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Passoni: factory visit

Peter Stuart
24 Mar 2016

Just outside Milan, Passoni creates some of the most desireable bikes in the world. Cyclist finds out what goes into a £6000 frame.

‘He built bikes only because of his great passion. Since the first day, that has never changed,’ says Passoni’s owner, Silvia Gravi, of her father-in-law Luciano Passoni. 

Here in Vimercate, on an industrial estate just beyond the boundaries of glamorous Milan, in the shadow of the peaks of the Eastern Alps, bespoke framebuilding company Passoni goes about its business just as it has done for 30 years. The frames lovingly crafted inside show no sign of being trapped in the past, however.

Passoni

‘To cut the tubes and TIG-weld the frame takes Rubens eight hours – a full day,’ says production manager Lisa Rossi as she shows Cyclist around the workshop. Welder Rubens Gori is working on a Top Force titanium frame. At this early stage he’s simply ‘tacking’ – welding just a few spots to keep the tubes precisely in place. The next step is TIG-welding in a hermetically sealed chamber filled with a special mixture of inert gas. Gori’s dexterity attests to the decades he has spent working with titanium. 

‘It takes four hours to weld it in the chamber,’ says Rossi. All of Passoni’s bikes are handbuilt by a small band of experienced framebuilders, each specialising in a small set of tasks. The welding forms the core of the production process, but every step before and afterwards is done with the same loving attention to detail.

Once upon a time in Italy

The Passoni brand was inspired by a chance meeting on the Madonna del Ghisallo climb near Lake Como, made famous by the Giro di Lombardia pro race. Midway up the ascent Luciano Passoni, a keen amateur cyclist with a successful electronics business, came across another rider on an unusual-looking frame. They got talking and the rider, Amelio Riva, told Passoni he’d built the frame himself out of titanium – a material unheard of in the bicycle world at the time. 

Passoni

Passoni’s curiosity was piqued and he commissioned Riva to build him a frame from this light and exotic metal. Upon delivery he was immediately captivated by the potential of his new frame and tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade Riva to go into business with him building frames. 

Undeterred, Passoni went it alone, the brand was born and within a few years Luciano and his son Luca had schooled themselves in the finer points of building titanium frames. 

‘For the first seven or eight years, the tubes were not circular,’ Gravi tells us. ‘They were flat pieces of metal that were bent into a tube shape and welded along the seam. At that time it was still a very niche product.’

Luca took over the company in 1995 and, as the demand for Passoni frames grew, he began to buy pre-formed titanium tubes from Reynolds in the UK. The tubes were mitred, welded and finished on site, and Passoni’s reputation quickly grew prestigious enough that pros were rumoured to ride them at Grand Tours, rebadged as big-brand frames. 

‘What has always separated Passoni is perfection in welding,’ says Gravi. ‘It’s very particular because titanium is a particular material. Our attention is always on what new welding technology will allow us to do – the evolution of welding.’ While the company is keen to embrace new technologies, the core principles of construction remain constant. 

Passoni

‘We produce 400 frames a year and they are all bespoke – there’s no mass production on site,’ says Passoni’s Matteo Cavazzuti. ‘We have affiliated fitters around the world, but it’s best if you come here to be measured so we can create your bike.’ 

Despite having its heart firmly set in Italian tradition, Passoni hasn’t shied away from expanding on its titanium origins, with frames made from stainless steel and a combination of carbon and titanium now also constructed in-house. Whatever material the customer chooses, the final product is certain to come with a hefty price tag. 

‘That’s worth £15,000,’ Rossi says, pointing to the bike on which I am casually slumped, leading me to hastily spring to my feet. ‘The most expensive one we built this year was £16,000,’ she adds. ‘We built it with a THM crankset, Fibula brakes and AX-Lightness components, so it was very light and looked pretty good too.’

If the bike fits

Passoni

For clients with deep enough pockets, the process of buying a Passoni bike is as personal and immersive as you could wish for. 

‘Many clients come to Milan and we pick them up and bring them here,’ Cavazzuti says. ‘We go for a ride with a test bike and get the riding position as close as possible to what’s needed. We then do a full fit and work on the numbers, during which time we invite clients to relax in our sauna.’ 

Cavazzuti sees my slightly baffled look and wanders over to an industrial-looking door on the upper floor of the building and pulls it open to reveal a state-of-the-art sauna. 

‘They stay here for one hour after the ride and they come out happy,’ he laughs. In the meantime another of the Passoni team has gone to work. Danilo Colombo is responsible for specifying the geometry for the frame so that it fits the client perfectly while ensuring that the ride characteristics of the bike remain optimum. 

Passoni

‘We have clear ideas on geometry,’ Colombo says. ‘If we have to achieve one position at the handlebar and another at the saddle, there are many different solutions between the two.’ 

