Getting on a plane for northern Italy, I was about five pages in to Michael Paternitti’s ‘The Telling Room’. A book I had heard, briefly serialised and sought out at an airport. A tale of a journey in search of a rare and wonderful and expensive cheese hand made in the hills outside Madrid. Sat down and suckered in by the draw of good story telling, I started seeing parallels emerging as I turned pages up sat there in the sky. That evening I was to drive into the the Dolomites and find somewhere to stay before the next morning finding someone to photograph. Not a cheese, but a handmade tale of myth and reputation none the less. I felt connected to something bigger already.
I had heard much about this man of steel and aluminium. This straight top tube kind of a guy in the foothills of the Dolomites that made bike frames of exquisite beauty people came from all over the world to have made for them. I find it nice to go in to a place like this somewhat free of pre conceived notion of what you might find and in this case I figured that was probably the best way. I got the impression from some that this was a man that was a little out there. Maybe cycling’s Col Kurtz is a bit harsh, but you could be forgiven for being a little wary when you read statements like ‘I will only build a straight top tube bike, do not ask me for a sloping geometry’. But, as I was to find out soon enough, you really shouldn’t read too much into what you read too often.
Winding into the valley away from the Veneto headed into the Dolomiti, alone on roads save for the odd tanker or tractor. Hills loom and give way every now and then to glimpses of mountains proper, showing off their snow caps after a warm week has all but removed winter from view. Villages become more sparse as I close in on the heart of darkness. Or I think I do. It would become apparent later, I’m not even close.
Clicking on Pegoretti’s website the first image you will see is the first thing you see when you walk through the door at the factory, a huge portrait of the man sticking out amongst a treasure trove of cycling history, pop art and hi fi.
Dario Pegoretti is a warm, friendly, loud and slightly scary figure of a man. His work is legendary but his presence is kind of mythical. A charming beguiling laid back intelligent person capable of eruption as equally as tenderness I would imagine. My welcome is immediate and genuine and then caffeinated just like Italian welcomes always are and we sit and meet and talk about music, hi fi, furniture, architecture, painting, food, life and bikes. Dario lights up coarse Italian cigarettes. I don’t inhale. I ask about the museum of sorts in the corner, “A man came to sell me a Cinelli. I looked at it and it was my first bike. My parents took me to Milan to meet Cino and have him build me this bike in 1971. I sold it in maybe 1977 and now it has come back to me. All the same, only the hoods are changed. I had to buy it back, it was part of my life“.
Looking around, this space is kind of amazing. On the outside a bland industrial unit on the side of a quarry in the middle of nowhere. On the inside a post pop art studio of bright space and creative balance. Part bike showroom, part life pad. Think late 50’s modernist American interior and a tin shed. Kind of Frank Lloyd Wright designs the inside of your local Wall Mart. And thus you never want to leave. Huge leather sofas chaperone a beautiful hard wood coffee table. There are rugs everywhere. And lugs. Interesting pictures hung. A kitsch portrait of Dario appearing to be Jesus, with an iPhone in one hand and a cigarette in the other hang along side 4ft high hand prints and then an eight inch long steel bike frame miniature. Miles Davis is here. Quad loudspeakers are here. I could stay here forever.
In stark contrast to the big guys, I am allowed to wander freely amongst production taking pictures as I please. I have come at a quiet time, NAHMBS is on and Dario is going to join the rest of the outfit in America tomorrow, so in nick of time then but it’s quiet production wise. Just two of the team remain finishing and preparing of a few custom frames for people. Dario’s dog Jack follows me around, flopping down whenever tripod legs are extended. He’s a good guy too. Clearly fits in well to this band of brothers. They rescued him from Croatia when he was a stray puppy and he clearly loves his life as an Italian.
Welded frames stand unpainted ready for the next stage in their upbringing, all marked with codes and names and instructions. Painted frames hang above with name tags and headsets and forks dangling. There are forks everywhere actually. Dario makes his steel forks in house and the carbon ones are made for him overseas and painted here. He tells me emphatically that it’s not all about weight. The far eastern fork manufacturer was trying to get him to have a lighter model built but for a bloke with a slightly imbalanced glint in his eye, this is a guy with a mojo on point. It’s all about the ride. You can see this in the frames. They’re not the lightest or most modern, I mean they’re steel in a plastic age, but people that know, know. I know a handful of these people and all of them have said one thing, they’ll never part with theirs. “Others come and go but this one’s just ‘right‘”. I won’t question that, so I ask about stock 54cm frames. I get told straight and sharp, “No, that’s too big for you“. How can I tell this man all my frames are 54 and they’re spot on? How can I? I don’t. God, maybe they’re not. A seed of self doubt sewn by a master. Shit.
