A legendary craft
The Italian Old Masters considered the teaching of their craft to hand picked apprentices as important as the legacy of their art. Students would spend years in the master’s studio, honing their craft until becoming masters in their own right. The masters of Italian frame building followed the same pattern, taking apprentice frame builders into their shops and pouring decades of knowledge into them. With the advent of carbon fiber master frame builders saw the beginning of their end. Resin and molding replaced brazing and mitering and a century’s hard won knowledge was in danger of being squandered. Despite cycling’s obsessive desire to push mass production, a few shops have kept the flame of the master frame builder alive.
One man, Renzo Formigli, studied at the bench of legendary cycling icon Cino Cinelli at the age of 21 and has applied the one-frame-at-a-time craftsmanship of steel to high modulus carbon. Formigli is one of the select few frame builders still left in Italy to make fewer frames in a year than many major brands pop out of a mold in a single day. Theirs is a desire to work as their masters did, in Italy, out of a small shop, creating bikes that maintain a personal connection between builder and rider.
Design and Production Methodology:
Formigli builds every frame with a tube-to-tube construction process. Building tube-to-tube allows for the creation of a custom frame based on each individual’s specific body measurements. Tube-to-tube design also enables the use of superior carbon that varies in layers and composition.
In contrast, 98% of other road bikes are now made in Asia – using a monocoque mold process, which takes hours to produce and paint a frame versus Formigli’s process which takes 6-8 weeks.
To design a brand new carbon frame design, Renzo starts by drawing the frame concept by hand, then, with the carbon engineer, he analyzes each tube’s shape and its performance with the engineer to decide each tube’s final design. Next, a shop in Florence produces the proprietary molds. Formigli’s carbon tubes are then produced using these molds by a specialist company in Florence that also makes carbon fiber parts for Ferrari and Ducati. Each Formigli model has its own tube molds and unique tube sets.
2. Tubes made to measure
Next comes the process of building a custom frame for a customer. First Formigli gets to know the rider and his/her wishes, and takes specific measurements. Then a computer generated design of the frame is constructed and a graphic file mocked up if a custom paint scheme is requested. The tubes are made; they are cut and put in a mask and bonded. The tubes are next sent to a carbon shop in Modena, where the lugs are wrapped in carbon, and then bonded together in a process called sottovuoto, forming a much stiffer frame than a monocoque.
3. Curing and polishing
Next, the tubes are filled with sand and placed in a plastic vacuum bag. A proprietary vacuum sealing technique is used for the curing process. The sand prevents deformation of the tubing during the heating process and the vacuum creates a space devoid of air.
After the frame is prepped, it is heated to precisely 248°F for an hour, then slowly returned to about 100°F over a period of ten hours. Once removed from the oven, the bag is inflated, the frame is removed and the sand is cleaned out.
Once the finished frame is cured, it goes through a meticulous sanding process. The joints are then polished by hand – so time consuming that mass-produced frames are not made using a tube-to-tube process because it takes four times longer to make a Formigli frame than a monocoque.
The final stage is the application of a resin like substance that seals the porosity of the carbon and readies the frame for painting.
The frame is then sent to Antonio, Formigli’s painter, in the countryside outside Florence. The frame is further sanded and prepared for the paint process, which takes approximately 12 hours. Each frame is painted by Antonio from start to finish for consistency.
The graphics and colours are developed in consultation with the client. The painter uses a complex Aerographe process to achieve the client’s exact colour choice. Customers are not limited to just a few color options, instead Formigli can paint a frame any color variation desired.