Sunday 30 March 2008

Framebuilder of Trust: My Visit to Cycles Marinoni

Ten years ago, in May 1998, I drove to Cycles Marinoni in Lachenaie, on the outskirts of Montreal, and ordered my first high-end bicycle, a Marinoni Ciclo made with Columbus Brain oversized steel tubing and outfitted with Campagnolo Athena components. This is bicycle is the first Tin Donkey and with it I toured Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Holland, as well as Virginia, Maryland and Colorado. After my big touring years, I began to race a bit and the Marinoni, with its triple chainring setup, was not really suitable for this but even after I switched to more modern equipment–first a Lemond Maillot Jaune, and then my current Specialized S-Works Tarmac E5–I still enjoyed the perfect fit and the smooth ride of the Marinoni. And in spite of the extra weight of steel, the triple chainring and comfortable geometry and very smooth ride made it my choice for long rides with lots of mountains, including the Swiss Alps, the French Alps and, in Virginia, the Mountains of Misery.

Ciclo in the bike compartment of a Deutsche Bahn train

After more than 25,000 kms of riding, the Ciclo was beginning to look pretty scruffy. The gorgeous British Racing Green paint had numerous scruffs and dents, including a pretty big one in the top tube from my second trip to Mallorca where I went over the handlebars and had to get a taxi back to the hotel. The dent was from the taxi transport rather than the crash. There were scrapes on the top tube as well from when the bike fell over from a badly-designed bike rack in Italy and marks from travelling on German trains as old cyclotourists used to let their big Hercules upright touring bikes crash around in the bike compartment when they boarded and, of course, they always seemed to hit my bike. There were a lot of stone chips along the bottom of the downtube–all of this “experience” reminded me of my trips but, on the other hand, the bike was no longer looking like the beautiful example of the framebuilder’s art it had once been. I knew that Marinoni offered repainting services, so with my return to Canada it was time to take the Ciclo back to the place of its birth for a rebirth, so to speak.

Cycles Marinoni began in 1974. Giuseppe Marinoni, now 72, raced on the Italian national team in the 1960s. After meeting Simone, a Qu├ębecoise, during a team trip to La Belle Province, he moved to Canada, getting married and continuing a successful amateur racing career. He began to wind down the racing and started building some frames, including several used during the Montreal Olympics in 1976. He became a “framebuilder of trust,” supplying many North American riders with bikes labelled with the names of other manufacturers. Apparently Beth Heiden won the Women’s World Championship race in 1980 on a disguised Marinoni, and Connie Carpenter-Phinney won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics on another one. Andy Hampsten, Bob Roll, Steve Bauer and a host of others used Marinonis at some point in their career, but you would never know this from the company since Cycles Marinoni is not exactly on the cutting-edge of product promotion. In fact, they do not advertise and they don’t sponsor pro teams at a visible level either. When I bought the Ciclo, they did not have any marque jerseys available or any other accessories.

The advantage of not spending a lot on promotion (well, nothing, to be precise) is that costs are kept to a minimum and the savings are passed on to the buyer. Cycles Marinoni is the Canadian importer for a number of European products, including Campagnolo and Vredestrein, so you get a good price when these go onto your bicycle. The other thing that makes Cycles Marinoni stand out is the custom painting on offer: unlike the usual one or two colours offered by most manufacturers, Marinoni offers 38 different hues and will pretty much paint the bike anyway that you want. Simone is the paint expert and Marinonis are famous for their finishes. The workmanship is clean and elegant, without being overly fussy.

After dismantling the Ciclo completely, I cleaned up the frame a bit and put it into the car. It was a 2 ½ hour drive along the Trans-Canada Highway from Ottawa to Montreal, and then heading north and east to Lachenaie. The very modest Cycles Marinoni building is located in a small industrial park, and in ten years it does not seem to have changed at all. On this sunny, but very cold, Saturday the small parking lot was full and I had to park on the street. I walked in with the frame and looked around.

Compared to 1998, there were some changes inside. The factory also has a retail operation and there were a lot of shoes and helmets, along with racks of the latest Marinoni models and Campagnolo wheels. Immediately off the entrance was a room where a bike was set up on a stand for fittings. I had gone through this process when I bought the Ciclo a decade ago and have never ceased to be amazed by how well it fits me. There is a true advantage in having a custom fit that is apparent from the first turn of the pedals, but even more obvious as you are getting into the last stages of a 200 km marathon ride.

I walked around with my frame while other customers were being served, and then Simone, for it was she, came over and asked what I would like to do with the frame. I explained that we had corresponded by e-mail and I just wanted it to look like it did when I bought it: same colour, same graphics if possible. Cycles Marinoni has changed the script it uses on its current bikes but the old one is still available, although the headtube logo is not. The colours will be pretty much the same–British Racing Green with Sahara lettering–and my name will still be on the frame (although Simone had some trouble spelling it out on the order form). The project will take either two or three weeks and the bike will be shipped back to me for rebuilding. Cost of refinishing in one colour is a very reasonable $145, plus additional charges for repairs (my top tube dent), and removal and reinstallation of the headset if necessary. Multiple colours and custom schemes will obviously be more but it seems like a bargain to me.

I looked around at the bikes currently available. There are no longer any lugged steel bikes being built by Marinoni, although steel is used in some of the frames with carbon tubes or rear triangles. There is a range of aluminum bikes, as well as carbon monocoque. In addition to road racing bicycles, Marinoni offers two track bikes, two time trial bikes and even two touring bicycles. There was a Ritchey BreakAway on a rack, painted in Marinoni colours but clearly marked as a Ritchey. And I was amazed to see that there is even a nice printed catalogue for Marinoni’s 2008 product line.

TTC at the top of the rack

The new all-carbon time trial bicycle, the TTC, is impressive but I suspect that Marinoni, like many smaller volume manufacturers, has its carbon frames built elsewhere and leaves the in-house workforce devoted to steel and aluminum and, perhaps, titanium.

My order was handled efficiently and after twenty minutes I got back in the car for the long drive home. Now I need to clean and polish all those lovely Campagnolo parts in preparation for the rebuild. Unfortunately I will not be going to Cirque du Cyclisme this June to show off the as-new Marinoni to the steel afficionados there but perhaps next year. I plan to continue to ride the Ciclo as a touring bike since there are lots of miles left in it yet.


Anonymous said...

There is a lot to be said for recycling the old bikes. In a lot of ways they ride better than the latest and greatest. I have a 25 year old Behringer, an 18 year old Paramount and a 14 year old Eddy Merkx. Although not as light, they all ride better than my latest carbon rig.

Bob T

Sprocketboy said...

I have to agree as I have never ridden a bike as smooth as my steel Marinoni. That said, my Specialized Tarmac E5 (aluminum/carbon blend) is very responsive and soaks up the road shock even better, so I am glad that I have the best of both worlds. I am getting a headtube badge on the Marinoni, so I suppose that is the clincher!

Anonymous said...

Great blog! I was just wondering if you had to pay Graham Watson for the use of the photo or if he graciously donated that? Keep up the good travels!

Jerome said...

Cycles Marinoni is only a few kms from my place. I never went there but I do know Pepe's lugged steel frames: I have three right now. A 1995 Special (i.e. custom size) Sachs New Success and a 1996 Corsa Shimano 600. Both have all original parts and the Special in mint condition. According to Simone, the third one is believed to be a 1980. While it was originally equipped with Campy Record, the whole rear has been replaced: Shimano hub and derailleur with a Maillard 6 speed cassette.