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Cannondale makes quick work of Saeco’s special requests
By Lennard Zinn
Ever since Mario Cipollini, adorned in the yellow jersey of the Tour de France leader, leaned into a television camera during a 1997 stage and said, “Cannondale is best bike,” it was clear that the Bedford, Pennsylvania, company could make bikes capable of scoring victories in the Tour. Cannondale paved the way for other American bike makers such as Trek, Specialized, Klein, GT and Litespeed into the European peloton.
But then came the bankruptcy. Following an ill-fated decision to enter the motorsports market, Cannondale found itself deeply in debt with an unsalable motorcycle, struggling to find a market for its ATV, and unable to find vendors to extend more credit for the parts it needed for its stillsuccessful bicycles. Last December, due to a shortage of cash and credit and the inability to buy the needed parts and materials to make bikes, the company shut down its assembly lines and furloughed its employees. Then, in January, Cannondale formally filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in a bid to reorganize its debts and protect its bicycle division.
You might think that bankruptcy would end the sponsorship of those top European pro road racers. How could Cannondale make expensive bikes for free when the plant was closed? Even if Saeco were to get bikes, wouldn’t quality suffer? Or would they just take some excess frames from stock and send them over? And wouldn’t the TMobile, 7UP and Siemens pro squads — as well as oodles of small domestic teams — also be affected?
Well, according to Chris Peck, a Cannondale frame designer and Cat. 1 road racer himself, Saeco’s frames, as well as those of its other teams, were delivered earlier than ever this year. “If anything, without the distraction of [mass] production, we got them done faster and better,” says Peck. “Our production engineers had an entire factory to play with to crank out those frames.” The factory did not reopen for frame production until the end of January, so the eight design engineers in the Bethel, Connecticut, main office and 10 others in the Bedford plant had the place to themselves for more than a month. They called in a few production workers to do the welding and painting of the team frames, but the designs, tubing preparation and jig setups were all done by production engineers.
For a big bicycle company, Cannondale is unique in its flexible production system, which allows custom frames to be produced almost as efficiently as regular production frames, without a disruption in the flow. Directed by software transmitted from frame designers in Connecticut, a robot cuts each frame tube with a laser to fit at the exact angle without slipping, thanks to tabs at the base of each miter that snap into corresponding slots in the adjacent tube. Since the frames hold themselves together like a puzzle, the jig does not need to clamp the tubes down to fixed positions; it merely needs to be springloaded to push the tubes tightly into their miters and maintain alignment.
After welding and heat-treating, processes that remain the same regardless of frame dimensions, the paint is applied in a system that also easily handles custom requests. Cannondale uses a two-part epoxy paint, and the factory’s special paint guns allow the paint components to mix together in front of the gun tip, so numerous guns can wait with different colors without the paint hardening. When a frame comes along, its bar code indicates the colors to be sprayed on, and voilà another custom frame.
Okay, so we can see how the pocket-protector crew could crank out the team bikes, but what is special about them? The Saeco custom frames are very similar to CAAD7 frames, with a new Alcoa 6000-series aluminum alloy for the tubing. The alloy, which is exclusive to Cannondale, has a 15-percent higher yield strength than the tubes of the CAAD6 frames Cipollini used to win on, allowing for thinner wall thicknesses without sacrificing overall strength. Cannondale offers Gilberto Simoni and his crew one other secret weapon, the Cannondale Hollowgram cranks with new, lighter chainrings and spiders. These hollow cranks are claimed to be stiffer and 100 grams lighter than the as-yetto- be-introduced superlight 2004 Dura-Ace crank Lance Armstrong will be riding at the Tour. Since Cannondale controls both the crank and the frame, it can make these to mate and not worry about the parts fitting on any other frames. Integral to the system is a superlight, extremely large-diameter aluminum bottom-bracket spindle supported by special bearings. The bottombracket shell of the frame is correspondingly sized to accept it.
Given that the Saeco riders are mostly Italian, they want their bikes to have a certain look. Cannondale’s custom system makes quick work of special requests in head-tube length: if the rider only wants one spacer under the stem, for example, and seat-tube length to expose the exact amount of seatpost to get a desired look. Finally, if the rider wants a 125mm stem rather than 120, the top tube is made accordingly. “With our manufacturing capabilities, we can do that no problem,” says Peck. “And we feel it’s worth it because they are happier, and more importantly the bike fits them better and they can go faster on it.”
One distinctive look for the Saeco team that you may have seen is Fabio Sacchi’s entire frame painted like a Cheetah. At the Tour, Saeco’s team leader, Gilberto Simoni will also unveil a special paint job. While the current Saeco riders may not be as flamboyant as Mario Cipollini, Cannondale still cares about their happiness and motivation, and works to give them what they want.