We posted our first ride video on the new Colnago V2-R this week and a number of commenters expressed dismay at the fact that this purportedly Italian frame is manufactured in Taiwan rather than Italy.
The question is: does that matter? What gives a bike its national identity? Is there some inherent Italian-ness that goes beyond design? Do you care whether your bike is built by factory workers in Asia rather than Europe?
We have more choice in bikes than ever before, but because of the way the industry operates, the differences between brands sometimes feel more emotional than tangible.
‘That guy’ on your club ride will insist that all carbon bikes are made in the same factory, and that the ubiquitous looky-likey frames available for a few hundred dollars on AliExpress.com are just as good (or indeed the same) as the brand-name ones sold in your LBS.
The origins of these ultra-cheap frames are in reality extremely murky, but there is a grain of truth there inasmuch as modern manufacturing depends heavily on OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers), and certain OEMs make bikes for large numbers of different brands.
While I cannot say with any certainty exactly which models are made by whom, I did for example watch Treks, Scotts and Colnagos roll off the production line at Giant’s factory in Taichung, Taiwan back in 2015. Giant is the world's biggest bike maker, and no doubt similar scenes play out at its rival Merida's plants.
When you’re shopping for a high-end carbon bike with a monocoque frame, you pay a huge premium for traditional European ‘prestige’ brands, but to varying extents, almost all of them make use of outsourced Asian manufacturing.
That doesn’t mean the bikes aren’t designed by the brands themselves of course, but it does make the value proposition more complicated.
If an Italian superbike that costs as much as a small family car is manufactured in the same factory as more mainstream, affordable machines — using similar techniques — then can it justify costing so much more?
Bike frames are relatively simple objects and unlike say cars, the differences between high-end competing models often come down to minor design decisions rather than radically different construction methods or materials.
This is particularly true of top-end road bikes, where the recipe for lightweight monocoque design is fairly well understood, and it’s up to designers to try and inject some brand identity with fanciful shapes, slicker component integration or a nice paint job.
It's also worth noting that brands don't look to Taiwan simply because the cost of labour there is lower than in Europe. It's also where much of the expertise resides — if you want cutting-edge moulded carbon, it's the place to be.
A thorny issue — the 'who' as well as the 'where'
There is a further consideration, and it touches on some very delicate issues. Deep down, would you prefer your bike to be made by a European factory worker rather than an Asian one?
I don’t see why it should matter at all, but from the comments we see online it clearly does to some people .
I’m not trying to put words in the mouths of others, but I sense that there’s a perception that a bike built by Italian factory workers is somehow more authentic than one put together in Taichung.
I’d argue that bikes are just objects onto which we project our feelings, and any notion of baked-in qualities like passion and flare — the top two Italian bike review clichés — is a reflection of our own prejudices rather than anything meaningful.
Having said that, it’s entirely reasonable to debate the value of branding. At what point does a brand give up too much of its identity and will the companies who outsource their manufacturing ultimately lose out?
Do you care where your bike is made? Do you care who makes it?