Titanium in Tuscany

A visit with frame builder Darren Crisp

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What was slightly unusual for me about visiting Crisp Titanium to photograph the company’s bike-building process and try to understand the man behind it was that I already knew him. Usually when I visit someone in the cycling industry I often become friends as a result, but with Darren Crisp we were friends long before the call and opportunity came to photograph his workshop deep in the hills of Tuscany—a region I once knew so well but hadn’t revisited for decades.

Words & Images: Augustus Farmer

titanium in tuscany
titanium in tuscany

WHAT WAS MORE TYPICAL WAS THAT I WAS IN ITALY, became ill and both photographed a bicycle–frame building master while barely able to stand up and hold a camera and, worse, hand-delivered a bad cold to his family at their home. This has become a bit of a pattern if I’m honest, a character trait even. But that’s for another time.

I had a break between two jobs in Italy, where I found myself with a blank canvas, a car, a bag of cameras and a yearning to re-visit the blissful first memories of traveling across Europe in the back of an old Citroën as the son of an architectural professor on search-and-create missions. Tuscany was where we’d stayed for the entire summers of 1984 and 1985, so town names like Montepulciano, Pienza and San Gimignano were etched into the tapestry of my mind as much as those of the southwest London streets I grew up with. But I had yet to return to those Tuscan hill towns, and now there was an American friend making bicycles out of titanium among my childhood haunts, so it seemed the right time to revisit as I pulled out of Vicenza and headed west, then south, back toward childhood memories.

I found Darren’s idyllic home workshop high above what is one the most evocative landscapes in Europe. This was deep into the playground of generations of affluent British, with the beautiful untouched villages, the communal dining and naturally the wine. The familiar paintings-like countryside with the unique light that draws artists and photographers alike was now home to this American working with titanium tubes and, of course, the naturally warm, generous and sensitive welcome of a Tuscan greeting—even to a sick visitor.

darrens wife sorana

Darren’s wife Sorana made a beautiful pasta dish for dinner and set me up in an apartment alongside the workshop while their girls were busy showing me their pet cat sat comfortably in a child’s stroller for its evening promenade. I don’t remember much of that night other than having the deepest sleep for a while. But I remember thinking that the answer for long weeks on the road, with the nightly procedure of finding food and eating in a hotel room while downloading and backing up images, was clearly a friendly home-from home to break the cycle.

The following morning, I was sat in the workshop. It was spacious, modern, stylish and with the generous warmth and amiable aroma of a wood-burning stove like a welcome friend in the middle of the room. Darren sat opposite me in the foyer, which doubled as a gallery of previous welded achievement, beneath striking rusted-steel lampshades that complemented the feel of design emphasized by the tasteful renovation of his elegant buildings. To have a workshop is a goal for many; to have an elegant and homely one, well that’s dreamy. As we sat and discussed whether our first meeting was at a Campagnolo birthday party years before or another Campagnolo get-together at a wedding not long after, we discussed the importance of lighting and he explained he made the lampshades. His architectural past crept out as he spoke, like a design vapor of a different color, but one with a similar depth to that of the cycling history I recognized.

As architecture filtered in and out of our morning’s conversations, I realized that the calling of Tuscany this time had been pivotal to me photographically, no matter how groggy I felt. I remember it was at this point, sitting in his home, that I decided I would continue to rekindle my love of making portraits that I’d overlooked or perhaps forgotten for years. I thought I’d scale back the usual welding, filing, aligning photographs for this impromptu factory visit and instead aim to make a portrait of this master of metal, my friend Darren Mark Crisp, a man of good taste who happens to hand build the most beautiful titanium bicycles.

Primarily known for his high-end road bike frames, DMC was building a more off-road-centric, drop-barred bike the day I delivered him the flu. It was to be his own personal steed. He had built off-road machines for people before but crafting your art on a present to yourself must be a pretty good feeling to a cyclist. In between customer orders it started to take shape as an elegant machine with gently S-bent stays and, naturally, a good weld etiquette. I’ve long been a titanium cyclist with a Fat Chance, IF, Merlin, Litespeed, Moots and Kish history—but my thoughts have since drifted to Tuscany when remembering the blueprints of Darren’s personal statement on the workbench, together with his unspoken weld signature.

Watching him work that afternoon from the relative distance of the other end of some long lenses, the thing that was subtly apparent was his love of the bicycle. There was a calmness and contentment from his aura, a quiet confidence about his purpose, here in this kitchen of sorts with these exclusive ingredients of refined metal. A quiet and unegotistical awareness of ability, a subtle confidence not unlike his silverscreen lookalike, Eric Stoltz.

Talking with a sensitive, talented and likeable frame builder and friend, our chat drifted across cycling and into other cultures. Our mutual acquaintances within these two-wheeled families popped up periodically for cameo appearances. His long-term friend, legendary frame builder and former sitter for my preference to make portrait, Dario Pegoretti, opened a knowing, similar perspective we had on many viewpoints. Like our architectural connections we also seemed to possess similar cycling aesthetics. My friendship with extended family Moots over in Colorado sparked an explanation of that weld etiquette. I suppose I had always assumed welding was welding. I understood that my old Merlin MTB had doublepass welds and had learned what that meant, but I suppose the thought that some might consider a weld like a signature on a tubed creation was interestingly new.

titanium in tuscany
titanium in tuscany

Darren said he would hang out with Pegoretti in his workshop, welding a little and discussing his technique, welding-machine programming and his weld sequence. I pretended in a small way that this was like my hanging out in a mentor’s darkroom, printing with them and just being able to watch their personal handmade take on turning a tiny negative into an enormous print. The differences between lenses, papers, chemicals, time allowed and taken away, type of dryer used and all the stuff that can affect the outcome after the original exposure had been made. It was likely nothing like welding a titanium frame, but I took comfort in the imagined connection.

The fact that Darren explained he would sometimes study occasional parts or framesets from different marques including Moots and see them as books, reading areas like weld stop/starts and sequences, temperature or penetration, like turning pages on new but familiar chapters. Even though I had no ideas on the subject, I found myself relating to the gist of it all in a photographic sense, or rather just a sense of taking the right time to hand work something to make it as good as it can be made, titanium bicycle frame and fiber-based photographic print alike.

Occasionally I find myself in an engine room of the cycling industry that is so comfortable to me that despite the noise, the aggression of the machinery or the logistical photographic difficulties, I feel I could just stay and soak up the ambience created by the master of the operation, like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. Pegoretti’s felt like this, as did the U.K.’s Demon Frameworks and now Crisp Titanium.

I felt a little mischievous driving away from Crisp Titanium with more photographs of Crisp than the titanium, but in some ways that Tuscan raid was a significant road trip for me. It was intended to trigger memories of formative life experience and so it did on walking around famous hill towns. This visit to a small but prominent vein in the heart of cycling had inadvertently re-ignited an old conversation with my ways of seeing: the portrait. Something that is as much a part of who I am as a scar on my knee from the bike crash I had in the Tuscan hills all those years ago….

From issue 106, get your copy at pelotonshop.com

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