Interview with framemaker Carles Nebot of Nortel.le

Custom handmade bicycle framemaker Carles Nebot of Nortel.le

Interview with Carles Nebot, framemaker, framepainter and ultradistance cyclist.

As part of an ongoing collaboration with the website www.gregarioscc.com, I have been carrying out a series of interviews with prominent people involved in the cycling community in the Valencia Region. The article below is an English version of the original Spanish text which was published on 06/04/22, which you can read here: El arte de los cuadros de acero ligeros hechos a mano – Nortel·le by Carles Nebot.


“I still feel that variable gears are only for people over forty-five. Isn't it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft... As for me, give me a fixed gear!”

Henri Desgrange, first director of the Tour de France

L’Équipe, 1902


There is perhaps no other sport so anchored in its traditions and practices and yet so open to innovation and development as cycling. The struggle between tradition and innovation, old school and new school, seems somehow to form part cycling’s very DNA: there is always a technological advance that is at odds with some unwritten rule or other, provoking untold debate and discussion among cyclists, with the advocates of one side and the other eager and willing to lock horns in defence of their position. And for every advance, for every victory of progress, there is a counteraction from the outmoded, the discarded, the superseded, which battles its way back into fashion: fixed wheels, gravel roads, saddle bags………saddle bags! Cycling, it seems, is also the only sport in which the old school can stage a comeback and reposition itself at the cutting edge.

And there is surely nothing quite so old school in the world of cycling as a lightweight steel bicycle frame

Nortel.le handmade steel bicycle frame
Nortel.le handmade steel bicycle frame

Made-to-measure and lovingly handcrafted with exquisite precision, often with a waiting period of many months, a lightweight steel frame was once both the aspiration and the standard for any serious road cyclist, until its gradual relegation from favour first by aluminium and then finally by carbon, which - seemingly - definitively displaced it from the market place, the promise of reduced weight, greater responsiveness and off-the-shelf availability trumping steel’s once undisputed charms.

And yet, it never went away completely, with a diehard cohort of “fanatics” fighting its corner in relative obscurity during a period in which it seemed from the outside to be condemned to that box in which all keen cyclists keep their cast-off gear. Somewhat unimagineably, around a decade ago the steel frame began to stage a slow yet steady comeback, spurred on by renewed technological innovation, a desire among certain sections of the cycling public for an alternative to carbon’s sometimes harsh ride quality, and an upsurge in riders looking for the possibility of including off-road riding into their road routes.

 

Exterior of Nortel.le bicycle workshop in Sueca, Valencia
Nortel.le bicycle workshop in Sueca, Valencia

For a generation of Valencian cyclists, the brand Nortel.le came to represent the zenith of the art of handmade, lightweight steel bicycle frames. Fittingly tucked away in a workshop amid the rice fields and orange groves that surround the town of Sueca to the south of the city of Valencia, during the 1980s and 1990s Nortel.le produced a range of steel road frames of the very highest quality that were met with a highly positive acceptance in the Spanish market, as can be attested by the respectable prices those original frames still command today.

The company as such disappeared around the turn of the century amid much rumour and speculation, a victim of changing market demand and, although cherished and celebrated among Spanish aficionados, seemingly destined to be consigned to the history books of Valencian cycling. However, for those with their antennae up last summer, the Nortel.le brand made a surprise reappearance in social media under the hand of Carles Nebot, one of the company’s founders, offering a custom frame painting service from a new workshop in the town of Ontinyent.


Nortel.le handmade Columbus-tubed bicycle
Nortel.le handmade Columbus-tubed bicycle

I had the opportunity to sit down with Carles on wet Valencian winter day to find out what happened to Nortel.le, how he came to relaunch the name and, hopefully, his plans for the future and whether they include once more creating high-quality, handmade, Valencian-built bicycle frames. In the end he told me far more than I expected, and explained how his long journey has taken him right back to where he started, to a workshop surrounded by bicycles.

Carles Nebot hand-painting a bicycle frame
Carles Nebot hand-painting a bicycle frame

Gregarios: Hello, Carles, it’s a pleasure to talk to you. I’ve wondered where you were for years. What are you up to?

CN: Well, it’s a horrible day, but it’s a bank holiday so I’ve got the day off. I was painting frames until late yesterday evening, and I’ve still got some work to do on them, but I’ve got today free.

Gregarios: How did you come about painting frames again? You suddenly appeared again last year, after......20 years of silence? What’s the story behind that?

