Deda Elementi, Interbike 2015, and the continuing evolution of Italian Design

In the early 1990s when I joined the cycling scene, the preeminence of Italian design had already begun waning. The mountainbike boom of the 1980s brought a fresh, American perspective to function that contrasted the traditional European aesthetics. The advent of indexed shifting, which favoured integrated component groups, made Shimano the dominant drivetrain maker on the planet. Major brands in the larger markets had moved production of their bread-and-butter framesets to Asia, extending out the supply lines for OEM component manufacturers based in Italy. Unable to tap into the OEM market and slow to adapt to new trends, many smaller Italian companies quietly disappeared. By the time I woke to the scene, there were only three names, all Italian, associated with premium handlebars and stems: Cinelli, 3TTT, and Italmanubri (ITM). And actually, the first two belonged to the same parent company, the Columbo Group, which also owned Columbus tubing. This last point is pertinent when you look for the origins of Deda Elementi.

Before aluminium construction had fully taken hold, Columbus was supplying virtually all of the steel bicycle tubing for Italian-made framesets as well as a large portion of quality bikes worldwide. Then a new company formed in 1992, and it contained certain former members of the Columbo Group. That company was called Dedacciai (“acciai” is the plural form of acciaio, Italian for “steel”). Dedacciai made some good scores, supplying big producers like Bianchi and then readily exploited the aluminium trend in the high-end frame market too. And they introduced their own line cockpit components: Deda Elementi. Deda Elementi’s handlebars and stems had clean, purposeful lines. The company responded timely to newer trends like threadless stems and oversize handlebars. They quite literally put their wares in the hands of the top professional riders of the era. Less obviously, a lot of their product was made in Asia, close to the manufacturing and assembly plants of the biggest global bike brands. Holding the lusty eye of the aftermarket consumer and a generous slice of the OEM market, Deda Elementi found resounding success. Meanwhile Italmanubri was in a market death spiral, going bankrupt in the 2000s. The company once known as Tecno Tubo Turino, 3TTT, had long been the shabby step-sister to Cinelli. Suffering from inept marketing and anemic product development, the brand foundered and was eventually sold off. And Cinelli, once de rigueur for any respectable high performance road bike, was quickly losing relevance to racing.

I will confess that it took me a long time to appreciate Deda Elementi’s designs. When they first entered my awareness, the “anatomic” bend was the dominant expression of the dropbar form, and Deda’s own flavour didn’t appeal to me. At the time, I preferred 3TTT’s version first used on their Forma bar from about 1990. Slightly shorter reach, Forma’s compound-curve, anatomic grip angled up gently below the lever position but didn’t make access to the lever blade itself inaccessible like the superficially similar Ritchey Logic. Deda’s anatomic shape angled up more at the lower hook, which made it easy to grab the lever blade but put my wrists at an uncomfortable angle. Since then I have lost my taste for most iterations of anatomic bends while strangely I have come to appreciate the more traditional round bends. If I had liked traditional bend bars back then, I doubtlessly would have gravitated to Deda. In addition to their anatomic style, they also offered “deep” (sometimes called Belgian style) and “shallow” (sometimes called Italian style). These two bends more or less echoed older, discontinued choices from Cinelli (#66/Campione del Mondo and #64/Giro d’Italia) and 3TTT (“Merckx” bend and “Tour de France” bend). At the time, whenever you saw a World Tour rider with a round handlebar, they were usually gripping a round bend Deda bar, sometimes even blacking out the logos if their team had a different sponsor.

Handlebar preferences can change, but if you’ve read my musings on the subject in the past, there are other factors in the design of levers and frames that can also affect handlebar ergonomics. Feel free to kill some time on those older articles, but for now all you need to know is that current handlebar design is centered on “compact” designs. Shallower and short-reached, the hook of a compact bar starts tight where the levers sit and then gently and smoothly increases as it slings down and back. The compact bend can be seen as blend between traditional round bends and anatomic designs. Across the market, each company has applied their own tweaks to the shape, but Deda’s version, known as “RHM” for “Rapid Hand Movement” (…sigh…), is so well executed that it’s almost impossible to fault. You can find the RHM bend on the sub-$60 RHM 01 thru the carbon Superleggera ($$$!).

