Recently Bicycling Australia was fortunate to be invited to attend the Fizik press camp along with more than 30 other journalists from around the globe to peruse the new season’s range and see what lies behind the brand that is fiercely Italian.
Fizik are best known as a manufacturer of saddles. Their iconic Arione saddle is now 10 years old, and the range has had a serious revamp to mark this milestone. Fizik also make bar tape and seatposts, and have recently moved into the cycle shoe market with some very impressive results. The press camp was aimed at showcasing the extensive range of Arione saddles which now includes the pro level ‘00’ and the expanded shoe range which now allows riders to get into a reasonably priced handmade Italian shoe. No doubt we will get to review those at a later date.
What we found behind the Fizik brand was simply a lot of proud Italians making quality products. The good folk of Italy have long been known as a passionate bunch, and cycling is among their many passions – for them it is simply a part of life. The respect cyclists are given on the road is something we can only dream of here. Commuting is popular, and the availability of quiet country roads and long, steady climbs makes it a paradise for serious cyclists.
Fizik’s headquarters are located near the foot of the Dolomites, near the ancient, walled city of Marostica. There’s a nice little 6km climb that rises 400 metres vertically, and this forms part of the lunchtime ride for many of the Fizik staff. Most of the staff are keen riders and find themselves in the very enviable position given the current European economic climate, to be working close to home for an iconic and respected local cycling brand.
Fizik go to great lengths to remind us that their products are not only made in Italy, but handmade in Italy. Now I’ll have to put my hand up to being a sceptic, due to ‘country of origin’ regulations for Italian product often being reported as being rather elastic. So when the opportunity to tour the production facility was offered, I jumped at the chance. Unfortunately only the saddles are made at the company’s headquarters. The shoes, in typical Italian fashion, are made in another part of the country where all the best shoemakers reside, but we still got to have a good look at them. It only takes one look at Fizik’s R1 Uomo road shoe to see what happens when neither form nor function are compromised. I would imagine that if an upcoming James Bond movie required 007 to quickly dismount a bicycle, perform a quick change and mingle seamlessly into a cocktail party, then I’m sure the wardrobe department would specify Fizik’s R1 road shoe, saving him the hassle of changing shoes, so elegant is their appearance.
In today’s world of mechanised production lines and high volume output, it’s surprising to see that many manufacturers still make saddles by hand. Brooks in the UK is one, as is Velo in Taiwan, with varying levels of automation. And of course, Fizik is another of the ‘by hand’ band. Fizik make the ubiquitous Arione and the rest of the Fizik range in their saddle production facility, which is at the rear of the offices at Fizik HQ.
I admit I was expecting to see a production line dropping saddles in a box, and the box being labelled by an Italian worker. I could not have been more wrong. The parent company Selle Royal make numerous saddles, many of which bear other brand’s logos and these are generally made on a more mechanised production line. But every Fizik saddle is 100% handmade. Sure,they have machines; presses, cutters and moulding machines – these are essential to the accuracy and quality of the saddles they make. But all these machines are hand-loaded and operated.
Upon entering, the first station that comes visible is the quality control area. This area is mechanised due to the repetitive and controlled nature of the tests being run. To be honest, that is a good thing, as I doubt you would be able to find anyone who is willing to plonk themselves down on a saddle with great force 10,000 times. Saddles from every batch and of every model are tested for durability and wear. Any failures result in the pulling of a complete batch until the issues are found and sorted. This is the same for saddles in production or those in pre-production.
The next sight that confronts you within this rather large production facility is racks upon racks of moulds. Some of which are used to make the saddles Fizik currently produce, others which are for saddles in the design stage. While a saddle may seem like a simple enough item, the designers at Fizik work with biomechanists, physiotherapists and universities to attempt to give a saddle that adheres to the Fizik adage that ‘comfort is not an option’is as comfortable as possible. The R and D is also undertaken in house, as the quest for better, lighter saddles continues. That constant design process is what has given us the new range of Ariones, with their expanded range and new streamlined profiles.