CN: Well......it’s a long story, where to start? The short version is that I was working as a masseur, I’m a trained masseur, and as happened to so many people during lockdown my work dried up completely. Obviously. And even when we came out of lockdown, people were very, very wary of personal contact, which of course is the essence of a massage, so I started to think about what else I could do. I was in contact with Bicicletas Sanchis, the bike shop, and they suggested painting frames. There has been a shortage of bicycles due to the increased demand during the pandemia, and people started to get out old bicycles that they had stored away, many of which needed painting and repairing, so I searched around and found a workshop, set up the process and here we are.

A bicycle frame in the Custom by Nortel.le frame-painting workshop
Custom by Nortel.le frame-painting workshop

Gregarios: You’re not in the same place, are you, the original workshop in Sueca?

CN: No, I’m in Ontinyent now.

Gregarios: And what’s the reaction to your reappearance been like so far? I know I was by no means the only person wondering where you had got to.

CN: It’s been really good so far, there’s been a lot of interest. I’ve been doing interviews, getting lots of enquiries, and people have been bringing in their frames, including frames I made originally more than 30 years ago. The reaction has been really good. So much so that, as I said, today’s a bank holiday and it’s nice to have a day off. 

Gregarios: So going back to the beginning, and for those who don’t know, tell us about how Nortel.le originally came into being.

CN: My grandfather originally had a workshop in Sueca in which he repaired and adapted bicycles. This was before the widespread use of the car as a means of transport, and people at that time got about a lot by bike. This was in the period after the civil war and people didn’t have a lot of money, so if there was a problem with their bike they took it to be repaired, or adapted for a specific task, or so that women could use them. Remember before, how bikes for women didn’t have a top tube? They used to do that, too, remove the top tube and add an extra down tube. My grandfather did that, and he made jigs and tools and things for the jobs that came up. They repaired anything that came in, really.


"After the Civil War there was such a shortage they used to braze using spoke nipples for the brass; they’d hold several spokes together and heat the nipples until they melted."

 
Gregarios: Those must have been difficult times.

CN: Imagine, there was such a shortage of everything that they used to braze using spoke nipples for the brass; they’d hold several spokes together and heat the nipples until they melted. That gives you an idea of the scarcity of materials they had to work with. There were some benefits to that, though, as the lack of materials and tools meant that they soon became skilled at repairing and adapting just about anything with very limited resources. In that sense it was good training.

When cars started to appear and replace the bicycle as the main mode of transport, the workshop switched to working mainly as a car body and paint shop. People weren’t riding bikes as much, so most of the bikes they handled at that time were children’s bikes. The rest was cars. Curiously, my father looked after Olaf Palme’s car at the workshop. Olaf Palme, who was to become prime minister of Sweden, used to spend the summers at the beach here in Valencia, and he had a car here that my father looked after.

Gregarios: Really? Olof Palme spent his summers near Sueca?

CN: Yes, this was at the beginning of the '60s. It’s funny how life has its twist and turns, isn’t it? Because, as I’m sure you know, times were hard in Spain during that period and, through the connections made with Palme, my father went to work in Sweden for a couple of years, at the beginning of the '60s. It was quite normal for Spanish people to emigrate in search of work at that time. Anyway, when he returned he opened another car repair workshop with his brother, called Hermanos Nebot, SL. Around the middle of the 1970s, they started repairing and painting bicycles for different shops in Valencia, such as el Belga, and Michelo, for example. We’d drive up to Valencia on a Saturday to pick up new frames and to drop off the ones we’d already repaired or painted. As many as we could get in the car, just imagine…

Valencian cyclist in 1950s
Nebot senior in his cycling days

Gregarios: So you’ve always been around bicycles then, in a way?

CN: Yes, since I was a boy, and my father and my uncles were cyclists. That’s where the connections to the bike shops in Valencia came from. I was always in the workshop, I used to love helping out, they used to give me small tasks and I’d help, from a very young age.

Gregarios: And how did your father make the move into producing bicycle frames? When, and why, did the change happen?

CN: That was around the beginning of the 1980s, ´82 or ´83, with the opening of Bicicletas Dani, a bike shop in Valencia. It was a different kind of bike shop to the ones that existed at the time, it had the air of a boutique, more like a showroom with products and racing bikes on display, in many ways a precursor of the modern bike shop.

