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HANDCRAFTED IN BARCELONA

Behind the Brand: UNNO

Words Deniz Merdano
Photos Deniz Merdano
Date Apr 1, 2020

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.

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I am greeted by the rear half of an Unno Dash trail bike.

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.

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Jessica ‘mami’ Falcon was my guide all day making sure I did not miss any steps of the UNNO thought process. She's clearly the 'epoxy' that holds the company together.

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What an epic setting for a bike company.

The Setting

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?

Seven.

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Three different types of carbon is utilized throughout the range. T800, T1000 and UD Carbon depending on the frame and application. These sheets are kept in a deep freezer for storage. The freezing will slow down the epoxy curing time significantly.

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Some layups are more difficult than others. It can take months to gain the muscle memory. Charli is an expert and layups are his main task at UNNO.

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.

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Charli was busy laying up a Burn rear end half to head into the oven. He massages the soft carbon sheet into the mould with a plastic spatula before he closes the other half and inflated the bladder that forms the piece.

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Carbon is soft but also springy, it needs a lot of convincing to take shape in the mould.

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When satisfied with the layup, the mould gets clamped close.

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Jessica hand inspects every single frame that comes out of the oven. She has an extensive background in industrial design with clay modeling cars and motorcycles.

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Frames and rear-ends are moulded in halves and then glued together after curing of each half. 180°C for 4 hours will do.

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Excess glue will be sanded off for a few hours before a frame is ready for finishing.

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Cable and housing ports are built inside the frame and retain their shape with silicone tubing during the curing process.


"Every frame is a miracle" -everyone at UNNO
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Four stages of UNNO carbon. Left to Right, straight out of the oven to ready for paint.

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Paul 'the nice guy' sands and quality controls each frame in his station for hours. Tedious job.

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Torture chamber in the bowels of the old building. Terrifiying place for a carbon frame.

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The pile of fallen soldiers waiting for... recycling collection.

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Some real world testing, too.

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This pile will be picked up by a resin infused carbon recycling company to end up as meal trays in passenger jets.


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

Environmental Footprint

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.

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Teruel Airport is a high plateau boneyard to salvage parts and recycle carbonfiber parts off of commercial airplanes.

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Frames ready for assembly and packaging.

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UNNO currently does not charge extra for special paintjobs. But with the attention to detail and the highest quality of paints available, I expect this to change soon.

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Frederico is the pigment master. He runs a tight ship but ever so friendly.

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You can opt for raw carbon, simple single color accents or a full blown custom job from Frederico.

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Time to assemble.

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Nadek is a master mechanic, carbon guy and fills in other shoes at UNNO on a daily basis.

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Motomaster Lubricants reign here.

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Every frame gets the same treatment.

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Nadek takes much pride in his work.

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UNNO hopes to soon utilize recycled carbon waste for frame protection and other odds and ends.

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Lazer cut frame packaging. All I can afford from UNNO in reality.

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Now imagine a customer's face when they open this box...magic.

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Frederico's magic on every painted UNNO frame.

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Industrial design perfection.

Why UNNO?

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.

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Tres, Dos, UNNO, CERO!

UNNO Website

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.

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Comments

sanesh-iyer
+4 Wilson Andrew Major Pete Roggeman Mammal
Sanesh Iyer  - March 31, 2020, 10:56 p.m.

Sounds like the relationship with Airbus and their contractors is quite strong here! It's cool how they have access to such high grade fibres despite their low volumes.

I am curious about the fibre recycling process they use and which company they partner with, if they can disclose that. Is it a pyrolysis approach? You'd still lose 50% mass (all the resin gets burned up).

Also... what are their scrap rates like? Looks like they do a significant volume of testing for 50 frames per year and that looks like a dozen frames in that box?

Last one, I swear! I'm super curious as to why they do a two piece bonded with bladders. There are a few different ways to make a bike frame and I haven't seen this before so I'm very curious about the rational. 

Also I lied, one more, consolidation strategy for bonding the two halves... just clamped at the BB or is their more we're not seeing? That's probably secret sauce. Guaranteeing a high quality bond for such complex geometry is an art for sure, of all the things in their manufacturing this impresses me the most. 

If they're serious about closing the loop and using their scrapped carbon for parts in house and read this, pass along the key words Adam Smith McGill JEC 2019, he's got some secret sauce that may be interesting for them. 

Hope everyone's staying safe and thanks to Deniz and Unno for this... I'll be geeking out over these images for days.

Reply

denomerdano
+1 Pete Roggeman
Deniz Merdano  - April 1, 2020, 7:52 a.m.

Sanesh what a great bunch of questions..

I think there is more than what meets the eye when it comes to the amount of carbon waste there is at UNNO. The recycling guys don't come over weekly to pick up waste.

Most of the compromised frames are kept around indefinitely for studying and R&D purposes.

