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Inside Zullo: An Italian story

Peter Stuart
14 Jun 2017

Whether he's supplying a pro team or hand-crafting a frame for a single client, Tiziano Zullo has stayed true to his heritage

In an understated limestone workshop a few kilometres from Lake Garda, among walls plastered with cycling memorabilia and tabletops littered with steel filings, you will find Tiziano Zullo hard at work.

Zullo is one of Italy’s classic steel brands, and Tiziano one of a dwindling band of master framebuilders whose numbers were once in the hundreds.

As technology progressed, some adapted their skills to help create big companies using mass production techniques in the Far East.

Some produced artisan frames for niche markets, while others simply disappeared. Zullo, though, has done something rather different.

Rather than sourcing frames from the Far East, Zullo produces bespoke steel frames in Italy and sells them to the Far East. It’s a market where Italian heritage carries a high premium, and Zullo boasts a wealth of it.

In fair Verona

Born in Verona in 1952, Tiziano has always been intimately linked to northern Italy’s cycling traditions.

Cycling competitively in his teens, he began brazing frames when he was 21 and had his own company by 24. The four decades that have passed since have encompassed all reaches of the cycling world.

We’re keen to hear his story, but it turns out Tiziano doesn’t speak a word of English. It’s not a problem – his wife and business partner Elena, who has for decades acted as the organising force behind Tiziano’s passion, eagerly seizes the opportunity to tell us the story of the brand.

Tiziano sits down beside us, still tender from having his knee replaced in the summer. He listens attentively (albeit presumably in a state of mild bewilderment) as Elena leaps into an animated description of how it all started.

‘Tiziano grew up in a small village called Stallavena. The area is very mountainous and early in the morning he would go out for long rides even as a teenager before going to work.’

Like many free-spirited framebuilders, the romance caught Tiziano’s imagination. ‘Liberta,’ he whispers with a contented smile, reflecting fondly on the sense of freedom his bike provided him in his youth.

‘In 1973 he started learning to weld and cut tubes,’ Elena adds. ‘In 1976 he started his own small company, but the first deliveries were all for other companies.

‘Back then many shops and distributors had their own brands, built by local builders. In the north of Italy there were more than 500 framebuilders working in such a way.’

Tiziano was eager to form his own identity as well, so he began to build frames under his own name. ‘It was the start of Zullo bikes,’ Elena says.

Some of those frames are still here in the workshop in a space that resembles something between a museum and a bric-a-brac sale.

The frames are slender and classic in appearance, hinting early on at a long-lasting style for the brand. Indeed, its newest frames don’t look too different, but the technology around steel has changed, and Tiziano has taken advantage.

From a dusty worktop, Tiziano pushes away sketches and invoices to reveal a pristine MacBook. He opens it, revealing a state-of-the-art design program for fine-tuning geometry and paint design.

As any good framebuilder will tell you, a weld doesn’t tell the whole story. The frame he’s currently working on is a custom project for the owner of the Garda Bike Hotel.

It’s an Inqubo, Zullo’s most race-ready frame. At the sight of it, despite his sore leg, Tiziano jumps up and dashes across the room to fetch a frame.

He holds it up, studying it closely, as if trying to locate a blemish or an imperfect weld, even though it’s flawless in its unpainted state. ‘Inqubo... nightmare,’ he says sharply.

That’s the literal translation of the name, which was attributed to it because of its design complexity. The down tube is oval at the joint, but the ovalisation is in different orientations at each end of the tube – known as bi-ovalisation.

The top tube has a teardrop profile to add to lateral strength while the rear chainstays square off as they approach the bottom bracket, meaning there is almost no circular tubing. It’s a welding and mitring headache, but a beautiful product.

‘The Inqubo has a very special shape,’ Elena says. ‘It is made for us by Dedacciai. These tubes are Dedacciai EOM 16.5, which Tiziano developed with the owner of Dedacciai for the Spanish track rider Juan Llaneras, who asked for a very stiff and strong frame.’

After the experience with track frames, Tiziano made the Inqubo frame for use on the road, and took a highly immersive approach, making the dropouts, BB and brake bridge himself.

Zullo’s production process is simple but up to date. ‘We tig-weld and braze with lugs,’ Elena says. ‘We don’t do any fillet brazing… well, we haven’t for at least 15 or 20 years – Tiziano detests it. First you put on material and then you file it away.’

Tiziano shakes his head at the mention of fillet brazing. ‘After Tig welding was invented for the frames, fillet brazing made no sense,’ Elena adds.

Despite the almost jewellery-like status of Zullo bikes, Tiziano’s focus has always been performance. That early trajectory was cemented by Zullo’s immersion into the world of pro cycling as a bike supplier and sponsor.

Racing pedigree

‘In 1985 we met the Dutch racing team Nikon-Van Schilt,’ Elena says, sitting beside Tiziano with an afternoon espresso. ‘Nikon was leaving cycling and Mr Van Schilt was looking for a new sponsor.

‘He wanted every item of the team to be Italian – not only the frames and bikes but every bit of clothing and shoes and every accessory.’

Consequently Zullo became a team sponsor despite its seemingly minuscule size.

Zullo became more than just a kit supplier, and was active in finding other sponsors and supporting the team. ‘They asked us for help getting started,’ Elena says.

‘In that period there were many very small teams. It was difficult to find sponsors as there wasn’t much money in cycling.

