All of us have gone through the riding-my-new-bike-for-the-first-time routine, haven’t we? No matter what the new rig was — a 105 equipped laggard or a weapon of a bike engineered by a team of carbon fibre Einsteins — the experience of hitting the road on a shiny new machine is always the same: a load of joy and exhilaration. We tell ourselves the new bike goes faster, climbs better, feels stiffer, corners as if it were on rails and is more comfortable than any other bike we have ridden before. After about three rides the buzz goes dull or evaporates altogether. By the fourth-fifth ride, the new thing is as mundane as a rock. Do you know what I’m talking about?
What if I told you there are bikes that never stop to surprise you? Never stop revealing themselves to you? Not that they excite you the same way they did the first time you rode one — that would drain your emotion bank in a week — no, but you never stop finding out new, sometimes tiny, subtle character traits about your two-wheeled buddy. This is because, unlike mass produced bikes, these kind of bikes are made by masters of the frame-building craft. Like master built violins, these bikes sing with their own, unique voice. No two voices are the same, including the pieces that come from the same hands.
Perhaps none of this matters to you. After all, most professional races are won on off-the-shelf bikes we can order from a local bike shop or online. If they’re good enough for pros, the argument often goes, shouldn’t they be good enough for the rest of us? And they are — high quality bikes are made by the thousands every day in Asian factories, nothing wrong with them. Question is though: Why settle for good enough? And another one: Why it’s always about the pros and what they ride? Unlike the good old days, today, none of them get to pick their own bikes. Why do we allow ourselves to be influenced so much by the Tour de France footage and result sheets?
I was asking myself these questions, pushing the pedals of one such stunner of a bike: Fondriest TFZero. Twelve rides and a thousand kilometres between us, my heart still revved up, fuelled by a tiny infusion of adrenaline into my bloodstream every time I rolled L’italiano — yes, I gave it a nickname — out the door. I couldn’t wait to trust my aged bones to Selle Italia’s SLR saddle, obsessively positioned and repositioned millimetre by millimetre over two or three rides. The cleats’ click and the first, gentle push on the pedals, I would let the bike freewheel for a few metres and listen to the rear hub’s ticking in perfect intervals. I was in tune with the machine, designed and built, layer by layer, bonding each tube by hand, by a frame master somewhere in the Veneto region.
I’m a sucker for Italian bikes. My first was a classic silver Cinelli Supercorsa I bought in ’81 from a local 18-year-old ‘pro’ who chose an engineering degree over a cycling career. He used to ride with my group a few times a week and every time he did, I’d make sure I sat on his wheel to admire his bike. Equipped with Campagnolo Record, that bike was everything my wasn’t — elegant, light (I lifted it with my hands a dozen times), and refined. I never thought I’d ride anything like it. Not any time soon anyway.
And then I heard Gosha — that was the guy’s name — was selling it. I dashed to his place on Sunday afternoon to find out how much he wanted for the Cinelli. I had no money to pay even for a handlebar but went to see him anyway. He wanted 700 roubles for it, or twice as much as both of my parents made in a month. That little hurdle didn’t stop me. I found a buyer for my Soviet-made Champion — 300 in. And then I ran to my grandma. She financed most of my cycling needs, a fiver or a tenner here and there, or a chetvertak (25 rouble note) on days when I was loved more than on other days. I told her I needed 400 roubles to buy the best bike in the world, that these kind of bikes are as rare as unicorns and if I miss this opportunity to own one, I’ll never get over it.
I rocked up on my Cinelli for the next training ride and everybody hated me. That’s how I got married to Italian bikes and never rode anything else until I retired in 1996 (OK, maybe I cheated once or twice, but that wasn’t serious).
Later, I rode different Colnagos: Super, Mexico, Master; a couple of De Rosas; Sannino; Bianchi; and finished my racing days on a custom-built Marinoni. When I came to pick up my Marinoni from the factory in the outskirts of Montreal, Giuseppe Marinoni — the frame master — said that he’ll match my prize money every time I win a race, and then added: “Don’t bother telling me when you finish second or third. I don’t care about those — wins only.” I was short on cash so I won four races in a row as soon as the season started. Every time I went to see Mr Marinoni, he was delighted to sign a cheque. I got the rent and the food taken care of and Giuseppe Marinoni the gratification of seeing the fruit of his labour earning that rent and food — a century-old symbiosis I learned about years later once my English was good enough to read cycling books. I never met Ugo De Rosa or Ernesto Colnago, but I’m sure they’re as proud of their bikes — those made by hand one at a time — as Giuseppe Marinoni was when I raced on one of his ‘babies.’ They all are, the masters.
