Sunday, March 16, 2008

Christmas in Milano by Barbara Kelly

We entered the obscure storefront tucked away in the side of the Vigorelli Velodrome. A few older men, probably veteran racers and faithful customers, were ranting away in Italian. Curious stares met our questioning glances. It was hard to believe this was Masi's shop.
Frame upon frame lined the walls of the room. Some were waiting to be painted, others titillated one's sense of sight with their flawless coats of color. Above the frames a row of silver wheels hung motionless, waiting to be joined with their steeds. Over in one corner sat a neatly piled stack of small, square boxes of vino rosa, each with the Masi name, encircled by a fancy emblem in green. To the left, two bikes stands stood empty, the cushioned jaws of their clamps wide open. I slowly approached the frames to get a closer look. What were the chances of having one of these finely crafted machines for my own, I wondered.
Through one of the men, who spoke English, I asked Alberto Masi if he might have a frame available in my size. No, no, no, not a chance, you must order months in advance, was his reply. My heart sunk.
Christmas was two weeks away and we were about to begin a four-week tour of Italy and Greece. We had arrived in London several days earlier from Fairbanks, Alaska and traveled to Milan by train via Paris and Lausanne, Switzerland.
My husband and two friends had ordered custom-made bicycles from Emiliano Freschi in Milan. I already had two bikes at home and insisted, up until the last minute, that I would use one of them for the tour. I certainly didn't need a third bike. But my companions were worried we might be delayed in Milan waiting for the bike to arrive. We weren't sure we could bring it with us on the train from London to Paris. Reluctantly I gave in. I brought wheels and some parts with me and resolved to shop for a bike when we arrived in Milan.
The planning for our trip began in September. All of us were, students at the University of Alaska and had decided to spend the break between semesters on a European bicycle trip.
We had no intention of sticking around Fairbanks where temperatures can plunge to 40 or 50 degrees below zero in December. That it would be winter in Europe didn't worry us. After Fairbanks, we knew we could handle whatever the weather might bring. But another big incentive for making the trip was the dollar- stronger than ever on the European market. The time was ripe for picking up a custom frame from a European builder at a bargain price.
My husband and I had visited Freschi's shop once before, in November 1979. We discovered it almost by accident, while riding on the trolley car. As we passed•a glimpse of a store window filled with bicycles. I yelled to Mike and we got off at the next stop. Freschi spoke no English and we spoke no Italian, only French. But between a few French words that he understood and a mixture of hand signals we communicated that Mike was interested in buying a frame. Mike looked over the selection and found a 60 cm red frame with yellow trim that he liked. But before making a decision Mike wanted to have a look at Masi's shop. We had been on our way there when we discovered Freschi. Mike had always dreamed of having a Masi. He knew his chances of getting one were slim, but he had to give it a try. Mike didn't have any luck. Every frame in Masi's shop was spoken for. A frame could be made but would take 2 months and cost $450 which was double what he had available for a frame. He returned to Fairbanks with a red Freschi and a cycling cap given to him by Faliero.
Now, two years later, Mike wanted another bike, but he had already decided to order a custom frame suitable for touring from Freschi. He and our two friends, who also wanted to order bikes, sat down at the kitchen table one night and drew up the plans for their machines. With an English/Italian dictionary at their side they specified every important detail about each frame and each bike as a whole. With a combination of drawings and photographs cut out from bicycling magazines they pieced together the order. One photo showed how the seat lug should look, another the color of one of the frames. They compiled a list of equipment, with first and second choices for cranksets, pedals, brakes, derailleurs, seats and posts, handlebars and wheels. Soon after sending their letters to Freschi, they received a reply. Everything was go. We would pick up the bikes around December 15. The frames would sell for about half of what they would cost had they been bought in the United States. Even with the duty tacked on they would still be a bargain.
The day of our departure finally arrived. The temperature was 30 below when we left Fairbanks for the drive to Anchorage, where we would catch a British Airways flight over the pole. We arrived in London very early in the morning and before long were on the train headed for Paris. We spent the night in Paris, waking up to a breakfast of warm, fluffy croissants, une baguette and cafe au lait. The day was spent wandering along the Champs Elysees, visiting Notre Dame and Le Centre Beauborg. We left on a night train for Milan, renting couchettes so that we could sleep along the way.
Milan, immense and bustling, with almost two million inhabitants, is the business and industrial center of northwestern Italy. Like most European cities, it presents contrasts of old and new. Modern glass, chrome and steel structures are juxtaposed with buildings of weathered stone constructed centuries ago. Wide thoroughfares filled with honking cars and rumbling trolleys displace peaceful, narrow, winding streets. Milan, home of the most famous frame builders in Italy-Cinelli, Masi, De Rosa, Guerciotti--is also home to several less well-known builders, such as Emiliano Freschi. After finding a hotel we headed for Freschi's shop on Piazza Gramsci. Freschi greeted us warmly, shaking hands with us vigorously, a broad smile lighting up his face. A builder for Pogliaghi before striking out on his own about ten years ago, Freschi is in his early 50s and a bundle of energy. A bit surprised to see us already-we were a few days early-he flitted around the shop, explaining that the bikes would be finished in a couple of days. He still had wheels to build, brakes to mount and other adjustments to make.