Passoni doesn’t only rely on its years of experience to achieve the ideal geometry – it also uses computer software to assess a frame’s characteristics and hone rider fit. 

‘It’s important to fully map out a frame’s dimensions. Sometimes when you lengthen tubes for flexibility, you sacrifice stiffness. We have to juggle handling with what’s required for fit.’ 

Colombo is also tasked with keeping the brand at the leading edge of titanium technology, an area in which Passoni has historically proved very strong. ‘We were the first titanium bike producer to really create frames for racing,’ he says. ‘If you look at most titanium producers, many still use external cups, very thin tubes and a really traditional retro style. As far back as 2002 Passoni introduced the oversize tube and the integrated headset. We were looking at ways to improve stiffness and reduce weight.’ 

Once Colombo has the design and the sauna has done its work on the client, the bike begins its journey to completion. The tubes are ordered from Reynolds – a mixture of Grade 5 and Grade 9 titanium, both of which are triple-butted to save weight. The head tube has its own challenges, as it’s put together from a conical base and a straight upper piece to achieve the desirable taper to enhance handling. After cutting and mitring, the first welds are made to fix the tubes in place. From here, the frame goes into the arc-welding chamber. ‘Our gas mixture is a tightly guarded secret,’ says Rossi. 

Passoni welding

When it comes out, the bike has assumed a complete form, but the product is far from finished. Polishing might sound like a 10-minute job once everything else is in place, but for a product such as the Top Force, it’s a big part of the production process. ‘It takes two full days to sand and polish a frame,’ Rossi says. 

Once the welds are sanded to make a seamless finish, the frame is polished and tiny amounts of excess titanium are removed. Then the frame is wrapped in paper so the logo can be sandblasted onto the down tube. It’s a precise process, as any mistakes in the wrapping will mean a ruined frame.

Once a frame is painted it’s time for the full build. Half of the frames are built up by Passoni and the other half are sent to dealers to be built up by a customer. The international market for Italian-made titanium bikes has boomed, and it’s no wonder most foreign clients opt for the finished product to be Italian from top to bottom. ‘Our American and Japanese clients almost always ask for Campagnolo groupsets – we only offer Record or Super Record [mechanical or electronic] – and our components are usually Italian made too. Cinelli finishing kit is standard.’

Usually, but not always. Despite the traditional frame material, Passoni uses the latest and most expensive components. ‘Have you heard of Gokiso hubs?’ Rossi asks me. I have, but thought they existed only in the vivid dreams of tech fantasists. ‘These wheels are very expensive,’ she says, picking up a wheel with a bright anodised hub. ‘For the public the cost of a wheelset is £7,000, because the hubs are developed from an aeronautic project. They spin without friction.’ 

Passoni grinding

I do my own spinning wheel test and lose patience before the wheels show any sign of slowing. ‘You can buy these wheels only from us,’ she says. That’s no surprise, as few brands boast the clientele that could conceive of spending so much on a wheel.

Passoni also sells its own shoes, with a focus on offering clients a customised insole during the initial fit process, and its own turbo trainer, which – for reasons of style over substance – is coated in gold.

The faces of Passoni

The Passoni brand is, sadly, missing the father and son who founded the company. ‘Unfortunately, in 2006 Luca died unexpectedly,’ Cavazzuti tells us. It was then that Luca’s wife, Silvia, resolutely took the reins.

‘I have developed a lot of passion for my work and my product, and the heritage behind it,’ Silvia Gravi tells us. ‘I think we need to look forward too, and I hope we can continue to produce new and special frames.’ 

While Gravi honed her skills at the head of the company she inherited, she unexpectedly found a business partner in cyclist and banker Matteo Cassina. He had dreamed of owning a Passoni bike for years, and when he visited Vimercate for his fitting the pair got chatting. Before long he had talked himself into a partnership. 

Passoni bike

‘Matteo came to us for a bike and he left with part of the company,’ Gravi says. ‘He comes here every three weeks or so. Every single second he has free he dedicates to Passoni, helping drive it in the right way.’

Gravi and Cassina strike a strange sort of harmony. Cassina has cycling in his blood and is a close friend of Ivan Basso and Alberto Contador thanks to some prior corporate associations in pro cycling. Gravi views things a little more objectively. 

‘Normally I look for inspiration as much from outside of cycling as from within it. I take inspiration from fashion or luxury or style, but obviously I keep a very close eye on the cycling world.’ Perhaps that’s why Passoni treads a line somewhere between extravagant cycling jewellery and cutting-edge racing technology. As our time here comes to a close, I glance back at Rubens Gori welding a frame – a man with 23 years of experience standing in front of a huge picture of a crystal-clear day on the snowy Stelvio Pass. It’s a rare thing Passoni has achieved: a delicate balance between image, modernity and that crucial core ingredient – passion. 

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