As far as stems are concerned, my standards are little looser since a stem is not a rider’s contact point. A stem just needs to be solid, easy on the eyes and easy to work on….oh, light weight is good too. The Deda Zero100 stem is all that; virtually perfect, unless you are allergic to large logos (in which case, you better refill your prescription before you look at the rest of the bike market). One weird thing about the Zero100 stem is that there have been a number of sometimes poorly explained variations of colour ways and shapes. Some versions were 84 degrees (ie negative 6 degrees) and a few 86 degrees (-4 degrees). Some had titanium bolts, others chromed steel. There’ve been colour ways beyond basic black: white, Team Sky (black with blue stripe), and “dark metal” among others. And since Deda Elementi does not have an exclusive distributor in America, it’s always been a little ambiguous what a Zero100 stem should cost the consumer. Oh, I suppose the fact that big “Deda” logo is printed on the Zero100 stem so that you cannot invert the stem for an up angle without committing a grievous aesthetic crime might be a flaw to some riders, but that’s never been a problem for me. I was actually overjoyed when Deda introduced a Pista version of the Zero100 that is 70 degrees (negative 20 degrees!).

Not everything that Deda does has been an instant classic, and some products have been objectively bad. A few years back the Phaser handlebar, as its name suggested, looked like a discarded film prop from a stillborn Star Trek spin-off; I have never seen one except the company’s display at Interbike. But the jury is still out on the “Trentacinque/35” product series with 35mm bar/stem interfaces. While companies like Easton are making waves in the enduro niche of the mountainbike market with 35mm handlebars and stems, the road market has been lukewarm for OVER-oversize. The road market oscillates between fads of “stiffer is better” and “aero is the bomb”, and the current market is still surging with aero-nerds. So maybe Deda’s timing is bad, but realistically this 35mm standard won’t take off in the road scene unless some other company joins, probably someone like Giant deciding to adopt the 35mm standard for their house brand product lines. Then maybe that would give some momentum to the aftermarket demand. Gone are the days when Deda themselves could land an OEM deal that big. In recent years, the big manufacturers have largely gone with their own house brand products…or with FSA.

One Deda product category that has been puzzlingly disappointing is seatposts. The top-of-the-line posts have been cursed with hideous styling, uncompetitive retail pricing, or both. The lower priced items have either been heavy or irritatingly oversized (as in 27.2mm diameter posts being a bit too big to slip into seat tubes like they should). In my time selling and assembling custom road bikes, it is usually desirable to make the post, bar, and stem all of the same brand. Deda seatposts are definitely the weak link.

Going back to the subject of aero-road, Deda recently decided to make an actual effort to court thusly minded high-end consumers with their Superzero handlebar. Using the same RHM bend, the Superzero’s top is flattened out to a UCI-legal foil with an internal channel for cable routing. One detail a little different is that the shoulders of the Superzero is more rounded than the other RHM bars, a gentle curve that smacks of track handlebars that stay out of the way of a sprinter’s forearms when gripping the drops. Deda also throws in a new Superzero stem to compliment the aero dropbar. The new stem shape is devoid of clumsy features, but while the black on black graphics follow current fashion, the overall stylistic impression is a bit underwhelming. That’s kinda the problem with stems. It’s hard to create a stem that can be a real standout in both function and style. Most style flourishes on stems tend to add weight if they don’t make the stem weaker. You can try to make a bland stem lighter, but it’s not often a good idea to pare down a stem below about 110gr. You can make one out carbon rather than metal, but that still won’t allow you to drop the weight much more in a structure that must withstand such concentrated stresses. And with a conventional bar/stem interface, you can’t make any actual improvement in aerodynamics. To really make aerodynamic improvements, you’d need to integrate those designs to compliment the frame and fork, but then that’s really the realm where bikes like Specialized’s new Venge and Trek’s new Madone rule, which use house brand components to integrate the aerodynamics of the whole bike.

