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The Bertoletti Legend

A visit with frame builder Marco Bertoletti.

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Quite often, I remember specific addresses by a certain car parked nearby. Over the years, there have been many reference points to flag memories of visits to historic Italian bicycle frame builders; one of the strongest was this one—noticing two Lancia Deltas and contemporaries, a Fiat 131 and a Super Strada, parked next door to the place where Legend frames are built in Bergamo, Italy. Not rally cars but daily drivers, the Deltas were 8v and 16v cousins and the Supermirafiori 131 was suitably orange with a black roof and those Fuchs-style cookie-cutter wheels.

As for 16v Delta Integrale wheels, I’ve long felt they were about the best-looking car wheels made to date; but regarding the Strada, I always thought it had about the best designed onepiece-molded front bumper-grille-headlight design of its era. To me it resembled a sort of grownup’s Fisher-Price Activity Center stuck on the front of a car.

Any one of those parked cars would have stopped me in my tracks as a kid—as they occasionally did in a childhood often spent in Italy. So, here lived or worked a fellow car enthusiast from the same era as me; and on the way in to photograph a frame builder of such caliber as Marco Bertoletti, it all seemed a fitting reminder of what the Italians do so well—make good engineering on wheels simply beautiful.

In my experience, Italian welcomes have a common theme and aroma. Some of my earliest memories from Italian trips include the smell of fresh sweet cake or almond biscotti mixed with my mother’s rocket-fuel miniature coffee every morning. It was everywhere on those road trips, from gas stations to relatives’living rooms, and it still gives me a sensory re-awakening when I arrive at an Italian airport 40-odd years later.

As I was ushered in and caffeinated at Bertoletti, I clocked the amount of titanium trinkets, testers and keepsakes dotted about. From tubes and bottle cages to dropouts-turned-keyrings, the wonder metal was shining out in small glowing markers across the office-come-display room-come-museum, like a radar screen swiping left to right and picking out glowing, gold-hued gems.

As I worked out where I’d like to pose Marco for a portrait later on, I wandered around sipping coffee taking in details of the abundant craftsmanship on display. Frames hung above and bikes stood next to us ready for shows, magazines or owners. Lavishly painted carbon joints with internal cable routing so smooth it looked sculpted. While I always tend to own quite conservative-looking bikes, generally titanium and monochrome, I do like to express color in controlled excerpts here and there like a bright anodized Ringlé bottle cage or some Cook Bros. Racing skewers from the ’90s heyday of garish additions.

That said, given the amount of matte-black-finished carbon the cycling world has digested in the last decade, seeing beautiful ornate painting that can articulate the true impression an object was dreamt up and made by one person by hand from start to finish does appeal to me. I remember explaining that feeling to Dario Pegoretti and getting a pat on the shoulder and a grin as a reply—which may well have meant it was time to shut up and drink some more wine, but I like to pretend it was a moment of creative connection. Probably, he just wanted to go for a pee and was hoping for a pause in my talking to enable an exit.

Over the years, I’ve been to some frame workshops that could be architectural delights on their own merit. From modernist, brutalist or classical Italian chapels of worship to an outsiderart wooden shed of hidden cycling delights, various cycling headquarters’ visits of the past left this industrial estate unit feeling a bit “normal” to be honest. But pulling back the curtain and wandering into the heart of this place opened up mazelike units within a unit, all decorated with top-drawer cycling jewelry. Not architecturally pretty perhaps, but an interesting warren nonetheless when seen in the context of the procedure of making a bicycle frame from start to finish.

There was a room with a man shaving a carbon frame into shape in microscopic layers then turning to a titanium relative for close-up finishing, all the time being followed around by a huge blue vacuum cleaner growing out of the wall like something out of an H.R. Giger drawing. The man’s focus and attention remained as rigid as a surgeon’s, the patient in front of him all the time losing weight by the gram and gaining curves to be proud of with every swipe.

All the talk over the years of Far East mass production in clinical factories and perfect-but-characterless clones being popped out of automated production lines has tainted my personal interest in carbon fiber as a bicycle skeleton material. I know its reasons and its benefits; and, let’s be honest, it’s as unlikely that the pro peloton will be riding steel-lugged gates again as motorsport will go back to carburetors and leaded fuel. But watching a true craftsman build a bicycle from scratch in carbon is as incredible as seeing a “handful of welds-a-day” titanium master undertake their witchcraft.

Handling the stuff was like holding on to something that looked complex but felt as simple as a sheet of wrapping paper. So light and delicate, it was as if it were two dimensional—beguiling in a similar way as one imagines what an object like a bike should feel like when lifted—and yet a high-end road bike can still pleasantly surprise; this pocket-sized rice-paper-like doily of woven black lace could probably still suspend a thousand times its own weight on a line when toasted. The assumption and the science of such a meeting do not necessarily collide instantly; but when the finished structure’s sitting with wheels, brakes and gears bolted onto it, the master builder’s calculations you’ve seen laid down section by section to build up from fibers to tubes as it’s created do start to tally.

The oven had a couple of complete frames baking away at gas mark 6 (400 degrees Fahrenheit), and occasionally a face would appear at the window opposite to check that they weren’t overcooking. Next to this, Marco demonstrated something aquatic looking—like a small submarine with long, yellow glove-shaped arms dangling outside. I did for a second hope it wasn’t a nuclear-fuel-enrichment creature, but in the name of work ethic I stood my ground and photographed the process anyway.

After being served even more coffee on a guided tour punctuated by embarrassingly thin comments in pidgin Italian, it was my turn at visual communication—and I suddenly saw where I wanted to end my tour with a portrait, as I like to. A portrait of a real-life legend watched over by a giant twodimensional one that had quietly overlooked his work from the wall behind him all morning.

As he smiled naturally at me through my lens, patiently posing for more photographs, I suggested instead he address his assistant politely waiting for some information to continue his paused titanium work. I thanked him for his patience and explained that my photographing him was finally complete; he momentarily stopped before standing and looked up at his wall portrait backdrop and pondered something privately for a moment. The moment I realized my photographing him was not quite complete after all and I made one last photograph and knew then I had finished. Headed outside, I dreamt my rental car had morphed into a Lancia Stratos, but I restarted the diesel-fueled Ford Mondeo instead and drove back into reality.