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A Talk with Faliero Masi

James Witherell's book Bicycle History: A Chronological History of People, Races and Technology is available in both print and Kindle eBook formats. Just click on the Amazon link on the right.

Our story:

For several years during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Torelli Imports, which I managed, was the distributor of Masi bicycle frames. To be clear, I mean we distributed frames from Masi California, not bikes from the original Masi shop in Milan now owned by founder Faliero Masi's son Alberto.

In the fall of 1991 I sat down with Faliero Masi at the Milan Bicycle show. My good friend and framebuilding great Antonio Mondonico arranged the meeting.

At the time Masi of California was planning the "Barcelona Commemorative" frameset and needed to know exactly which Olympic games had riders earning gold medals on Masi frames. The post-1972 games were no problem. All of the post '72 games had seen at least one California Masi frame ridden to a gold medal. Those were known. It was the earlier Masi Olympic history that needed to be nailed down. I also took this as an opportunity to learn more about the great man's history.

Antonio Mondonico & Faliero Masi.

I wanted to know more about his relationships with some of the great riders, and also about his work as team mechanic. In the days before the huge dollar expenses of a pro team, a mechanic such as Faliero Masi would not only service the bikes on a tour, he would build them. This gave him a magnificent opportunity to observe every aspect of bicycle design, construction, and use from the raw tube to the end of the race.

My wife Carol and I met with Masi at the 1991 Milan Eicma bike show. We sat at a table along with Antonio and Mauro Mondonico. Mauro Mondonico served as translator, my own Italian being hopeless for the task. At the time, Mauro's English was not as fluent as it is now. The responses Masi gave us were short, clipped, and precise. We could not take down his responses literally. The conversation is reconstructed from our notes and I believe, accurately captures the essence of Masi's responses. Unfortunately, time was short, and the translating process was cumbersome and time-consuming.

Here I am greeting Signor Masi.

Masi walked to the show grounds from his house dressed impeccably in a houndstooth sportcoat and sport shirt buttoned at the top button, but no tie. His handshake was dry, solid and firm. He did not have a thread or hair out of place. He brought with him an early issue of Winning magazine that carried an interview of him. He thought it would give me help. He also brought a copy of a letter to him from Fausto Coppi.

Before going on to the interview, a little Masi history. Faliero Masi was born on May 11, 1908 in Sesto Fiorentino, a town midway between Florence and Prato. He was a professional racer between 1931 and 1946. I show him entered in the 1933 Giro d'Italia as an independent (unsponsored) rider but like half of the 97 racers who entered the 1933 Giro, he failed to finish. I know he made it to the thirteenth stage, a 62-kilometer individual time trial between Bologna and Ferrara. He finished sixteenth, only 5 minutes 22 seconds behind stage (and eventual overall) winner Alfredo Binda. To put Masi's performance into context, Masi's time was the same as Giuseppe Olmo's. Olmo won the World Hour Record 2 years later.

Another shot of Mondonico and Masi.

Although Faliero Masi was a competent racer, fame didn't come to him by turning pedals in anger. It was as a master of the art of bicycle framebuilding and as a team mechanic that made Faliero Masi world famous.

Regarding Masi's abilities as a team mechanic, it's clear that he was more than just a technician. Here's a snippet from our interview with the great Fiorenzo Magni, 3-time winner of both the Giro and the Tour of Flanders:

    "Valeria Paoletti: There is the famous picture of your riding holding a piece of inner tube in your mouth during the 13th stage, the individual time trial of San Luca. Can you explain?
    Fiorenzo Magni: Just before the stage started I tried to ride my bike on a climb and I noticed I couldn't use the muscles of my left arm to pull on the handle bar very hard. So my mechanic, Faliero Masi, the best mechanic of all time, cut a piece of inner tube and suggested I pull it with my mouth. That was a great idea!"

After working for Gloria he opened his famous shop at the Vigorelli velodrome in Milan in 1952. In 1972 he helped establish Masi California, working at the shop for some time before returning to Milan.

