The meeting with frame builder Tiziano Zullo started with us pressing our noses against a window of a nondescript building. Anyone would think we were 5 year olds looking inside a candy store. But here I was with my business partner David Piacenti, smudging the glass so we could get a better look.
It wasn’t so much we were sneaking, we actually had an appointment. But we weren’t too sure if we were in the right place - the building exterior had no visible sign. After concluding the machines inside were for frame building we finally found the entrance and entered a time capsule of hand built Italian Frame Manufacture.
As soon as we met Tiziano Zullo we recognised this determined resilience; a familiar trait amongst Italian frame builders. Even long after leaving the Zullo workshop this impression remains with us.
Zullo is deeply connected to the history of racing and frame building. But his passion seems as deep as his regret. It isn’t the slowed state of his production that moves Zullo but the sorry state mass-production has left upon bike design and the technique of making race bikes.
Zullo attests to the fact that the current industry of frame making is in stark comparison to yesteryear. This is made obvious when looking at the developed state that generic branded bikes are produced en masse.
With heritage, experience and the motivation to continue the good fight, Italian Builders like Tiziano Zullo extend the sincerity of the profession. We wholeheartedly see that builders like Zullo steadily steer it towards the future. And this is exactly why we found ourselves at his doorstep, anticipating what was inside.
Frame Building at Chainsmith
David and I have spent many years in the cycling industry, building bikes and meeting product designers, bike fitters, small parts producers, wheel builders and component manufacturers.
The synergy occurring between a rider and bicycle starts, but does not stop, at the frame. The same philosophy applied to creating a frame should extend to the selection of components, accessories, final bike build and fit. Heck, we’d go so far as to say it even stretches to your apparel.
“We’ve built our business around a “Custom Methodology” to which nothing is more important than alignment”
To provide this synergy is the reason behind our years of travelling Italy - we look for craftsmen and women most dedicated to the cause of the rider.
Our purpose is to compose the most perfectly aligned bikes for an individual rider. We’ve built our business around a “Custom Methodology” to which nothing is more important than alignment. I say this because it gives reason to our choice in brand partners. We value alignment, and we work with brands like Zullo whose aim is also tied to enhancing personal ride experience.
Zullo and Racing History
For context, like many renowned Italian Frame Builders, Tiziano Zullo was once a competitive cyclist. Tiziano’s final years in racing (both cyclocross and road) coincided with his meeting several Italian builders. Putting his own racing career aside, Zullo began to build frames and in just a few years managed to develop the business to the extent he was making bikes for Racing Teams.
In the late 80’s Zullo was posting his frames across Europe, the States and Australia. As work increased Zullo frames were increasingly recognised on the professional racing circuit. This included Milan San Remo, the Northern Classics and the Tours De France, Giro d’Italia, La Vuelta and World Championships.
As riders we know when we reach a miraculous view in the mountains a descent must follow. After years of production the flourishing frame building Industry of Italy found itself perilously cascaded with nothing to prevent its catapult like momentum towards near extinction.
Zullo Bikes was not immune from the rapid decline as major bike Brands (whose work had been built with the hands of small family run manufacturers like Zullo), took their work offshore. Local support and work dried to famine proportions.
The Pin Drop
Like many of his generation, during the prosperous times Tiziano hired at least 10 builders to assist with the high demands for bicycles. The workshop today still boasts an array of industrial machines and tool laden benches alongside an additional in-house painting studio.
Photographing lathes, milling machines, jigs, tube notchers and blocks as well as the many work benches, I imagined the place as it had been - filled with the noise of production; metal grinding, the blasting flash of the welder, sanding and painting.
Then, near overnight, production in numbers ceased.
Today the workshop is quiet as we converse amongst rows of crafted frames. While production is comparatively limited, Tiziana is content. The present situation with the ease to communicate online, offers a different client and a different reason to build.
Anyone owning a road bike knows that Asia's mass production of generic frames and parts allows for a competitive pricing market. David Niddri gives a good synopsis of the change to bike production methods in Asia in an article titled, Taiwan: The Cycling Island. Nidri claims, "Above you, bike frames move around in a maze of conveyor tracks, heading from one department to the next. Employees work quickly as the bikes roll by in a seemingly endless fashion, with hoses, ducts and cables visible in every direction."
An era's appetite for cheap consumables as well a mindset for expendable products as we know it today grew synonymously.
Alongside the growth of modern factory production developed the consumers quest to own the latest and perceived "best" bike. This need currently thrives, even with the consumer awareness that the generic bike value will diminish. Newness tarnishes with every annual season launch.
We've heard the same story of abrupt silence that struck every famous frame producer throughout Northern Italy. This was a region historically associated with cycling. Few consumers are today aware that Northern Italy was once populated by over 500 frame builders.
