Elite Cycling is a cycling accessory company which needs no introduction. This month I have been lucky enough to have Elite open their factory doors to me in Italy, to see how the company is injecting Italian style into cycling accessories… and the next generation of turbo trainers
Elite Cycling Factory Tour – Italian Substance & Style – #TitaniumAdventures
June, the offer a trip to Italy, to see a new product from a big cycling manufacturer? Yes, thank you! I don’t mind if I do! After having written reviews of the Elite Drivo and the Elite Rampa, Elite asked if I was interested in going to Padova to have a look a new machine for their turbo trainer line up. Naturally, I jumped at the chance, and with a copy of Zwift running on my iPad, I climbed on the bus of the sky – RyanAir. Now I’m not the greatest flyer at the best of times, but after that flight, I know how veal feels!
I think part of my stiffness was compounded as in the previous 24hrs I had only managed to get three hours of sleep, as I had just been assisting at the CVR World in London. The guys and girls there, both riders and tech team, put on a great show! While I spent the vast majority of time behind the scenes, I did get a brief moment in front of the camera, explaining to those at home who might not be overly familiar with Zwift, how the rider telemetry works, the concept of watts/kg and what this means for a race.
On talking with the team at Elite, we looked at ways to maximise my time in the Venice region – apparently eating my body weight pasta wasn’t on the agenda! – It was highlighted that Zwift has had bottles made by Elite and that it might be interesting to follow the production of a bottle, but also check out the production facility for the new Elite Fly bottle
One of the things I learnt during the Tacx Factory Tour was if someone gives you the opportunity to look around one of their factories, take it! You never know what you might see and in this case, it turned out to be another two countries, as the Brenta Factory, which makes the Elite bottles is in Croatia. We went by road, with the Elite CEO driving and the Head of Elite Sales coming along too, gave for some great conversation, and insights into Elite!
The Brenta factory is located in Sum Na Stuli region of Croatia, a very literal 2 minutes drive from the border.
Speaking of the border – In the same area is another factory producing glass bottles for wines etc.dont, VERY near the border. When the factory there needed to expand, there wasn’t any space on the Croatia side of the border, so they built a bridge OVER the border, and built a new warehouse in Slovenia!! It’s one thing to be a global company, and crossing borders, but don’t think I have seen a company require cut a hole in a fence when it comes to bridging international borders!!!
The Brenta factory can only be described as being located in the most unlikely place for a factory. I’m used to seeing factories on industrial estates in the UK, and certainly in what would be termed as “brownfield” areas. By being in Croatia, the Elite bottle factory is simply set in rural idl. It’s beautiful there, and I can see why the CEO visits regularly
Elite as a company has existed since 1970, and has been producing bottles for over 30yrs. Something the company are proud to proclaim in their entrance hall back in the main factory in Italy, where a life-sized photo of two Italian rivals dominates one of the entrance halls.
I found the story associated with this photograph to be very interesting. The photograph is from a cycle race in Italy, taken as the country is shaking off the effects of World War II. The riders are archrivals; the rider behind is the strong traditional Italian, whilst in front, is the new breed of Italian playboy with the string of mistresses. We cannot be certain in which direction the bottle is being handed, but it certainly speaks to sportsmanship between great rivals, and the Italian love of racing and cycling
In fact some of the older Elite bottles, the company no longer has samples of originals such as the UNICA made in connection with BORN in 1989 – now only low-quality images remain
But things have moved a long way since the first bottles were first made by Elite under their brand in 1995. Both in materials, but also in the base the technology now used, which is highlighted by the Elite Fly bottle that we will come to later, but also in the scope and scale of the Elite bottle operation.
On the way to Croatia, we stopped into getting some refreshments in an AutoGrills – 4.00hrs in the car needs a few stops! – inside Coca-Cola was running a promotion with AutoGrill to get a free aluminium coca-cola bottle with certain meal deals
It turns out that those aluminium bottles are also made by Elite! Plus they have been running a similar promotion over 10years, as I was shown in the factory, where all the old bottles are kept in the CEO’s office!
Back in Croatia, the Brenta factory was previously owned by a subcontractor which Elite used for bottle production. However, the management team at Elite found the external teams not reactive enough, which is a problem when customers require fast shipments and custom orders. So 10yrs ago, Elite purchased the whole factory, and in that time has completely replaced all the machines to modernise the site.
The factory in Croatia currently employs 20 people and regarding scale can produce a shipment of 100,000 ordinary bottles in just ten days!
By comparison, complex tech is a little slower, and the new Elite Fly bottle, due to the new manufacturing technique, only allows the company to produce 5000 units a day currently. That is put into perspective when you realise that the Elite Fly took three years to bring from design concept to production. Something we’ll take a look at now
Elite Fly Bottle
I’m sorry I just want to revisit the statement that I was given by the team at Elite. The Elite Fly Bottle took three years to develop… THREE YEARS!!! For a 550ml bottle! THREE years!!! After my incredulity had passed the Elite CEO, who’s baby the Fly bottle is, explained to me why a bottle could take three years to develop and bring to market – unsurprisingly just like everything else in cycling it all hinges on weight.
