Ode to a MAX Zanoncato

-By Stephen Spears, Director of Zanconato Racing

It's raining again this morning.  In fact it's a deluge outside.  I stand at the top of the stairs dressed in my clown suit, as my wife so affectionately refers to it, ready to brave the elements.  She thinks I’m nuts for wanting to go out in these conditions.  Thirty eight and raining sounds like THE cause for the common cold.  However, as I have said to her on many occasions, these conditions precipitate the most epic rides of all.

Prudence would call for the ti bike today.  In fact, prudence would actually call for the rollers this morning, but I am dedicated to making today epic.  So instead of the titanium bike, I reach for my Zanconato.  Now a Zanconato just isn't any bike, and it is just not made of any material, it's made of steel.  To top it off, it's not just any steel tubing either, its MAX Nivacrom tubing made by Columbus.

So what makes this tubing and bike so special? And more importantly, why would I ride a steel bike in the rain?

Mike Zanconato is a Massachusetts based custom builder. Mike is an ex-corporate stiff who figured out that building the best frames in the business is what he was really destined to do. So he gave up the frequent flyer miles and the Marriott rewards points, and spends every waking moment crafting hand built bicycles for corporate stiffs like me.

I found Mike through mutual friends and icons in the cycling business. Mike had developed a reputation for building great cyclocross frames and was developing a cult-like following across the country.  His attention to detail and working with me to find out what I had ridden over the years sealed the deal.  He agreed to make me a custom frame, made from a tube set that had originally been produced in the early 1990's.  Columbus MAX.

Here’s some history: MAX was the first Nivacrom tubing from Columbus.  Prior to MAX, Columbus' high end offerings had been made of Cyclex steel.  Cyclex steel was internally reinforced with ribbing to provide strength for stronger and bigger riders.  This made the tubes heavier than there non-rifled counterparts. In 1989, Columbus MS tubing was the next evolution. MS (which stood for multi shape) introduced swages and unique shapes to maximize stiffness. MS brought us the famous Diamante chain stays and asymmetric shapes on each side for drive-train stiffness (Yes, Pinarello has been telling folks that the Dogma was the first example of this...maybe the first in carbon). The only issue with MS was, you guessed it...weight.  Enter MAX, MAX was made of a new steel.  A stronger and lighter steel.  Such that it could be drawn with thinner walls and shorter butts.  In addition, MAX was bi-axially ovalized at the head tube, the seat tube, and at the bottom bracket.  It was oriented in such a way that the cross section where it intersected the seat tube required a unique lug as the sides of the top tube stuck out on both sides of the seat tube. I think you get my point:  MAX was cooler, and stiffer than any tubing Columbus had yet made.  Best part of all that was in 1991 when Eddy Merckx decided to craft a series of team Motorola bikes from this uber new steel. And thus began the dream...

I was a young licensed racer in 1991. Titanium had just made a huge splash on the scene, aluminum was becoming the standard and Trek hadn't yet started making carbon bicycles that could actually last more than one race season.  Team Motorola represented everything that was good about American cycling at the time - even Paul Sherwin and Phil Liggett were on the payroll.  Winning magazine was the only real cycling magazine then because they published local results and actually showed photos from real bike races, and because VeloNews still looked like a newspaper. What really made Winning so special is that each European classic was covered in detail like a playboy pictorial, and the centerfold was always a great team bike.  Well, in the May 1991 issue, that centerfold was nothing other than Phil Anderson's team Eddy Merckx MAX bike. Clad with Dura Ace 7400, a Rolls saddle, Look pedals, and Wolber tubulars, this bike was all business.  It was also one of the few EM's built with the full MAX tubing framesets as in subsequent years, Eddy switched to ELOS seat stays and got rid of the cool, but eclectic top tube.

I always loved how the pro’s bikes looked so “used” back then.  There were scrapes and scratches, the head tube paint was worn through from the ‘avant garde’ sti cable routing, and according to the write up, Phil would go through a cassette and chain every race.  Visions of Phil stomping over the bergs of Leige Bastone Leige, or through the streets in Fleche Wallone in the rain, pelted me with the sole purpose of this machine.  It was meant to go really hard and really fast.  Reading through the bike's details was like sipping liquid testosterone.  It didn’t hurt that Shimano was running ads depicting a leg shaving Phil that hadn't had an ice cream since he was a boy.  I wanted this bike and I wanted it badly. Only one problem...I was a broke 150lb college kid; the new MAX bike was well out of my price range, and better suited for someone well above my weight class.  That elusive pin-up would have to wait.

Fast forward 15 years.  Titanium and aluminum no longer exist in the pro ranks, and carbon is king – with overseas mass production of plastic (err..carbon) bikes rolling off the line faster than riders off a time trial starters ramp at Le Tour.  Over the years, I have had my share of great bikes.  Exotic Serottas, steel, ti and carbon, Merlins, and Pinarellos all have graced my garage. I consider myself fortunate and lucky to have such nice rigs.  Then Eddy Merckx released a special 25th Anniversary MXL tubing bike, built mostly with MAX tubing.  Now that my wallet and waistline were both aligned to riding the beast, I bought one as soon as they were available.  For years I had waited to own and ride one of these bikes.  They are legendary!  People on cycling forums worldwide speak of them in hushed tones.  Magic carpet ride, flying machine, last steel bike you'll ever own...all are appropriate phrases attributed to the Eddy Merckx MXL. The bike belies its stout build.  It truly is an amazing ride; it corners with the utmost confidence, and it inspires you to ride faster and harder.  With the right modern wheels, it can climb all but the steepest hills, it can sprint, and you can spend all day riding hands free. It was finally mine, but something was missing.  I wanted an ALL MAX frame, just like that centerfold.  I longed for those square seat stays and that unique top tube....and that's how Mike got involved.

You see, what is so amazing about cycling, is that there is always someone out there that shares your passion, someone that can relate to your dreams.  When I first reached out to Mike I said something like “Hey, how would you like to build me a bike out of full MAX tubing...yeah I know that tubing is almost twenty years old...yes I know that those lugs are really hard to find...I’m willing to work hard to find the right stuff”.  It took Mike less than thirty seconds to respond positively. And so together, Mike and I searched high and low, and we found all the 'right' stuff to re-create a full MAX bicycle frame.

Carefully, Mike shed precious grams from the bulky and stout lug set.  Painfully he fillet brazed the tricky square stays to the seat lug. Mike laid the angles out with the relaxed geometry and a longish top tube that I needed. With precision, Mike created my magic carpet ride. That's everything you need to know about MAX...how it rides...the history...the tradition. It begs for Rough roads, crazy weather, and epic rides.

So just how does it ride? That's the best part. It rides as good as it looks, and it looks like a certain centerfold from years ago. This is truly a bike designed to be ridden really hard and really fast, come sleet or snow, rain or shine.

It is barely over freezing, it’s raining, and I can't wait to get outside!


aaron branham said...

Steve - thanks for pursuing your vision. Mike - thanks for helping to make the vision a reality. And, thank you both for awakening and inspiring the spirit of cycling in so many.

Anonymous said...

I have your dream bike...