One of the things I tend to remember specific addresses by has always been a memorable car parked nearby. Naturally there are a number of other, often unique reference points to flag up memories of visits to historic Italian cycle frame builders, but I remember clearly glancing and recording two daily driver Lancia Deltas and contemporary Fiat 131 and Super Stradas parked next door to the unit that houses the building of Legend frames in Bergamo, Italy. Not rally cars but the Deltas were an 8v and a 16v cousin and the Mirafiori suitably orange with a black roof and those Fuchs like cookie cutter wheels. As for the Delta wheels, I always thought perhaps they were arguably the best looking wheels to date. And as for the Strada, I always thought it had about the best designed one piece moulded front bumper/ grille/ headlight design of it’s era. To me it resembled a sort of grown up’s Fisher Price Activity Centre stuck on the front of a car. Any of them would have stopped me in my tracks as a kid as they did occasionally in a childhood often spent in Italy. Here lived or worked a fellow car enthusiast from the same hole in the time/ space continuum as me. I imagined what his or her historic two wheeled excursion photo albums must be like at home. Here on the way in to photograph a frame builder of such calibre it all seemed a fitting reminder of what the Italians do so well, make good engineering with wheels beautiful.
In my experience Italian welcomes always seem to have a common theme and thinking of it, aroma. Some of my earliest memories from the Italian sections of my father’s summer long architectural euro road trips, that probably shaped me more than anything else, are of that fresh sweet cake or almond biscotti sensory alert mixed with my mother’s rocket fuel miniature coffee’s every time we stopped. It was everywhere from petrol stations to relatives living rooms and still is to the state of a sensory re-awakening even on arrival at an Italian airport.
As we were ushered in and caffeinated as a starter for a wander round I clocked the amount of titanium trinkets, testers and keepers dotted about. From tubes and bottle cages to dropouts turned key rings, the wonder metal was shining out in small glowing markers across the office cum display room cum museum like a radar screen swiping left to right and picking out lurking gems.
As the Belgian sat to interview Marco and I worked out where I’d like to pose him for a portrait, I wandered around as I sipped coffee taking in some detail of the abundant craftsmanship. Frames hung above and bikes stood next to us ready for shows and magazines and owners. Lavishly painted carbon joints with internal cable routing so smooth it looked natural. While I always tend to own quite conservative bike frames and generally titanium and monochrome, I tend like to express colour in controlled excerpts here and there like a Ringle bottle cage or some Cook Bros Racing skewers or something else inapropriate from an era that things were not as good as they could be perhaps but goodness they were pretty. That said, given the amount of matte black carbon finishes the cycling world has digested in the last decade, seeing beautiful ornate painting that can articulate appropriately the true impression that this object dreamt up and made by one person by hand has a depth of artistic meaning and bears or represents a personality, really talks to me. I remember explaining that feeling to Dario Pegoretti and getting a pat on the shoulder and a grin as a reply, which may well have meant it was time to shut up and drink some wine, but I like to pretend it was a moment of creative connection. Probably he just wanted to go for a pee and was hoping for a pause in my nattering to leave.
Over the years I’ve been to some frame workshops that could be architectural delights on their own merit. Be it classical Italian, neo classical, Brutalist or Modernist chapels of worship, even an outsider art homemade wooden shed of hidden cycling delights that this industrial estate unit felt pretty normal workshop fare to be honest. But wandering into the heart of this place opened up maze like units within a unit. Not architecturally pretty perhaps, but interesting none the less when seen in the context of the procedure of making a bicycle frame from start to finish.
There was a room with a man shaving a carbon frame into shape in microscopic layers then turning to a titanium relative for close up finishing all the time being followed around by a huge blue vacuum cleaner growing out of the walls like something out of an HR Geiger drawing. His focus and attention as rigid as a surgeon’s. The patient in front of him all the time losing weight by the gram and gaining curves to be proud of with every swipe. I would usually have been fascinated to hear each of these people’s tales and opinions, their experiences and the story that led them to this quiet corner of artistic creation behind closed doors and the name of a bike brand, but this mission was the Belgian’s territory and I was seconded to record it solely visually which kept portrait priorities forefront and people’s stories untold.
Across to the next zone was the man heating, cutting and laying the sheet carbon fibre onto tubes, bonding them and creating the front triangle of someone’s next family pet. That and the best soundtrack of the day coming from a little speaker on the shelf behind him.
All the talk of far eastern mass production in clinical factories and perfect but characterless clones being popped out of automated production lines has tainted my thin interest in carbon fibre as a bicycle skeleton material. I know it’s reasons and it’s benefits and let’s be honest, it’s as unlikely that the pro peloton will all be riding steel lugged gates again in a decade as motorsport will go back to carburettors and leaf springs, but watching a true craftsman build a bicycle from scratch in carbon is as incredible to witness as a handful of welds a day titanium master undertake their witchcraft. Handling the stuff was like holding on to something that looked complex but felt similar in presence to a sheet of paper. So light and delicate it was as if it wasn’t really there. In that same way that one can imagine what an object like a bike should feel like when lifted and a high end road bike can still pleasantly surprise, this pocket sized rice paper like doily of woven lace could probably still suspend a thousand times it’s own weight on a line when toasted. The assumption and the science of such a meeting don’t necessarily collide instantly but when you see the finished structure sitting with wheels, brakes and gears bolted into it, a boffin’s calculations you’ve learned then seen laid down section by section as it’s been created do start to tally.
The oven opposite had a couple of complete frames baking away at gas mark 6 and occasionally a face would appear at the window opposite to check they weren’t over cooking. Next to this was Marco demonstrating something aquatic looking to the Belgian. Like a small submarine with long yellow glove shaped arms dangling outside I did for a second hope it wasn’t a nuclear fuel enrichment creature, but in the name of work ethic, stood my ground and photographed the process anyway.
After we were fed even more coffee and the Belgian had finished his guided tour punctuated by a thousand questions I couldn’t understand in Italian and a thousand more notes I couldn’t read in Flemmish, it was my turn at communication and I saw suddenly where I wanted to end my visual tour. A giant signed portrait of a real life legend watched over by a giant two dimensional one that had quietly overlooked his speech from the wall behind him all morning.
As he smiled naturally at me through my lens patiently posing for more photographs I politely suggested instead he addressed The Belgian, pen in hand, that was asking him a new page of questions. I thanked him for his patience and explained that my photographing him was finally complete, he momentarily stopped before standing and looked up at his wall portrait backdrop and pondered something privately for a moment. The moment I realised my photographing him was not quite complete after all and I made one more portrait of him and knew then I had finished. Content. Learned. Befriended.
This is all with great thanks to the Belgian, for as often is the case, his being the reason I meet interesting people and photograph them. You can read more from the Belgian here. For more on Marco’s stable, click here.