We were glad to have the time to roam the city, sample the restaurants and, of course, visit other bike shops in search of a frame for me and bike parts for friends. Our first stop was Detto Piettro Olmo, a short walk from Freschi's, where our eyes feasted on more Italian bicycle parts than we had ever seen in one place. We spent the afternoon making purchases for friends and trying, unsuccessfully, to resist the temptation to buy for ourselves. I looked at the Olmo frames but saw none I liked. That evening we ate in a trattoria not far from our hotel. It caught our attention the previous evening when a chance gaze as we passed by revealed walls covered with colorful jerseys framed in glass. We found it fascinating that a restaurant should display such an interest in bicycling and decided we must sample the cooking. The waiter, delighted to have a few Americans break the monotony of his routine, told us the story of the jerseys on the wall. He spoke some English but was even happier to speak French with me, as he was quite fluent in the language. He explained that some of the most famous riders in European bicycling history had worn the jerseys now hanging in the restaurant-Bernard Hinault, Francesco Moser, Joop Zoetmelk, Guiseppe Saronni. Many an illustrious rider had sat at these tables, savoring sweet victory, he said. And many, at the gentle persuasion of the proprietor, had donated the jersey they were wearing, signing it with a flourish, allowing it to hang on these walls and immortalize their triumph. After a satisfying meal topped off 'by' dishes of creamy gelato, we returned to our hotel to plan the next day's strategy. We would visit Freschi first thing in the morning and then take a trolley to Masi's shop in the Vigorelli Velodrome. If there was enough time, we would visit Cinelli.
Freschi was happy to see us and immediately put us to work helping him ready the bicycles for our departure the following day. Brakes and derailleurs needed to be fine tuned, touring racks needed to be mounted, and handlebar and seat heights adjusted.
I looked over Freschi's stock frames and picked out a few possiblities, but I wanted to hold out till we visited Masi, in the remote chance that I could buy a frame from him. After a morning of tinkering it was time to leave and find the trolley that would take us to the Velodrome. The trolley let us off about a block from our destination. In five minutes the somber hulk of the Velodrome was looming before us. We slowly circled the outside of the building, looking for the entrance to Masi's shop but finding it nowhere. We walked around a second time, with still no sign of anything that suggested the existence of a bike shop. We began to wonder if perhaps Masi had moved. We saw an opening that led inside the Velodrome and wandered in, hoping to find someone we could ask. A young man was sweeping the long, narrow aisles that separated the spectators seats. Behind him, the freshly oiled and polished wood planks of the track glistened in the soft light that bathed them. The track sloped gently on the straight stretches, but banked to an incredible forty five degrees at each end of its elliptical shape. We imagined the place jammed with cheering fans, urging on their favorite riders in a sixday race or thousand meter sprint. But now, only the sound of the young man's broom, and our footsteps and voice to broke the silence that enveloped the huge stadium. Looking up as we came in, the young man paused in mid-sweep and rested his hands on top of the broom handle. In a mixture of French and Italian I explained that we were looking for Masi's shop and wondered if he knew where it was. He walked past us, beckoning us to a doorway that set back in the shadows. He knocked lightly and a dark-haired, middle-aged woman appeared, looking at us questioningly. The young man had apparently not understood what I was asking, but the woman replied without hesitation that, yes, Masi's shop was still here, but that he closed for lunch from eleven to one. I looked at my watch and saw that one o'clock was fifteen minutes away. We thanked them both and returned outside.
We strolled around the velodrome once again, slowly. Before long, we noticed a shiny black car parked in front of a glass door and set of windows built into the side of the velodrome. We peered inside and saw rows of frames hanging on the wall. A few older men were wildly gesticulating, talking with a younger man who was balding on top. We knew this must be Masi's shop, but not even a simple sign reassured us.
After we entered, the only man who spoke English approached us. I explained that I was looking for a frame. He turned to Masi and asked him in Italian if there were any frames available. When Masi replied with an emphatic no I thought that was the end of the matter, but it soon became clear that the older man was not taking no for an answer.
He asked me what size frame I needed, nodded approvingly when I said about 54 centimeters, and began to examine some of the frames on the wall. After a few minutes he turned to Masi once again and the two engaged in what seemed to be a heated discussion. I deduced that this man must be a good friend of Masi's and that, for some reason, he had taken up my case. He seemed determined to convince Masi to let me have a frame. I couldn't tell which way the discussion was going until suddenly the older man strode toward a powder-blue frame, lifted it from its perch and walked over to me. Yellow and white decals on the downtube announced that it was a "Masi Prestige". Cut-out lugs were delicately filled in with yellow, as was the fluting at the top of each seat stay. "Alberto Masi" was signed in bright yellow at one end of the top tube.
The man held the frame out to me and asked if I liked the color. If I wanted it, he said, the frame was mine for $450. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Masi was smiling now, probably amused at the look of astonishment on my face. I gently took the frame in my hands and examined the lugwork. Each joint was flawlessly brazed and filed. The paint job was perfect. I looked at Masi, and then at Dino my advocate.
"Grazie," I said. Tomorrow our trip would begin.