A master who was making Tour de France bikes in the 1980s and an apprentice with a background in skateboarding – together they are ensuring that the renowned Zullo name lives on for cycling aficionados around the world.
Tiziano Zullo examines the finish on a beautiful racing frame and shakes his head, glancing up to a photograph of a similar bike in action in the 1991 Tour de France. He’s not distressed by the finish on the bicycle but the memory of his time making frames for the Dutch tvm team from 1986, the most intense seven years of his life. “When a professional rider fails, the first thing he looks to blame is his bike,” he says, rembering the long hours in the workshop. “That is where you gain your reputation.”
Zullo’s set-up in Verona’s Castelnuovo del Garda is increasingly rare. The number of small-frame builders in northern Italy has fallen from around 500 in the 1980s to the seven or eight that survive today. An ex-racer himself, he is part of a dying breed that bucks the trend towards mass-produced machinery. He has followers who appreciate his depth of knowledge and are prepared to pay a premium (frames alone retail at around €3,000) for bikes made to their individual sizes and specifications.
Zullo has a lot faith in his apprentice of nine months, Mattia Paganotti, whom he describes as an exceptional craftsman. Paganotti’s enthusiasm stimulates the 61-year-old, whose welding skills are of particular interest to his apprentice. Paganotti becomes serious when observing tig (tungsten inert gas) welding, crouching close to the glowing tungsten gun as Zullo joins two stainless-steel tubes together.
When monocle is invited to observe the work up close through a blackout welding mask, it is revealed as painstaking and delicate. Zullo fuses tubes a fraction of a millimetre thick, a welding gun in one hand and fine solder wire in the other. “It’s all about rhythm,” says Paganotti as the master works. “At this stage, one mistake can snowball down the line.”
Zullo is a modest man whose affection for Paganotti is clear; only last month he officiated at his young protégé’s wedding. It was an occasion for which Zullo had to dig out a tie, an unfamiliar item in the Garda workshop. “He only has one tie and it says Shimano [a Japanese component manufacturer] on it!” says Paganotti.
It was a chance conversation in the offices of Milanese steel manufacturer Columbus that made Paganotti aware that Zullo was soon to be without an apprentice. Paganotti sent Zullo a text, they met, and the process went from there. Zullo was impressed by the young man’s CV. Paganotti had already taken lessons from the Brescian master Gino Lissignoli and in 2009 purchased an entire shop of frame-building tools and machines from the widow of another master, Pietro Serena. “It was attractive that Mattia had a head start,” recalls Zullo. “Usually we say four years for an apprenticeship but in maybe a year and a half, Mattia will be ready.”
Despite master and apprentice sharing a toolshop, their professional interests could not be more different. Zullo’s work comes from a proud racing tradition, whereas Paganotti has a skateboarding background. Using the traditional tools he inherited from the Serena workshop and employing his new skills, Paganotti works mainly on cyclo-cross and fixed-gear frames.
This reflects an interest in “Alleycats”: anarchic point-to-point races that have flourished in cities since the early 1990s. Zullo thinks this sort of race “crazy” but is respectful of his apprentice’s interests; this and his technical ability set him apart. He credits his previous apprentice with helping him to understand that the future of his business lay in stressing the artisan element of his work.
Paganotti laments the clandestine culture of other master builders. “They are so proud of their work that they would rather take their secrets to the grave than pass them on. The thing about Zullo is that he is incredibly open-minded.” It seems Zullo’s methods, as much as his name, will succeed him.
1952 Born in Verona
1966 Begins 10-year cycle-racing career
1976 Apprenticed part-time in Verona
1978 Opens own factory in Grezzana
1985 Begins work with TVM cycling team
2001 Moves to workshop in Castelnuovo del Garda
1985 Born in Brescia
2003 Starts seven-year career as a professional skater while working part-time at his father’s steel-working firm
2008 First apprenticeship with Brescian artisan Gino Lissgnoli
2012 Begins apprenticeship with Tiziano Zullo