With dedicated computer programs and specialized apps many cyclists today obsessively track the miles and hours spent on our machines, machines themselves usually designed and often fabricated using computers. Most of those bicycles, generally carbon and generally black, are indistinguishable to look at and, in spite of a panoply of brand names and models, originate in one of only a handful of huge Asian factories.
|Barbara Tommasini, inspecting some freshly-mitred tubing|
Irio Tommasini was born in Grosseto 80 years ago and began his life as a framebuilder under the supervision of Giuseppe “the Magician” Pelà in 1948 while working at a large factory in Milan. Pelà was a highly respected builder but as he usually built for other people his own name is seldom seen on a frame. Tommasini worked closely with him, including on weekends, and learned to improve his own craft. At the factory he worked in the Racing Section and turned his hand to whatever was necessary, working not only on bicycles but on the motorcycles produced by the firm. At that time in Italy it was necessary to be in the north for this kind of exposure to manufacturing; the relocation to Grosseto would come later but he had already started to build bicycles that would be raced by champions, such as the first three-time Tour de France winner, Louison Bobet.
|The Maestro himself: Irio Tommasini|
Tommasini continues to come to the workshop, occasionally taking up the brazing torch. He walks with a cane and jokes about his weight but he remains very focused on his art. In an interview he spoke about changes in the bicycle industry he has seen since setting up on his own in 1957. Italy was unbeatable in the quality of its production and while attempts were made to copy the work in other countries there was limited success. Tommasini himself began exporting to the United States in 1973 and said that there was not much happening in racing bicycles there until around 1985-1990 (although he did make a positive reference to the work of Richard Sachs) when the interest in serious bicycle construction began to grow but there were also some poor designs reaching the market. The limiting issue was in finding qualified personnel and Tommasini worked with American firms, such as Litespeed, in training technicians. As new materials were introduced to the sector new skills were needed for a different kind of manufacturing, no longer framebuilding in the traditional sense.
Tommasini feels that the while the Italian strength was in custom building, the Americans had a better understanding of the requirements of marketing and he emphasized the difference between commercial and technical needs. For example, in a tailored frame there are 40-50 measurements that need to be considered and precise dimensions calculated for a perfect fit whereas to reach the widest commercial market large companies simply size frames like shirts, S-XL, with approximate fit through stem and seatpost positioning. Large companies are able to sponsor pro racing teams as a key part of their marketing, an option not available to small builders however excellent their product. Nonetheless, in the past Irio Tommasini built bicycles for some of racing's most noted riders, including multiple World Champions such as Belgian Freddy Martens and local heroes Mario Cipollini and Paolo Bettini.
After a friendly welcome (with espresso, of course!) entering the workshop finds you in what is essentially a machine shop, a plain environment with various tools for cutting, milling, grinding and polishing. But this is deceptive since the five man team (the most recent member of which arrived in the 1970s!) that produces around 1600 frames annually does so in a surprisingly diverse range: you can have a Tommasini in your choice of chromoly steel, stainless steel, aluminium, titanium or carbon! There is an impressive shelving unit holding tubing of different profiles in all of these materials, which are ordered from Columbus to Tommasini's custom specification. Interestingly, stainless steel is considered one of the most difficult materials to work with and is priced at titanium frame levels.
Around 70 percent of the customers order only frames although complete bicycles are available. There is a nice range of Tommasini accessories, including an engraved Cinelli quill stem, logo'ed bar tape ends, clothing and water bottles.
In an era when sub-6 kg bicycles are no longer the stuff of fantasy why would anyone buy a steel frame built with the same kind of technology familiar to Signore Pelà in 1948? Of course, this is not really true as the materials that Tommasini works with are the latest in steel metallurgy and will produce a bicycle of startlingly low weight undreamed-of by the old boys in Milan then. And steel continues to offer many benefits beyond that comfortable ride such as durability (rust is not an issue with even the most basic care) and, for those unlucky enough to need it, post-crash repairability.
|My all-Campagnolo Tommasini Tecno|
And, as if any real cyclist needed one, an irresistible excuse to go to Tuscany. Viva la Bella Macchina!
For further information: www.tommasini.it
US distributor: www.tommasinibicycle.com