Bugno and Chiappucci. Cipollini and Fondriest. Fabio Roscioli. All raced or trained on Passonis, it’s understood, through rarely, if ever, with Luciano’s name upon them, such is the hidden history of one of cycling’s most exclusive marques.
Passoni was among the very last suppliers of metal frames to the peloton, though his creations wore the branding of rival manufacturers. Now, his customers are knowledgeable amateurs and retired professionals, with Juan Antonio Flecha among them.
In an age of often unedifiying mass production techniques, where heritage is a commodity and the reality of manufacture is far removed from the images in the brochure, Passoni is a beacon of authenticity.
A vision on the Ghisallo
Old man Passoni was climbing the Ghisallo, the story goes, when he was passed by a rider on a silver bicycle. He followed the man, engaged him in conversation and learned that he was an engineer with a sports car manufacturer.
The silver frame, he was told, was titanium, used to reduce the weight of the cars. To see if it was possible, the engineer had used it to make a bicycle. Passoni asked for a frame; no, two frames – one would not be enough. A supplier of electrical cables for large-scale building projects, with an office in Milan, Luciano was not used to taking no for answer.
Passoni was gripped. He set Luca, his son, to learn the frame builders’ craft with established marques on his graduation from high school. He purchased the essential tools of the titanium builder’s trade: the welding torches and the chamber in which the tubes are united in an atmosphere first purged of oxygen and then saturated with an Argon mix. Art and craft are mixed too. The artisan who works with titanium is no ordinary welder.
On a quiet corner of a rapidly expanding industrial estate in Lecco we find Passoni’s atelier. Only ten people work here. It is enough to produce between 300 and 400 frames each year. Passoni is the opposite of mass production. Volume is not a consideration, only quality.
A selection of early models, displayed on a wall, forms a de facto museum. The earliest were made from sheets of titanium, rolled and joined with plate – run a hand along the downtube and you can feel the seam – though titanium tubes have been used since the early 1990s, and contemporary Passoni frames are made from triple-butted pipes drawn in Birmingham by Reynolds, available in differing wall thickness and circumference as the customer decrees, such is their bearing on ride quality.
The evolution of Passoni’s frames can be seen in this small selection. An early track frame has an all-titanium fork: steerer, blade and dropout. The Boomerang is notable for its outré seatstays and the beautiful Mito, in which carbon tubes in the front triangle are held in titanium lugs, are reminders of the founder’s maverick spirit.
Arts and crafts
Production takes place in a larger space at the rear of the atelier. Here, tubes are cut and mitred on heavy, industrial machines that seem at odds with the lightness and elegance of the finished product.
The process of joining titanium tubes begins on a sophisticated jig equipped with hoses to pipe argon gas inside the tube, while the same is applied from the exterior with the welding torch. These welds are small and only used for the process of ‘tacking’ the tubes together.
The real business of welding takes place inside a chamber: what appears to be an upturned cauldron, though the carefully controlled temperature does not exceed 30 degrees and the pressure is maintained at around 1.1 bar. Such a closely regualted environment helps to control humidity and ensure the weld is free from oxidisation.
It seems a shame to file away the excess material, which is surprisingly wide and silver in colour, and not unattractive, but considerable time and effort is expended in doing so. Until now, we have dealt with the craft of frame building, but here is where the art lies: a process of refinement lasting up to 30 hours, beginning with diamond-hard dremels and ending with soft cloths.
The men who perform the task take on a labour that mixes strength and subtlety, requiring them to brace themselves against the power of the tool and the hardness of the material, but to apply its wickedly spinning tip with the delicacy of a jeweller. They plant their feet in a boxer’s stance, block their ears with small discs of orange foam, cover their mouths with masks, protect their eyes with a clear, wrap around lens and their hands with thick, but soft gloves.
Decorative features are sandblasted onto the titanium. It’s another process, like the welding, that requires the engineer to reach inside a chamber, his arms encased in thick, rubber gauntlets, and his eyes protected by a screen. Inspection follows. The process is repeated if anything less than perfection is achieved.
The appearance of a Passoni frame is subject to the same rigour as its manufacture; the positioning of the sandblasted logos as tightly controlled as an engineering tolerance. There are only four identifiers: Passoni on the downtube, the model name on the seat-tube, a discrete head badge, and the company motto on the inside edge of the non-driveside chain stay. Additionally, Passoni offers a palette of 15 colours and subtle advice that its most beautiful creations typically use no more than three. The titanium frames can be left raw, bead or sandblasted, or painted.
