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By Zack Vestal
Framebuilder Ugo De Rosa can look back on a glorious past, having built steel bicycles for a long line of champions, among them Eddy Merckx and Francesco Moser. But the De Rosa family continues to press forward, producing frames in a variety of materials to meet the demands of a rapidly changing market.
The rise of carbon fiber “changed the Italian bicycle industry,” said Doriano De Rosa, one of Ugo’s sons.
“It was very fast, the change in the bicycle industry,” he said. “Carbon became the first choice for many racers. We had to change many things in the factory, because we had to make a new facility for carbon.”
Steel was the deal back in 1958, when Raphael Geminiani asked Ugo De Rosa to produce a frameset for use in the Giro d’Italia. Other opportunities followed; De Rosa supplied bikes to Gianni Motta’s Sanson team in 1969, Eddy Merckx’s Molteni squad in 1973, and Francesco Moser’s Filotex team in 1974.
In the 1980s, business boomed as new markets sprang up in Europe and abroad. Doriano and Ugo De Rosa’s other sons, Cristiano and Danilo, became involved in the family business, assisting with production and management. And to this day the entire family helps run every aspect of the business.
“We are a small company with a big name,” says Doriano De Rosa. “I think our success is the result of many hours spent in the factory. Every one of us is involved in the job. My father, my brothers, my mother is always in the business.” Cristiano handles marketing and sales, Danilo helps run the shop, and their mother works in the office.
The modern era for De Rosa began in the early 1990s when Ugo and Doriano began experimenting with welding titanium. The patriarch traveled to the U.S. to learn from Litespeed, and Doriano admits that working with the new material was a challenge.
“There were many mistakes at first, as we had not worked with the metal before,” he said. “We had to practice, and understand our mistakes. I was also very stubborn!”
But success came quickly when Evgeni Berzin won both the Giro and Liège-Bastogne-Liège on a titanium De Rosa in 1994. In fact, the entire Gewiss-Ballan team rode titanium De Rosas, and at Flèche Wallone, Moreno Argentin, Giorgio Furlan and Berzin swept the podium. In this same season, Gewiss-Ballan also won Milan-San Remo (Furlan), Tirreno-Adriatico (a one-two finish with Furlan and Berzin) and the Giro di Lombardia (Vladislav Bobrik), and Piotr Ugrumov was second in the Tour de France.
In 2000, De Rosa began working in carbon, beginning with the King frame; today, the King 3 is the company’s most popular model. Fewer than 20 employees produce the high-end, custom and handbuilt bikes, including carbon fiber frames, which are glued together from subassemblies molded by Mizuno. Each material De Rosa works with — carbon fiber, titanium, aluminum and steel — merits a few builders and a separate workspace in the factory, and just a few carbon models come from Asia.
Doriano De Rosa estimates that 80 or 85 percent of the frames that leave the shop in Milan are custom, and he personally welds every titanium frame.
“I started with the Neo Primato frames about 34 years ago,” he said. “When I made my first complete frame I was 17. I have to say I’m very lucky because I had a very good teacher.”
Ugo De Rosa no longer welds, so in a very literal sense the torch has been passed to a new generation. Doriano De Rosa is aware of the challenges ahead, and hopes to build upon the solid foundation laid down over the past half-century.
And racing is still very much a part of the family business — today, Danilo Di Luca, Alessandro Petacchi and the rest of their
“If I have to define a challenge for De Rosa, I would say that we want to pursue this road as long as possible,” he said. “The road is made of innovation and tradition. We try to do new things without losing our roots.”