Bicycle as Art

The Passoni Top Force Is Italian-Made Cycling Perfection

May 9, 2016 Reviews By Photo by Henry Phillips
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“It is artisanality, not luxury,” Danilo Colombo says in the shadow of one of Passoni’s $18,000 custom bikes. Colombo, a spokesman for the Italian brand, stands at a booth in the back corner of a convention hall at the world’s largest bicycle convention, Eurobike. The booth is Gokiso’s (a Japanese hub and wheel manufacturer). Passoni isn’t a listed vendor. Those who know, know. Those who don’t, likely can’t afford. Passoni makes its custom bicycles in a factory (an “atelier”) in Milan. The company’s craftsmen shape titanium into custom sizes for riders who have been carefully measured and analyzed. They spend 30 hours to finish a welded frame.

Colombo is a compact man with a trim build. He’s attentive and focused. He maintains exceptional eye contact. He wears a well-tailored suit without projecting the casual apathy of some Italians in suits. He cares desperately about not only the performance of Passoni bicycles, but the culture that surrounds them. He does not want potential customers to believe that they are buying a luxury good. He wants them to know they are buying a finely built riding machine. He also wants them to know they are buying an experience — one that’s distinctly Italian (beyond the Columbus forks, Campagnolo components, Selle Italia saddle).

I first talked to Colombo, on the phone, while I stood on a hill overlooking Saratoga National Park, New York — a pivotal battle- ground in the American Revolution, in 1777. Colombo was in Italy. He wanted to know about the ride of the Passoni bicycles, the titanium Top Force and the carbon fiber Nero XL I’d been spinning through the rolling hill- sides. He asked if it made for a performance-oriented, comfortable ride. He asked if the bike rolled smooth, if it was responsive, if it absorbed road noise. He wanted to know, not as someone looking for casual hillside rides through casual vintage Americana countryside. He wanted to know how the bike would ride in the region it’s born — the Alps.

Passoni’s bicycles are smooth and elegant. Weld points, often problem spots for titanium bicycles, are so finely finished that the frame appears as a monocoque. The lines are clean and traditional and flow straightforward and steady from headtube to toptube, downtube and into the rear triangle. The triple-butted titanium, in a buffed, matte finish, shines without shouting; it is a narrative of performance geometry fitted to a material known for comfort.

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Passoni draws inspiration from the artwork of Mernet Larsen, Timo Nasseri, Kate Castelli, Carmen Herrera, Lu Chao, Niko Luoma. There are no bicycles on their public inspiration wall (there are, but they are installations by Ai Weiwei). Their bikes are modern, minimalist art — studies in shape, color, line. Rothko, Pollock. The focus is on beauty — on finding what is elemental about a bicycle design and how it can reveal something of human experience.

Yet the artwork on a bicycle only comes from the time spent with the saddle between the legs. The strain of power pressed into the pedals, transferred to the frame, pushed through the drivetrain and into the wheels: that holds all judgment. The ride is the place of art. Precision-crafted titanium can go to that level — for the right rider, in the right situation. Colombo tells me that many former tour riders have come to Passoni for bicycles. He does not name names. This is not about them. This about the ride at hand, the moments on the inclines, declines — it is about stiffness, flex, speed.

I tell Colombo about the ride. It is brilliant. The Top Force is responsive, light under my body, snappy into and out of corners, solid on the road. The Nero XL is irresistibly stiff. Every flat is a sprint. Every downhill in full tuck. Climbs turned molehills. It feels an experience beyond the stock frames I have ridden — it feels artisan. Luxury. Colombo is glad. To downplay, or to redirect, he proposes that next, when I am in Italy, I stop by the shop. Go for a ride. Race up some hills. Stop for a caffe?. Take time to enjoy a ride. Allow a ride to let camaraderie bleed into competition. Have some wine. The bikes will be ready. He will see me soon, hopefully, to ride beautifully in the Alps.

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This story first appeared in Issue One of the Gear Patrol Magazine, 280 pages of stories, reports, interviews and original photography from seven distinct locations around the world. Subscribe now and receive free shipping on the biannual magazine. Offer expires soon.