What's Cool In Road Cycling

Rewel Bikes: Appreciating The Un-fabulous

The sensible is often undervalued in bike reviews because very few dream of buying reasonable, we want spectacular. We want to be admired for our insightful consumerism and matching kit. Yet more often than not, a practical racing bike is a great racing bike. For over 20 years, Werner Pichler aka Rewel has been making un-fabulous custom made titanium bikes in a tiny studio near Bolzano, Italy. PEZ discovers a refreshingly different bike builder.

A cool homemade sign is a good omen.

What’s In A Name?
In 1986, Renata, Werner and Leo pieced together parts of their names to form Rewel [pronounced REH-vell]. Renata is now an ex-girlfriend and consequently an ex-partner (or vice versa) – another messy love proposition. In any case, Rewel is actually one brand, yet two financially separate businesses. One part is Werner Pichler and his tiny workshop on the outskirts of Bolzano. Werner makes about 30 titanium frames a year, only su misura (custom). The second half of the brand is Leo Santa and two other frame builders located about 20 minutes south of Bolzano in Nova Ponente. This officina constructs around 150 titanium frames a year in stock geometries with about half of their production rebranded by other “manufacturers”.

A cool homemade gate is even better.

While 150 frames a year is by no means mammoth, what interests me more is the One Man Band: Werner Pichler. My first impression is that he is the consummate Bike Guy. He’s a steppenwolf. He’s a tinkerer, introvertedly devoted. He is modest in stature and skinny like Pantani. It is a look that bikers love (or at least envy). Werner often flashes an uncomfortable smile with shrugged shoulders, he’d much rather be building or riding than talking to me about his work.

Welcome to Rewel Bikes just outside of Bolzano.

The History of Rewel
One could theorize that Werner Pichler is the confluence of three fortuitous events in the early 80’s. First, he was an early member of the mountain biking wave; a movement misunderstood, and hence, neglected by the Italian bicycle industry. Secondly, steel was no longer the only material available – aluminum, carbon and titanium all offered new, disruptive possibilities for builders. And lastly, Werner was tired of his day job as a welder for industrial applications.

Werner Pichler, the one man band.

Many bike builders bristle with pride. They tend to preach the gospel of materials and craftsmanship. One is expected to sit quietly and appreciate being added to their multi-year waiting list. When it comes to ordering a frame, the customer gives their measurements, declares the kind of riding expected, and most importantly, picks the desired color. Then the builder gives you what they think is best. And rightly so, however, there is another way.

Werner’s shyness and modesty does not make him an easy interview. I try to lead him to this hallowed Builders’ Ground, hoping that it will open him up. I ask, why titanium? He answers, “for all of the same reasons that the others use it.” Good. I then try to get him to talk about the ordering and designing process. Werner says, “almost all of my customers know what they want, they come to me with their measurements and preferred geometry.” Yep, this is “another way”.

Crazy, But Not Ignorant
This detail reminds me of Saul Bellow’s novel “More Die of Heartbreak” where the protagonist, Benn complains to his nephew Kenneth that his beautiful new bride has two devastating flaws: her shoulders are too masculine and her breasts are too far apart. Kenneth asks if she is aware of this and Benn replies, “you can trust a woman to know her measurements.” I’d add that most cyclists know theirs’ too. The savvy ones even know their seat tube angles, head tube lengths and bottom bracket heights.

It is quite refreshing to hear that we, bike customers, are not all ignorant. I mention this to Pichler. He smiles and says, “while many of us are not dumb, most certainly all of us are a little crazy.” Now I get it. Pichler is a rider first and a builder second. Some more prying and I find out that he not only rides, but sponsors, serves as head mechanic and Direttore Sportivo of a 20 man amateur team. They also have a youth team with 10 riders. Team Rewel does both mountain and road racing, whatever’s going on locally, they’re there.

Werner’s homemade jig.

This fact sheds light on a few things. It answers why Pichler only makes 30 frames a year, each requiring about 20 – 25 hours. Those six months of frame building are accomplished during the winter. The titanium frame business finances the rest of the year which is dedicated to racing and servicing the team. Pichler also finds time to get in about 5,000 kilometers of riding.

It also answers how in 1989 (20 years ago!) Rewel built perhaps the first compact drivetrain: a 48 x 34. The climber in Werner wanted the help of a triple, but not the weight, so he custom made a compact. Since most of Rewel’s bikes are seen climbing the local Dolomite mountains, the 48 x 34 continues to be a popular option. Nowadays, they are produced by PMP, which also supplies the rear drop outs.

The modern compact.

