If you’re a fan of locally-made, bespoke bicycle frames, you could live in far worse cities than Berlin. As a follow up to last year’s five Berlin bike manufacturers feature, we recently visited Daniel Pleikies and Nico Bonanno at their Berlin workshops for an insight into how they started frame building, their philosophy and the creative process behind their work.
Italian Nico Bonanno’s passion lies in building steel frames. Moving to Germany from Milan around 8 years ago, Bonanno got into frame building after learning bike mechanics at different Berlin bike shops and through help from fellow young Italian frame builders. For the last two and a half years, Nico has been building his own frames under the Cicli Bonanno brand.
What’s your story?
I come from a family of bike riders. My family are all cyclists and we had many bicycles. My father rode a racing bike, like a typical Italian Papa! My mother is German, and designed engines for BMW. I did a little bit of tinkering and building stuff as a kid, but I didn’t grow up as an engineer. I was always practical, but not like a real Handwerker in Germany. Sometimes I feel like all German children grow up with their hands on a machine.
I researched frame building for years, and wondered how everyone from this new generation of frame builders does it: there are very few older people who can actually show you how to build a frame. At first I wanted to find an old master who could show me how to do it, but it’s very difficult to such find people in Italy. My interest in building frames started in Italy, but I had a different job – as a stage builder and sound technician, for big events. I started frame building in Berlin.
I was already interested in bikes before moving to Germany and had already seen quite a bit. In Milan I was working with single speeds in my garage learning how to fix bikes converting old classic racing bikes to fixies, that was 2007. With two friends.
Then you moved to Berlin…
Yeah. After I came to Berlin I tried to work in various bike shops. I knew that I wanted to do more with bikes, but I didn’t exactly have a goal in mind, yet. At the same time I still had this other job – as a stage builder and sound technician. That was about 8 years ago. Then I got a job at Pedal Power. I did everything I could there, all kinds of bike mechanics. I also did some brazing there in the last couple of years, bottle cages or whatever. I’m very thankful to the guys there. After about three years working at Pedal Power, I wanted to start doing something new.
I’d seen frame builders in Milan, online, young guys – one was Legor Cicli, one was Dario Bice, and eventually I got to know these guys after I moved to Berlin. I was then often back to Milan, and they showed me some stuff with frame building. There were a lot of journeys back to Italy to learn stuff and meet people, and this contact really helped me.
I was in contact with Dario from Bice Bicycles online – I asked him if I could check out his workshop? He was really nice to me and showed me some stuff, really helped me. At the same time I also met Simone D’Urbino, another young frame builder.
My story isn’t one where a master showed me the way…I learned a lot from different people, tricks and stuff. This contact to other people, other frame builders, is very important. This is the new way to learn, because there aren’t so many old masters around anymore – many of these (older) guys are at the end of their career and so not really able to help you so much.
After working at Pedal Power, I did a course and learnt TIG welding. I went to the job centre and said to them: I’m unemployed, I’ve worked as a bike mechanic. They said to me, you have to learn tig-welding. So they sent me on this course. The machines were not the kind of machines I work with now. You had to hold everything in your hand, and when you wanted to weld something very small it was very difficult. I met a guy there, the ‘master welder’, Manfredd, and I explained to him what I wanted to do, to build frames. It was funny because we always had to weld really these thick tubes together, but I took some Columbus tubes with me and showed them, told them I wanted to learn frame building, and also started working on those.
Then I started the first workshop. At the beginning, it really started as a hobby and went from there.
Around the same time, I got in touch with Tom (Meerglas), who I had met while working at Pedal Power. He had just finished his master bike mechanic course. I said to him, let’s start a workshop together. We have the same goal. So we started here together in the old workshop.
We didn’t have so many machines, so we shared them. Thomas found the first machine, the lathe, which is no longer here. In the beginning we weren’t really sure if we were going to work together or not, if we were gonna start a firm together or whatever. We worked together for a bit, but in the end, we started out own companies.
