I had the opportunity to visit Zullo’s factory in Italy just outside of Verona, and view the exquisite craftsmanship and stunning paint finish frames produced by Tizano. 

During the 1980s cycling was a simple sport. Racing cyclists trained on instinct and fuelled themselves not with complex sports food, but with jam sandwiches and fig rolls. The bicycles were humbler machines too, made from simple round tubes of steel. A far cry from today’s designed-by-computer and tested in a wind tunnel bikes that are prominent everywhere from the shop floor to the pro peloton.

Zullo-Fame-Pantera

Steel was the dominant material, and there was little alternative before aluminium made an impact some 10-20 years later. It was during this period that Tiziano Zullo started making frames from his workshop on the banks of Italy’s Lake Garda. His frames would go on to be used most famously by the TVM team, starring Phil Anderson and Robert Millar, for six seasons between 1986 and 1992.

Today, carbon fibre is the standard choice for the professionals (and most amateurs) but that said steel has been enjoying a resurgence of popularity over the past 5-10 years. Zullo decided to buck the carbon trend and, in remaining faithful to his roots, is enjoying his status as one of the few manufacturers of hand-crafted steel frames with a rich pedigree and history. Steel was never dead, it was just biding its time before making a comeback.

Today Zullo provides full custom designed frames, and can be purchased through a few unique cycle shops. Besides the quality product, the service from the company is fantastic, Zullo keep customers involved in the process with regular updates, even supplying photos of the frame as it passes through the various stages of its inception.

The frame

The Vergine is made from Columbus XCr. It’s a seamless stainless steel tubeset (unlike the other stainless tubeset, Reynolds 953, which is welded) and is manufactured with chromium, molybdenum and nickel to boost its strength. The wall thickness can be drawn extremely thin (right down to 0.4mm) which keeps the weight down while still having a higher stiffness to weight ratio than titanium or aluminium. It’s also corrosion resistant so doesn’t need treatment and will never rust.

Zullo TIG weld the frame, and it is beautifully finished in every way. It really is one of the nicest steel frames I’ve ever seen. But, as the most expensive steel tubeset in the world and being hand made in Italy, the Pantera doesn’t come cheap. A frame and carbon fork will set you back $2995.00. But think about what you’re buying: Zullo only make a couple of hundred frames a year, there’s a lot of love and attention going into each and every one.

There’s loads of paint options you can choose from, take a look at this gallery for a sample of what they can do. They can’t do custom paint jobs though, but I would happily take the frame painted as it is. I’m quite taken with it. Few bikes in the world look as good as this and there’s certainly no mainstream manufacturer doing anything even remotely close to this.

Riding

Taking it out into the sunlight for its maiden ride, and I have to stop and take a moment to admire its exquisite beauty. Its elegant and classical lines, all contribute to it easily outranking every other bike based on looks alone. The Pantera has a level of class simply unmatched by anything else out there. It really is a special bike.

Fortunately, as the first test ride on it reassures me, it isn’t all looks. It has the peformance to back it up when it matters, pressing on the pedals. [quote_left][/quote_left]This is, without a doubt, the best riding steel frame I’ve ever ridden.[quote_right][/quote_right]

Steering feels crisp and sharp and, at times, it really doesn’t feel like a steel frame. There’s certainly less of that softness that steel frames often exhibit, with a good degree of stiffness tuned in. That said, it still feels far more comfortable than aluminium and carbon bikes on the roughly surfaced roads that make up my testing loop.

With a longer stem (12cm) than the one supplied, and a shuffle of the spacers, I achieved a satisfactory fit that allowed me to fully exploit the frame’s potential. It’s important to note that the frame wasn’t custom made for me, but that it just happened to be the right size. Anyone looking to buy a Vergine will be happy in the knowledge they’ll be buying a frame that fits them perfectly, and can be tuned to their style of riding.

The Zullo rides, if I had to sum it up with one word, beautifully. There are many more words I could have used, but this is the one that frequently crops up. It’s smooth to ride, yet crisp enough to make it really engaging when you get on the gas. It’s not flighty like a lightweight carbon racer; there’s a little more weight to the steering that gives you a little more confidence.

If you’re looking for something special, something that isn’t carbon but won’t compromise on the ride quality, then you can’t go far wrong with XCr, and the Zullo’s use of it is splendidly realised. XCr really shows there is still a valid place for steel and it’s a serious rival to carbon if your intentions are to race.

Verdict

If you thought steel was dead, think again. A serious alternative to carbon with impressive performance and a unique history.

 

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John is obsessed with cycling and all about Italian bikes. John is fascinated by the prestige and tradition of Italian cycling and everything that it represents. His passion for vintage classic bikes is contagious and in particular his love for old school Pinarello. Having ridden some of Italy's monster climbs, including the famed 48 switch backs of Passo dello Stelvio, John likes to ride bikes that are showered in history and esteem, much like the famed climbs of the Giro D'Italia. John rides a Pinarello Quattro with full Campagnolo componentry.