Gregarios: So not like the old bikes shops, then? The ones that were full of tools and smelt of grease and oil and new tyres, bike parts hanging from the ceiling? I miss those old bike shops in a way.

CN: You miss them? My friends at Goodbike in Valencia have their shop like that, old school. But most bike shops aren’t like that now, and Bicicletas Dani was one of, if not the, first to change the way in which bikes were presented and sold in Valencia.

Gregarios: So the first frames were made for Bicicletas Dani?

CN: Yes, by this time I was working with my father and my brothers at the workshop, and Bicicletas Dani suggested that we started making frames to be sold in the shop, which we did. There weren’t actually many Spanish frame builders around at that time, so they spotted a gap in market. There was a boom in competitive cycling at the time, with Perico Delgado and live broadcasts of the Tour, the Giro and the Vuelta and so on that all helped to raise cycling’s profile and create demand. The first frames were marketed under the name “Bloondin” and they sold well, so much so that we left the car workshop and set up a workshop dedicated exclusively to producing frames.

Gregarios: This would be the workshop in Sueca?

CN: Yes, this was in the workshop in Sueca. We made bikes for Bicicletas Dani until the shop closed down, and then we started making them under our own name.

Gregarios: That when you started calling them Nortel.le. Why was that? What on earth is the story behind that name? It doesn’t mean anything, as far as I can tell.

CN: Well, again, this goes back to the connection with Olof Palme as it’s an adaptation of the name of the town where my father worked in Sweden, Norrtälje, which is transcribed something like Nortelle in Spanish. It was a name that was very familiar to us all at home, and we used it as something of a homage to the time my father spent working in Sweden. We added the punt volat, the dot between the ls, as a nod to our own Valencian language.

Gregarios: Why didn’t you just use the family name, Nebot, for the bicycles? The car workshop was called Nebot, wasn’t it?

CN: Well, as I said, at the time there weren’t actually many Spanish framemakers, and it wasn’t something the Spanish were particularly known for. The best framemakers in the world, the best of everything in the world as far as bicycles were concerned in fact, were in Italy, so we thought the name gave our frames something of an Italian air. So we adopted the name both in homage and as a marketing point. But we knew that if the Italians could manufacture great frames, then so could we.


Detail of hand-brazed lugs and tubes on a Nortel.le steel bicycle frame
Detail of hand-brazed lugs and tubes on a Nortel.le steel bicycle frame

Gregarios: You were known for using Columbus tubes, Cinelli fork crowns, Campagnolo drop-outs, all Italian components. Was that for the same reason?

CN: Yes, mainly. Even the paint, we used paint from the same manufacturer that supplied the Italian manufacturers, Bianchi, Pinarello, Gios, etc. We used to go to Italy to buy our materials and we established contacts there, above all in Milan. We did use some products from other places, Reynolds tubing from the UK, for example, and we made some frames with Tange tubing, made by a Japanese manufacturer. They are excellent tubes, but we worked mainly with Italian material as they were considered world leaders at the time.

Photo from 1980s magazine article on Nortel.le frames
Photo from 1980s magazine article on Nortel.le frames
 

Gregarios: And it worked. Your frames were considered of the highest quality and were very much in demand.

CN: Yes, once we changed to the Nortel.le brand and starting selling our frames ourselves we started to enjoy a lot of success. We received some excellent coverage in different bicycle magazines of the time, in Bicisport, for example, and we were selling to clients not only in Valencia and throughout Spain, but also in France, Germany, Venezuela, and United States, among other places. Apart from the materials and the craftsmanship, my father was a cyclist, I was a cyclist, so we knew about bikes and understood what customers were looking for, we knew what would work and what wouldn’t work. When production expanded and we had 10, 15 people working for us, most of them were cyclists, too. I’ve always thought that you have to be a cyclist to do this, to make frames, you have to understand what is needed and understand the extent of the work required to make a good frame.

"I’ve always thought that you have to be a cyclist to be able to make a good frame"

The former Nortel.le frame-building and painting workshop in Sueca, Valencia
The former Nortel.le frame-building and painting workshop in Sueca, Valencia

Gregarios: Even as you branched into frame-making, you continued painting frames and established an excellent reputation in that field, too.

CN: Yes, it was part of the service and the presentation, to produce frames with an excellent finish. And of course we developed our snakeskin-effect finish, which was created with a special paint on top of a chrome finish and became something of a signature finish for our bikes.