A thick, steel door, not unlike that used in a bank vault, leads to as enviable a stock room as might be imagined. Here, the fruits of the engineers’ labour are stored. A rack of frames, some with geometry charts rolled and pushed inside the bottom bracket shell, takes centre stage. Behind, a couple of partly-built machines stand awaiting completion. Racks are filled with boxes of Campagnolo components, while wheels are stored in bags, including the supremely exotic offerings of Japanese wheel builder Gokiso.
Spanish Flandrian, satisfied customer
Juan Antonio Flecha owns two Passonis: the titanium Top Force and the Nero, a sophisticated union of T800 carbon and CNC-machined Titanium.
“I can say I was a Passoni owner before I retired,” he says. “When I first saw the bikes, I immediately wanted one. Obviously, the materials they are using are very good. In 30 years’ or 50 years’ time, it will still look the same. When I took the bike from the box on the first day, I was completely amazed.”
Flecha’s Top Force has a custom geometry. “My frame is 54.5cm for the seat-tube and 57.5cm for the top tube, to make it more stable, especially in corners,” he explains.
“Many pros have to ride with inverted stems. They have to play around with the stem and seat-post. That’s a mistake. Of course, the bike rides completely differently. If you have the chance to make your own frame, with its own geometry, tailor-made for you, the bike for sure is going to ride perfectly. It’s also going to look nicer.”
Flecha raced as an amateur in the 1990s on titanium frames. The Top Force might then be considered an obvious choice, though it’s likely to be a more advanced machine than that on which the Spanish Flandrian began his career.
It is a frame for riders of a “competitive spirit” and the most obvious example of the Passoni credo: that its geometries are from the “Italian school”. The Top Force is, first and foremost, a racing bike.
While other brands unite titanium’s natural compliance with a relaxed geometry to a create an undemanding ride, it is perhaps unsurprising that Passoni’s flagship model – the embodiment of the brand’s philosophy – is a blood and guts racer, equipped with a compact geometry fashioned from a mix of 3Al/2.5V and 6Al/4V tubes.
For customers who travel to Lecco, the fitting might be the most enjoyable aspect. Superintended by former Barloworld professional Diego Caccia, formerly a team-mate to Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and 140, it involves some positional analysis and plenty of riding: what Passoni describes as a “Holistic Bike Fit” (the services of Bespoke Cycling and Cyclefit are available to UK customers unable to visit the factory).
The temperature has just dipped below 35 degrees on what has been a stifling day when I ride out with Caccia and another former professional, Danilo Colombo, Passoni’s sales manager. We are bound for Montevecchia, a tiny commune about 15km from Lecco, scattered across a vertiginous slope typical in Lombardy. It affords wonderful views in which Passoni’s atelier, or, more accurately, the taller buildings in its immediate surroundings, are just visible.
We descend a little way from the summit to call at a tiny bar off a cobbled square and drink chinotto, the dark, bitter lemon drink that was all the rage in Italy before the arrival of Coca-Cola, Caccia tells me. We talk professional cycling and frame geometries over the sound of crickets rising from the terraced landscape below; topics on which Caccia and Colombo are well versed.
For both, the unique quality of a Passoni lies in its handling. Yes, there is toe overlap, but they are not building bikes for non-cyclists. Is the bike fast, precise, responsive? Is it exhilarating to ride? Does it thrill you? These are racing bikes, made in Italy, with geometry of the Italian school. Rolling back through the softening evening temperature, past the Lampre factory, where the sound of champagne corks popping might still be heard above the crickets following Ruben Plaza’s win earlier that day on stage 16 of the Tour de France, it could scarcely be otherwise.
Passoni’s evolution makes an interesting case study on the significance of frame material to a relentlessly demanding peloton and a similarly voracious industry, and how that might be squared with the unchanging needs of the cyclist.
In a world of 6.8kg weight limits, what benefit might a rider derive from a remorselessly stiff 600g frame that he might not find in a chassis weighing one kilogram, but imbued with a natural spring? Especially now that top-tier groupsets of any stripe weigh two kilos or less?
Once the secret weapon of the peloton’s climbing specialists when titanium was the new exotica, Passoni is still able to produce machines of the lowest permissible weight for racing, and do so now, ironically, with less competition for ride quality than when steel was de rigueur.
Some things are only done for passion. Passoni is privately owned and so exists to satisfy its customers rather than shareholders. Its modus operandi is uncompromised quality. The products are far from cheap, but these are not “Louis Vuitton bicycles,” we are told: that is to say, they are not expensive for the sake of being expensive.
The evidence for such a statement is clear to anyone who visits the factory: you do not polish a bicycle frame for 30 hours if you are driven by productivity targets or sales forecasts, but do so only if the bicycle is your passion. Luca Passoni, so named, has little choice but to do so.
High quality bikes deserve high quality cover