Meet The Fam­ily

Across the globe steel bi­cy­cles are un­der­go­ing a re­nais­sance, but for the fam­ily be­hind Ital­ian builder Cicli Barco, steel frames never went away

Cyclist - - Contents - Words JAMES SPENDER Pho­tog­ra­phy FRED MACGRE­GOR

Steel bikes are en­joy­ing a re­nais­sance, but for lit­tle-known Ital­ian frame­builder Cicli Barco, they never went away

Abustling war­ren of por­ti­coed streets and espresso-clink­ing pi­az­zas, Padua is one of north­ern Italy’s most glo­ri­ous se­crets, all too of­ten over­looked in favour of its more fa­mous neigh­bour, Venice. Yet un­like in Venice most peo­ple here are lo­cals, the well priced spritzes ap­pear at lunchtime and stay un­til the small hours, and there’s no queue for the Basil­ica. And what a Basil­ica Padua has.

Built to ven­er­ate St An­thony, Il Santo – as the lo­cals call it – is said to have ex­erted huge ar­chi­tec­tural in­flu­ence over Venice’s St Mark’s, and is home to all man­ner of trea­sured art­works and con­se­crated dust, from Re­nais­sance mas­ter­pieces to the pre­served re­mains of St An­thony’s tongue, al­leged to have ap­peared still lithe and glis­ten­ing upon his body’s ex­huma­tion and re­burial 30 years af­ter his death. He was, they say, a man with a gift for the re­li­gious gab.

The build­ing Cy­clist has come to see isn’t quite as grand as Il Santo, but still has its fair share of trea­sures. And while it may be hid­den away in an in­dus­trial unit on the city’s out­skirts, next to an empty car park, ask any Ital­ian frame­builder who knows about steel frames and they’ll point you to­wards Cicli Barco.

In fact, that’s ex­actly how we got here our­selves. Hav­ing com­pleted a tour of renowned car­bon fi­bre frame­builder Sarto (see is­sue 64), An­to­nio Sarto shook us warmly by the hand and en­quired, ‘Where to next?’ To that ques­tion we had no answer, but An­to­nio did.

‘You must, must visit chee-clee-barr-co,’ he said. Chee-clee what now? ‘They are one of the best steel frame­builders in Italy. They have made frames for ev­ery­body. They even make frames for us from time to time. They are not far from here. I’ll give Gian­luca a call and let him know you are com­ing.’

Shadow of giants

Cicli Barco sits at the epi­cen­tre of the Veneto re­gion in Italy’s in­dus­tri­alised north. Yet, just as Padua is to Venice, Barco is the lesser known neigh­bour to more il­lus­tri­ous cy­cling brands such as Cam­pag­nolo, Pinarello, Wilier, Selle Italia and Castelli.

Veneto used to be pop­u­lated by count­less telaisti (frame­builders), but the Barco fam­ily is one of the few left stand­ing in the modern age of Far East­ern man­u­fac­tur­ing. Charged with mak­ing other brands’ bi­cy­cles, ei­ther as di­rect em­ploy­ees or terzisti (sub­con­trac­tors), the Bar­cos found favour with their peers but, with other peo­ple’s badges on their head tubes, re­mained a rel­a­tive un­known be­yond their own work­shop walls. But that has steadily been chang­ing.

Cy­clist is greeted by Gian­luca Barco, a wiry 27-year-old whose fea­tures would be darkly

With other peo­ple’s badges on their head tubes, the Bar­cos re­mained a rel­a­tive un­known

im­pos­ing but for his loose ges­tures and bash­ful laugh. One gets the im­pres­sion that de­spite vis­i­tors be­ing rel­a­tively few – there’s cer­tainly no swanky show­room or twin­kling bikes on ro­tat­ing pedestals here – Gian­luca is the des­ig­nated com­pany spokesper­son, as well as be­ing ev­ery­thing from welder to stock taker.

What is on dis­play, how­ever, are dozens upon dozens of beau­ti­ful frames on racks, some fin­ished, some still in process. There are also se­ri­ous-look­ing milling ma­chines and even more se­ri­ous-look­ing jigs, vices, tool walls, benches and bike stands. A de­cent-sized store­room is stacked full of tubes, with more on the work­shop floor be­sides, bun­dled like sticks and teth­ered to clip­boards bran­dish­ing de­tailed schemat­ics of bi­cy­cle frames.

