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In this edition of Bikes of the Bunch, John Catalano tells us about his new Prova Razzo. He’s been cycling for almost thirty years and owned more than half a dozen bikes, but this one was a very special project, inspired by a disease that he has been struggling with, both professionally and personally.
I’m a haematologist (recently retired) and most of my work concerned clinical trials for blood malignancies, including quite a lot of work in myeloma. When I was a registrar, none of the consultants wanted to see patients with myeloma because we only had one drug that worked in about 50% of patients. Since then, there have been a zillion treatments come through that have more than doubled the average survival for patients.
I diagnosed my own case of myeloma seven years ago, had some treatment, and then a bone marrow transplant. For somebody like me, a young (late-50s at the time) and transplant-eligible patient, survival is now out to ten years, which is fantastic. I’ve often said I almost feel privileged to have a disease that can be treated.
I’m currently on my sixth line of therapy and my fourth clinical trial, and have been responding reasonably well, but my disease went pear-shaped about the middle of 2017. I was doing a trip in Norway, inspired by a CyclingTips Roadtripping article, and I was feeling really fagged by the end of it, so it wasn’t a great surprise that my disease had gone bad by the time I got back.
I had some other treatment, but I wasn’t responding to that, and things were starting to look pretty shitty, really, so that’s when I started thinking about another bike. If I wanted to get another bike, and have it for long enough to enjoy it, then I had to get it now rather than wait. I’m not at death’s edge by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m not going to be living to be an old man.
It had been seven years since my previous bike — a Parlee Z5 — and I had been humming and ha’ing about a new bike for about a year. The only material I hadn’t had was titanium so I was sort of thinking about that. A couple of my early bikes — a Merckx and a Scapin — were steel, and as I was getting closer to making a decision, I found myself remembering how much I loved those steel bikes. So I started looking at some high-end steel bikes — Cherubim, Stelbel, Vanilla, Speedvagen, and that sort of thing.
My bike mechanic is Dan from Shifter Bikes. I first met him seven years ago when he built my Parlee Z5. We had built up a great working relationship, so I asked him what he reckoned. That was when he suggested I try Prova Cycles. At that stage, I didn’t realise that Dan had already assembled one of Mark’s bikes that I’d soon be reading about on CyclingTips.
Mark’s workshop was nearby and easy to get to, so I made an appointment, and it was one of those things that sort of melded straight away. The guy was very easy to talk to, very knowledgable, and never condescending. I spent maybe two hours there, I suppose, and I pretty much made up my mind on the spot.
Mark’s fascinating to talk to. He has an engineering background — he was with Jaguar racing for a while — and it comes out when you talk to the guy about what you want and what he can do.
For me, the measure of a good bike frame is how comfortable I feel when descending. You really want to be comfortable with the thing when you’re stressing it downhill. I wanted a bike that was comfortable, a bike that I was going to spend a lot of hours on, and because I wanted to go down hills fast, I talked about a lower bottom bracket.
I’m a bit of a fiddler, so I’ve had a few bike fits over the years. I sent him a few copies of those, plus an existing bike, and we used that as the base. We fiddled around for a couple of hours until he was comfortable with the way I looked and I felt comfortable on the bike itself.
The wait wasn’t very long, about three months, which suited me nicely. This would have been September 2017, which meant I might have the bike ready for the Tour Down Under in January. A little bit of a wait is good because it heightens the anticipation, but if it goes on and on and on, it almost becomes counter-productive, I think.
It gave me time to settle back, and I suppose I could have changed my mind in that time-frame, but I could really start thinking about all the bits and pieces that had been swirling around in my mind for the last year or so. It was always going to be the last bike, so there were no restrictions. I was going to put everything that I wanted on it.
I knew in my mind that pearlescent white had to be the base colour for this bike. I’ve always loved the finish of the team Mapei Colnagos, so I wanted to use that as a bit of a basis, too, and I knew exactly how I wanted to use it. I wanted to replace the coloured blocks with plasma cells from my disease. It’s a very personal sort of thing: this whole myeloma crap completely dominates my existence, and I try not to bore other people with that, but I thought it was just a natural thing to go onto the bike.
The paint job is exactly as I envisaged it. I sent the painter (Steve Gardner at Bikes by Steve) some photos of what multiple myeloma looks like under the microscope, and the result is very faithful to the real thing.
Picking out the parts was a lot of fun, and there’s a story behind every one, starting with the wheels.
