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Daniel Merenyi

Monday 27 August 2018

Daniel Merenyi: Four years in the Pegoretti workshop

The Hungarian frame builder Daniel Merenyi left his job in the ad business to apprentice under Pegoretti. This is his intimate account of those years.

Daniel Merenyi: Four years in the Pegoretti workshop
Left to right: Daniel Merenyi, Manuel Marin, Dario Pegoretti, Pietro Pietricola. Photo: Kay Tkatzik

I am Daniel Merenyi, born in Hungary in 1977. After several years spent in advertising as a graphic artist and art-director I wanted to change my whole life and do something reasonable and useful. My last effort in the ad world was the year of 2006 spent in Milano. On weekends I worked in a bike shop as a mechanic, mainly because the guys there were nicer company than the posh figures of the ad world. A member of this bike community ordered a frame from Dario and had fixed a date to pick it up. “Do you want to see a real Italian framebuilder?” my mate asked. And a few days later we were on a train, headed to Caldonazzo.

It was summertime, Pietro, Dario’s assistant, wasn't there and Dario had left early and gone home. He came back to the workshop to meet us, but this was not a brilliant period of his life, and we thought maybe it was not the right moment for a visit. He had a lot on his mind, personal things, and was busy with his thoughts, barely answered questions. But also, as I would come to learn, this was Dario being Dario. Quite often he had a ‘I don’t give a fuck’ attitude. He didn’t mean anything rude, by it, it was just Dario.

We decided to spend the rest of the day there and then go back home the day after. Dario’s warmth and hospitality soon came to the fore. He asked us to excuse his mood and suggested we eat something good together by the lakeside that evening. I spent most of the rest of the day in the workshop.

For me, as a novice in the cycling industry, it was a place of mystery and wonder. Touching the small bits of metal, the tools, I was captivated. Yet looking around, I felt like I was in the studio of a moody artist, rather than the workshop of one of the world’s great bicycle makers. It was kind of a cozy place. The spray booth at the back end of the building was adorned with jokes, handwritten on the walls in Veneto dialect. Frame tubes, half opened boxes everywhere, high and low-end tools arranged in a seemingly disorganized chaos. There were cds gathering dust, the cheapest coffee available in the area. To me, coming from the crisp world of advertising, his workshop seemed like a low-end unkempt body missing its soul. I didn’t know: Those that don’t know the frame building world might not expect any quality product to emerge from such an environment, but a couple of years later Rouleur magazine published a story about Nagasawa in Japan. Dario read the piece, looked at the pics and exclaimed with a laugh: “He has the same mess!” Yet for Dario it turned out the mess was just situational: Much changed in his very last years in Illasi, where he finally created the workspace he had always wanted.

While the state of his workshop in 2007 might have looked chaotic at first glance, everything changed when my eye stopped on the frames and bikes in the corner. I don't know what impact you might have felt when first setting eyes on a Pegoretti, but I was smitten. I couldn’t take my eyes off it, taking several minutes to digest what was there in front of me. I had a compelling desire to learn more of this world, of Pegoretti’s world in particular. I realized I must ask him if I could come back as a student and learn framebuilding. But Dario is a big personality, and even though he was kind to us, he was a little intimidating in some ways. First I would have to summon the courage to actually ask him such a question.

A magnificent array

A manficient array. Photo: Andrew Rogers

We dined with Dario that evening, and the time passed and yet still I had not asked. Then the table was cleared, and I could feel the opportunity to ask my question was beginning to slip away. I gathered myself and dived in.

I remember his response like it was yesterday.

He looked at me and said: "You, like everybody else, have the right to fuck up your own life if you so choose."

“So, that’s a ‘yes?’” - I asked. He looked through me with the frame builder’s version of the thousand-yard stare, and he shrugged. Behind him the light was dancing on the surface of the lake. I was in.

Full of excitement I returned to Hungary and organized things to prepare for next summer’s start in the Pegoretti workshop.

On July 13, 2007 I began my time under Pegoretti. I thought a year and a half would be enough to learn framebuilding. Prior to arriving there, my vision, my expectation, was that I would do my daily routine and then, maybe a half hour before closing, my master will explain things and I will start walking on a curvy footpath that ends in fame and glory. I could not have been more wrong.

At this point I should explain about Pietro. Pietro was everything for Dario. The engine in the car, the Jolly Joker, he knows every process, and can start or finish any job. From opening a Columbus box, mitering the tubes, welding them perfectly, placing the parts with silver-soldering, cleaning and aligning the frame, spraying, clear-coating, and boxing it ready to ship. You might say Dario is a conductor who can play all the instruments, and his name sells the tickets, but Pietro is the orchestra. He makes the sound. Pietro’s friendship is one of the most important achievements in my life.

Dario and Pietro told me that I would have to steal the workmanship. They meant I had to learn for myself how the things are done and understand for myself what was happening and why. Nothing was explained. Everything I needed to know about the process would happen in front of me. So use my eyes and ears, be wise and intelligent, teach myself by observing, they told me.

