Interview with Dario Colombo from BICE Bicycles

There is hardly a country with which modern steel frame building is more closely associated than with Italy. Not least through companies like Columbus, Deda and Colnago, as well as frame building legends like Dario Pegoretti. So Dario Colombo already carries the legacy more or less in his name. Under the brand BICE he builds unique custom steel frames in northern Italy as a 1-man business. The contact to Dario and the desire to interview this nice frame builder in detail already existed for a long time. Full of wit and enthusiasm he took the time and answered our questions.

What did you do before you became a frame builder?
Electronic engineer, researcher, bicycle mechanic, teacher, councilman When I was a kid I wanted to be a fireman.

How did you get into framebuilding?
Sit down, son, it’s a long, long story.
Once upon a time there was a boy who worked as an R&D electronics engineer at Siemens in Milan. He was well paid as a consultant but was not so happy with his life, so on 08/08/08 he left his safe and stable job to seek his way. He grabbed his bike and cycled through Provence with eight friends. When he got back home, he made the decision to go back to university and study environmental engineering. Three years later, he wrote his thesis based on a mathematical model to find the best possible route for cyclists by maximizing bikeability (comfort+safety). He tried to show his work to the Municipality of Milan, but as you can imagine, little reader/listener, there was no response. So he decided to go deeper and deeper to the core of his passion, the bicycle and its mechanical aspects. He started to build small workshops in Lombardy where the profession of bicycle mechanic can be learned. He also created a bicycle station for commuters with an automatic parking lot (blessed be the Arduino). In the meantime, he began to understand that a simple mechanical job was not enough, so he started working with San Raffaele Hospital in Milan in a lab focused on biomechanical aspects for cyclists and runners, nutrition and awareness. This boy was in love with a girl, but he was really messed up with his mind, and when she broke up with him, he decided to dig deeper in search of happiness. And he found frame building.
He started searching the internet for old frame builders and the differences between American and Italian schools, the pros and cons, the paint, the welding techniques, the material properties and parameters, the moments of inertia of the different shapes… then he built his own welding jig and said to himself, „If I don’t burn myself with the flame the first time, this is a good place to start.“

Was there some kind of awakening experience?
For me it was a path in search of happiness and self-determination without stops, but with some little impulses from people around me (the tale before is self-explanatory ;-) ).

Where did you learn to build frames, who were your masters?
I taught myself to build frames, making many mistakes and losing a lot of time and nights in the workshop. Although I am self-taught, I have listened to frame builders much older than me and learned a lot from them…. With these frame builders I have spent a lot of time talking, questioning and challenging my certainties to learn new ways and find the best possible way. For this reason, they cannot be called my masters, as I was not a graduate/employee/apprentice, but the people who helped me along the way are: Gianni Gilardi from Lake Como, then Preda and Stucchi (both worked for Colnago as contractors), Mattia Legor, Gianmaria Citron and last but not least Dario Pegoretti.

What makes your frames special?
Ask my customers! I really don’t know. For me, every single frame is like a daughter. So I want the best for her, she has to be beautiful and strong and the details have to be right. But on the other hand, her new boyfriend or girlfriend has to match her perfectly. I have all of you out there in mind! (laughs)

What kind of bikes do you build?
I think I have welded or brazed all kinds of frames. I started with a 29er MTB to compete in singlespeed races. Then I moved on to cyclocross and, when no one called it „gravel“ yet, started building bikes for fast and unpaved roads to ride when the cyclocross season was over. I also built a lot of cargo bikes and two track frames (which are the first frames I TIG welded). I think percentage wise it’s 50% gravel, 40% MTB and 10% road (which are really easy for me to build compared to the previous ones). I also built a lefty with only one chainstay; a bike with adjustable bottom bracket height to massively change geometry as the kid gets bigger. Missing from this list: BMX, full suspension bikes, dirt and balance bikes, and most importantly… lugged frames (I admit I’ve worked with lugs, but I’ve never built a full lugged frame).

Why do you weld and not (fillet-)braze?
I started with fillet brazing because it was the best option for MTB frames with oversized tubes and joint angles that lugs can’t cover. When I felt ready, I immediately moved on to TIG welding because welding is stronger than fillet brazing and far safer (if done right). Fillet brazing looks better, but it’s a lot of work to file the transitions. So I started studying TIG welding techniques to get a weld with no waves, like a thin fillet braze joint. And just to be clear, my TIG welds are not filed at all. One pass, one weld!