‘So they asked for help organising the team, even getting in touch with the Giro d’Italia, Milano-San Remo and other races. The first year was difficult. No one liked us.’

The financial burden was also heavy. ‘We had to give five bikes to every rider, there were 22 riders in the team and some of them were also doing track and cyclocross.’

As a result, Zullo expanded into a team of 10 bike builders, unlike today when Tiziano works mainly alone.

A few years after Zullo started working in pro cycling, the brand came to sponsor pro team TVM in 1986.

‘TVM [TransVeMij], who offered insurance for haulage, wanted to get into cycling. We began sponsoringthem in 1986. In 1988 Phil Anderson came to the team and that was really a big step forward,’ Elena says.

Anderson created an upset in 1981 when the young Australian took the overall lead on Stage 5 of the Tour de France, becoming the first non-European to wear yellow. Zullo travelled with the team throughout much of the season, as sponsor and equipment support.

‘Phil was a real gentleman – he was always very polite. He was an example for all the riders and staff.’

Anderson’s Zullo TT bike is still in the workshop, and Tiziano fetches it and wheels it toward us.

‘That was from the last race Phil Anderson did, the Trofeo Baracchi in Trento,’ Elena recalls. ‘I brought him back to the airport in Milano and he gave it to me. He said it was to “remember him always”. It was very sweet.’

Another frame beside us is emblazoned with the Zullo logo and covered with a flaming fire pattern.

In fact it’s the most iconic of Zullo’s stable – a perfect replica of Anderson’s 1991 Tour de France bike, which Zullo still sells with the original paintjob and tubing.

‘We do all the paint ourselves,’ Elena says. ‘That’s partly to ensure quality but also so we offer a special, unique paintwork, and we offer to paint up the stem too. We paint the frames right here, except for those we send to Japan.’

Curiously, Zullo has a long history with Japan. 

The Far East

‘While we were with TVM we started to use Shimano, and we were the first team to use brake lever gear shifting,’ Elena says.

Shimano had until then been something of a peculiar sideshow, and it was lever-indexed shifting that pushed Shimano towards the top of the market.

‘Every evening Japanese staff from Shimano took apart all the small pieces in the levers and sent kilometres of faxes to Japan.

‘In the Giro and Tour all the other teams were very curious about how it worked. One of the Zullo bikes is still in the Shimano museum in Japan.’

Zullo’s flirtation with the world of pro cycling eventually fizzled out when bigger corporate interests stepped in.

In 1993 Dutch bike company Gazelle came to TVM and pumped in the seven-figure sums that have become standard in recent years.

Despite being pushed aside, both Elena and Tiziano felt a sense of relief from leaving the pro scene.

‘Racing was hard work and long days, and lots of rival bike brands wanted to bring us down,’ Elena says. ‘After all these years I can say that it was a good choice to work with TVM.’

Zullo didn’t move with the tide like many similar brands, though. ‘After 1994, suddenly Chinese production came to Europe and all the major companies went to China to make their frames, first in aluminium and later in carbon,’ Elena says.

Zullo did try carbon production, but never moved any of the process out of Italy. It’s a commitment to authenticity that has rendered unexpected rewards for the brand today.

‘Most of our frames are now sold in Asia,’ Elena says. ‘We send frames to Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Japan.’

The demand for authentic Italian steel in the Far East is sufficient to keep Zullo’s order book filled, and the company has even hired a Japanese distributor to handle demand.

‘The frames that we send to Japan are unpainted and get painted over there by our distributor, Maso,’ Elena says.

‘He used to be based here. He worked in our factory from 2004 until 2011 and learned to weld and to paint.’

She fetches a photo from the tabletop, showing Maso painting a frame in Zullo’s factory a decade ago. ‘We are in touch with him every day on Skype.’

A picture on the wall shows Tiziano and Maso together in Japan. ‘Oh yes, two years ago Tiziano went to Japan and they made a long trip together, visiting lots of builders and bike shops, as well as a few tourist attractions,’ says Elena.

Tiziano and Maso also made a trip to Portland for the North American Handmade Bike Show. It was at that same show that Tiziano snapped a picture with Robin Williams, which sits proudly above his desk.

‘He visited our booth and we didn’t recognise him,’ Elena says with a smile. ‘He was dressed like a normal cyclist and asked for prices and delivery terms, like all visitors do.

‘Only afterwards when he came back did I realise it was Robin Williams. He was really very nice.’

Tiziano still loves the pro race scene, even though Zullo bikes no longer have a team to represent. ‘He lives for cycling, for races, for cyclists,’ Elena says passionately.

‘We go to the Tirreno-Adriatico, the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and the World Championships if they are in Europe. At the races he speaks with the riders and mechanics.

‘Many ask him if the bikes they use have a good geometry, if the frame is balanced, but Tiziano always says that the balance of the frame is too far forward because of the trend for long stems.’

These days the Zullo brand is a peculiar blend: part classic framebuilder from the golden age of steel, part modern producer of race-worthy bikes.

It’s a combination that works for Elena and Tiziano, and they don’t seem to miss the glamorous days of pro racing when steel was king and there were 10 builders in the workshop.

‘When we were bigger we always had to be here and were always busy – never able to focus on one frame.

‘Now that things are quieter we can take all the time for a frame, we can get to know the customer.’ Elena smiles.

‘We even get to go for a nice lunch every now and again, and talk about bikes.’

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