So Tom eventually moved out and I founded Cicli Bonanno. That was almost exactly 2 years ago in 2016.
At the beginning, I was very connected with the bike messenger community. In about 2009 or 2010 I had a track bike and totally fell in love with that style of riding. I built a guy called Johannes (Killisperger) – the bike messenger world champion – a frame. Johannes had my third bike. There was a criterium at the Berlin bike show and he asked me to build a bike for him for it. It took ages – nobody can really show you how to do it, and I underestimated how long it would take. It was a bit of a ‘last second’ frame – I was still working full time as a mechanic in Rad Spannerei in Kreuzberg. Johannes came 10 days before the criterium and asked me where he frame was. I said: I thought you were joking! He said, no, I have the components and whatever, build me the frame! It wasn’t my best bike, but we did it. Johannes came with pizza and coca cola, and we had to work through the night, but we got it done. We put it together the day before the criterium. He rode it for a couple of years and then gave it to a colleague. I then built him another one.
After building three bikes, it wasn’t really Cicli Bonanno yet. It was only after my sixth I started calling it that.
What’s really helped me advance in my career as frame builder is having connections with Italian friends who are also frame builders. It’s a community. Everyone’s in more or less the same boat. There are people who are really good, and people who have just started. But really, once you reach a certain level, you all have the same problems.
Problems like what? Finding customers?
No. I think for the younger generation, marketing isn’t really such a problem with social media and whatever. I’ve had luck.
In my case, perfect TIG-welding is hard for me. That’s something that takes a lot of practice. You can’t go back with it, you have one chance to get it right, and if you make a mistake you have to start from the beginning. This is what I’m really fascinated by.
You’ve just moved to a new workshop.
I moved in July. Here I have heating. The problem with the old workshop was that in Winter, it was really cold…this workshop is ok when you come here twice or three times a week, but when you’re there every day in Winter…
Roughly how many bikes do you build per year?
Ideally, my goal is 30 per year. I’ve built 43 bikes so far in the last two years. Hopefully with the new workshop I can do 30 per year. That’s a lot though. You have to work a lot.
What style of bike do you build the most of?
The most popular style of bike at the moment is our gravel bike, the Stay Loco. But I also love building the Futo Maki, a slightly oversized racing bike. It has thicker tubes, making it very stiff. It’s for people who want to ride really fast. I offer 6 models: a track bike, two gravel bikes, two racing bikes and a randonneur.
Do you paint the frames here?
No, we send the frames to Robert at Velo Ciao, in Lichtenberg.
Do you assemble the bikes here?
Yeah, we build the bikes here, and the wheels by hand. I want as much as possible to be done by hand.
All of your frames are steel. Why?
I’ve always been fascinated by steel. It somehow feels more alive to me. I also like the look of aluminium and would like to build a frame one day, but I guess I’m just more interested in working with steel right now. I have to master it first. But I’m interested in anything to do with metal, so in the future why not? I’d also like to try and build from titanium. But carbon and plastic, no.
What do the frames cost?
The frame sets cost about 2000 euros, with fork. Painted. For a complete bike, it really depends how it’s built up…for a high-spec bike, it could be seven or eight thousand. But it could just as well be three and a half thousand. For around four and a half thousand, you have a really good bike.
What kind of riding do you like the most?
In Berlin, I like riding gravel. Obviously, there are no hills here. In Italy I rode a lot with my Dad near Milan, and I miss the mountains. I do ride on the road with friends, early in the mornings, but often only a quick round around the local area, along Havelchaussee near Grünewald and back again. I’ll jump in a lake then ride back, just to keep fit really. But gravel really is a lot of fun. You can do more cross type stuff in Grunewald or here in East Berlin it’s a little more flat. You can also go on longer rides.
Plans for the future?