For all the Aladdin’s cave of heavy ma­chin­ery, the work­shop has a chapel-like calm that is only dis­turbed by the oc­ca­sional swoosh of a lit braz­ing torch or the scrape of file on metal. In the back­ground two older men and a woman are hunched over their work­sta­tions like sur­geons, a quick glance up and mo­men­tary smiles the only ac­knowl­edge­ment of our pres­ence.

‘Ciao and wel­come,’ says Gian­luca. ‘Here we work with steel and stain­less steel frames. Over there is my mum, Fabi­ola. She does the cut­ting and mitring and sort of runs things. If we want to do any­thing, we have to ask the boss! There is my fa­ther, Al­berto, who does all the TIG weld­ing, and my un­cle, Mau­r­izio, who does the braz­ing. Al­berto can braze, but Mau­r­izio does it bet­ter. And me, I’m still learn­ing all these things. So this my fam­ily, and we are Cicli Barco.’

Sup­plies and de­mands

Barco’s work­shop has a lay­out and flow fa­mil­iar to most frame­builders. Tube­sets and com­po­nent parts are se­lected and taken to cut­ting ma­chines. They’re then mea­sured in ac­cor­dance with CAD draw­ings, cut and mitred, put in a jig and tacked to­gether. The frame is re­moved, align­ment checked, var­i­ous braze-ons such as ca­ble stops added and then it’s back to the jig for struc­tural weld­ing fol­lowed by fi­nal align­ment checks.

De­pend­ing on the frame, a thin tube may have been brazed inside the top tube to pro­vide

‘Steel frames are not just vin­tage frames. These tubes, these ma­te­ri­als, are re­ally very modern’

easy ca­ble rout­ing, or cou­plers may have been added in the seat stay for in­stal­la­tion of a belt drive. Re­quests come in for Rohloff in­ter­nal gear hub dropouts, rack mounts, guard mounts, disc brake mounts, ta­pered head tubes… the list goes on. Barco even works in mixed ma­te­ri­als, where­upon a frame is made in steel be­fore a por­tion of the tub­ing is cut out, such as the seat tube or chain stay, and re­placed with a car­bon fi­bre tube that’s bonded into the re­main­ing metal.

‘We mainly make road frames and we try to keep ev­ery­thing as sen­si­ble as pos­si­ble, but if a client wants it then we will find a so­lu­tion to make it hap­pen,’ says Gian­luca. Again, a fa­mil­iar enough story, but when pressed more elab­o­rate de­tails emerge. For ex­am­ple, Barco will al­ways try to use stain­less steel dropouts, even on a plain steel frame.

‘The dropouts are things that al­ways get chipped, so it makes no sense to use reg­u­lar steel there, which can ox­i­dise and jeop­ar­dise the paint,’ Gian­luca ex­plains. ‘We avoid chroming, as to do it prop­erly it adds too much ex­tra weight. In­stead we use highly pol­ished stain­less steel, mostly Colum­bus XCR. It is not easy to join stain­less steel to steel be­cause the tem­per­a­tures each ma­te­rial likes to be at are dif­fer­ent, so you have to be very care­ful with the torch. It is not like in those pho­tos where the guy has this mas­sive flame on the metal!’

He em­pha­sises that even in the world of steel, things are chang­ing all the time and there can be no rest­ing on ar­ti­sanal lau­rels: ‘Steel frames are not just vin­tage frames. These tubes, these ma­te­ri­als, are re­ally very modern. Every year com­pa­nies like Colum­bus, our main sup­pli­ers, are mak­ing new de­vel­op­ments, new al­loy mixes, new tube sets, new shapes, and the in­dus­try is creat­ing new stan­dards, even whole new types of bike, such as gravel. Things are grow­ing and we work very hard to keep ahead. Not so long ago a steel down tube may only have been 32mm in di­am­e­ter, with a wall thick­ness of 0.8mm. Now Colum­bus makes a 44mm down tube that is 0.45mm thick in the mid­dle.’ That’s about the thick­ness of a greet­ing card.

Beauty in craft

We break our tour for a wa­ter stop. Veneto is in the midst of a heat­wave, which Gian­luca cheer­ily in­forms us means his dad is on his se­cond T-shirt of the day, and ex­pects to wear three. Gian­luca points out a finely fin­ished, dark-stained wooden box next to the wa­ter cooler, al­most as if it was placed as an af­ter­thought. How­ever, he opens it to re­veal a finely crafted bi­cy­cle fork, which wouldn’t look out of place next to a set of an­tique ri­fles in a Sotheby’s cat­a­logue.