The paint room is a little cubicle in the far side of the workshop. A lone overall and mask hang awaiting the return of the American party. Yet more forks hooked on prongs cure like shiny pink hams in the corner. Drips and splats from previous generations adorn everything from the floor to the radio. They make for really nice decoration actually, almost purposeful in their accident. I wonder how much of that is accident as it all looks so much cooler than a sterile million dollar paint booth. This end of the building is just a little bit Pollock and that’s a lot bit cool. The walls are good enough but the paint on the tubes is something else. There is everything from simple and tasteful graphic illustration to what I can only describe as a kind of post pop art explosion using intricate layers of colour and texture woven into bold shapes and all fitted onto a standard diameter down tube. Kind of Rococo painting in Rothko shapes on Warhol’s BMW M1 art car. You could look closely at the tubes of this road bike every day and see new texture each time. It’s just staggering. The best paint I have seen on bikes since the early pre Trek Kleins. And as beautiful as they could be, they were cave drawings to these masterpieces. They even have great names. “Big Leg Emma” I want one. I want a loud one. With a silly name.
Shelves of steel tubes and lugs all labelled into sizes and shapes barracade the frame jigs with their tacked tubes trussed up like foul ready for roasting. Their genetic make up scrawled on labels and attached by twine to their head tubes, awaiting the next stage, or at least a guy to return from North Carolina next week.
Nothing but warm and friendly and somewhat laid back, the guys are never anything but charming to me as I repeatedly get in the way all morning. Medium format film cameras are rarely objects of speed and these two are utterly obliging to my requests of standing still whilst trying to work. Even the dog doesn’t object. This place is a haven. An unspoiled loose canon of of a bike factory left behind or overlooked by efficiency studies and health and safety executives and allowed to just carry on deep in the jungle, to the sound of their own drum. This is the heart of darkness, now I see it. I’m in it. It’s not a place, it’s a state of mind and I don’t want to leave.
Maybe this is something that happens when you cheat death (Dario was diagnosed with Lymphoma in 2007 – I remember this because a friend of mine was having a frame built at the time and it took a long time. But Pegoretti beat it and the bike did arrive.) I can’t help thinking as I watch Dario draw on a cigarette that most would be terrified of in his situation, that he isn’t scared of anything. Either that or he knows everything. I could believe it too, there is definitely some Marlon Brando about this frame maker in his own Apocalypse Now in these Italian hills. You’d follow him into the jungle even though you knew it was dangerous, he’s just got that sort of a presence you want to believe in.
I ask whether he paints away from bikes? ‘For myself, no one ever sees my paintings’, he replies. I can’t help feeling that this is a bit of a shame on the part of us, the masses, but painting so often being an deeply personal expression, I get why and just add to the mystique and wonder to myself what they might look like, imagining explosions of colour and texture and expression muted behind private walls.
Back to the studio for a sit down with new friends and a lump of bread, a lump of cheese and an old lump of prociuitto in that way that only really southern Europe can get away with calling a perfect lunch and we just sit and listen. Loudspeakers speak loud, no words are spoken. Books are thumbed through, crumbs dropped, a dog cuddled. Cigarettes smoked, guitars strummed. Glances smiled upon. This is weird. I barely know these people and we are all enjoying non awkward silence together like old friends. I get the impression this is a normal lunchtime for these guys and having someone pop by probably happens all the time. It does slightly remind me of the scene as Martin Sheen approaches the camp and they are all hanging out, just one big happy hippie family of self exiled marines fighting their own little Vietnam into the Heart of Darkness. It’s beguiling. Wonderful. Enviable. I want to put down my rifle and stay and wear a bandana and paint bike frames and eat cheese. This is how I imagine Patterniti’s book will end. I almost don’t wan’t to read it now in case it doesn’t. It’s perfect.
First published in Peloton Magazine something like back in 2014.