Nortel.le handmade steel bicycle frame with custom "snakeskin" effect finish
Nortel.le handmade steel bicycle frame with custom "snakeskin" effect finish


Gregarios: Looking back, when would you say was the company’s high point?

CN: I would have to say the mid-'80s until the mid-'90s. We were producing very good frames and there was a very high demand.

Gregarios: So, having established your own brand backed with a reputation for excellence, what happened? Why did you stop producing frames?

CN: Ufff………., there was a series of factors, some to do with differences in the ideas my brothers and I had about the future of the company, but mostly it was to do with the introduction of carbon frames. The market changed, and the demand for steel frames dropped off.

Carles Nebot in the Nortel.le bicycle workshop in Sueca
Carles Nebot in the Nortel.le workshop in Sueca


Gregarios: This would be towards the end of the ´90s. Had you considered moving into the production of carbon frames?

CN: Yes, we had, from way back. I think it was in 1988 that I saw a stand at the Milan bicycle fair with a Chinese bike maker, he was on his stand submerged in a cloud of black dust, making carbon frames and offering his services to bike companies. The idea and the technology had been around for a while and we had considered producing carbon frames. And if we didn’t, it was for two main reasons, the first being that initially there was no real history or guarantee associated to the process, and that made us wary. The idea looked good, but if you’re going to supply a customer with a bicycle, put their safety and your reputation on the line, then you have to be sure. You can’t have bikes breaking underneath people, and at the time it wasn’t clear how durable or resistant carbon frames made with that early technology would be, so we decided to wait. You didn’t want to have customers break 20 frames before you finally got it right. And then that indirectly became the second reason: we waited too long. We had it in the back of our minds as something to do, but business was going well and we kept putting it off, until it was too late.

There was a project, around ´97 or ´98, to become an authorised repair workshop for Look bicycles, who had started selling carbon frames. That could have been a way into the carbon market. They were looking to build a network of authorised repairers to take care of their frames once they were in the market, and we attended a workshop with other bike makers from all over Europe, but that was shortly before I left the company and it didn’t come to anything. And then not too long after that, around 2002, the company stopped making frames.

"We kept putting the production off carbon frames until it was too late."

 Gregarios: What did you do after that? You’d been involved in the world of bicycles all your life up until that point, so what came next?

CN: I’d always been very keen on photography, in fact I won the first 3 competitions that I entered, so I started working in that field. I worked with graphic designers, shops, weddings, anything that allowed me to work with my camera and earn a living. And then, much in the same way that carbon fibre took over from steel in bicycle making, I could see that digital photography would soon take over from traditional film, making it possible for anybody to take photos. I didn’t want to go through that process again, so I trained as a masseur, and I’d been working in that field until last year.

Gregarios: Coming from a family and an environment of cyclists, did you keep up with cycling during that time even though you had stepped away from the business side of things?

CN: I did. I’ve always loved cycling, and especially ultradistance cycling. I even broke two age-group world records, as certified by the UMCA (World Ultracycling Association): I set the Men’s 50-59 age group 24 Hour Outdoor Track record, which I broke with 681.340 kilometres in Sagunto, and the Men’s 50-59 age group 1000 km Indoor Velodrome record, which I completed in 41 hours, 53 minutes in the Luis Puig Velodrome in Valencia.
 


    
Gregarios: They both sound a real challenge, but 42 hours on the track sounds like really, really hard work. How was it? Did you ever feel like getting off?

CN: Getting off, no, as you know before you start that you are going to pass through difficult periods and so you prepare yourself and you adjust. Plus, it takes a lot of people to be able to undertake a challenge like that, a lot of support, and if only for them I was sure that I was not going to climb off. But it is hard. It’s not the same as the road, and riding in the same position on the track as on the road produced pain in one of my knees in training, so I had to change my saddle height slightly, otherwise I would have never finished. Towards the end of the ride I started to have hallucinations, I couldn’t work out in my mind what the blue line on the track was, and it kept moving, so I followed it and kept going down towards the centre of the velodrome. During the last part my helpers were shouting at me to look up and not to look at the line, as it was just distracting and confusing me. That was hard, but I grew up in a cycling culture, which teaches you how to suffer through adversity. In the end, you get through.

Carles Nebot in Luis Puig Veledrome in Valencia
Carles Nebot in the Luis Puig Veledrome in Valencia

Curiously, the track record led me indirectly to a ride I did across  the United States, 3500 kilometres from north to south.

