An Etxeondo family affair
It’s a hot and sticky Friday afternoon in Villabona, where we meet at Etxeondo’s headquarters. Pedro Delgado enters the room all smiles and hugs, and I realise this is not a press junket but a family affair. An Etxeondo family affair.
To kick off the company’s 40th anniversary celebrations, we take a tour of the company’s premises. As we’re led through the different spaces that make up Etxeondo’s head office and main production area, we meet the members of the extended family. Starting at the beginning of the production process, there’s Amparo, sitting behind her sewing machine. She’s a little nervous and doesn’t speak a word of English but clearly enjoys the attention her work is getting. Next to her stands Amaia, daughter of the company’s founder Paco Rodrigo and head of design at Etxeondo. She says she gets her inspiration for new designs from fashion shows, design magazines, and vintage cycling apparel. In this room, her ideas are made into the first set of samples. I try to take her picture while she’s talking, but she’s so animated that it’s impossible to get a good shot. Watching Amaia as she tells us about her work, I become aware of the passion the people at Exteondo have for their products.
Flori works beside her. Having been with the company for over thirty years, she monitors every part of the process and works closely with Amaia to make the first prototypes. Flori says that the Giant-Alpecin team kits are all custom made. Each rider gets measured and gives his (or her) preferences for the length and width of each item. Flori will then prepare each rider’s product in this very workshop. The three women giggle when Flori explains that Barguil’s bibs need to be trimmed because his bum is so tiny.
I spot Paco Rodrigo walking around, talking to his colleagues and family. He’s a charismatic man with that distinctive leadership quality about him. It’s clear he’s loved by his employees, who speak very highly of his loyalty to his friends and the company. Paco started his career as a fabric cutter at the Basque atelier of the fashion house Balenciaga. This is where he met Maria Jesus who would become his wife and business partner at Etxeondo. Cutting fabrics at Balenciaga fostered Paco’s uncompromising taste for great quality and his perfectionism, which are apparent in Exteondo’s products. One employee tells me he adjusted the size of a sponsor’s logo, because he didn’t like the way the print looked. He wasn’t trying to be smug. Paco just wants every single product carrying the Etxeondo logo to be flawless.
Etxeondo’s products are made in one of their two production facilities, both located in the Basque Country. Outsourcing would be cheaper, but Etxeondo would rather keep all of its production in its own hands. Walking through Etxeondo’s premises, the drive for perfection is evident in many details. Upstairs, as I check out the embroidery machines, I spot a finished panel that has landed in the rubbish bin by accident. At least that is what I think, when I hand it over to the lady in charge. No good, she says. I’m not sure I understand. It’s no good, she repeats. She points to a slightly rounded corner in the logo’s first letter. This should be a sharp corner, so out it goes.
Back in the day, cycling jerseys were constructed from 4 panels; one front panel, one back panel, and two side panels. But times have changed, and cycling jerseys have become a lot more complicated. Nowadays, constructing a jersey is like putting together a puzzle. Quality jerseys consist of many different pieces, carefully matched and sewn together to achieve an optimal fit.
We enter the main part of the building, where cutting and colouring machines fill up the room. The neon pink panels laid out on the benches of the colouring machine will become a jersey for an event organised by Pedro Delgado, with his nickname Perico printed across the chest. Perico has his own cyclosportive, and Etxeondo makes a jersey for all the participants. Pedro Delgado won the 1988 Tour de France and is now a cycling commentator for Spanish TV. He is also a local hero. On the 200-metre walk we make from the hotel to the bus that evening, he is stopped by everyone we pass for a picture and a few words.
The Basque people’s love for cycling is everywhere and it’s contagious. Although I come from a country with a strong cycling culture, there is something quite different about the way cycling is interwoven into everyday Basque life. The Basques are proud of their cycling heritage and are known for their loyalty to, and knowledge of, the sport. It’s typical that the local hero is a Tour winner, not a pop star with 10 million Instagram followers. To the people I meet, cycling is as natural as walking. Everyone owns a bike, and the lunch break is extra long, so employees can get some cycling done. During the weekend, they ride together. And how could they not? The hills and roads here are practically made for cycling.
On day two of the company’s anniversary celebration, we ride. In a peloton of around 400 local cyclists and a couple dozen invited foreigners, we start at Tolosa’s sport grounds and parade past the Etxeondo headquarters before heading out of town and into the hills. The Basque riders do not mess around. On our food stop, I am just halfway through my cookies when I see the rest of my group already heading back to their bikes. I follow their example and quickly fill my bottle and hop back on. It takes a while to catch up, but soon enough I can tuck in behind the strong guys and get back to enjoying the rolling hills and fantastic views of the Basque landscape.
For two days, I was part of the Etxeondo family and got a taste of their passion for cycling. I will be back soon.