That Cinelli was the only Italian bike I ever bought so when eight years ago the time came to lose 20 kilos of fat I grew since I stopped racing, I was knocked over by the price tag of a Colnago in a bike shop I went to. I ate my humble pie and settled for a Specialized Allez I found on eBay for $600. I wasn’t going to the Tour de France, was I? Thus it began, the non-Italian period.
I swapped a coaching program for a Trek Madone, my first carbon bike, with a guy who needed some training advice, rode a Teschner, a Fuji, an aluminium Cannondale and finally ended up on S-Works Tarmac SL4, the most impressive bike of them all. Sharp as a razor, the SL4 was a purebred race machine with wild manners. Like a well-trained slave, it did everything I asked it to do with no fret. I couldn’t get enough of it for a week until the novelty of riding this polished piece of American engineering wore off and I found myself staring at it one day, wondering where all the excitement has gone. I decided the fault was all mine, maybe I was pushing too hard, maybe I was tired.
I answered the phone one afternoon and heard a familiar Italian accent on the other end: “Hey a Nikolai, come to the office a today, I have a something for you.” It was Alberto from Esperia, an Italian company that owned Legnano, Torpado, Bottecchia and Fondriest brands. I did some web work for them in the past and thought they needed something else done. Only a fifteen-minute ride from me, I hopped on the bike and went to see them.
When I arrived, Alberto waved me to follow him and went to the warehouse without saying anything. Fine, I thought, don’t tell me, let’s see what you’ve got in there.
What he had in there was dozens of boxes with bicycles, a workbench, some tools and other random stuff you’d expect to find in a bicycle warehouse. I’ve seen this place before, so what’s up I said. Alberto pointed to something behind my back and said:
“You like a that?”
I turned around and saw a mean looking bike leaned against a wall. Matt black with a pinch of red in right places, it had simple, traditional lines. It had no ugly chunks of carbon anywhere, passing as aero improvements on so many modern bikes today, and this is how I knew I was looking at a serious piece of equipment (Campagnolo Super Record helped to form that impression too).
“You like a that?” I heard Alberto again. “Say hello to Fondriest TFZero. Go shake a hands.”
I went up to the bike, grabbed it by the saddle and the stem with my fingers and lifted it from the cement floor. Yep, it’s weightless alright.
“Nice,” I said. “Is this my Christmas present?” I thought we were going to have a laugh but Alberto only managed a smile.
“You wanna have a ride?”
“You ride and tell me what you a think, eh?”
“You want me to ride this?”
Four days later, after I dialled everything in, I took a gamble and went for a five-hour ride with at least two good climbs to get over. I wanted to see what the TFZero will do to me in those five hours. I wanted to feel it on a climb and even more so on a descent. Out of shape, I was certain I would be pushing it to make it home in one piece, which is how I was going to find out if the bike was as brilliant as it felt on the first four rides.
A nine kilometre Tamborine climb was first on the menu followed by the 25km-long O’Reiley’s. I don’t know if I climbed them any faster than I have in the past — I wouldn’t care if I have or haven’t — all I know is when I reached the summits both times, I wanted to climb some more.
And then there were the descents — the crazy steep one down Tamborine into Canungra and a long, gentle, but fast from O’Reiley’s. The only thing that worried me slicing through the corners were giant cow pies on the O’Reiley’s descent. I don’t remember when was the last time I have had so much confidence, and fun, descending from a mountain on a bike. Even on Tamborine, where a couple of switchbacks always catch me off guard, I zoomed down as if I owned it.
Back in Canungra, I had an option to take a flat road home or climb the Tamborine again from a steeper side. Every time I’ve faced this choice before, I took the flat road. This time though I didn’t even deliberate with myself — bring it on. This climb becomes a little stupid at the end with the last kilometre hitting a pleasant 14%. Every other time I’ve climbed it, I’d eat this last section sitting in the saddle, trying to ignore the fire in my legs and cursing myself for not having a bigger cog at the rear. When the road pitched and I was up for a 14% dessert, I realised I still had one last cog left. A quick touch on the smooth Super Record shifter and the fire in the legs never started — I kept going, slower of course, but without a struggle I always had on this piece of road.
I called Alberto after I came home — yes, I was able to talk — and told him that this thing I was riding today is not normal. Who built this, I said, because I didn’t know Esperia made Fondriests in Italy and I couldn’t imagine a bike like this can be mass-produced.
“Oh,” he said, “we’ve always been building our top models in Italy, but we don’t advertise where. You understand a?”
One other thing he told me: they’re bringing nine — only nine — one-off special edition TFZeros to Australia. They call them TFZero SS. These nine frames’ design will never be repeated again so whatever they’ll do to them should make these bikes one of a kind. In a literal sense. OK, nine of a kind.
I don’t think I’ll be testing one though. Then again, you never know with those Italians.