Last time I rode a steel bike, Bill the other Clinton was in the Oval Office, everyone and their dog sang Macarena, and a bunch of crazy scientists cloned a sheep named Dolly. Time, Tony Oettinger once said, flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana. And good bikes are still made from steel.
I stopped racing in 1992, packed a small duffel bag with a few pieces of clothing, and flew to Montreal to start what I thought would be my new life without road racing in its center. Three months away from my twenty-seventh birthday, I had come to see 14 years I spent chasing a dream I couldn’t even describe as a waste of time—let’s do something else, that was the plan.
Less than a week after I had arrived, I met Andy, an Italian bike store owner who had a dream of his own—to see a store-sponsored rider win a race, more than one if possible. This is where I came in. Andy ran his team for many years and had never won a race. I guess it bothered him a great deal because he asked me straight up if I could still win a bike race or not the first time we met. I told him I still had the goods but no desire to use them anymore. “I’m done,” I said. “I want to smoke cigarettes, read books and sleep until 11 o’clock in the morning.” This is when he told me about rent, food and clothes, the regular people’s headaches I wasn’t used to deal with. “You gotta race,” he said. “Make some money.”
We shook hands and he drove me the next day to Giuseppe Marinoni‘s bike factory to meet il padrone, ’the De Rosa of North America’ as Andy put it. I never heard of Marinoni or his bikes and didn’t know what to expect. A frame builder in Montreal? Don’t they all ride plastic Treks and aluminium Specializeds here?
A middle-aged brunette in a blue tracksuit with sleeves pulled above the elbows—Simone, Marinoni’s wife—greeted us with a wide smile when we walked into the factory’s front shop. After the bonjour and comment ça va exchange, she disappeared through a back door somewhere and came back two minutes later with a gray-haired man in a dark-brown apron who seemed like he was disturbed and dragged away from a gig he enjoyed doing before we came in.
He gave me a quick look over and asked Andy something in Italian. Whatever it was, it didn’t sound like a ‘how are you’ kind of question. I was convinced the North American De Rosa was about to throw us out the door in less than 30 seconds—that’s how grumpy he looked.
They still talked after five minutes had passed, then more talking, hands gesticulating with every word that left their mouths. After a dozen of bene, bene, shrugs, and capisce, a warm, cheerful smile showed up on Marinoni’s face. He turned to me and said something in French. “Je ne comprends pas le français,” I babbled the phrase I learned since my last visit to France. “English?” I added and looked at Andy.
“He wants to know what kind of bike do you want,” Andy said. “And he doesn’t speak English. Italian or French, no English.”
What kind of bike? What kinds are there? I knew only two: Colnago and De Rosa. Everything else was either junk or low-grade material you ride when you can’t get the best. I imagined telling this to Giuseppe Marinoni wouldn’t go well with him. I shrugged and said I wanted a red bike. That made him laugh.
With Andy doing the translation, Marinoni asked what kind of races I was good at and how I liked to train. Good sprinter? Depends. Climber? When I have to if the climb’s not too long or too steep. Love all day on a bike? Oh yeah. Handlebar? Forty-two. Stem? One-twenty. Cranks? Seventy-two-point-five. Saddle? Concor. Ergopower or downtube shifters? Ergopower (Shimano wasn’t an option). What kind of red? The Russian kind.
Then a quick jump on a jig, measure this and that, 10 minutes all up and I heard the final word: “I’ll match with cash your prize money every time you win a race.”
“What about second or third?” I said.
“I don’t care about second or third,” he said in English. “You win—I pay. You don’t win—I don’t pay. Capisce?”
I won the first three races when the season kicked off and thought an old Giuseppe would budge on the deal we’ve made. He proved me wrong, paid every time with enthusiasm, and seemed to enjoy my wins more than I did. He didn’t need them. Riders who wanted a good bike knew who made them in North America without my dinky advertising—Giuseppe Marinoni. The sponsorship was a gesture to help an immigrant, winning races a perk, a dividend on top of what he knew all along—he made world-class racing bikes with his own hands.