I’ve never had carbon wheels before, and was planning to get a set of Tune Skyline alloy wheels. At 1,250g or thereabouts, they’re about as light as you could ever get for a set of alloy wheels. So I placed an order with the local distributor and they took ages to be built, and then they were sent to the wrong place. Meanwhile, our timeline for the TDU was getting tighter and tighter, and they still hadn’t arrived.
It was the first week and January when I bumped into a guy that was trying to get rid of a set of carbon tubulars. They were Tune Skyline (!), a wheelset that I’d come close to buying a couple of years earlier, but in the end, I couldn’t justify it. This time, I was on some chemotherapy, taking industrial doses of dexamethasone, and one of the side-effects is that I go really manic on it. That very morning, my wife said to me, “Don’t do anything stupid today, whatever you do!”
So I ask the guy — just out of interest — how much he wanted for them, and they were about half-price. So I thought, “That’s such a bargain, I think better I take those!” So I ended up with a set of wheels that I really didn’t need.
When you come off the dexamethasone, you go really flat, so three days later, I’m on a low, and I really started regretted buying them. I was feeling like a real goose but I ended up showing them to Dan at Shifter Bikes, and he made me feel better about them straight away. He was convinced they would be perfect for me, so that’s how they ended up on the bike, and they’re absolutely gorgeous to ride.
I’ve pretty much always used Campagnolo parts, and always mechanical. I’ve ridden hire bikes with Di2 and it’s fantastic, particularly the front shifting, but I love the tactile and auditory feel of Campy. Maybe there’s a tiny bit of snob in me as well, but I’ve always been a Campy man.
I first came across eebrakes when I was in Italy some years ago. Then, a mate got a set and he was happy with them, so I decided to get a set for the Parlee. I really wanted to get a set of silver eebrakes so I started corresponding with Craig Edwards (the owner of eecycleworks) and he managed to find a set for me.
I saw the limited-edition El Chulo eebrakes in the middle of 2017, but at that stage I hadn’t made up my mind about a bike, so I didn’t do anything about it. A few months later, when things going a bit pear-shaped medically and I’d decided to go for the bike, I remembered the brakes, so I got in touch with Craig again. Orders had closed but Craig was pretty sure he could find a set for me. And sure enough, he did, and they were perfect for it.
Frame: Prova Razzo custom steel, fillet-brazed
Fork: Enve road
Headset: Cane Creek
Stem: 3T ARX II
Shifters and derailleurs: Campagnolo Record mechanical
Cranks: THM Clavicula
Wheels: Tune Skyline carbon tubulars (pictured); Tune Skyline alloy (not pictured).
Tyres: Vittoria Corsa 25c
Saddle: Pro Stealth with Busyman Bicycles custom finish
Bar tape: Busyman Bicycles custom tape
Weight: With alloy wheels, 7.2kg; with carbon tubulars, 6.8kg
The whole bike came together just in time for me to ride it at the Tour Down Under, but it was touch and go. There was a bike show on the Sunday before the TDU started that Mark wanted to show the bike at, so it had to be ready to go with him on the Saturday. Dan was super busy that week, too, but managed to set aside some time on the Friday to get the bike built. However, the saddle wasn’t ready.
Busyman Bicycles was giving it a custom leather cover, and even though it was brand new, he had a lot of trouble getting the old cover off. So the bike left without it, but Mick promised to have it ready on the Monday. I was having chemotherapy for most of that day, but once I was finished with it, I caught a tram and walked to Mick’s place to pick up the saddle just as he was finishing it. Then I went home, collected my bag, and hopped on my flight to Adelaide.
I took my first ride on the bike on the Wednesday at the TDU. Up the first hill, I felt that it was riding pretty nice, but then we went across the top and down to the bottom, and that was when the engineering that I wanted for descending delivered unbelievably. I could lean it over, swap from side-to-side, and it would track perfectly.
I’ve been lucky and privileged to ride some pretty nice bikes over the years, but this one rides even better. Everybody says the same thing about their custom bikes — it rides like a dream et cetera — but the whole thing, it was just like a glove. It’s just fantastic to ride. There’s no flexing in it at all but it’s still comfy. It ticks all the boxes.
The bike has always been really important to me. When I was riding to work, I could plan my day, and at the end of it, riding home is just a great way to de-stress. Now, as I go through various stages of coping and not coping, psychologically and physically, the bike is still really important for helping me go through this journey.