I'd be surprised if the recycling guys come by more than once a year to pick up just a handful of parts.

Some of those frames were quality control benchmarks and quite low in the serial numbers.

I've reached out to the guys at UNNO with your comments and hopefully they will find the time to chime in...

Reply

Carmel
+1 Deniz Merdano
Carmel  - April 2, 2020, 2:12 a.m.

Regarding the bonding of the two halves: Comparing with the latest Gee Milner Video I am sure they cure the main frame in one go, thus no bonding required after curing.

You can see the layup on the bladder here: https://youtu.be/Kd9kiTEFzxE (go to 4:45)

Reply

sanesh-iyer
0
Sanesh Iyer  - April 2, 2020, 7:39 a.m.

Super cool video! Thank you for that. That makes way more sense... confused as to why this article says bond two halves now. The "glue" we're seeing is just epoxy bleed at the split line then. Is that just for the rear end then? I think that's more common.

Reply

heckler
+1 Pete Roggeman
Sven Luebke  - April 1, 2020, 12:46 a.m.

Seriously?  NSMBs first April 1 article?

Reply

pete@nsmb.com
+3 Niels Todd Hellinga Tremeer023
Pete Roggeman  - April 1, 2020, 9:08 a.m.

We used to have a lot of fun with it, but honestly, the bike industry fucked April 1st up about a decade ago with a raft of ridiculous press releases that just fall flat. You have to look long and hard to find anything that's actually funny on Apr 1 anymore, and in the rare occasion you do, some numbskull always feels the need to prove how smart they are (except, they're dumb) by pointing out that it's April Fool's, thus spoiling it for everyone else. Sorry if that sounds grouchy!

Reply

heckler
+2 Pete Roggeman Tremeer023
Sven Luebke  - April 1, 2020, 9:51 p.m.

Its OK guys, the Grim Donut long con made my day, sorry to say....

Reply

pete@nsmb.com
0
Pete Roggeman  - April 2, 2020, 7:19 a.m.

There's a lot to like about that one.

Reply

mrbrett
+2 Pete Roggeman Cr4w
mrbrett  - April 1, 2020, 8:18 a.m.

Oh man, that raw/white finish is beautiful in its' simplicity. Perfect execution.

Reply

pete@nsmb.com
0
Pete Roggeman  - April 1, 2020, 9:08 a.m.

I agree. Extremely elegant.

Reply

andrewbikeguide
+1 Velocipedestrian
AndrewR  - April 2, 2020, 9:01 a.m.

And then the tyre install guy is in a rush and delivers an OCD nightmare to the mountain biking public!!

So many things to use as calibration/ centring marks with E13 rims and Maxxis logos.

Reply

mammal
+1 Sandy James Oates
Mammal  - April 1, 2020, 10:30 a.m.

On the lubricants... I hope that:

A) that should be Motorex, as opposed to Motormaster, or B) It's a different Motormaster than I'm accustomed to here in Canada.

Reply

reilly
0
Reilly Hohman  - April 1, 2020, 12:08 p.m.

It's Motorex in those photos.

Reply

denomerdano
0
Deniz Merdano  - April 1, 2020, 12:28 p.m.

Good spotting.. I'm doing the motorex sticker on my computer a bad service.

Reply

sandy-james-oates
0
Sandy James Oates  - April 1, 2020, 6:32 p.m.

Crappy Tire in Canada sells Motomaster stuff. For a minute there I though they were selling some upscale bicycle lubes.

Reply

Tadpoledancer
0
Tadpoledancer  - April 1, 2020, 1:37 p.m.

Looking forward to the aerospace companies marketing the use of bicycle industry quality carbon. 

And I love clear coat over carbon weave as long as it’s done “classy”.

Reply

LWK
+1 cedrico
LWK  - April 1, 2020, 3:03 p.m.

"producing 50 or so frames each year" - the frames are expensive but that sounds like a "business" that could barely support one individual, let alone 7 employees?  They're beautiful bikes; honestly curious.

Reply

denomerdano
+1 cedrico
Deniz Merdano  - April 1, 2020, 8:39 p.m.

There is so much more going on at UNNO than just frames.

They design and produce frames for couple of other boutique brands.. 

Have you seen the electric car company Cupra's ebike? Yes, designed and produced by UNNO.

The new Prime bikes Downhill frame? Yup UNNO again...

There is plenty going on at UNNO to keep everyone employed.. perhaps less so with the lockdown...

Reply

WheelNut
0
WheelNut  - April 7, 2020, 1:47 p.m.

That is exactly what I was thinking too. Then I remembered that Unno is part of Cero Design. http://www.wearecero.com/ 

Even still, how in the world could the bicycle side of the operation be profitable at 50 frames per year? The employees there must only spend a small fraction of their time working on Unno products. The suspension development costs alone would outstrip the profits from 50 frames. It is a mysterious world...

Reply

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