Building more frames, or at least trying to. This is a job when you never stop learning, and that’s the best thing about it. Every day you’re working on something new, and that’s why you do it. I don’t think there is a single frame builder who knows everything. I think only after 10 years of doing this job can someone really say “OK. I’m a frame builder.” Before that you’re still a student. That’s my personal opinion. I’m sure it’s seen differently from other frame builders, but I personally don’t think it’s right when someone says after two years “I’m a frame builder”.
(pictures taken a Nico’s previous workshop).
Former architect Daniel Pleikies, who builds under the Wheeldan moniker, builds his bicycle frames exclusively from titanium. While most cyclists stick to bikes built from aluminium, steel or carbon, Pleikies is only really interested in using titanium. Yet it comes at a price.
I only build from titanium. It’s the best material to me – it’s timeless and it never rusts. It’s super durable. It’s lighter than steel, in the middle between aluminium and steel. It has very thin wall thickness, but the tubes are a little bit bigger than on steel bikes because of their flexibility. If you want a rigid bike with strength in the stays, you need slightly larger diameter tubes.
Did you start building frames with titanium or with steel?
I started with titanium.
How did you learn frame building?
As a young guy, I learned how to build stuff from steel – construction works and buildings, architecture, welding and so on. Later I became fascinated with the idea of riding a titanium bike. I was never really interested in working with steel. At first, I was in Italy, on a frame building course, learning to build with titanium. After that I thought about it a lot. Should I really do this? I thought about it for half a year. Everything’s so expensive – even trying something out in titanium, you have to buy all the tubes, and they’re not cheap…
How long have you been building bikes now?
I started this about 7 years ago now. I’ve been slowly progressing since then, learning by doing, making mistakes.
Do you usually build randonneur or gravel bikes?
Not really, it depends. One of my first bikes was a fat bike, because I wanted to ride in the winter and through the snow, I did it for myself. After that I started properly, and people asked me to build this and that and this and that. Later people starting asking about fat bikes, but in the first few years not so much.
Do you build everything here in your workshop?
Yeah. I also build the wheels myself. But as you can see, I have pretty limited space, so the wheel building equipment is at home and I do it at the evening. But everything for the frame building, I have here. I cut the tubes here and do the fine-cutting here on the mill. The jigs and everything are on wheels here, so I can move everything about.
Is the idea that titanium is more durable than steel?
Yes, it’s very durable, but there are not so many differences between the materials themselves. The titanium tubes I use are only grade 9, and it’s not so with steel – you have hundreds of different types of tubes. With titanium it’s not like that.
It’s also about the aesthetic. I think most of my customers want this look. I’ve built a few frames painted, but most people like the frames raw. I don’t use any coatings on the frame.
Do customers bring parts to you?
No, mostly I do the complete bikes. I order all of the components.
Is everything custom or do you have a range of standard models?
I’m always thinking about having standard models, and I started to do a prototype for such a thing, but not really… It’s always on my mind, but right now everything’s fully custom. It’s not so easy for me to start from scratch with everything, it would take a lot of time.
If someone orders a bike from you, how long does it take to get that bike?
Something like 6 months, or just over.
How much does one of your bikes cost?
For a bike like this (pictured) with extra-light everything… about 12,000 euros. But even all of the screws are titanium, and you pay about 300 euros for the screws alone. The titanium is an expensive material. It can be 10 times more expensive than the equivalent steel.
What do you think about riding in Berlin? Is it safe?
Mostly, when I ride, I’m looking to ride away from the city streets. I don’t ride around the city so much. I often take the s-bahn. It’s not so fun riding through the city, but there are some nice places to ride – Planterwald, along the river, Treptower Park, the Mauerradweg.
Are you always busy building? Is it easy to find customers?
It’s a long road. At the beginning, there were a few people who came in and wanted various different things – racks, forks and whatever, made out of titanium. A few even asked for a complete bike. I’ve been busy since I started. But earning money from this, that’s a different thing. It’s so much work, and it’s very niche. To build a whole bike is about three weeks’ work alone. So much of it is learning by doing.
Thanks a lot to Nico & Daniel for their time.