Your welds are so flat they seem to disappear under the paint. What do you do differently than others?
I’ve spent time practicing TIG welding, practicing with my machine (changing parameters and hand movements, coordinating between foot for pedal, right and left hand for wire feed) and asking myself how I can improve my work. And as always, I ask others how they do it and why, compare their work to mine, and try to match their level of quality.

What is your favorite tube set and what other tubes do you use for your frames?
uhhh, I don’t have a favorite tube set because I’ve been mixing tube sets from the beginning to improve the quality of the frame based on the cyclist’s needs, body size and what they want to do with the bike. Actually, I’ve been using about 90% Columbus and 10% Deda-Acciai. I don’t use stainless steel so far. To protect the frame I use electrophoresis treatment and rust preventive sprays.

What is the typical buying process with you? How does someone get a frame from you?
You can find me on singlespeed races or you can send me an email or Instagram or Whatsapp. But just to be clear, in any of these situations I can either reply within 30 seconds or take up to a whole week. I’m sorry, but I only have one brain (that needs to be serviced) and the day only has 24 hours. And I have to prepare the tubes, weld, paint, pee, eat, drive, sleep and so on and so forth. Once I lost a customer because I answered him after six days. When I look at the screen, I can’t weld, and I prefer to weld. Right now, the lead time is six months, and the process starts with a lot of questions on my side to understand the cyclist’s needs. Then I propose a model that meets the main needs and the ideal setting of the bike (stem length, reach, seatpost dropper or not, boost or not, etc..) ). Then I ask the cyclist to provide me with the measurements (from Biomech, from his / her previous bike or by coming to my workshop to take measurements). Then I create an initial drawing as a starting point to discuss how to improve the features needed without compromising, what components will be mounted and how the frame geometries will vary based on them, then we talk about paint and if everything is in order I can start building the frame. This is a lengthy process that runs in parallel with previous projects for other cyclists, and that’s why it takes 6 months!

How do you develop your paint jobs?
Good question… In 2018, I changed my Bice logo from Art Nouveau to a more minimalist style. Daniele and Jessica from OfficineSfera helped me with this work and also with creating new paint schemes for each model. In this way, I have a well-tested color scheme that can be provided to customers and help them distinguish one model from another. But there is also the possibility to ask for a custom paint job; in this case, customers can submit their ideas, Daniele then makes a mockup and I and the painter then go to work to get the final result. I have also developed a new type of paint finish to achieve high quality and hardness that is really useful for MTB and gravel bikes where dirt, branches, rocks and whatever can scratch the paint. This is a cured triple coating. While with acrylic paint you have endless options of colors and color schemes, here the options are limited to RAL colors and chrome+color color options (no more than 10 colors) with only small and simple graphics. in this case I follow the painting process myself so I can achieve a high gloss and detail quality even with a cured coating technique previously known only for hardness and not aesthetics.

What was you biggest challenge in framebuilding so far?
My biggest challenge is to spend more time riding my bikes than I do now! I have a lot of ideas based on 3D printing technology! And some ideas to create a standard that allows biomechanics/frame builders/mechanics to talk to each other about a specific bike without wasting time. I have some ideas to improve the stiffness of the frame and most importantly I want to improve my painting skills. I need to create a template for each cyclist, because right now every note is written on paper and I’m a messy kid, so sometimes I have to call the customer back and ask for a full resume! (laughs) I’m working on a machine to ream the seat tube, but I don’t have that much time, but I need this machine because every seat tube that I ream by hand almost sends me to the psychiatrist!

What was your most outstanding frame (if there is such)?
You can not ask which is a father’s favorite daughter. But there are some milestones: certainly the Wandrian on the Radavist website is one of them: with this bike I told everyone: „guys and girls, in my humble opinion, the future is 29er Gravel, trust me since 2018! Another milestone is the Verona CXSSWC2017, which Fagia won on my bike. (Fagia and Ingrid were really important to me, because thanks to them I developed the concept behind the Wandrian 29er Gravel – this is just to remind that the connection between people is really important). Every bike is beautiful to me, so there are no exceptions! And that’s why I can’t make more than 50 frames a year, because I want to spend time with my frames and see them grow up and have good memories of them and my feelings during the creation process.

What does Bice stand for?
Bice is a farm next to my workshop where I used to spend the afternoon when I was young. Bice is also the short form of the female name of Beatrice. And besides, you can say /bitʃe/ in Italian or /baɪs/ in English like the color.

Thank you for this long and entertaining interview!

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