To start off most normal cycling bidons, and water bottles generally produced through blow moulding. So what does that mean?
There are bags of pellets which get shipped to Brenda, these are then loaded into hoppers, and mixing occurring to allow for different colours of bottles.
The polyethene is heated, and dried, as it goes through the machines. The drying is a crucial step, as, without this, moisture related faults occur in the bottle, and no one wants to be mid ride, squeeze the bottle and have water come through a hole in the SIDE of the bottle!
Once dried, the bottle material is melted and pipped out, looking for all the world like a long plastic sausage, but at the same time, not like any bottle, I’ve drunk from!
This molten proto-bottle is then sandwiched between two huge moulds, and air is blown into the resin, causing the bottle to expand against the contours of the mould and take shape
The top and bottom excesses are sliced off, and out comes your moulded bottle!
But all this is the big part which leads onto the Elite Fly bottle development. Using a blow moulding approach, the bottle is going to be same thickens across most the bottle
A bottle needs to be thick at the top, to support the bottle cap, and similarly thick on the bottle base, literally to stop the bottom falling out when you fill it! But the sides of the bottle don’t need to be that thick, in fact on some cheaper, thicker bottles, that can cause problems when it comes to squeezing the bidon whilst on a workout
It took the three years for Elite to develope a way of varying the thickness across the sides of the bottle without affecting the structural integrity of the bidon. They suceeded via a combination of injection and blown moulding techniques.
But why would they go to the All this effort, time and expense to thinning the sides of the bottle?? – one word – WEIGHT. In cycling, if you can manage to shave 36grams off the weight of a bottle, as Elite have done, whilst improving the use of the bottle the pro teams will LOVE you. Mainly as it all comes down again to weight, as the bidons are not considered by the UCI when it comes to the bike weight! As a result Elite is the supplier to large number of the peloton teams
So the Elite Fly came to be!
Crucially Elite has made a few other changes, specifically making the mouth of the Fly easier to pour powders into – I’ve a couple of bottles at home and seem to miss as often as I hit the bottle!! So that change is a benefit to the end user as well as teams
The cap has also been strengthened, yet again trimmed in weight too – injection moulding again for you, and also with improved flow
But crucially as the sides of the bottle have been thinned down you get a much better grip, and “squeeze” action
So how does the injection moulding moulding work?
A higher grade of bottle material is required, due to the need to promote the easier flow of material.
The material is extruded onto an external moulding, before being inserted into a secondary moulding. With the plastic injected between the two.
It was this step that took the three years to create. The injection moulding side thickness does not have a straight forward formulae unlike the rest of the bottle structure. So three years were spent refining and trimming weight in order to get an effective balance between weight, durability and usability.
But it seems things have paid off.
Once the bottles are produced, they are stored until printing.
It might only look like a small thing, but hygiene is taken more seriously at the Elite factory than I have seen before. Even when it comes to having ordered bottles myself from other companies. All bottles are encased in plastic to sotre them, everyone is required to wear protective coveralls in the factory, and when you enter any of the different areas you are required to disinfect your shoes.
If you’ve ever had custom kit printed, you’ll know there is an initial setup cost of screening printing. That is because printing in this fashion is not like spraying ink from a Deskjet printer, a custom screen needs to be produced for each colour you want to use on your product.
Those screens physically take time and materials to produce, and the appropriate paints and bottle colours produced. Sometimes the colour matching can be more of a challenge than people realise, with the company having to waste an early run, if the production colour is not a perfect match for some reason
Whilst at the factory, Team Sky had an order of Elite Fly bottles going through, so I was able to see the labelling process first hand on the Elite machine.
As the Elite Fly material is finer than on Elites other bottles, the printing takes a couple of extra steps to ensure a perfect service for label bonding. Initally Bottles are sorted and aligned for printing,
Then surface preparation takes place, where they are brushed down, heated with gas jet jets, and the UV prepped.
The label is applied, which I’ll confess I found mesmerising, before being laser fixed in place.
There is then a final UV fix
An optical scanner checks each bottle print, before a final human test.
There we have it a Team Sky Elite Fly Bottle.
But at the start, I did mention the Zwift bottle, what has happened there?
All the printing screens are stored at the Brenta factory around printing station. If Zwift, or any other company, wants further bottles produced as the screens already exists, it is simply a case of putting the appropriate templates back into the machine, producing the bottles, loading the print settings and hitting go!
So there we have it, the Elite Fly bottle, Zwift bottle production.
Time for me to jump back in the car, through Croatia and Slovenia and back to Italy, and see the new turbo Elite is building.
I’ll post that next week!
But here is a quick taster for then!