Stefano Barzaghi: The peloton's master painter
He's personalised helmets and bikes for the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Alexander Kristoff and Tom Boonen. We talk lovely lids and fabulous frames with Stefano Barzaghi, the bunch's leading bespoke painter.
Rouleur: When did it all begin?
Stefano Barzaghi: It began with Luca Paolini when I personalised his helmet for the 2006 World Championships in Salzburg. Then Paolo Bettini won the race, so I decided to make him one too as a victory present. From there on, the whole cycling world opened up to me. Everyone had seen Paolo’s lid, they wanted their own personalised one and then it started to be frames too.
What input does the rider have in the design?
They give me the helmet and say ‘do whatever you want’. Take Alexander Kristoff’s one. Most of the cyclists have an animal’s nickname: the Shark of Messina, of the strait, for Nibali; the Dolphin for Pellizotti, the Panther was Bennati. So with Kristoff, I decided to do a salmon, because that’s quite Norwegian. For Purito [Rodriguez, the Katusha rider] last year, it was a little cigar; this time round a bull because he rode in a Spanish region famous for those animals.
Alexander Kristoff's positively-demonic Norwegian salmon design from the 2014 World Championships. pic: Stefano Barzaghi
What has been the most difficult design?
It’s not a case of easy and difficult. The issue is the amount of time given to do it. For Franco Pellizotti, for example, when he took the King of the Mountains jersey at the 2009 Tour, I had to paint his bike in one night. He took the lead in the afternoon, I worked all evening and someone picked it up the next morning.
What equipment do you use?
It’s the same kind of paint they also use for cars. I use something called metal flake paint so colours shine when the sun hits them. Because when they’re in the bunch with everyone else, they want their bike to stand out.
Have you become friends with many riders?
Of course; I was at the Dubai Tour and met up with Purito and Nibali. It’s also because Nibali, Contador - who else - Gasparotto, Rogers, all live here in Lugano, close to my home. When they pass by in training, they often come round to find me at work.
Tell me a bit about your story. You didn’t start off doing bike helmets, did you?
I started in 1989, just doing this for my own motorbike and cycling helmets. This was my hobby, my passion; before I was a car mechanic, a totally different thing. Then the demand grew and I had to do it as a job because I had too many to do.
Spot Pellizotti's polka-dot steed on the far right. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Do you ride a bike too?
I’ve got a few bikes, Danilo di Luca gave me one, but I barely go out because I don’t have the time for it; there’s always work, sometimes all day Saturday and Sunday morning. I have one week’s holiday a year, and that’s it.
From the start of the process to handing over the finished helmet or bike, it takes how many days or weeks?
You have to do it in three days. Four maximum, it’s got to be finished. The same for a bike frame.
Have you ever had any disasters during the work? I imagine if you make an error, it’s difficult to correct.
Exactly: you must know your equipment and materials so well, like the varnishes and transparent paints. It can certainly happen too. Sometimes it doesn’t turn out well with your varnishes, so you have to immediately edit it. You’ve got to factor in possible mistakes: it takes three days to complete and you’ve got to consider delivery time and any problems too.
Joaquim Rodriguez's smokin' hot helmet. Purito, his nickname, means little cigar in Spanish. pic: Stefano Barzaghi
Is it harder with a bike or a helmet?
Because modern helmets are closed – the Giro Air Attack is totally closed, as is the Specialized S-Works Evade - it’s fairly easy to do it quickly. Before that, when they were all open and vented, it was much harder.
As for the bike, it is a more difficult because they are only tubes. So you are limited with your design: with a helmet, you have more volume, more space, to do what you want. You can do an animal, a face, whatever you like.
Are there ever any problems with the professional teams or the bike manufacturers?
There’s always problems. All the riders want personalisation, a unique piece. However, the team and manufacturer have a problem when I do something bespoke because their clients ask to have the helmet Nibali or Purito had. And they can’t do it – I have to do it, you know? But they don’t want an external person doing this work. They would like a helmet to be the one the public sees.
I’m always doing something new or different. So they tell Nibali: ‘ah, that helmet is nice, however be careful using it because if the clients ask us for it after, we can’t sell it, we don’t have it in production’. That’s the issue.
Luca Paolini's bespoke lid for going to battle at Paris-Roubaix. Katusha aren't always happy that he wears them, though. pic: Stefano Barzaghi
So it’s always a bit of a fight?
And then, the riders get annoyed. Because Paolini has been frustrated many times with Giro, his helmet maker, because he wants to always use my creations, and they say no sometimes. But many times, it doesn’t bother him and he uses it anyway, no problem.
In total, how many pro riders have you worked with?
So many. I used to work with Specialized [for Quick Step] and also with Cannondale [for Liquigas]. I’ve worked for Nibali, Paolini, Purito, di Luca, Visconti, Bettini, Boonen, Pellizotti. Pozzato too, I’ve done loads for him, he is very much a fashionista, so he wants something particular.
Are there any stars that have won big races wearing one of your creations?
The most beautiful, in my opinion, was Paolo Bettini when he won his second world championships [in 2007]. He had my helmet on.
And the service is available for amateurs and fans?
Yes. And if they want the same one as the professional, I can replicate it.
Paolini's bullet-holed camouflage bike for the cobbled Classics. pic: Stefano Barzaghi
How do you see the future for this line of work?
There are always so many problems when it comes to marketing with teams. And perhaps my workload is too much. But I hope that it’s always this busy. I’d like to work with top pro riders on something beautiful too, like Nibali at the Tour de France or Bettini at the world championships: famous riders more than gregarios.
Everyone tells me that professional cycling is a fairly regimented, inside-the-box sport. There’s always a boundary. If you see the drivers in Formula 1, they have a different helmet or different colours every race.
In cycling, it’s always forbidden to do this or that, you know? Maybe this mentality of personalising things will change too.
And after nearly ten years, does it remain a passion?
Yes. You’ve got to have passion. Without that, there’s nothing. I don’t do it to make money because it’s not going to make me rich. Working all day Saturday or even Sunday morning doesn’t bother me. I like the work - you have to. It’s one of the most beautiful jobs out there. Okay, I haven’t tried the others, but I’m convinced that this is one of the best because every day you’re doing something new and varied, never boring or annoying.
You can find Stefano Barzaghi and more of his designs at www.barzadesign.it