Battaglin to focus on steel and phase out carbon fiber frames
Anticipating a market shift toward steel frames, the storied Italian brand is bringing all its frame production back in house, offering custom options, and is renewing its relationship with Columbus. Alessandro Battaglin explains the changes.
This is a conversation with Alessandro Battaglin about the company’s reasons for re-entering the steel frame business and what they are doing with it. Alessandro Battaglin is the son of Giovanni Battaglin, who won both the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta Espana in 1981. Those successes helped launch the Battaglin cycling brand, which used progressive production techniques to make durable steel frames, many of which still ride well 30 years later according to owners we spoke to.
This year, Officina Battaglin is releasing a collezione speciale limited edition bicycle to celebrate the 65th birthday of Giovanni Battaglin. Apart from likely providing a lifetime’s great riding experiences, this is a stunningly beautiful bicycle frame: the paint is applied to chrome-plated tubes to produce a translucent, shining finish. Only 65 of these frames will be produced, and each is numbered and adorned with a special plaque.
The 65th anniversary Collezione Speciale frame. Photo: Officina Battaglin
The frame looks beautiful in the photographs, but the question that burned in our minds when seeing the images of this lustrous, elegant frame was: why is Battaglin returning to the production of steel frames?
AB: For a long while it was accepted in the bicycle industry that steel is the best material for a bicycle frame. But of course in the 1990s material technology advances and new methods were developed for producing ultra-light aluminum frames with good fatigue resistance, and good riding properties, and then after that carbon fiber frames with lighter weight and for many people a better ride. We were interested in exploring these new options for the bicycle frame.
After some time we realized that with a good engineer and a good designer working very far from us, the frame is done. Ninety percent of carbon frames are made in China, and we had been feeling there was nothing of us in the frames. We didn’t see our ideas, we didn’t feel any of our passion. When people talk about a carbon frame quite soon the conversation always comes down to the price. But when we make a steel frame it is different. We can talk about the welding, the finishing, the geometry, the conversation is very different. As a company we decided we really want to be making our own frames.
Welding a frame in the Battaglin workshop. Photo: Officina Battaglin
PS: What is your background with the Battaglin company?
AB: I grew up with professional bicycle racing, that is what my father did when I was a young child. And then I grew up with the company. When the company started I was young but I wanted to help. I was in the workshop most of the time, and when I finished school I worked for the company. It has always been a family company, and I have been with it for 21 years now.
PS: So what happened in the Italian frame building market during the 1990s? It was a time of big change, no?
AB: From my point of view, Battaglin was one of the biggest steel frame producers in the the 1980s and Nineties. We finished between 250-300 frames a day. But aluminum changed the Italian market quickly. In only a few months the market switched from steel to aluminium. We had to invest in the new material. And then came carbon fiber. Now carbon is everywhere.
AB: Steel is not for mass production. It is a niche in the market. It is a more comfortable bike, and of course we can offer custom sizing.
Battaglin's Marosticana frame offers comfort and classic style. Photo: Officina Battaglin
PS: What about the frame making machinery? What happened to that?
AB: We had a lot of old machinery in the company. We had super-high end machines. We made our own machines to make bikes more quickly and more precise. Trimming the tube, we don’t do this by hand. We use CNC to cut all our tubes: stays, dropouts, etc. All tolerances are extremely close. Our machines are our heritage. Also we still employ the workers we had before. When we changed our methods several years ago these people were re-tasked. But now everybody is very happy we are going back to steel.
PS: And the factory buildings?
AB: We have the same buildings as 35 years ago. We have our old welder still teaching the new welders. We train the new welders. We think we can grow the volume. All processes are done inside the company. For the chrome plating, which is very important, we use the same people as 35 years ago. Same process: chrome plated by hand, inside and out. Usually, using robots, chrome plating is applied at a thickness of 7-9 microns. But by hand we can achieve 80-90 microns. For a steel tube, this makes it much more durable, it is more protected.
Also talking about our processes, our we weld at very low temperatures to reduce tube stress. And if you look at tube cutting. We studied this, and we learned that tube cutting can stress the tube at the most important areas near the joint. So we devised ways to reduce tube stress when cutting, and also this is why we use CNC machines for tube trimming. The join mitres are highly accurate this way, which further decreases joint stress.
Battaglin uses an extra-thick layer of chrome to help rust resistance. Photo: Officina Battaglin
PS: In the U.S.A. and also the United Kingdom, we are seeing many expert cyclists say that the lightest, stiffest frame does not make the best bike for them personally, they prefer a custom bicycle, where for the same price or often less they can achieve a mix of material and geometry that is best for them.
AB: Maybe Italy is a little behind some countries. The Italian people are looking for lightweight carbon frames. There are rumors in the market, and I receive calls every day asking about our steel frames. So I think we are moving into a new era. Perhaps we will not do the same volume as before, but this is good for us. People call us saying they want something special, something exclusive. With a carbon bike it is very easy: you give money to the dealer and you have a bike. Making a steel bike is an experience. We have to try to make this the best experience. For me there are no customers, there are clients. With a client, you have to teach what is good for his riding and budget. Sometimes you will advise to spend less money - a cyclist doesn’t always need the highest-end of everything. Our clients become part of the big family, we have to have a relationship.
PS: So you have moved back to steel production. But what about other materials?
AB: Our focus now is on steel. In the future we can look at carbon and titanium. At the moment we are still offering carbon frames with the Battaglin brand, but in the future we want to complete the switch and focus even more on steel. The market is ready for steel. Obviously steel was never gone, but now it is growing again. The quality of steel tubes now is very high, higher than ever. The tubes are extremely strong and extremely light. The ride is great and the durability is great. My feeling is the demand for steel will be higher than anybody knows.
We are very confident in the quality of modern steel, but also in our production processes. We have been in business for about 30 years, and we see almost none of our steel frames breaking. So we offer a one million miles guarantee. Our guarantee follows the frame, not the customer. This is how confident we are in our construction processes.
The flared head tube of the Power+ frame. Photo: Officina Battaglin
PS: How did you get to that point?
AB: Stephen Roche rode Battaglin bikes. At that time there was no stress testing for bicycle frames. The equipment didn’t exist. We loved the racing and asked our frame builders to make better frames. Every builder trimming the tubes found a solution for Visentini 1986. Then in 1987 it was Roche. The welders were very excited when Visentini won. For next year they had a little meeting after work and said they had to create something for the next year. Everybody in the company tried to modify his part - reduce the temperature, a more efficient system, all of these little things added together gave us confidence and motivated us to our one million miles warranty.
PS: So, the 65th Anniversary series. Is this already in production? Are you taking orders?
AB: Yes. The first shipment leaves at the end of October.
Bottom bracket/chainstay detail of the Collezione Speciale frame. Photo: Officina Battaglin
PS: What do you think you can do better than other companies in the custom bicycles market?
AB: For me, I see two problems with custom frame builders: The first is warranty. In general, they don’t like to give a long warranty. The second is delivery time. From my point of view this is crazy! You shouldn’t have to wait six months or nine months for a frame. Our guarantee is 30 days, or the frame is free.
PS: How many people are employed by Officina Battaglin?
AB: Now there are six people in production. We are looking to increase. It all depends on how the market goes.