Price, Weight and Color
It is said that Price, Weight, Color, in that order, determine how people chose their ride. Although I’m not completely convinced, I do recognize that there is a fair amount of truth therein. Titanium plus custom usually equals expensive: prices in Italy range from 2500 to 4000 euros. However, a custom made Rewel frame sells for 1800 euros. No typo… one thousand eight hundred euros. How is this possible?

“I want my frames to be made for their purpose, light and not terribly fussy,” explains Werner. Translation: his tubes aren’t the pricey brand named ones, the butting is done in-house and it’s external, the welds are a functional one pass (instead of 2 or even 3 pass which are more aesthetically pleasing) and finally Rewel sells the frames direct. No advertising, only word of mouth.

While it is usually uncouth to mention weight when talking to Frame Builders – it is assumed that sophisticated buyers of metal bikes are beyond such Triviality. Werner happily addresses the issue [his own bike wears an unpadded, carbon fiber saddle]. “Just to see, I made a frame for myself with an integrated seat post and got it under 900 grams, but it just wasn’t stiff enough. A kilo is about the optimum for weight and rigidity.” That’s 1000 grams. Many carbon frames weigh more, especially when factoring in paint.

This weld isn’t exactly art, but it gets the job done.

Which leads us to the last of the Buyer’s Trifecta: Color. All of Rewel’s frames are sold with a brushed finish. The logo and usually the customer’s name are etched onto the frames. As Werner says, “painting titanium would be like painting gold earrings.” Although some Rewel’s have been painted, that is up to the customer and done elsewhere. Pichler’s concession to fashion this year was to offer white decals, so customers can match their white saddles, bar tape and pedals. Yep, cyclists are a crazy bunch!

Werner’s own bike.

Simple Choice
Another charming aspect of Rewel is that they offer only two models: Road and Mountain (road bikes account for 70% of total production), appropriately named “Rennrad” and “Mountain”. Every Rewel starts out as six meter long titanium tubes. Werner selects, butts, bends and crimps each one for its intended purpose and rider. If that customer wants an integrated seat post or carbon seat stays or a custom titanium stem, no problem, the model is still road or mountain. Titanium is the only material offered at Rewel. Simplicity at its best.

Try It
Werner loans me a road bike that he made three years ago. The customer traded it in for a new one with an integrated seat post (customer loyalty is a good sign). The bike is well composed despite being set up with tall head tube for an upright-ish position and being on the light and comfy side. I’d prefer a slightly more aggressive ride and I’d trade some lightness for a bit more stiffness. And that’s exactly it: if this was my bike, it would be just as I’d want it.

SIDEBAR: My Style Editor’s Take
Ten year old, Jonas Fox, likes the Rewel. He likes the white saddle and matching white bar tape (the bikes in our scuderia dutifully wear black tape). He also likes picking the bike up and noting its lightness.

Our conversation this morning:

him: it must be worth a lot, right?
me: not really, why’s that?
him: because you know who made it.

him: so how many bikes does he make in a year?
me: 30
him: and how many do they make in a factory in China?
me: maybe thousands
him: see!

Try It – cont.
Personally, I can’t help thinking that this is a pretty plain bike. Maybe it’s the workman-like “good enough” approach or maybe it’s the material and its dull gray color or maybe the simple, round tubes or probably, it’s just me, but it’s oatmeal or muesli. Wholesome and nourishing, yet bland. Forgettable. This is not a condemnation of titanium, Pez has shown how flash it can be, like these from Lynskey here or here.

No review is complete without a beefy, bottom bracket photo, aka the bike tits-n-ass shot.

After spending a week with this bike, I have a second impression: blandness is the point. This bike is the conscious decision and obvious reflection of its maker. This bike is a modest and practical ride. It gives me everything that I want and need (and is more than capable of handling all of my 200 watts) at an appropriate price. It is a cold shower for much of the cycling foolishness and hypocracy that I often entertain. And that’s what makes it such a refreshing oddball in the alluring crowd of pricey, aero-shaped, carbon flared, red-black-white colored, dream machines.

Another Saul Bellow quote comes to mind (it’s not that often that one gets to quote Bellow in bike articles), “a funny foot requires a funny shoe.” The irony of the Rewel road bike is that its utter reasonable-ness makes it a funny shoe in today’s marketplace [of course, there are other inexpensive titanium frames available, but they aren’t custom made in South Tirol]. Although I haven’t decided yet if I’m sane enough to own a Rewel, I certainly appreciate all of those funny feet out there pedaling Werner Pichler’s bikes.

• See the website: REWEL.com

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