In a country where it is a challenge to travel more than a few kilometers without seeing a UNESCO World Heritage site, there is little reason to stop in Mellaredo, Italy. It is a small, unattractive town. However, it is conveniently located in the Veneto region, just east of Padua, not far from Vicenza and Treviso – an area that’s home to some of cycling’s most recognisable brands like Campagnolo and Pinarello.
And it is difficult to imagine that something as beautiful as Sarto’s bikes are being made inside the non-descript, beige building at the end of a dead-end street in the industrial zone of Mellaredo. The only indication that some of the finest, custom carbon fibre frames are made here is a license plate-sized sign over the door that reads “Sarto Antonio” in faded typography, embellished with a bicycle-like squiggle.
Though visitors are more than welcome, there is no showroom, only a cramped reception area with just enough space for two plastic chairs and a small coffee table with a stack of cycling magazines and a product catalogue.
The family is blessed with an appropriate name — “sarto” means tailor. Not only do they tailor the size of their frames, but Sarto offers customers the option to customise the shape, structure and most importantly, the brand.
The Sarto brand has been around since just after World War II when Antonio Sarto created the “terzista” — a company that assembles another company’s products according to specific instructions — with his brothers.
“Every week, me and my two brothers would ride our bikes with trailers to the Atala and Torpado factories. They’d give us frames to take back and file, you know, to clean up after they’d been brazed,” says Antonio who was 14 at the time.
Over the next 20 years, the brothers’ services expanded to include manufacturing whole frames. It was the international oil crisis which fuelled a bike boom in the early 1970s that allowed the Sarto family to outgrow their terzista status.
“In 1973, we had 40 employees and finished 200 bikes a day, not just frames, but 200 assembled bikes!” says 82-year-old Antonio as if it weren’t so long ago. Most of these were entry level, 10-speeds exported to the United States and sold under the Sarto Mariella brand. However, the boom subsided and the company returned to making frames for others during the ’80s and early ’90s.
It was in the 1990s that Antonio’s son Enrico officially joined the family business at 18 years old.
“I never considered not going into this business. I always worked here growing up, in the office and also welding in the factory”, says Enrico. “But by the time I finished school in 1992, my father was ready to join his brothers in retirement. It would have been a shame to let all of this just go away.”
So, father and son made a deal: Enrico would officially join the business, if Antonio remained. And together they would build a new, larger factory. Expanding and entrusting a challenging business to an 18-year-old was risky. In an industry that often goes through feast and famine cycles, subcontractors occupy a precarious position; when demand is low, so are the orders.
But back in the mid ’90s demand was not an issue. Italian bicycle manufacturers were selling as much as they could produce. About two-thirds of the bikes lined up for the 1996 Tour de France were Italian, a bunch of those from Sarto.
Maurizio Fondriest, also lined up at the ’96 Tour on a Sarto frame, recounts, “back then the best artisans, the leaders in the industry were in the Veneto, so my brother and I chose Sarto to make our medium and high-end frames and those for our professional riders. The most scrupulous went to the factory to get exactly what they wanted. Our entry-level frames were made by another terzista.”
The decade also saw racing bikes rapidly evolve from lugged steel to TIG welded steel and then aluminium and finally carbon fibre. Sarto first started working with carbon in the mid-1990s, bonding in seat stays on aluminium frames. Then Dedacciai came out with a carbon tube kit with aluminium lugs. In 2002, Sarto made its first 100% carbon fibre frame designed in-house.
Maurizio Fondriest has known the Sartos for more than 25 years:
““Ingenious is a good word to describe Antonio and Enrico. They just know how to make all kinds of things, they always made their own tooling and milled special parts for our frames.
So, when carbon arrived, they continued to build custom frames like the artisans that they are, like aluminium frames, but instead of welding the tubes together, they wrap them in more carbon. The difference is that back when it was just steel or aluminium, being an artisan was enough, now you really have to know this stuff on an engineering level.”
Since the use of carbon fibre in racing bikes made engineers more valuable than artisans, the 2000s saw a dramatic shift in manufacturing from Italy to the Far East. Remember, it’s an Italian idea that the name on the downtube does not necessarily have to be the same as the company that made it. Never was this practice more prevalent than just before globalisation made it logistically and economically feasible to take advantage of cheaper production costs in Asia.
It is not surprising that the first Italian companies to dive in were Wilier Triestina and Pinarello, both from the Veneto, both entrenched in the terzista system.
As the topic of conversation changed to Asia, Enrico’s eyes lit up.
““Most Chinese frames consist of a front triangle bonded to the rear. These are made with large moulds under high pressure because it’s less complex, saves time and that means money, but they are hard to control. It’s not the best way to build a frame.
The smaller the moulds, the easier is it to control the process. The better Asian frames mould just the top, head and down tube together and then bond them to other sections. The difference between our bonded and wrapped tubes and smaller moulded sections versus their larger moulds is that we have more control and can offer custom sized frames.”