A time where bike shops, small teams and brands employed frame builders became a time that frame builders were forced to extend their skill set to seek alternative metal work; fixing street signs and household items like sewing machines. The builders who survived were flexible to the changing industrial developments and who could respond by "pivoting."
The stable system that bike production throughout Italy worked was collapsing. The focus of the cycling industry shifted to Asia while Italian production was plugged like a faucet. Any bike related work passing through the workshop was developed through a leak in the new system. And this leak was bred by a different consumer. Frame builders able to survive the drought could see a new beginning.
A new breed of client for Zullo
Persistence. Finding the Leak
The move of bicycle manufacture to Asia impacted Zullo more than financially. The respect for quality and craftsmanship as well as technique itself was eroding. And so Zullo's work became all the more important and even epic in the face of such challenges. It is, I guess, a similar battle faced by small bike shops who continue to challenge online retail giants such as Wiggle and Amazon.
Perseverance and flexibility are key to successful business, and Zullo Bikes exemplifies this. Persistence comes from a deep belief that the offering has true value and, what's more, that value will weigh in better than the offerings of a lesser product or competitor.
It would have been a difficult period for a respected frame builder intensely considerate to not only materials and techniques, but respected for his professional understanding of fitting a bike frame to a racer's need.
Tiziano,"it’s my passion—making bikes, studying bikes, you name it. So much has changed over the years, but not my interest."1.
While Asia produced cheaper generic frames in droves with a reliance on machines and factory procedures, Zullo also continued to produce for a different clientele. Tiziano's persistence peeked the interest of private riders uninspired by what everyone else had.
The cyclist Zullo attracted wasn't the sort to be enamoured by shiny mass-produced models. This client was after something special... something that would last. Most importantly this something would fit their bodies exactly and conform to the kind of rides they aspired to.
With a history in racing, Zullo was able to bring together his experience and skill and offer this new audience truly tailored frames.
This client is a leak in the system. They’re the ones who admire the machine for its individualism, the tailor-made skill set used to create it, and the subsequent strength of relations forged between machine and rider. This client doesn’t fit generic production, and nor do they wish to. The perception of how a bike should look, or how the best bike should be ridden, is not dictated by marketers. Rather, this client is motivated by difference in personal experience, one that operates and is built according to their own history, their dreams for their future, and importantly their riding aspirations.
The Discerning Client
Let me momentarily digress. Grab a bike mag and sit at your favourite cafe for an early morning coffee. Flip through that beautiful glossy magazine (or scan the computers the case may be) showcasing the worlds "best" bicycles and you'll inevitably find images of the latest carbon pro race bikes. Pro racers in their team kit atop bikes look part machine as they sink themselves into corners, or position themselves like gymnasts over the top tube.
Look up from the cafe at 7am and you'll start to see the same bikes projected onto the streets and ridden by members of your local bike club. When they park up have a closer look. Spacers doubled to raise handlebars, wide saddles pushed too far forward with stems reduced to lengths appropriate for an MTB.
I love new bikes, technology, the industry driven by competition and motivated by the hunger of riders wanting the latest innovation. Yet, something is astray.
While those magazines sprout the bike benefits for riders of GC status, the everyday rider expresses aches and pains in a body more familiar with sitting at computers for 6 hours a day than training on a bike. Its not a confidence boost but rather a kind word to say that the many riders suffering from pain chose to buy high end road bikes unintended for their proportions, lacking flexibility or main riding use.
In difference, having a professionally built frame of a geometry and with a material that together accomodate realistic postures and flexibility (alongside individual body proportions) is a vastly different experience than the offering of a generic bike.
Yet, even with all the skill and experience developed in Europe, the States, England and Australia, custom frame building can never afford to compete against the production of mass produced frames either financially or with marketing. With the thousands of generic frames pumped from Asian factories each week, it physically cannot. What it can do is steer the future to a different kind of consumer behaviour, one aligned to consumer's with specific individual needs.
A rising older generation of cyclists. Image courtesy of Silicon Valley’s Spandexed Biker Bros Are Going Extinct, Steve Rousseau
According to Andrew Pruit, one of the most renowned of Bikefitters, "the bike needs to look like the rider." 2.
Pruitt has spent a career in fitting and if there's anyone who knows how to fit a rider to a bike its Pruitt. However, over the years my simple thought remains consistent. If a bike is created for an individual rider, the big reasons for a bikefit would not exist. Conversely, if road bicycles are created for one generic rider albeit in 5 sizes, then bike fit will continue to prove a necessary and popular service.
"the hardest people to fit in my experience are the masters guys. They come in with excruciating back pain but don’t want to do to their bike what it would take to get rid of that back pain. They’re more interested in what their bike looks like leaning against the glass at the coffee shop. It’s so drilled in their mind what they want it to look like. The reality is sometimes you have to mourn the person you used to be." 3.