Meet the Devlin
I’d been brooding over those distant memories as I sliced through warm, winter air near Brisbane atop of another hand-built delight of a bike. Built by Sean Doyle of Devlin Custom Cycles, the rig I was cruising on was nothing like the Marinoni of 20 years ago except the material, the steel, both frames shared. Yet, there it was, that forgotten whisper, a quiet song only a well-built steel frame can sing, coming from somewhere in the bottom bracket, up the seat tube to the stem and the handlebar, echoing through the wrists, rushing in a flash through the elbows, touching the spine and disappearing in the neck until the next push on a pedal to start the song all over again, never to end until you get off the bike.
You don’t get that with plastic frames, they don’t sing along with you. They do their job, sometimes well, other times not so, and that’s it, there’s no connection. You don’t feel you’re riding an instrument, it’s only a machine, a tool to do a job you set out to do. Nothing wrong with riding a good tool, but even a good tool is not an instrument.
The Devlin I rode for four weeks wasn’t built for racing. With a wheelbase of 1011mm, 56mm of trail, and long 425mm of chainstays, this bike was built to go straight with maximum of comfort. I noticed this the first time I leaned into a corner—it dropped in okay without too much force but then was confused about what to do next. A corner? What do I do now? I had to wrestle with it a little to stay on my side of the road. Took me two or three corners to understand what to do. Once I got to know how to make it change direction without a fight, it was all smooth sailing after that. Still, this would be a wrong bike to do kooky corners on.
Got Custom Frame? You Got Character
It is this individuality that places custom-built bikes in its own category. A common mistake is to think about custom builds as the means to match your anatomy with unique tube lengths and angles. Not at all. The stem, the seat post, and the saddle’s position will take care of most people’s body proportions. Forget about anatomy. You need a frame builder when you want a frame with a particular character. What kind of bike do you want? Not the brand, the kind.
I say this because we’ve been trained to think brands. We want Colnago because it is a Colnago. We don’t know why, we just want one. It rides like a dream, the myth goes, Eddy Merckx rode one and if it was good for Eddy, it should be good for me. Why it was good for Eddy no one cares. What if it was good for him because Ernesto Colnago was keen to build any kind of bike Merckx wanted, all 27 of them one year we’re told in Half Man, Half Bike by William Fotheringham.
The question to ask is not, Why Eddy Merckx rode Colnagos (or De Rosas)? The question to ask is: Why Eddy Merckx wanted 27 bikes in a single season?
My guess is: He wanted different frame characteristics for different races. Perhaps 27 is 20 too many, but then, who am I to question half man, half bike kind of a guy?
What I know without guessing is that a frame you can throw into corners as if physics didn’t apply to you won’t be your best friend on an eight-hour journey with rough roads and mountains. A quick-handling bike, the one you can sling into any direction with a slight lean, will, by design, come with short trail—an attribute that makes a frame feel what many describe as twitchy. Short-trail frames are often paired with short chainstays to shorten the wheelbase (the shorter the wheelbase, the more maneuverable the frame is) and to stiffen the overall design. Short chainstays work fine the first two or three hours in the saddle. After that, not so great. It’s like the difference between sitting at the back of a bus or on top of its rear wheels—a plush, seesaw ride at the back and jarring above the wheels. The difference on the bike isn’t that evident, but it will catch up with you on a long ride.
You go the opposite way—long trail, chainstays, and the wheelbase, and it’s a different bike now, a bike you can ride from dusk till dawn, drink a beer or two at the end, have a good sleep and ride more the next day.
Can you find a bike with a character you want without going custom? Yes, you can. Or even, should you care about the character of your bike? It’s just a bike, right? And it is. Maybe all this fretting about what kind of bikes we ride is nothing but blowing in the wind. Maybe it is. Or not.