Sarto’s success relies on offering clients what Asian manufacturers do not and cannot fulfill.
“Sarto occupies a special niche within the industry for those looking to get custom made frames, made in the artisan tradition,” says Fondriest.
Alessandro Guerciotti’s company has been selling racing bikes since the 1970s and working with Sarto for the past five:
““There are two reasons why we went with Sarto. First, we chose wrapped, tube-to-tube construction because our customers expect custom sizing for top-of-the-line frames and you can’t get this from Asian suppliers because they’re specialised in monocoque construction. And second, Sarto has been building this way for a long time and the fact that they’re Made in Italy is a confirmation of this quality.”
While many Italian bicycle companies lament the fact carbon fibre, politics, globalisation or some other evil has left them with only memories of the good ol’ days, Sarto is not one of them.
“Up until carbon, everyone used the same steel or aluminium tubes made by the same companies, so whether we made frames with our name or another name, it was more about numbers than design,” says Enrico.
If the open-frontier opportunities afforded by carbon fibre have again permitted Sarto to relinquish its terzista status as they insist, one obstacle remains: getting credit for it. No-one contacted for this article would acknowledge, on the record or off, that Sarto is responsible for their products’ designs (for obvious reasons), though they all mentioned Enrico’s helpful contribution.
Since their clients won’t concede it, the Sartos must content themselves by selling their work under their own name … with better margins, too. While they have been making progress, there have been some distribution setbacks. In addition, like many small, family run companies, marketing is an afterthought; just one of the many hats worn by the boss.
Despite their great desire to be more than a terzista, fuelled by creativity and pride, the Sartos know that they cannot abandon their past.
“The future of Sarto will always be mixed [with frames sold under other names], with the continuing objective to increase the amount of frames sold under our own brand,” concludes Enrico.
If the difference between Made in Italy and Made in China is that one country’s workers make bikes because that’s what they want to be making, while the other’s would just as soon be making telephones or something else, then Sarto employee Marco is proof of this point.
He is the first person you meet upon entering the factory and he is responsible for mitering and bonding the tubes together with the help of a jig encrusted with globs of black resin. Marco’s apron is similarly encrusted. In front of him are plans for a custom time trial frame.
“I’ve been here for 23 years,” says the 38-year-old as if just realising it now. The better the artisan, no matter what trade, the easier they make their work seem. Marco’s quick, rhythmic movements confirm that he has been doing this for a long time. Being photographed and asked dumb questions do little to slow him down — the resin hardens within minutes and needs careful attention — or change his pleasant disposition.
A few meters away from Marco, the tolerances of a finished frame are being checked. The worker uses a vintage, Mavic GP4 wheel and digital gauge to measure the rear triangle. Behind him, Antonio is milling bottom bracket shells on a lathe. Another station, on the other side of the room, takes the bonded frames and wraps additional sheets of carbon over the joints.
In a separate, sound-proofed room two men are filing the wrapped frames. Not only with power tools, but also hand files. There is surprisingly little talking; everyone seems to know what to do. The hum of a multi-tentacled ventilation system, removing dust and industrial odours, is the only pervasive sound.
A resin-smudged door leads to a warehouse almost twice the size of the factory floor. Rows and rows of carbon fibre frames hang in racks, some adorned with well-known names, others are waiting to be painted, or assembled into complete bikes. Some are here for repair.
“We actually do a lot of carbon repair work. On our frames, but also on other brands”, Enrico says. “They’re not happy about it; they’d rather sell you a new frame after an accident. But we’ve learned a lot from these jobs. The tubes always fail in the same areas. We’ve put this knowledge into designing our own frames and have reinforced these areas,” says Enrico.
The warehouse also contains an improvised fit studio. Here, Sergio takes care of athletes or customers that come to the factory to be fitted.
“I raced and then was a DS long enough to see my son get into the pro ranks, but he quit after two years. He wasn’t willing to do the things that you had to do. The other cyclists made fun of him, guys that he used to beat. I also decided to get out and I’ve been here since.”
In addition to fitting customers, Sergio is a jack of all trades around the factory, “of the 17 steps in manufacturing a frame, I can do 15,” he states matter-of-factly, even though his two missing steps of mitering/bonding and wrapping the joints comprise a substantial amount of the work.
The Sarto factory is not like those orderly, purposeful ones seen in America. It is conscientiously chaotic like an artist’s desk; move something and it will never be found again. The tools wear their patina like a badge. Walls, tables and many of the convenient flat surfaces are scribbled with cryptic notes and figures. The floors are scarred.
Some machines have been converted to new purposes while others hibernate. Fragments of the past, like tacked aluminium frames that will never be completed or welders’ masks that collect dust, inform the present.
“My father doesn’t want to throw any of these things out,” says Enrico.
The factory is not organised according to the logical steps in the manufacturing process — it has evolved organically. The new construction methods have grown around the old, outdated ones. This is a Made in Italy factory.