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By David Everett
Milan, for many, conjures up the mental image of a bustling, chic metropolis of style and history — a city of well-kept buildings and equally well-kept locals, dressed up to the nines. That mental image probably doesn’t extend to include small industrial estates packed with Fiat Scudo vans parked all over the place. But this was precisely the Milan I discovered on a recent flying visit to the factory of Bike Ribbon — a brand you will have almost certainly used, even if you didn’t realise it.
For those that have taken up cycling in the past 10-15 years, the name ‘Bike Ribbon’ may well be unfamiliar to you. But for those that came into cycling in the ’80s and ’90s it’s a brand that should have some resonance. The company’s plastic packaging, with its swirly and brightly coloured logo, was a common sight in many bike shops. Bike Ribbon’s bar tape came in a multitude of colours and styles, and the finishing tape was always an Italian tricolour.
Though the name has slowly drifted off bike shops shelves, Bike Ribbon products certainly haven’t. In fact, it’s reasonably safe to say that you will have wrapped your hands around a Bike Ribbon-manufactured tape at some point. The company continues to quietly and successfully produce a plethora of different tapes for an enormous number of brands, from famous Italian frame manufacturers to componentry titans.
For a brand that’s been in business for 45 years, Bike Ribbon’s HQ and manufacturing facility is surprisingly (but pleasantly) small. Tucked away behind larger warehouses and factories, the only two clues of Bike Ribbon’s existence here are a branded factory van and pallets of ready-to-dispose-of PDU foam in a very ’90s mottled pattern.
The side doors of the factory are slung wide open, the sun streaming onto the narrow factory floor. Staff work between a number of different machines sat throughout the room, and huge rolls of bar tape in more colours that you’d get at a Red Hook Crit sock swap are piled high, ready to be cut into more manageable lengths.
Greeting me is Stefano Alberti, who now runs the company along with his brother Edoardo. Their father Ermanno Alberti started the company almost by accident back in 1973, when he was on the hunt for a more comfortable alternative to the bar tape that was available on the market.
Stefano picks up the story:
“My dad was in a totally different business — he worked with furniture,” Stefano says. “He used to go out on the bike with friends every weekend. And one day he realised that something had to be done on the comfort of the bars. So he decided to really do it for himself, just a little home project to develop his own tape.”
But one of Ermanno’s innovations would quickly transform this home project into a fully-fledged business: the now common idea of using a bevel cut to the tape, chamfering the sides so that it wouldn’t overlap and become thick when wrapping.
“His friends used it and soon word of mouth got about,” Stefano continues. “Within a year it became a proper business… this was 1973. My father had a patent on the bevel cut, but in Italy, a patent only lasts 10 years. We keep the original paperwork, though, for the history books.”
As in many industries over recent decades, Asia’s rise as a manufacturing force has meant that Chinese and Taiwanese factories have absorbed a fair proportion of Bike Ribbon’s business. Bike Ribbon still produces a dizzying 10,000 metres of tape every day — a total of 2,500 wrapped handlebars — but that’s a fraction of the 40-50,000 metres of tape they produced in the ’80s and early ’90s.
While they’ve lost some contracts to overseas factories, Bike Ribbon still clearly produces tape for some of the biggest names in the industry. The large metal embossing plates stacked in a pile, with a multitude of very recognisable and desirable logos, is testament to this.
According to Stefano, BikeRibbon’s size means that the company is nimble enough to be able to turn around custom projects quickly. Whether it’s tape for a special occasion, smaller bike manufacturers, or for brands and shops that want custom materials or densities, it’s all done on site and is proudly 100% Italian-made.
Whilst Bike Ribbon now focuses exclusively on bar tape, it’s not just this category they’re famed for. If you were a fan of cycling in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, you may have admired components made by a company called Stella Azzurra – an offshoot of Bike Ribbon. The company’s catalogue featured everything from bars and stems to carbon chainsets and even carbon wheels, much of it made in-house. At the time, it was a move by the Alberti brothers to broaden their offering beyond tape alone.
Stella Azzurra entered an already crowded market, and surprisingly managed to carve out a small niche for a few years, even sponsoring the US-based Navigators team for a stint. The Alberti brothers followed the trends of the era — right down to the inclusion of a magnesium stem in their line-up. Over time, however, the brothers decided to return to their roots, partly as a result of the rise of bike manufacturers producing their own finishing kit.
For a company of Bike Ribbon’s stature, the factory floor is surprisingly small. The main room is crammed with what seem to be custom machines, about six in total. Each is designated to do one or two steps of the full bar tape making process, from cutting the vast rolls of material to the final packaging and labelling. None of the machines lie dormant for long, smoothly kicking into gear every few minutes as one process rolls into another. Elsewhere in the room are huge, huge rolls of various materials in every colour that I’ve ever seen on a bike (and plenty I haven’t).
It’s all women working on the factory floor the day I arrive. Off to one side, a smiley older lady looks on in excitement as Stefano shows me around. It turns out that it’s his mother, Rosita. At 83 years of age, she still comes to the factory every day, pitching in and knowing every process better than anyone else. When lunchtime rolls around she jumps in her car like every other worker, and dashes off for what I can only imagine is pizza and an espresso. Stefano is clearly proud that his mum still clocks in five days a week.
Bar tape trends don’t just stop at the colour that’s wrapped around the bars, be that a clean white for a professional or a perforated synthetic brown leather for retro bikes. Stefano points out that material trends change, too. “Currently, polyurethane (PU) is the most popular in the upper level, with cork as the entry-level choice,” he says. “But what is odd is that people have been ill-informed as to what cork tape is. It’s not actually made of cork … it only has about 3% cork.”
These material trends can cause problems. Unlike PVC, which was more popular in the ‘90s, the current trend toward PU has an impact on the environment. “Car companies could use the excess PVC from the manufacturing by turning it into dashboards or parts. But PU is unfortunately impossible to break down and reuse,” Stefano explains.
In July, however, Bike Ribbon hopes to stir the bar tape market up again. Stefano shows me a prototype bar tape they plan on launching at the industry-leading bike show, Eurobike. It’s dual-density and two-tone, and made of several different new materials. They’ve been working on it for some time.
“We work with material suppliers outside of cycling,” Stefano says. “We obviously have a few historical partners. They supply materials to the car and furniture industries and other industries. But we have them develop the materials we specifically want. We first got to know them by going to trade shows and hunting them out.”
Sometimes, it can be a little odd to see the passion people have for what you might think of as a mundane item, and I think it’s safe to say this trip falls into that category. But there was something infectious about the Alberti family’s enthusiasm.
I left Bike Ribbon with a smile on my face, and with a newfound appreciation for what we wrap our bars with. I was thrilled to see a product still produced in the same location, and by the same people, as it has been for decades. Financially, the wisdom of this business decision is debatable, given the opportunities that exist for overseas production. But when I see a ‘Made in Italy” logo on a bike product, it sometimes gives me a little jolt of joy to know that there are still Italians out there keeping alive a small part of what was once a thriving community of producers — and Bike Ribbon is part of that.