HANDCRAFTED IN BARCELONA
Behind the Brand: UNNO
It was a cold, wine-fueled February night in Montreal. I had decided to celebrate my 30th birthday in Barcelona. I was 29 then and it was -29°C outside. I sat there daydreaming about bikes and sunshine...
MY 30th Birthday in Barcelona did not happen, but I'd find myself in that bustling creative hub of a city many times in the past few years. I knew there was something special there.
My very last visit was the best one yet.
It would have been around the same time in the winter of 2012 when César Rojo decided to build himself a bicycle company from the ground up. His rules, his designs and built in his city. No stranger to racing, testing, designing bikes and components at this point in his life, the Barcelona local used his engineering knowledge he sharpened at Cero Designs to launch UNNO bikes.
Cesar rides bikes fast. Faster than you and me. Fast enough to be teamed up with Greg Minnaar (RSA), Missy Giove (USA), Mick Hannah (AUS), Sean McCarroll (AUS), Matti Lehikoinen (FIN), and Andrew Neethling (RSA), at Global Racing in the early year 2000s
The team, well, it was short lived, but it was the right catalyst for César to go back to school for engineering and design.
Shortly after school, César used his experience and connections in the industry to spearhead important milestone projects with Orange, Mondraker and Intense Bikes under CERO Designs' roof. He pioneered the ever so common Long and Low geometry of Enduro and Downhill bikes we all love today.
He knew that there was a better formula for mountain bike frame geometry whether it is XC, Enduro or Downhill. But designing bikes that will be fast, nimble and drop dead gorgeous takes a whole lot of brain and human power to achieve.
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect during my visit to Unno Headquarters in Barcelona’s El Besos Neighbourhood.
Just a regular Friday morning rush hour. Kids going to school, people grabbing coffee and 'tostado con tomatos' in neighbourhood cafes. A stone’s throw from the Mediterrenean sea, quietly tucked away in a brick clad factory with a clock tower, UNNO has a dramatic home. The atmosphere reminded me of an era where at any moment a paper boy could rush around a corner wearing overalls and a felt hat. The boy never appeared, but I knew this was going to be special.
Through hidden corridors and up frightening old service elevators, I found the smallest sign any company has ever used on their office door. Major understatement to what I was about to experience.
I was at UNNO Bikes.
Jessica greeted me with a smile that morphed into out-loud laughter as I butchered my way through Spanish and Catalan. She didn't care, neither did anyone else at UNNO. The UNNO office, up until very recently, shared a space with CERO designs. Cero designs with its rows of computers and well dressed employees, needed to expand and so did UNNO. Not many journalists enter the UNNO Castle for an in-depth tour and I could sense the stress this caused with the design team. There were many top secret projects that needed covering up.
I started with the basics.
How many people work here?
A Mighty Few
There are maybe only a handful of people working at UNNO. Their skills cross boundaries and they can tackle the day's task if it is layup, sanding, shipping and receiving , building or making sure your replacement derailleur hanger gets to you as quickly as possible.
Instead of job titles, each person has a list of jobs they are qualified to do. These qualifications can range from simple but meticulous bike assembly to UD Carbon layup on the Horn XC bike. The ‘lightest XC bike in production’ requires some serious hand to eye coordination during manufacturing. Each resin infused carbon sheet requires millimetric precision to finesse into place and cook under the right temperature conditions. Training for this task takes a long time.
At UNNO you are encouraged to start training for more complicated tasks when you feel ready.
"Every frame is a miracle" -everyone at UNNO
The plan is to use the wasted cooked carbon on different frame parts in the house. It could be a chainguide, or frame protector. We are constantly working on improving our waste management. - Cesar Rojo
Can you recycle carbon fiber used in bicycle manufacturing? The short answer is yes. It is a specialized process so you can't just pop your broken frame into your weekly garbage/recycling pickup. You can't do that with your aluminum frame, either.
So how does it work?
Cesar mentioned a few times that "UNNO is the greenest bike company in the world". It is a bold claim but proportionate to their production volume, process and speed, I began to understand how it may just be possible.
Producing 50 or so frames a year, there is not much waste UNNO creates to begin with. With the geometries dialed and process established, most carbon waste comes from botched layups or punctured carbon mould bladders that allow the layup to collapse during baking.
UNNO uses a local company to collect the carbon waste that utilize a special carbon/resin separation process. Turns out, Airbus is quite interested in this recycled carbon to use in various parts of their airplane manufacturing.
"The plan is to use the wasted cooked carbon on different frame parts in the house. It could be a chainguide, or frame protector. We are constantly working on improving our waste management." - Cesar Rojo
Then there is the electricity the building uses. Provided by Wind Farms and Solar panels.
The question remains for many people who are in the market for a new bike. Why UNNO?
It is clear that UNNO is a company not only exists to do business, but also change the way industry designs bikes, tests prototypes and employs people.
When Cesar tells you that you should not be riding an XL frame if you want to win races (*wink wink, Aaron Gwin), he is not just providing you with an opinion. He has calculated all the possibilities of bike control and suspension setup in his head before you even start testing.
No one at UNNO believe that they have designed the perfect bike with the perfect geometry. They fight hungrily for a customer experience that will allow you to wring out every possible drop of fun and control while being able to pick up the phone for a chat about suspension setup from the trailhead.
..and one must pay for that experience.
The price of admission, for those that understand, is totally worth it.
Editor's Note: Deniz Merdano spent December and part of January in Spain, and had the opportunity to gather some photos and stories while he was there. At the time, no one was aware of the problems that were to come. During these difficult and strange times, we want to extend our thoughts and best wishes to the MTB community and all citizens in Spain, and everywhere the effects of the novel coronavirus are being felt. In the meantime, we will enjoy some of these photos and stories and look forward to brighter days ahead.