Pegoretti crab The Elite Bicycle TEBOn the wall above the entrance to the paintshop in the premises – soon to be vacated – of the Pegoretti works, hangs a large sheet of paper, scrawled with signatures round the central motif: a caricature of the man Dario, sitting on an upturned tin tub, toasting a crab, skewered to the end of a pair of dislocated forks, over a small fire. The original poster was painted for a bike show in 2007 when Pegoretti was undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. (He is in remission.) Cancer is Latin for crab. It’s almost a trademark with him, the jocularity, the wordplay, the studied allusion.

He emerges from the office – too much time he has to spend in there, ahimè, three hours a day, more, hunched over a computer he complains, fielding enquiries, answering e-mails, this, that and the other distracting call on his energies. It’s doubly hard because most of the messages are in English, although he speaks the language more than serviceably. But he leaves the cell of perdition and his body relaxes. We shake hands. He smiles, gestures round the workshop. The place is a mess, they’re packing up for the move. One of his men, Diego, i/c paintshop, is breaking up redundant display stands, separating the metal bits from the wood – recycling. We go into the kitchen and Dario hands over a small plastic cup of the potent coffee which seems to fuel the Italians to some indefinable spurt of activity, mental or psychological, but clips my resistance to orderly thought processes with disturbing efficacy.

Pegoretti The Elite Bicycle TEBHe started frame-building in Verona in 1975. No, it wasn’t out of passion, a dream, an inner drive. It was money. He was racing with a small team which he also managed; there was no cash in that. ‘I needed to make some money, so that meant a job.’ It was his great luck that the man who employed him, Luigino Milani, became a central influence. After six months working with Milani he was hooked. ‘He taught me not only about making frames, but about how to live. He was a good man, a good teacher, a good father.’ (He married Milani’s daughter.) And, when Luigino died in 1990, Dario took over the business and opened his own shop the following year.

Aside from the incessant traffic on the internet, there are the visitors – around 300 to 400 every year, some who make an appointment to get measured for a frame, others just to stop by and take a coffee. He discusses the eventual bike with every client, what kind of riding they want to do, all the standard questions. Sometimes, he says, they really have no idea what they need and they don’t listen to advice. They have a set notion of what will suit them – a replica of a pro’s bike and, ecco, they’ll turn into a Bartoli, a Rodriguez. Indeed, sometimes Pegoretti’s suggestion that a cheaper frame more apt to the client sounds like an affront, as if only the most expensive can possibly be the best choice. Not true. I reflect, there’s no accounting for ignorance. He smiles and adds a discursus on a familiar theme. I paraphrase: Forty years ago you had to go to a workshop, immerse yourself in building, learn it from your fingers, eyes, a sort of rhythm, you absolutely had to touch the material to know it. Now? You go to a bookshop and buy Frame-building for Dummies and, hey, everyone’s a maestro. I tell him the story of the Americans who ask the gardener at an English stately home how long it took to produce ‘a lawn like that’. Old retainer replies, coldly: ‘Two hundred years of care and attention.’ Dario laughs.

Knowing about his eccentric decoration of the frames, I ask him about the paintwork thing. ‘Oh, for me it’s a joke’, he says. But, when I go through the heavy plastic strips which shield the paintshop from the dust of the shop floor and talk to Diego, it’s plain that the joke is rather more than a bit of a laugh. It’s part of what they call allegria – a fundamental joy in life, the pain of it as well as the exuberance. One of his frame colour schemes is called Guantanamo, a motif of barbed wire with blobs of sanguineous red. Not many people go for that but it does illustrate the willingness not to define joke as mere froth. It’s a very serious matter, humour. Finita la Commedia doesn’t signal the fat lady singing. Dante’s vision of Purgatory? Commedia. Balzac’s cycle of trenchant novels? Comédie Humaine.

Pegoretti The Elite Bicycle TEBPegoretti himself designs the graphics for the ornamenting of the frames and the result is a lively variety of differing schemes, all from basic pattern, some subject to reworking by Dario himself, additions and embellishment. He started the painting – with no background or training – in 2006, because they had had troubles with a contractor. His influences in style? The abstract and expressionist art of the 1960s. When the work is done, a short inscription is painted onto the inner side of one rear stay. I read ‘Handmade in Italia San Alfonso 2012’. (That is, ‘completed on 19 September …’ – San Alfonso’s festal day.) The Ciavete frames are all painted by hand, following the inspiration of the day, intricate embroideries in paint by hand brush, marker pen, spray can … whatever he feels like using. Ciavete is Trentino dialect for ‘don’t bother about it’. If someone makes a disparaging remark about something you like, for example, you might say ‘ciavete’, meaning ‘who cares about your opinion?’ The customer chooses the base colour, and each successive painting is smoothed down and then covered in a clear coat, until the final decoration is done and cast over with the thin lucency, as it were a glass. One particular technique derives from one used in the Renaissance by stucco painters of Venice. This involves applying paint with a thin metal scraper to make swirls and drifts of opposed colours as it were a fusion of chromes in wet plaster. On one frame, Dario has added an inscription, painted by hand: Andrea e quando penso che sia finite e proprio allora che incomincia la salita … a reminder to the bike’s owner/rider, Andrea, that it’s just when you think you’re done that the climb really starts. On one frame, painted in classic colours, dark maroon and classy taupe, the original Pegoretti logo, two interlocked gold Ps, and on the down tube Luigino Milani, in tribute to the master.

It is plain that the painting is very far from a joke, more an expression of voluptuous delight in form and finish of the bicycle frame and an open acknowledgement of the care that goes into it. Even the public jest of the kitchen wall – a notice Vietato fumare hovering over an ashtray crammed full of butts on the table, like a crucifix over a sybarite – has a similar wry edge. Bite.

This portrait of Pegoretti was adapted from the book The Elite Bicycle.

The Elite Bicycle by Gerard Brown and Graeme FifeThe Elite Bicycle brings together intimate portraits of the world’s greatest bicycle artisans, examining the philosophies, the meticulous workmanship, and the eccentric personalities behind cycling’s most prestigious brands. Their materials and methods could not be more disparate, yet their pursuit is the same: the perfect bicycle.

Enjoy beautiful photographs and profiles from inside the workshops of the world’s leading bicycle builders in The Elite Bicycle.

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