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DeAnima: factory visit

Steve Westlake
9 Dec 2015

In a small industrial unit in a sleep town, two Italian craftsmen are building something with meaning.

The atmosphere in the DeAnima workshop has changed in a flash. Gone is the easy Italian banter and laughter of a few minutes ago, and in its place is serious concentration. The two men in coincidental grey shirts – who make up the entire workforce – are now working rapidly on the raw carbon frame, wrapping tube joints in pieces of prepreg, trimming and honing the alignment of the fibres for maximum strength and a perfect finish. A handcrafted bike frame is taking shape. 

‘Sorry, but we have to work fast now, especially because it’s so hot,’ says Gianni Pegoretti, his eyes fixed intently on the frame in front of him. There’s no hint of panic, but this part of the job clearly demands skill, precision and speed. The reason for the abrupt change of tempo is due to the nature of prepreg carbon fibre. Once removed from the freezer, the resin starts to cure and harden, limiting the working time available. The situation is given extra urgency by the ambient air temperature, which on this day in the Trento region of Italy is reaching 38°C in the shade, and more like 40 in the workshop. I’m sweating just watching. 

Right from the start

DeAnima prepreg

DeAnima as a brand is a little over a year old, although the driving force behind it, Gianni Pegoretti, has been building frames for 20 years. You probably recognise the name Pegoretti. Gianni’s brother, Dario, is the framebuilder behind Pegoretti bikes, and the brothers worked together for nine years (For more info: Dario Pegoretti interview). You may also have come across DeAnima at the Bespoked Handmade Bicycle Show in April this year in Bristol, where the DeAnima ‘Unblended’ was an artisan carbon fibre bike amid a sea of metal. 

‘My brother was making frames from the early 70s in Rome with Milani – one of the main suppliers for Bianchi, Colnago and other brands,’ says Gianni later at lunch when the joints are safely wrapped and the frame is curing in the oven. ‘Then in 1996 Dario and I started working together.’ 

It was a partnership that resulted in some of the finest handcrafted frames in the world, until the brothers went their separate ways. ‘After 2005 our paths divided – Dario had his own road and I had my road,’ he says with noticeable brevity. 

It wasn’t a wholly amicable split and the pair aren’t talking to this day, except through solicitors, but it led to Gianni being recruited by an organisation called San Patrignano (pronounced Patriano), which would eventually lead to the partnership with Antonio Attanasio and the creation of DeAnima. 

DeAnima Unblended

San Patrignano’s mission is to rehabilitate young people with serious drug problems. The residential centres provide accommodation, structure and the teaching of a trade, all designed to provide focus, skill and a feeling of inclusion and worth to its troubled residents. Gianni and Dario had previously given the local San Patrignano community their support, and after their split Gianni was approached to run the bicycle framebuilding operation. ‘You were the boss?’ I ask. He shakes his head. ‘For me “chief”, ‘“boss”, “manager”… I don’t like these words. I just taught guys in the workshop, and I stayed for nine years. It was not only frames we were building – we rebuilt people – and this is probably the most important thing I have done in my life.’ 

Antonio was one of his star pupils who grew into a skilled framebuilder and bike painter. It was during this period that the idea for DeAnima took shape, with the help of Matt Cazzaniga, who previously worked with the Pegoretti brothers on sales and marketing, and imported their bikes into the UK. When the local San Patrignano community closed and moved to Rimini, it was the impetus they needed. 

‘We knew it was the right time,’ says Gianni. ‘Our friend Tiziano Zullo [the famous framebuilder from Verona] helped us find machines for the workshop and we began.’

Different by design

DeAnima tube mitre

Cyclist has visited many factories in the bicycle industry where clothing, helmets, gels, sunglasses and of course bicycles are built. Some places are characterised by clinical efficiency, cordoned off secret areas and soft cushions of marketing fluff. DeAnima’s modest workshop in a small industrial unit in the village of Pergine Valsugana, 10km from Trento, is different. Two men building bikes, another promoting the nascent brand and trying to create something traditional, yet different. The company name hints at the reasoning behind the venture. De Anima is a work by Aristotle that translates as ‘On The Soul’ in which the philosopher explores the concept of the immortal soul within all living things.

