to be able to cycle to work, not drive three hours.’

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All laudable goals, but with a twinkle in his eye there might just be an ulterior motive keeping Basso rooted steadfastly in Italy.

‘We have a steel frame we make here, and when I can I weld them. The last bike I made was yesterday. I am a workman. The factory is my place and I am happiest working with my hands.’

Joining forces

Basso pioneered new brazing techniques

Alcide Basso built his company on specialist production techniques, developing a brazing system that used copper and silver solder and could be worked at under 500°C.

This helped retain the integrity of thin steel tubes while creating strong joints. Basso also developed its own ‘stronger’ bottom brackets, made from stamped, welded sheet as opposed to cast from molten metal.

Moving into carbon

The new millennium offered new possibilities

The last steel bike to win a Tour de France was in 1995, as ridden by Miguel Indurain (it’s said it was built by Dario Pegoretti but badged a Pinarello), so by the end of the millennium Basso had made the move into monocoque carbon fibre frames.

Despite the dramatic looks of the Venta frame pictured above, it was intended for road riding, not time-trialling.

Shaping the future

Basso has maintained geometry over the years

The Diamante frame pictured above has led Basso’s fleet since 2005, and while over time tube shapes have changed, Basso has stuck to a similar, very racy geometry.

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A current size 56cm Diamante boasts incredibly short 402mm seatstays, a long 392mm reach, and only in the last model-year did Basso increase the head tube height from 145mm to 155mm.

Fatto in Italia

Basso has resisted the shift to the Far East

Basso is unusual in that it’s an Italian cycling brand whose bikes are actually fabricated in Italy. That happens at a nearby factory in which Basso’s umbrella company, Stardue Srl, has invested.

Incidentally, Stardue means ‘star two’, which is in reference to Alcide Basso’s father-in-law’s company – the family’s ‘first star’, apparel brand Alpinestars.

Close to the edge

Just don’t mention wide tyres

Where some bike brands have a cutout in the seat tube to reduce aerodynamic drag, Basso says its cutout is there to decrease wheelbase and increase tyre clearance.

Alcide Basso is only really a fan of one of those things, however: ‘When I was a young mechanic we rode 20mm tyres for aerodynamics. Now people want 28mm, 32mm, 40mm! No comment.’

Strong performers

Basso prides itself on its bikes’ robustness

Alcide Basso says he has always placed a lot of emphasis on a frame’s strength to ensure safety at speed. ‘There are 11 tubes in a bicycle. Simple,’ he says. ‘But when you are going down hill at 80kmh…’

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As a result, Basso bikes are always robust affairs, often noted for their stiffness, and those models that Cyclist has tested have all proved to be adept descenders.