Monday 23 August 2010

A Herd of Tin Donkeys: My 1981 Masi Gran Criterium

Breaking Away--look at that crankset!
Having become interested in classic lightweight steel racing bicycles, I have described my first purchase, a c. 1983 Raleigh Team Professional, built in the company’s Special Bicycle Development Unit in Ilkeston, England.  I started with a slightly ratty frame and built up the bike to as-new condition.  That project over, I thought I would find another bike and on my short list was a Colnago Mexico ( in Saronni Red, of course) or a California Masi. 

As luck would have it, a very nice 1981 Masi in original condition appeared on E-Bay and I could not resist.  The seller, a professor of French literature, was relocating and thinning his bike collection.  He said that the bike had only been ridden five times in the last five years or so and he doubted that the person he bought it from in Brooklyn had ridden much more than that either.

Since we were planning a weekend in New York (to see, among other things, the bike exhibit at the Museum of Art and Design), it was easy to pop down to Philadelphia and pick up the bicycle and not have to worry about shipping issues.

My newest Tin Donkey is the oldest
Bob Hovey has a website dedicated to Masi bicycles and for further information about the marque, you can check this link.  Faliero Masi, based at the Vigorelli Velodrome in Milan, was one of a legendary group of Italian racing frame builders.  After a so-so career as a racer, he moved to Milan and began building in 1940.  He was noted for his impeccable, albeit conservative, frames and things would have continued except for an unusual move.  Mr. Masi, recognizing that the market for fine bicycles was no longer to be found in Italy, worked a business deal with an American entrepreneur and moved his shop, along with three trusted employees, to Southern California in 1973.  He oversaw the production of new California Masis before returning to Italy.  One of the trusted employees was Mario Confente, who went on to become a noted builder in his own right before his early death due to heart failure.

Stylish 29 year old
The rights to the Masi name in the United States passed through several hands but the bicycles continued to be produced in small volumes.  The framebuilders at Masi included a number who subsequently became luminaries on the American custom bicycle scene, including Albert Eisentraut and Brian Bayliss.

In the 1970s, North America experienced a “bicycle boom,” and huge numbers of bicycles were sold.  Although Mr. Masi was astute enough to realize this, he would have not been aware that the Masi brand would get another boost in 1979.  The unexpected hit film “Breaking Away” featured an orange Masi Gran Criterium as the ride of the hero, Dave Stoller, and of course this did not harm sales at all.

But all things come to an end.  By 1981 the bike boom was long over and the celebrated Dave Moulton, a British framebuilder in charge of making the frames for Masi in San Marcos, California, built enough frames to work himself out of a job.  He has confirmed that my Masi was built by him in early 1981.  He also said that 1982 Masis are very rare since the firm spend the next year trying to work down the inventory!

Since purchasing my bicycle, I have changed the bar tape and added Campy Super Record pedals with toe clips and yellow straps.  The bicycle is almost identical to the Stoller bike, although my cables are orange rather than yellow.  The bike came with a set of Mavic GP4 tubular wheels but I also purchased as set of Open Pro clinchers from the seller and think they look better.

I have ridden the bicycle several times.  It is a bit smaller than my Raleigh but still fits me quite well.  It is very responsive and smooth in acceleration.  Interestingly, Mr. Masi was not hung up on Italian parts: the bicycle is made from Reynolds 531 steel tubing.  It does feature a Campagnolo Super Record groupset, a matching Silca frame pump and an original Masi California waterbottle.  The seat is a French Ideale one, and is surprisingly comfortable.  It was apparently softened using a technique thought up by the famous illustrator Daniel Rebour.

As Bob Hovey's website indicates, Masis have a cult following.  Faliero's son Alberto continues to build in Italy, but the Masi brand is now applied to bicycles from the Far East that have no connection whatsoever to "Breaking Away."

1 comment:

Groover said...

Do tin donkeys form herds? I thought they form pelotons. :-)