Gregarios: How come?

CN: Well, the daughter of a friend of mine was in an induced coma in the USA, and when the medical team tried to bring here out of it she didn’t respond. They said there was no reason for her not to come out of it, but for some reason she didn’t. So I dedicated my record to her and sent her a message saying that I would be thinking about her and highlighting that we were both fighting for our goals at the same time. And shortly after she came out of the coma. Amazing. So, with the collaboration of her family, I rode Relay Across America, from Niagra Falls to Houston, to raise funds for the hospital where she had been treated. Again, you never know what is round the corner or where your bike will take you.

Gregarios: The obvious question now, Carles, after so many laps of the track, is whether you intend to start making frames again. There’s a great interest from a certain section of the cycling públic for handmade frames, as attested by the success of the North American Handmade Bicycle Show, Handmade Bicycle Show Australia, and Bespoked in the UK, and specialist framemakers such as Surly, Festka, Jaegher and Pegoretti are all going strong, to name just a few. And then there is Rizzo here in Spain. So even though handmade steel bicycle frames went out of fashion for a while, demand for and interest in them now seems stronger than it has been for years. Is it in your plans to bring the Nortel.le brand bike to life as a framemaker?

Carles Nebot hand-painting a bicycle frame in his new workshop in Ontinyent, Valencia
Carles Nebot hand-painting a bicycle frame in his new workshop in Ontinyent, Valencia

CN: Well, that’s a very good question. From a personal point of view, the short answer is that I would love to. There are times now when I am painting a frame, concentrated, lost in my work, and I feel that I am right back in the old workshop. It feels exactly the same, the smells, the sounds, working with frames again, and then I look up and remember where I am. So I would love to, I love making frames and working with bikes is part of my DNA. And as you say, there is interest in the brand and a wider interest in handmade bicycles, in part I think driven by the growing interest in gravel and off-road riding, where the comfort offered by a steel frame becomes an attractive factor. Apart for the fact that a custom-made steel frame is a very personal, lifelong item to own, and people like that. But this wasn’t something I initially planned, and so I am taking things step by step. This time last year I didn’t think I would be painting frames again, and yet here I am with a full order book and giving interviews. Who would have thought?! So who knows where we will be in a year from now? There is a lot involved in getting back into frame-making, tools, designs, distribution, investment, so we’ll see, but I most certainly don’t count it out.

A selection of bicycle frames painted by Carles Nebot's Custom by Nortel.le

A selection of frames painted by Carles Nebot's Custom by Nortel.le


Gregarios: Lastly, for such a keen cyclist as yourself, Gregarios organizes its own Gran Fondo, called 'La Gregarios'. It was originally held for 5 editions in the 1940's and the route covers the 400km that separate Madrid, in the centre of Spain, from Valencia, on the Mediterranean coast. There are also a couple of alternative, shorter routes, for less demanding legs, and the question is… do you see yourself up to the task of completing the next edition of La Gregarios, which is to be on October 8th this year? And which other person would you nominate to complete the event?


CN: Well, if there are no impediments in terms of work, yes, I'd like to, I like these types of ride. Although I'm not in such good form at the moment, so if there was the possibility of doing, let's say, half the distance, that would be better. And as for who I would share the ride with, I challenge Fernando Gandía González (he's a mechanic at the Good Bike workshop in Valencia).


Do not miss the latest interviews with the winner of the 2000 Giro d'Italia,  Stefano Garzelli, the Valencian former professional cyclist, Javier Benítez, and the Spanish national cycling coach, Pascual Momparler, among others.

Links

Nortel.le

Nortel.le Instagram

Ontinyent Tourism Office

Sueca Tourism

Bicicletas Sanchis

Goodbike Valencia

Columbus Tubi

Reynolds

Tange

UMCA (World Ultracycling Association)

Carles Nebot - Men’s 50-59 age group 24 Hour Outdoor Track record 

Carles Nebot - Men’s 50-59 age group 1000 km Indoor Velodrome record

Carles Nebot - Relay Across America

North American Handmade Bicycle Show Facebook Page

North American Handmade Bicycle Show | NAHBS 2019 video

Handmade Bicycle Show Australia

Bespoked Handmade Bicycle Show

Surly Bicycles

Festka

Jaegher

Pegoretti

Rizzo Cycles

 “Nortel.le: el acero nunca muere”, organized by Chebici


Michael Dixon

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