It took a little while for me to understand this method, but after that it worked well for me. For example: At first I thought I should make notes about the pressure they used with the torch. How much oxygen and gas were needed for this or that job. Nope, not even close. The flame has its length and a particular sound. That's what you have to record and recall when you ignite the torch.

After a year I realized I was in a kind of trap. Dario makes unique frames, in many ways unrelated to what’s out there on YouTube, or wherever. He painted them in a way that no one else does. The design, the product, the technology he developed, all these belonged to him and were uniquely his. There is no need to write ‘Patented’ on the frame, it's a Pegoretti. Period. And understandably he was enraged if he saw somebody trying to copy his work.

So what was I to do? My goal was to establish my own business, but I could see I would have to make Merenyi frames, and not try to copy Pegoretti. And I would have to learn everything to the point where I could make my own unique frames. I would have to fully understand why things had been designed so, why Dario made them in his particular way. Forget about being there 18 months, I realized this would take some years. I asked Dario to explain to me his frames and what is behind them. He smiled and said, "If you ask the right questions, I will answer. But ONLY to the right questions."

I remember the long explanations he made, kneeling above chalk-drawings on the workshop floor. Joints of tubes, cross-sections and forces, vectors. Then he would go back to his office, chalk dust still on his hands, and continue his work with Solidworks designing the very first pieces of the Falz fork.

With the passing of time, and as I gradually absorbed the lessons of his workshop, Dario’s confidence and trust in me grew. He would come and say things like "Bepi (his nickname for me), look after the carbon diagram of steel tonight, if you’re in the mood,” things like that.

A tribute to Dario
Merenyi paid tribute to Pegoretti with his floral-painted track bike. Photo: Ben Broomfield/Bespoked.cc

We all loved Dario, and a kinder, more generous person would be hard to find. And reading about his career you might think he had an easy time, but it wasn't that way at all. Almost everything that happened before he finally arrived back in Illasi was a history of struggling. Maybe this is what riled him when he he saw what he called hyperbolic bullshit. For example, where others might write 'system' or 'engineered' on the frame he would paint flowers or a nice canary yellow patch. And he was a warrior in the internet forums. He saw himself as a sword-wielding guardian, which he would flourish and cut down over-sized egos. "Why do you do this?" I asked him more than once. He would usually mumble a response like, "Somebody has to tell them they are being stupid."

Usually I cooked the pasta for lunch. Sometimes, when people arrived from Columbus he took them to the kitchen and started a conversation about their development and research. And I listened, while cutting the pancetta and the tomatoes. This was how he taught. He never denied access to learning, rather he created learning opportunities by allowing me to be near him.

Pegoretti and McCulloch
Australian frame builder Darrell McCulloch and Pegoretti discuss lugs over a bottle of good wine. Photo: Llewellynbikes.com

Our summers were spent with much wine and less productivity. The old warehouse, where the workshop was, was poorly insulated against the cruel heat, so we worked between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. In the afternoons, people would arrived from the far-east, the USA, from all-over the world. There was always wine and cheese, and Dario. Sometimes he would be so involved with a project he would have to say: "I'm not here" or "I have to leave now". So maybe he was not always there for everybody. Wine was a part of his creative process, and sometimes I would arrive in the morning to find several bottles and a lot of papers with designs on the table. On those days, Dario would show up late and announce: “We were here until 3 a.m. and then he would share whatever else was on his mind!”

Daniel Merenyi

Daniel Merenyi set up his own workshop in Hungary in 2011. Photo: Balas Glodi

My time to leave Pegoretti came in 2011. This was not an easy decision for me, because he had shared many secrets and I felt in a way I was betraying him by leaving. But by then I had a wife and children, and the decisions I had to make were not only about me. Dario was kind and generous when I told him, Pietro too. They knew my situation and told me they had seen this coming, they understood. In the years that followed I felt proud to remain friends with them. Dario had offered me help and support whenever I needed it. Everybody has his own User's Manual. In some cases this is just a three-sentence note, but Dario's is 23 pages in small print! His parting gifts were to align the first frame I made outside his workshop and he helped me to have a good relationship with Columbus.

I soon realized that I could not simply follow his process, the way we worked in the Pegoretti shop. I did not have the same machines, I make different frames, use some different parts, dropouts for example, and I'm working alone rather than as part of a team. For some things, say brazing a lugged frame, I knew only Dario's method. But for most things I had to develop my own processes. We stayed in touch and I visited him a couple of times, but he was busy and I was busy so our contact was not frequent. He saw my work on the net, and on occasion would compliment it. Those words are my diploma. Now I try to make frames with as much care and love as Dario did, with my own unique vision.

Dario was a giant figure and a bright light for so many people. He was under no illusions about his own mortality. “When I die, don't let the ladies bring chrysanthemum. Only roses!" he used to say to us with that big smile of his. The humanity and warmth he had inside, the empathy, is just not describable. After his death he remains in my mind like the blue sky, the green hills, the warm wind. Dario Pegoretti remains a unique phenomenon on planet Earth. And he will always be.