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Meet the family: Inside Italian framebuilder Cicli Barco

In-depth
2 May 2018
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Words James Spender | Photography Fred MacGregor

A bustling warren of porticoed streets and espresso-clinking piazzas, Padua is one of northern Italy’s most glorious secrets, all too often overlooked in favour of its more famous neighbour, Venice.

Yet unlike in Venice most people here are locals, the well priced spritzes appear at lunchtime and stay until the small hours, and there’s no queue for the Basilica. And what a Basilica Padua has.

Built to venerate St Anthony, Il Santo – as the locals call it – is said to have exerted huge architectural influence over Venice’s St Mark’s, and is home to all manner of treasured artworks and consecrated dust, from Renaissance masterpieces to the preserved remains of St Anthony’s tongue, alleged to have appeared still lithe and glistening upon his body’s exhumation and reburial 30 years after his death. He was, they say, a man with a gift for the religious gab.

The building Cyclist has come to see isn’t quite as grand as Il Santo, but still has its fair share of treasures.

And while it may be hidden away in an industrial unit on the city’s outskirts, next to an empty car park, ask any Italian framebuilder who knows about steel frames and they’ll point you towards Cicli Barco.

In fact, that’s exactly how we got here ourselves. Having completed a tour of renowned carbon fibre framebuilder Sarto, Antonio Sarto shook us warmly by the hand and enquired, ‘Where to next?’ To that question we had no answer, but Antonio did.

‘You must, must visit chee-clee-barr-co,’ he said. Chee-clee what now? ‘They are one of the best steel framebuilders in Italy. They have made frames for everybody.

‘They even make frames for us from time to time. They are not far from here. I’ll give Gianluca a call and let him know you are coming.’

Shadow of giants

Cicli Barco sits at the epicentre of the Veneto region in Italy’s industrialised north. Yet, just as Padua is to Venice, Barco is the lesser known neighbour to more illustrious cycling brands such as Campagnolo, Pinarello, Wilier, Selle Italia and Castelli.

Veneto used to be populated by countless telaisti (framebuilders), but the Barco family is one of the few left standing in the modern age of Far Eastern manufacturing.

Charged with making other brands’ bicycles, either as direct employees or terzisti (subcontractors), the Barcos found favour with their peers but, with other people’s badges on their head tubes, remained a relative unknown beyond their own workshop walls. But that has steadily been changing.

Cyclist is greeted by Gianluca Barco, a wiry 27-year-old whose features would be darkly imposing but for his loose gestures and bashful laugh.

One gets the impression that despite visitors being relatively few – there’s certainly no swanky showroom or twinkling bikes on rotating pedestals here – Gianluca is the designated company spokesperson, as well as being everything from welder to stock taker.

What is on display, however, are dozens upon dozens of beautiful frames on racks, some finished, some still in process.

There are also serious-looking milling machines and even more serious-looking jigs, vices, tool walls, benches and bike stands.

A decent-sized storeroom is stacked full of tubes, with more on the workshop floor besides, bundled like sticks and tethered to clipboards brandishing detailed schematics of bicycle frames.

For all the Aladdin’s cave of heavy machinery, the workshop has a chapel-like calm that is only disturbed by the occasional swoosh of a lit brazing torch or the scrape of file on metal.

In the background two older men and a woman are hunched over their workstations like surgeons, a quick glance up and momentary smiles the only acknowledgement of our presence.

‘Ciao and welcome,’ says Gianluca. ‘Here we work with steel and stainless steel frames. Over there is my mum, Fabiola. She does the cutting and mitring and sort of runs things.

‘If we want to do anything, we have to ask the boss! There is my father, Alberto, who does all the TIG welding, and my uncle, Maurizio, who does the brazing.

‘Alberto can braze, but Maurizio does it better. And me, I’m still learning all these things. So this my family, and we are Cicli Barco.’

Supplies and demands

Barco’s workshop has a layout and flow familiar to most framebuilders. Tubesets and component parts are selected and taken to cutting machines.

They’re then measured in accordance with CAD drawings, cut and mitred, put in a jig and tacked together. The frame is removed, alignment checked, various braze-ons such as cable stops added and then it’s back to the jig for structural welding followed by final alignment checks.

Depending on the frame, a thin tube may have been brazed inside the top tube to provide easy cable routing, or couplers may have been added in the seatstay for installation of a belt drive.

Requests come in for Rohloff internal gear hub dropouts, rack mounts, guard mounts, disc brake mounts, tapered head tubes… the list goes on.

Barco even works in mixed materials, whereupon a frame is made in steel before a portion of the tubing is cut out, such as the seat tube or chainstay, and replaced with a carbon fibre tube that’s bonded into the remaining metal.

‘We mainly make road frames and we try to keep everything as sensible as possible, but if a client wants it then we will find a solution to make it happen,’ says Gianluca.

Again, a familiar enough story, but when pressed more elaborate details emerge. For example, Barco will always try to use stainless steel dropouts, even on a plain steel frame.

‘The dropouts are things that always get chipped, so it makes no sense to use regular steel there, which can oxidise and jeopardise the paint,’ Gianluca explains.

‘We avoid chroming, as to do it properly it adds too much extra weight. Instead we use highly polished stainless steel, mostly Columbus XCr.

It is not easy to join stainless steel to steel because the temperatures each material likes to be at are different, so you have to be very careful with the torch. It is not like in those photos where the guy has this massive flame on the metal!’

He emphasises that even in the world of steel, things are changing all the time and there can be no resting on artisanal laurels: ‘Steel frames are not just vintage frames. These tubes, these materials, are really very modern.

‘Every year companies like Columbus, our main suppliers, are making new developments, new alloy mixes, new tubesets, new shapes, and the industry is creating new standards, even whole new types of bike, such as gravel.

