Q n A with Renzo Formigli
With a family so involved in bike racing, why do you think you went into building rather than racing?
I knew I wanted to become a frame builder at the age of 8, when I told my mother that when I grew up I wanted to build bicycles. I have always liked mechanics. I have always had the idea of building bicycles, because I come from a cycling family-my grandfather, my father and brother raced bicycles. I was 3 years old when I started to go to cycling races. I believe this imprinted on me the desire to build my dad and brother a bicycle that would help them win. I tried racing a bit in my youth, but it was not my strength, however working as the mechanic on a bicycle was where I belonged. My fascination was not how to win a race, but instead, how to create a bicycle that wins the race.
My father and my brother raced in the category that in their day was called amateurs and today is called elite. Neither of them advanced to race in the professional category. However, back then when they raced it was harder to go pro. I think had they raced today, they could have found a sponsor and gone professional.
How did you first meet Cino Cinelli?
I met Cino Cinelli when I was 21, at a cycling team presentation. The team was named “Corale Impruneta” and it was coached by my father. It was a small team out of the Province of Florence, and Cinelli was invited to the presentation of this team. Frankly none of us thought he would come. Instead, Cinelli, was the kind of person who would make himself available to such things, and came gladly. During the evening, I asked Signore Cinelli if he would have time to introduce me to the methods of frame construction. At this time, I knew already a bit about frame construction, but I hadn’t had the opportunity to learn the secrets of bike construction. Cinelli saw how young I was, and how eager I was to learn, granted me my request, and he invited me to his home to learn from him. This chance meeting was the key that enabled me to learn the secrets to what I consider the best frame building methods in existence.
When and why did you decide to start your own bicycle brand?
I started my own brand of bicycle when I was 22, because as aforementioned, it was my dream to build road bikes that raced and won. As a youngster, I saw the beautiful racing bicycles, with the names of Colnago, Masi, Pinarello, and looking at these bikes, I dreamed that in the future I could too look upon a bicycle I had built. My first frames I only built for cyclists who raced, never for cyclists who just rode as a hobby. I’ve since changed this mentality because I believe that a Formigli should be a universal bicycle ridden by everyone who loves cycling. My heart will always remain passionate for bicycles designed and built for racing.
Can you tell us a little more about your desire to bring old world craftsmanship to modern materials?
I believe that the lineage of old world frame builders is a dying craft, and might not exist in another few generations. Companies like ours that make products by hand, custom for each individual customer are few and far between. Today’s bottom line leads companies to manufacture their products in the East, where costs are much lower. Our philosophy of craftsmanship is to keep the art and secrets of the original Italian bike builders alive. Our goal is to produce a frame that maintains the hand built elements, where we can customize the product according to a customer’s needs, but in today’s highest standards of modern materials. We remain faithful to our traditions, and although we us use modern materials, we continue to build every frame by hand. We understand there is a thought in cycling construction that machines are precise, and stock molds are just as good as tube to tube construction, and that there is no need to build custom frames by hand anymore. We maintain that a custom tube to tube constructed frame has better fit, performance, and longevity.
Does all the production occur in Italy, from carbon fabric to painting a finished frame?
All of the production of a Formigli frame from the design of the individual frame’s geometry to the cutting of the tubes, to the finishing of the frame, to painting the frame and finishing prep work are completed in Italy.
How important is accurate mitering?
Because the customer who buys a Formigli frame, is very attentive to a frame’s finish. In addition to providing a customer with a product of superior quality, we believe, as Italians who love art and beauty, it is also equally important to produce a product that is aesthetically beautiful. The mitering is a stage in the process that is done by hand, and to do it requires many hours of work. In fact another of the reasons why the big bike manufacturers build frames exclusively in monocoque, is also due to the fact that the monocoque, when it exits from the mold does not need mitering because it is already finished. This has a much lower cost than a frame which after assembly still requires many hours of work to make it cosmetically almost perfect. I say nearly perfect because any finishing work done by hand will never be perfect as a work done by a machine. Just like a painting isn’t perfect compared to a digitally produced poster, it is the qualities given to the piece by hand that make it unique.
Many riders don’t know much about bike geometry and would rather let someone else choose their angles. How do you help those customers get it right? How do you turn words like ‘nimble’ or ‘comfortable’ into geometry?
The fit measurements we take of each customer consist of bone lengths and body ratios that determine various bicycle geometries that would be suitable. We ask the customer to explain the particular characteristics of the bicycle they are looking to ride, for example, comfort, speed, descents, long legs, back problems, and we advise the customer not only the geometry fit that would suit them, but what material we believe they should order the frame in. As an example, we would not recommend a bicycle made out of aluminum for a person who has back pain. As well for this customer we would advise how we can adjust the geometry of the frame for lessening their back pain by lengthening the wheelbase, preventing the rider from having to bend the spine we raise as much as possible the head tube. When we make a frame to perform in races, we completely change the geometry, using other parameters.
How big is your factory?
Using the word factory for my company is wrong, partly because the public identifies a factory to mean an environment with vast space and production lines, whereas I work in a small workshop of about 100 square meters.
How many bikes do you make a year? In carbon? In steel?
We now produce on average about 300 frames a year, since we opened Formigli International, and we are shipping frames not only to Italians but internationally to riders all over the world. Of these frames about 200 carbon frames and the rest are steel and aluminum. We do not intend to ever produce over 80 frames a month. Most manufacturers in the bike industry have business plans to grow and expand and eventually go offshore. Instead, our plan is to stay small, always produce by hand, and do everything in house.
Many people now believe real carbon know-how is in Asia, why should a rider consider a custom Formigli?
Some cyclists and shops might think that a bicycle frame made with the monocoque system from Asia, has a carbon better than ours. I believe that this is accepted as fact because advertising dollars have been spent to condition the customer into thinking this way. I am not one to be the preacher, I just say, that our customers can tell you Formigli carbon feels so different and superior from Asia carbon, it doesn’t seem possible they are made from variations of the same material. It is not my style to say that my product is better than others. I hope in the future as Formigli is written about, ridden, and discussed, that people will better understand our bicycles, and then, maybe, people will understand what it truly means to own and ride a Formigli.
Your web site talks about perfectly balanced bikes vs purely light bikes. Can you help us understand the difference?
Today to sell a bike, there are three important things for it to establish in the market, and be considered. The first being the bicycle must be light, second that the design is eye catching and beautiful, the third it must have good advertising. Formigli bicycles only would fulfill point number two above, because the other two are not part of our philosophy-light weight and advertising. We have worked for 20 years with the racers, and we know with certainty a bicycle that is too light can have big problems, including steering. Returning to the discourse about the qualities of materials, especially in relation to carbon, I believe that when a bicycle is very light it means the carbon used is too thin. Carbon and steel are among the best materials to make racing frames, but to be good, they must be thick. Building a true racing bike used by professional riders, requires a structure completely different from what we normally see on bikes for the general public.