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Malta bike company rides export success

Cadel Evans and Robbie McEwen have a lot in common. The champion cyclists are both Australian and they are both on the Belgian team Predictor-Lotto.

They may also have something else in common. It is quite possible that both have raced with Ridley bikes with frames built in Malta.

Five years ago, brothers Paul and Andrew Albanozzo were devastated to learn that the Italian bicycle manufacturer that Paul worked for in Bulebel was closing down. Both of them loved bikes and saw them as their future. Rather than give up, they decided to set up their own manufacturing and applied for a 600-square metres site.

Malta Industrial Parks found them one on the Corradino Industrial Estate. It was only half the size that they wanted and the company, Action Frame, has already outgrown it. In fact, they are eyeing the vacant factory next door.

"We added a mezzanine floor in the past year so that we could move our spraying and finishing upstairs but we are bumping into each other down here," Paul Albanozzo said.

"I can still recall the first day that we walked in and saw this huge empty space!"

The company makes carbon-fibre frames for racing bikes and has just secured an order for 500 frames from one company and an order for 120 from one team. Given that their annual production was hovering around 1,000, they are massive orders. "Teams usually only order a few dozen frames at a time," Andrew Albanozzo added.

What is truly remarkable is that within such a short time, Action Frame has already emerged as a leader in this niche market, with 5,000 frames to its credit for teams from around the world. Andrew Albanozzo explained that the only real competition for commercial production came from Taiwan. However, Action Frame uses a different technique, which results in much sturdier frames.

The frames start off as carbon fibre tubes with different profiles. These are cut and the joints are then bound together with carbon fibre tape and epoxy, carefully laid perpendicularly to ensure full strength. The frame is then put into a mould to be pressed into the right shape and then trimmed meticulously by hand. It is sanded several times until silky smooth and then sprayed. Sometimes a part is painted over with clear lacquer to show the carbon fibre below. The end product weighs just 900g, compared to steel frames that weigh 1.6kg.

They have 16 different models in production, each of which is made in seven sizes. Most change from one year to the next.

Action Frame uses a network of Italian and French agents to market its products. The company tends to keep a low profile as they already have as much work as they can handle.

The designs are mainly done in Italy but you can see that the brothers are champing at the bit. Andrew Albanozzo has several ideas on ways to cut down on weight and increase speed - but racing rules are strict and hamper innovation.

"There would be a lot of interest in them but who would buy a bike if they could not race with it?" he said wistfully.

He holds up a prototype that would comply with the rules but which is nonetheless radical.

"It is all about aerodynamics. For example, cables are no longer flapping around on the outside of the frame. They are all routed inside," he said.

The brothers face the same challenges that any entrepreneur does: A high turnover of staff (they are nine in all), the need to multitask, the challenges of growth. It does not leave them much spare time. What would they do with it?

Paul and Andrew laughed.

"We would ride ourselves! I used to go to the BMX track when it was still in Sliema. I was a lot younger then," Andrew Albanozzo smiled. "I ride motorbikes now!"
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