Below the premium level product, Deda Elementi’s offerings are a little murkier. The Zero1 stem is actually pretty nice for the money, and at least all of its variations of black & white graphics have logos that can be flipped upside-down for angling the stem upwards. At Interbike this year, the Deda booth also showed a couple other stems labeled “Cross Mud”. I wish I knew what they were about. Three months have elapsed and though the website has been updated with the Superzero stuff, there is no mention of those stems that I saw. I would have asked the staff manning the booth but apparently they can only converse in English when they are engaged in a potential OEM or distributor deal. Then again, neither could I get the time of day from them in years past when I went to Interbike on behalf of a custom framebuilder who actually used Dedacciai steel and titanium. As far as I can tell, Deda Elementi’s only goal at Interbike is hammer out a commitment from large distributors like QBP or sell unlabelled carbon framesets to newly minted bike brands. Those douchebags must really hate Interbike on Friday, when the show is open to anyone who buys a ticket at the door. I bet they just sit there with their disappointing coffee, glaring at anyone who touches the displayed product while waiting for their turn to go outside and smoke a cigarette.

Elsewhere at Interbike, FSA had a sprawling booth with all manner of handlebars and stems….from competition-oriented items for road, mtb, and triathlon/TT to commuter and city bike designs. Of course, FSA has ambitions beyond handlebars and stems. The company that began with headsets now is a major player for cranksets, brakes, and wheels, and on the horizon they plan to bring their own electronic shift system to market. With design centers in Italy, US, and Taiwan, FSA have penetrated all levels of the market from entry-level OEM to premium aftermarket consumers. If there’s one thing you can say about FSA is that they are eager and responsive to changes in the market. At another area of the show floor, another company had their own line of handlebars and stems. A few years ago, the discarded brand 3TTT got a shot of life from some new investors, dropped two “t”s from its name, and debuted all new designs. Their products are smartly delineated into three-levels and their road bars are presented in several variations of round and compact bends. Their design center is in Italy and production is in Taiwan; they have OEM deals with several premium brands such as Focus and Cervelo. Over at the same booth as Brooks saddles, Italian company Fizik has also introduced a line of posts, bars, and stems to compliment their highly successful saddles. Three levels of handlebars, two levels of posts, one level of stem in 7 or 17degree angles. Clean, minimal graphics. So while only the Fizik saddles can be found OEM on bikes from bigger bike brands, Fizik bars and stems are a legitimate choice for aftermarket consumers and custom bike builders.

To me, the only thing more surprising than the fact that Cinelli still exists is the manner in which it does so. Cinelli, whose origins followed the postwar rebirth of Italy’s industrial north, now succeeds on the prestige of its brand alone. Virtually all components and accessories are manufactured in Asia, indistinguishable from the scrum save for the iconic Cinelli logo, while hip street artists in places like New York and Milan line up to create collaborations with Cinelli on bike frames and merchandise, to the delight of Instagram. Cinelli’s only real connection with competition is with fixed gear circuit racing like the Red Hook Crit series, which fits the organic chaos of impromptu messenger races into a near-professional format of competitive events in Europe and North America with sponsors….makes me uneasy since it sounds threateningly similar to the concept of matter meeting anti-matter. And as I type this, I am still trying to figure out if Cinelli’s current demographic is closer to 1950s Italian factory workers and farmers…who were the racers who bought Cino Cinelli’s original designs… than the middle-class roadies who abandoned the venerable brand when Deda Elementi started sponsoring the US Postal Team and Italian-made handlebars disappeared from bikes selling under $2000.

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