‘Things are growing and we work very hard to keep ahead. Not so long ago a steel down tube may only have been 32mm in diameter, with a wall thickness of 0.8mm. Now Columbus makes a 44mm down tube that is 0.45mm thick in the middle.’ That’s about the thickness of a greeting card.

Beauty in craft

We break our tour for a water stop. Veneto is in the midst of a heatwave, which Gianluca cheerily informs us means his dad is on his second T-shirt of the day, and expects to wear three.

Gianluca points out a finely finished, dark-stained wooden box next to the water cooler, almost as if it was placed as an afterthought.

However, he opens it to reveal a finely crafted bicycle fork, which wouldn’t look out of place next to a set of antique rifles in a Sotheby’s catalogue.

‘A lot of people come to us because they really don’t like carbon but they want a strong racing bike. So we make an all-steel fork, and our customers say riding it is like going down a mountain on a train.

‘These customers aren’t too worried about weight, but we realise a full steel fork is heavy, so we made this, the Viva fork with a carbon fibre steerer tube.’

The fork crown’s shorelines – the edges where lug meets tube – are crisp and square, the meeting point between dropout and tapered leg impeccably smooth and the polish mirror-glass. Underneath the crown is engraved a miniature picture of the fork and the word ‘Viva’.

‘You can’t see the engraving when the wheel is in, but for us it just makes this fork like a little piece of art, shall we say.

‘It’s all made here. We get the carbon from a nearby supplier – it’s so much nicer than the imported stuff. See how the walls are uniform thickness, not slightly oval like here,’ says Gianluca, holding up an all-carbon fork for comparison. And he’s right.

As per the frames we can see, everything here is finished not just with precision but nuanced finesse, which again makes it bewildering to think how few people know about Cicli Barco. The reason is part history and part economics. 

Reinventing the frame

As Italy got back on its feet after the Second World War, cycling experienced a resurgence, both as a cheap means of transport for a country in economic turmoil and as a source of national unity amid the glowing embers of conflict.

It’s said a nation wept when Fausto Coppi – who had been taken as a POW in 1943 in North Africa – won the 1946 Milan-San Remo with such a lead that a radio commentator was alleged to have said, ‘First Fausto Coppi, and while we wait for the second we’re going to play some nice music.’

It was from this era that Cicli Barco sprang up. As Gianluca translates for his father, ‘Italy used to be the China of steel frames.’

‘The business was started by my grandfather, Mario. We say the business started in 1947, not the Cicli Barco name exactly, but that is when the Barco family started making frames, and we have never stopped since that period.

‘Grandfather was working in the Torpado factory [a well regarded Padua framebuilder founded in 1895]. He made bikes for Freddy Maertens and Eddy Merckx, but to get extra money he would take frames away and do more work on them at home.

Because people respected Torpado and they knew my grandfather worked for them, other companies in the area trusted him to take their frames away too.

He would go around on his Vespa, pick up the frames and ride with a dozen over his shoulders back to the house. My father and uncle grew up seeing this, working with my grandfather from a very young age.’

In time both sons found themselves working as framebuilders for large-scale, high-end operation Scapin, with Alberto’s new wife, Fabiola, joining Scapin in the paint department.

But with the advent of aluminium, carbon and rise of the Far East as a framebuilding power, there were some lean years for steel, so when it was bought out by Olympia in 2005, Scapin mothballed its Italian-made steel division.

‘This is when my parents stepped in,’ says Gianluca. ‘They bought the machinery they had worked on for decades from Scapin and officially started Cicli Barco in 2007.

‘We made bicycles for other brands, and we still do. Today we are building for around 20 different brands, about 350 frames per year.

‘I cannot say which brands for confidentiality reasons, but often they come here to take pictures of us making frames to use in their marketing. We even sometimes still do work for Scapin if someone asks for a special steel frame.

‘I’m sure people can work out many other brands we make if they want – people are not stupid!’

To that end, in case you were wondering, a Barco signature is the integrated seat clamp, where the binder bolt is recessed into the top of the seatstays. Spot that and chances are…

However, there is an easier route. Barco has been selling its own frames for a number of years now, just a few at first, but the orders have grown to around 45 a year.

Quite apart from doing this for recognition, this move is an attempt to safeguard the company’s future, as well as that of the family.

‘My dad, my uncle, my mum, they just love the art of construction in steel,’ says Gianluca.

‘Even when demand for steel bike frames dropped off for a period they continued to work in steel, making things like advertising boards, fabricating anything people needed.

‘But we love bicycles the most, not because they are beautiful but because they are beautiful and they are working things.

‘We have moved to start selling Barco-branded frames because if we don’t have contract customers we are in trouble, but if we have strong Barco sales, it isn’t as much of a problem.’

Gianluca’s parents are not far off retirement age, so what’s the company’s plan for the future?

‘I guess that it is me!’ says Gianluca. ‘My parents always told me to go and do what I wanted, and when they were with Scapin I was less attracted to building myself.

‘But now it is Cicli Barco it is different. I am learning the trade. Sometimes we argue, but I always remember they are doing this for me – they could just say, “F*** Cicli Barco, we’re just doing contract work for money until we retire.”

‘But they don’t, because we are all doing this for each other. This means there is pressure on me, but I will always be able to say, “I need help with this,” and they will help. I tell my dad he will never really be able to retire. I will always need something!’

Gianluca translates this last bit into Italian for his father, who rolls his eyes before bursting into a barrel laugh.

As the Barco framebuilding legacy enters its 72nd year, one gets the impression the family business will be around for a long time to come, and given the quality and dedication to the product, the Barco brand itself can only grow.

‘I think my family would probably make frames even if there were no orders.’