The first, largest, and possibly most important machine in the entire factory is the one that applies the foam to the saddle base. The base shell is placed into the large carousel machine and the foam is injected onto the base. A clam shell-like lid with the negative impression of the foam required for the specific saddle closes down on the liquefied foam. This process is possibly the most critical in Fizik’s quest for a comfortable saddle, as not only is this foam layer what gives the saddle its shape, comfort and integrity, but it is by varying the volume and density of this foam that the level of padding is dialled in. Even while standing by this huge machine you can see the difference between Fizik’s system and a mass production line. Not every mould on the carousel is full, which would be a crime on a fully automated line, and the shells and completed padded shells are hand-loaded and unloaded. This simple act of manually unloading the finished product at every station, while obviously not being the most cost effective, is a critical part of Fizik’s quality process as it enables the product to be inspected at every station along the process.
Concurrently, in another area of the workspace, the fabric used to cover the saddles, Fizik’s microtex fabric, is rolled out and readied for use. The fabric is then stamped from the rolls into a vaguely saddle-shaped swatch of fabric. Again this machine is hand-loaded and actuated, and only about six or eight pieces are cut at a time before reloading the fabric in the most economical fashion. Small details in the saddle covering that possibly go unnoticed by many, like the ‘wing flex’ slots, are then laser cut into the fabric.
Next, the covers divert into two different areas. The traditional saddles, the CX and the Classic have the three pieces of the cover stitched together. As someone who cannot restitch a button and has been known to staple his trouser hem in an emergency, I was in awe of the skill, precision and speed with which this was all accomplished. The new generation saddles embark on a process that allows Fizik to seamlessly join three pieces of fabric to make a single saddle cover without the requirement for any sewing at all. The microtex fabric, as thin as it is, has the edges to be joined shaved to half of their thickness and a heat activated glue applied. When this procedure is repeated for both pieces to be joined and heat and pressure is applied, you end up with a seamless joined cover that is consistently the thickness of a single layer.
Next on our tour came the part that I found most fascinating; the bringing together of the two main parts of the saddle, the cover and the base. This is where ‘handmade’ really hit home to me. The saddle base is placed on a jig while two workers simultaneously and carefully place the cover onto the shell, which have had contact adhesive applied. Bear in mind this piece of fabric needs to be perfectly centred and is all done simply by means of a keen eye, steady hands and plenty of experience. The saddle is then turned over and the remainder of the material is tucked under and adhered to the underside to keep everything firmly in place.
So now we have an item that resembles a completed saddle, with only the rails to be fitted. Due to the different types of rails used on Fizik saddles, there are two different processes used. The Kium (Fizik’s proprietary alloy) and manganese rails are inserted using a press that gently softly bends the saddle backwards to allow the rails to pop into place. Each saddle is them placed on a jig and inspected to ensure the saddle and rails are true and square. The carbon rails are fitted to the rear lugs using special adhesives and the front of the rails are bonded to the saddle base and a cap screwed in place, again all by hand, and then a spacer is placed between the rails to hold them square while the process cures.
At this point the manufacture of the saddle is complete, but the hands on approach continues right down to the packaging. All saddles are hand cleaned and inspected. The saddles for retail consumption are then placed on cardboard hang tags and placed in bags by hand, and even the OEM saddles being sent to bike manufacturers for fitting as standard equipment to new bikes are all individually hand packaged. It’s another point along the production chain where the quality of the finished product can be checked.
I won’t pretend that that theirs is a glamorous job, or that they resemble Santa’s happy elves, but the workers here seem to genuinely enjoy their job, and the facility in which they work is far from cramped, sweatshop conditions. The factory is clean, spacious and surprisingly inviting. The staff rotate jobs so that every worker can do every process, which eliminates boredom and potential repetition injuries, and the employees seem quite proud of the product they produce. We were told that with both the saddles and shoes that Fizik produce, they source around 90-95% of materials from within a 100km radius of the main production facility, which is helping keep even more jobs alive locally.
So for what seems like such a simple piece of kit, you can see there is a lot of work involved. There are also a lot of hands involved. So next time you look at the price of a Fizik saddle and wonder where the money goes, you can take some comfort that the ‘handmade in Italy’ tag is the real deal.