If you walk into any bike shop you’d easily think that carbon fibre is the only material of choice for your new bicycle. And why not? Carbon offers light weight, rigidity and the ability to be moulded into aero wind cheating shapes. A wonder material.
In the GRAN FONDO issue #001 group bike test you’ll have noticed it’s nearly all carbon framed bikes with one solitary steel bike. But it’s that steel bike that surprised our testers more than any other. Instead of the flexy and weighty behemoth they were expecting, they got a light and responsive machine more than capable of holding it’s own against most of the others. Even though steel frame building never disappeared, it did suffer from the relentless march of carbon fibre towards world bicycle domination.
But in recent years, the steel manufacturers, such as Reynolds, Columbus and True Temper have made a fight back with lighter and stronger materials. And all around the world, a new generation of passionate craftspeople have taken up the welding torch & file and are producing beautiful, handcrafted steel bicycles. One such passionate guy is Barcelona-based Mattia Paganotti.
If, like me, you are one of the over 8000 people who follow Legorcicli on Instagram you’ll be familiar with the enormous window that makes up an entire wall of the workshop and features on most of his photos. That and his equally famous cat who even has his own hashtag, #ingegnermakita. There doesn’t seem to be a day goes by when the warm Mediterranean sunshine isn’t streaming through the glass, lighting up the workspace and warming the cat.
As we pull up outside the large building which houses Mattia’s workshop, I was pretty sure I would recognise THAT window. But there are 48 of them! A quick ‘phone call to tell him we had arrived had him hanging out of THE window, waving and telling us to come up.
Being on the second floor the first thing I wanted to know was how he got all the big heavy milling machines up there?!
“We took the window out and used a crane!” came the ‘How else d’you think we got it in?’ reply. Straight away I liked this dude. He likes solving problems!
We were there to collect the Crema Cycles ‘Doma’ bike which was part of our group test. Crema Cycles is the brand of Ken Bloomer, the ENVE European brand manager, which is why all Crema bikes come with ENVE wheels & finishing kit. But the steel frames are handmade by Mattia alongside his own ‘Legor Cicli’ brand in Barcelona.
I like this way of doing things. It’s just like the old days where Pro race teams got the small Italian steel frame builders to make their race frames which were then painted with the name of the major brand who actually sponsored the team. It still goes on nowadays but with carbon and to a lesser extent.
Being an amateur steel frame builder myself I was really stoked to get to know Mattia and find out his background, and how a punk kid from Brescia in northern Italy ended up making steel frames in Barcelona.
And he’s done a lot in his 31 years. For 10 years he was a professional skateboarder with the NikeSB Italy team, then did some supermotard racing. Around 2007-08 he got involved with the local fixie & track bike scene, a scene which was nowhere near the phenomenon it is nowadays, and went looking to try and find a frame builder in Brescia who would make him a bike. But he found all the workshops closed down due to the decline of steel and the rise of carbon as the preferred choice of material.
The more he went looking the more he started to fall in love with the history, the stories and the lost craft of steel frame making.
He eventually found a workshop that had been closed for 15 years and made a deal with the long retired owner; Mattia would buy the workshop and the old artisan would teach him his skills and how to use the equipment.
So the deal was done and money changed hands. But once the old guy had got the money he changed his mind about teaching and in Mattia’s own words; “Told me to fu*k off!”
Luckily for Mattia, Gino Lissignoli, a master frame builder took him under his wing, and in exchange for fixing his broken lathe, promised to teach him. Another problem solved.
Mattia tells me; “My old NikeSB team manager had asked me to make him a frame so I told Lissignoli; I have an order, you have to teach me now!”
Mattia was also greatly inspired by Piero Serena, who he considers one of Italy’s greatest craftsmen. Though he never got to work with Serena (he died in 2005) he made a lasting impression on his widow who gave Mattia all of Piero’s tools and drawings. An amazing gesture and he learned a lot about the way the great artisan had worked.
He eventually found his way to the workshop of Tiziano Zullo, one of the most famous steel frame builders in Italy, who supplied the Dutch pro ‘TVM’ team with frames between 1986-1992. Working there part-time for 2 years he got to develop his skills even further.
Zullo even officiated at Mattia’s wedding 13 years ago. “And what Zullo welds never comes apart!” says Mattia with a beaming smile.
The final part of his craft apprenticeship journey came in 2010 at NAHBS (North American Hand Made Bike Show) where he met one of the great contemporary steel frame builders, Dario Pegoretti, who taught him more and became his mentor.
I say the final part of his journey, but it won’t be. Mattia strikes me as the kind of guy that is constantly learning and developing his skills. A true artisan.
Seems to me that Vulcan, the Roman god of fire & craftsman, has been watching over this dude from Brescia.
But after gaining all this knowledge and experience he still couldn’t make a living from frame building in Italy. There just wasn’t enough demand. So he decided to relocate his workshop to Barcelona where he had many friends from his skating days. And a hip & cool city full of creative types, the Mediterranean weather and a beach. The workshop in Bresica used to be freezing during the winter.
From the minute he took that big window out and craned all the kit in, the business just took off. Nowadays he makes up to 6 frames a week using his own design custom drawn Columbus steel tubes. “It’s was a 2-year wait for Columbus to make custom tubes, but it was worth it as I can now make my frames exactly how I want them!” So a Legor Cicli frame truly is custom made. The only thing Mattia doesn’t do in-house is painting. This he outsources to 2 local painters; “You have to have 2 painters as reliability isn’t there strongest asset!” again delivered with a beaming smile.
As we wander around the workshop discussing jigs, frame building techniques and which hammer is best for solving certain problems, I spot in the corner the copper plated bike that Mattia made for his friend Jacopo Porreca to compete in last years Trans Continental bike race. I mention that I really like the blue paint scheme which is only on some of the frame.
“Well, it’s the first time I try the copper plating and there was a defect in the finish. So I design the paint job to hide it. Problem-solving is a big part of the artisans life!”
I reckon Mattia Paganotti thrives on problem-solving. As we’d been talking I hadn’t noticed that the GRAN FONDO big boss Robin and photographer Constantin had gone to look around the cool local neighbourhood to find some photo opportunities. I was hoping they would drive off and forget about me.
The problem I have to solve is, how can I stay here in Barcelona, hang out with this cool cat and learn how to make better steel frames?
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Words: John Baker Photos: Constantin Gerlach