With exquisite craftsmanship and a stunning paint finish, Zullo's Vergine frame is proof, if it were needed, that steel still has a place for the most demanding performance cyclists.
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.
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 they are handled in the UK by London's Mosquito Cycles. With Mosquito's bike fitting service, you can get yourself a fully customised frame that will fit you perfectly. And, we're told, 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 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 Vergine doesn't come cheap. A frame and carbon fork will set you back £2,995. 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.
This is Zullo's frame designed for those who want a stiff and responsive ride. That means the tubes are all oversized and the chainstays are huge (for a steel frame) and combine with 8mm dropouts that counter the forces that cause the rear triangle to flex when putting down the power when sprinting or climbing out of the saddle.
The three tubes that make up the front triangle are equally oversized and this contributes to the crisp feeling when you're dancing the bike around sweeping country lanes. A classic geometry with a sloping forwards top tube looks out of place compared to the current breed of compact frames, but is a look that gives the Vergine a great presence on the road.
The head tube is a straight-through 1 1/8in setup with external bearing cups, and a Chris King headset is fitted. A Columbus carbon fibre fork slots into the headset. Of particular note is the mirror polished driveside chainstay, to avoid the paint being battered by the chain.
Weight for the frame, fork and headset is a claimed 2.12kg. Our test model weighed in at 7.6kg completely built, which is very impressive for a steel bike. It's lighter than many carbon bikes.
Some of this of course comes from the fact our test bike was finished with a complete Campagnolo Super Record 11 groupset. The rest of the build kit consists of Campagnolo Ultra wheels and Continental Grand Prix tyres, Deda bars, stem and seatpost and a Fizik saddle. Zullo only supply frame and fork packages and leave it to the customers discretion to build to taste. Mosquito will happily build a frame with whatever components you desire.
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, splatter paint finish and mirror chromed chainstay all contribute to it easily outranking every other bike I've ever tested on looks alone. The Vergine 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. I tested a Reynolds 953 frame when that material first arrived on the scene, and came away from it with mixed reactions. The reaction to this XCr frameset is very different. I've been stunned by just how beautifully it rides. This is, without a doubt, the best riding steel frame I've ever ridden.
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, no mean feat on Surrey's scarred roads, 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.
If you thought steel was dead, think again. A serious alternative to carbon with impressive performance and a unique history.
road.cc test report
Make and model: Zullo Vergine
Size tested: 56cm
About the bike
State the frame and fork material and method of construction. List the components used to build up the bike.
Columbus XCr stainless steel tubeset
Carbon fibre fork
Tell us what the bike is for, and who it's aimed at. What do the manufacturers say about it? How does that compare to your own feelings about the bike?
Built with Columbus's stainless-steel XCr tubeset, the Vergine features understated TIG-welded construction, simple but gorgeous graphics, and an extended head tube. But it's still a performance road bike: For proof, check out the massive curved junction of the seat- and chainstay welds and the 8mm-thick steel dropouts for lateral rigidity
Frame and fork
Tell us about the build quality and finish of the frame and fork?
Highest quality finish I've ever seen on a steel frame, just wonderful.
Tell us about the materials used in the frame and fork?
Stainless steel gives a delightful ride, comfortable and crisp.
Tell us about the geometry of the frame and fork?
The geometry gives the bike relaxed handling but is still lively when you get animated.
How was the bike in terms of height and reach? How did it compare to other bikes of the same stated size?
It's a custom frame and wasn't custom made for me.
Riding the bike
Was the bike comfortable to ride? Tell us how you felt about the ride quality.
Extremely comfortable, making it great for all-day riding.
Did the bike feel stiff in the right places? Did any part of the bike feel too stiff or too flexible?
The oversized main tubes and huge chainstays give it a great stiffness when out of the saddle and sprinting.
How did the bike transfer power? Did it feel efficient?
Was there any toe-clip overlap with the front wheel? If so, was it a problem?
How would you describe the steering? Was it lively, neutral or unresponsive? Nicely weighted.
Tell us some more about the handling. How did the bike feel overall? Did it do particular things well or badly?
It handled wonderfully, balanced and well poised.
Did you enjoy riding the bike? Yes, very much so.
Would you consider buying the bike? If I had the money, in a heart beat.
Would you recommend the bike to a friend? Oh yes.
About the tester
Age: 31 Height: 180 Weight: 67
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: 10-20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: road racing, time trialling, cyclo cross, commuting, touring, mtb,
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.