‘Our motivation is the same as it was at San Patrignano and with my brother Dario,’ says Gianni. ‘To preserve the old Italian methods of working – the Italian geometry. The cycling business has changed and in Italy we have lost this method. We have only three or four little artisan builders like this now. But the historic brands – Pinarello, De Rosa, partly Colnago – have lost the personal method and embraced the new philosophy of mass production, and for us this is not the soul of framebuilding. 

‘Probably our idea is a harder way of doing things, but if I design a bike and then I go to the bank and they give me the money for my business and I put Pegoretti stickers on Chinese frames… this is too simple, and this is not my way of thinking. We will grow and make a small brand with our own idea.’

DeAnima is not just an exercise in nostalgia, though, as reflected in the choice of material. They do make steel bikes here, but carbon is the primary focus. ‘When you use steel and aluminium, you make tubesets in partnership with Dedacciai or Columbus and you can’t control the whole process. But with carbon you can, and this is a good thing for us.’

DeAnima sanding

The tubeset was designed in conjunction with Oswald Gasser, a composites engineer from nearby Trento University, who designed the lay-up schedule in conjunction with Gianni. 

They don’t have an autoclave on site so the tubeset is made 130km away in Venice exclusively for DeAnima. Gianni orders 30 or 40 tubesets at a time and each comes in five pieces. ‘It’s not monocoque because for the Italian market the most important thing is to have bespoke geometry – and we achieve this by wrapping the joints with carbon,’ he says. ‘We have the head tube and down tube made together because this angle is the same with all the frame sizes, from small to XXL.’

Once the geometry is decided according to each customer’s needs, the tubes are cut to length and the joints are mitred so they mesh perfectly. The head tube/down tube piece is put into a jig and bonded to the top tube, seat tube and bottom bracket (using aeronautical glue produced by 3M to ensure it doesn’t react with the carbon fibre). This is then put into the oven for 20mins at 60°C to set the glue. 

Then it’s back onto the jig, where the seatstays are glued into place using a different guide to ensure alignment and correct brake bridge height. Once hardened by another stint in the oven, the glue is carefully machined to ensure the curves around the tube joints are smooth so that when they are wrapped with carbon there are no tight angles that would potentially weaken the carbon. 

Heat of the moment

DeAnima sealing

Now comes the crux. Prepreg carbon is removed from the freezer and the pieces are placed on the joints, which is when Gianni and Antonio move into the big ring and up their pace. It is this carbon fibre wrapping of the joints, not the initial gluing, that gives the frame its strength.

‘Three layers is what you need to have the right structure,’ says Gianni as he works. Moving swiftly around the frame to find the ideal angle of attack, they ease the pieces into place, massage them onto the tubes to achieve perfect adhesion and exact alignment of the plies to give the pleasing impression of one seamless piece of carbon. 

The carefully prepared frame is slid into a vacuum bag, the air is removed and the bag is put into the oven and cured according to a precise temperature gradient. The vacuum pump continues to draw out the air throughout the process to ensure the joints remain under constant pressure. 

DeAnima resin

Once cured, the joints are stripped, smoothed and cleaned ready for painting, with Antonio wielding the airbrush. It’s a laborious and meticulous process, and is about as far from the mass production lines of the Far East as you can get. There’s no shift work, no automated production lines, no layers of management, just three men working with heart and soul. 

‘In the past the bicycle market was small,’ Gianni says as he sands the finished frame ready for painting. ‘Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Belgium… This was the world market. Today it’s Australia, Japan, China, Europe, South Africa – all the world uses bikes.’ 

‘When I started with my brother, Italy was the big player, but the Italian way is not to make big brands – probably Fiat is our biggest company. We don’t have the mentality to continue growing because the chief of the organisation wants to control it all. Italians have the mentality of a smaller brand.’

Final reflections

DeAnima grinding

The heat of the day subsides. As Gianni drives me back to Venice airport he says he’s always lived in this area, and passing the beauty of the lakes and mountains it’s easy to see why he’s stayed. 

We have some time to spare so he makes a detour into Bassano del Grappa and gives me a short tour of the town where grappa was invented, the highlight being the Ponte Vecchio wooden bridge, originally built by hand in the 16th century. He won’t accept payment when I try to buy the Aperol Spritz in a sleepy bar cafe. He’s a calm, friendly craftsman who clearly cares deeply about his place in the world. 

‘Probably I’m old, but for me it’s better to be a black sheep in a group of white sheep,’ he says as he sips his Spritz. ‘This thinking is clear to see with our work.’

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