‘A lot of peo­ple come to us be­cause they re­ally don’t like car­bon but they want a strong rac­ing bike. So we make an all-steel fork, and our cus­tomers say rid­ing it is like go­ing down a moun­tain on a train. These cus­tomers aren’t too wor­ried about weight, but we re­alise a full steel fork is heavy, so we made this, the Viva fork with a car­bon fi­bre steerer tube.’

The fork crown’s shore­lines – the edges where lug meets tube – are crisp and square, the meet­ing point be­tween dropout and ta­pered leg im­pec­ca­bly smooth and the pol­ish mir­ror-glass. Un­der­neath the crown is en­graved a minia­ture pic­ture of the fork and the word ‘Viva’.

‘You can’t see the en­grav­ing when the wheel is in, but for us it just makes this fork like a lit­tle piece of art, shall we say. It’s all made here. We get the car­bon from a nearby sup­plier – it’s so much nicer than the im­ported stuff. See how the walls are uni­form thick­ness, not slightly oval like here,’ says Gian­luca, hold­ing up an all-car­bon fork for com­par­i­son. And he’s right. As per the frames we can see, ev­ery­thing here is fin­ished not just with pre­ci­sion but nu­anced fi­nesse, which again makes it be­wil­der­ing to think how few peo­ple know about Cicli Barco. The rea­son is part his­tory and part eco­nom­ics.

Rein­vent­ing the frame

As Italy got back on its feet af­ter the Se­cond World War, cy­cling ex­pe­ri­enced a resur­gence, both as a cheap means of trans­port for a coun­try in eco­nomic tur­moil and as a source of na­tional unity amid the glow­ing em­bers of con­flict. It’s

‘You can’t see the en­grav­ing when the wheel is in, but for us it just makes this fork like a lit­tle piece of art’

said a na­tion wept when Fausto Coppi – who had been taken as a POW in 1943 in North Africa – won the 1946 Mi­lan-san Remo with such a lead that a ra­dio com­men­ta­tor was al­leged to have said, ‘First Fausto Coppi, and while we wait for the se­cond we’re go­ing to play some nice mu­sic.’ It was from this era that Cicli Barco sprang up. As Gian­luca trans­lates for his fa­ther, ‘Italy used to be the China of steel frames.’

‘The busi­ness was started by my grand­fa­ther, Mario. We say the busi­ness started in 1947, not the Cicli Barco name ex­actly, but that is when the Barco fam­ily started mak­ing frames, and we have never stopped since that pe­riod.

‘Grand­fa­ther was work­ing in the Tor­pado fac­tory [a well re­garded Padua frame­builder founded in 1895]. He made bikes for Freddy Maertens and Eddy Mer­ckx, but to get ex­tra money he would take frames away and do more work on them at home. Be­cause peo­ple re­spected Tor­pado and they knew my grand­fa­ther worked for them, other com­pa­nies in the area trusted him to take their frames away too. He would go around on his Vespa, pick up the frames and ride with a dozen over his shoul­ders back to the house. My fa­ther and un­cle grew up see­ing this, work­ing with my grand­fa­ther from a very young age.’

In time both sons found them­selves work­ing as frame­builders for large-scale, high-end op­er­a­tion Scapin, with Al­berto’s new wife, Fabi­ola, join­ing Scapin in the paint de­part­ment. But with the ad­vent of alu­minium, car­bon and rise of the Far East as a frame­build­ing power, there were some lean years for steel, so when it was bought out by Olympia in 2005, Scapin moth­balled its Ital­ian-made steel di­vi­sion.

‘This is when my par­ents stepped in,’ says Gian­luca. ‘They bought the ma­chin­ery they had worked on for decades from Scapin and of­fi­cially started Cicli Barco in 2007. We made bi­cy­cles for other brands, and we still do. To­day we are build­ing for around 20 dif­fer­ent brands, about 350 frames per year. I can­not say which brands for con­fi­den­tial­ity rea­sons, but of­ten they come here to take pic­tures of us mak­ing frames to use in their mar­ket­ing. We even some­times still do work for Scapin if some­one asks for a spe­cial steel frame. I’m sure peo­ple can work out many other brands we make if they want – peo­ple are not stupid!’

To that end, in case you were won­der­ing, a Barco sig­na­ture is the in­te­grated seat clamp, where the binder bolt is re­cessed into the top of the seat­stays. Spot that and chances are…

‘To­day we are build­ing for around 20 di ffer­ent brands, about 350 frames per year. I can­not say which brands…’

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