My point is that Zullo's new clientele has elevated beyond the mourning process. They've woken to a positive realisation that they can not only avoid the expense and time wasted trying to contort themselves on "best" bikes, instead they can have a bike built around them to their individual needs.
Mimicking the Pro : The Dangerous Basis for deciding the “Best Bike”
Over the years I’ve learnt that a partners knowledge can be as valuable as the protagonist. This realisation was cemented as I conversed with Tiziano's wife Elena late 2019. We agreed the aims of many amateur riders - to replicate the position and equipment of Pro riders - is less than ideal. Elena mentions the Pro riders have, "great impact on riders. They all want to copy him”. We specifically discussed the Zullo client, more realistic and beyond the desire to replicate. Elena remarks, “A part of them know that they can't because they are much older and getting older you loose flexibility and you can't be seated so flat as a young rider.” Unlike the rider looking at “best bikes” in the Pro Racing Teams, the Zullo client is motivated to align cycling equipment with their own goals and aspirations.
Example of Bike set up that suggests the rider has altered the bike in order to create better fit.
Elena has learnt the consequences of amateur riders replicating pro-athletic positions and equipment. Commenting on the issues with fitting “one bike for all”, Elena highlights that the result is injury or pain. Its not only a problem for those who overcompensate against the effects of ageing, but also for those who’s proportions or flexibility levels are inherently unfit for generic sizing and geometry.
“Certainly our (Zullo’s) market is for older men, which have tried out the 'wrong' bikes. Even tall men, or rather thicker set men. It would be ridiculous if they try to stay in the same position (as Professional riders), then they get problems at the lower back, and often on the shoulders.” Elena
Both Tiziano and Elena are versed in the changes to generic engineered race frames over the years. Its no surprise the trend towards aerodynamic profiles that promotes a #slamthatstem position to mainstream riders, is an aesthetic that Zullo disagrees. But they also question how that trend has been a necessity in terms of creating a frame to suit all. Elena remarks, “As the "generic" frames are low (they need to fit many persons), the seatpost remains much out of the tube, which is very dangerous ... That frame is not stable to ride. With a seatpost so far out of the tube, it is not stable at all.”
With so many race bikes visiting our workshop over the years, its interesting to note trends in bike set-up by local bike fitters can be identified. A set-up “style” is like a signature. For example, in 2018 for several months we noticed a large portion of riders with saddles set so far back (beyond recommended marker), the result was compromised seat-posts and saddle rails. We learnt to spot who the fitter was by their trademark. More unfortunate was that the riders being fit were not racing. While we certainly attest to the benefits of solid professional bike fitting, it goes to show that a bike-fitter following trends in profile, (rather than establishing the best solution for the individual), can be as detrimental to a riders physical health as a generic frame designer. This is not to mention the detrimental effects on performance.
The Zullo Future
Our shop boasts a Zullo Inqubo amongst our showcase range. Boasts is the right word because in 1981, Australian Professional Cyclist Phil Anderson claimed the yellow jersey on a Zullo as the first non-European during the history of the Tour de France.
I will leave a detailed review for this incredibly complex frame in the near future, but this brief description is added here to exemplify the incredible continuing practice of Zullo.
While our Inqubo frame differs, the design was influenced by the original model ridden by Anderson during the infamous TDF stage. Regarding the paintwork, the finish is subtle from a distance but with close inspection proves as classic and unique as a Monet. Beneath the water coloured exterior is handcrafted steel. It's not as light as carbon, but the ride feel and perfected geometry will out-perform any weight perceived disadvantage. In the welding, the choice of tube, the geometry and the paint is the hand impressions of Zullo.
We are convinced that while many find enjoyment in beautiful generic frames built for racing, the comfort of a custom frame will outlast its competitors. How often do you see a generic carbon frame proudly ridden after a dozen years of service? Our in-house knowledge of chosen components, the build and the details to complement the frame are all designed with the same flow in philosophy as that which created the Zullo.
The future of custom
Custom frame building was an artisans profession. Some continue to believe in the cause. Other new-comers are phenomenal marketers, exceptional at web design and targeting an audience with instagram and facebook. These new comers who enter the cannons of custom frame building through the side door are intriguing. They reflect a population of consumer who prioritise fresh brand perspective over heritage or generational experience and knowledge.
While this populist shifting of respect for new things is heartbreaking for those who believe in the craft of frame building, its a relief to acknowledge history always finds a way of defining us. While we may think the new view throws out the baby with the bathwater, no-one can escape the dependancy on history, because our future belongs in it. Zullo and his colleagues are not only responsible for creating Italian cycling history, they were the creators of frame building itself.
Of course, we can join the masses and provide bikes to the riders wanting what their friends own or what the Professionals are sponsored to ride. Yet our motivation lies alongside Zullo's respect for passion, quality, longevity, craftsmanship and individualism.
Find our more details regarding custom frames here.