Faliero Masi passed away January 4, 2000.

Faliero Masi and Antonio Mondonico

Antonio Mondonico (left) and Faliero Masi stand in front of the Mondonico booth at the November, 1991, Milan bike show. The picture was taken just after the interview below.

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Chairman Bill: Signor Masi, when did you build your first frame?
Faliero Masi: I was 16 years old. I went to school, came home and built frames. I learned by doing.

CB: When you first started building frames, we know that you thought that the bicycle as it then existed needed much improvement. What were the specific areas of cycle design that you set about to change?
FM: Everything. There needed to be different tubing for racing bikes.

CB: Who was the first champion to win a major race on a Masi?
FM: Magni, around 1924 [I must have the date wrong because Magni turned pro in 1940. I'm guessing Masi meant 1942].

CB: When did you open the bike shop under the Vigorelli?
FM: 1952. And in 1942, I built frames for Learco Guerra. [This referred to the previous question. Guerra, nicknamed the "Human Locomotive", was 5-times champion of Italy, 1931 champion of the world and the 1933 Giro winner]

CB: What Olympic games had riders winning medals on a Masi?
FM: Melbourne, Rome, Munich. [Note, Montreal Los Angeles, and Seoul were sites for wins on Cicli Masi frames from California].

CB: What events?
FM: I am 83 years old. It is hard for me to remember all these details. Maybe the magazines can help you on this.

CB: What Tours de France were won on Masi frames?
FM: Bahamontes [1959], Nencini [1960], Rivière [crashed out of the 14th stage of the 1960 Tour trying to descend with Gaston Nencini].

CB: What great Classics were won on Masi?
FM: I can't remember them. There are so many. The KAS team rode Masi frames for 11 years. I built for Faema and Peugeot. In 1946 I built the Raleighs.

CB: What professional world championships were won on Masi?
FM: Adorni, Merckx, Van Looy. For 7 years I was Van Looy's builder [That would probably mean that all of the Classics have been won on a Masi since Rik Van Looy is the only man to have won them all].

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CB: Are there any other world hour record besides Coppi's that have been won on a Masi?
FM: [Guillermo] Timoner. He was world champion 6 times and won the world hour record. [Note, this was for motor-paced racing].

Faliero Masi in his shop

An undated photo of Faliero Masi working in his shop.

CB: There is a famous picture of Coppi holding you after he won the World Hour Record. Do you have a copy of this picture?
FM: I don't have any of the old pictures any more. You might check with La Gazzetta Dello Sport.

CB: We know of some of the great riders for whom you have provided cycles: Merckx, Coppi, Anquetil, Simpson, Maspes, Adorni, Harris. Are there any other great champions that rode Masi we should know about.
FM: I built frames for [Antonio] Maspes for 6 years [Maspes was 6-times world sprint champion between 1955 and 1964]. I built for [Arnaldo] Pambianco for the Giro in 1964. I was the director sportif that year [I assume for Salvarani, Pambianco's team]. Also [Louison] Bobet [3-times Tour de France winner and world champion].

CB: The Italian art tradition is one of technology and techniques passed on from teacher to student over a long apprenticeship. Donatello to Bertoldo to Michelangelo, for example. Who did you learn from?
FM: No one. I had to start from scratch. [said with pride and utter confidence]

CB: How long was it before your frames were accepted?
FM: They were an immediate success!

CB: Because of the huge dollars involved, it seems that it is rarely possible for a builder to be both supplier and mechanic to a professional team these days. Did these multiple jobs in racing contribute to the development of your racing bikes?
FM: It is not possible today to be all things. Racing as a laboratory for innovation is probably over. Today, a builder can collaborate with one racer. Racers don't seem to care about this sort of thing today.

CB: Who was the most demanding racer?
FM: Maspes was the most difficult. He was a meticulous racer. He even boiled his ball bearings in English oil.

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CB: What do you think of non-steel bikes: Aluminum, carbon, titanium?
FM: Most don't serve any purpose. They are no good. Most of this sort of innovation is to make money, not to make a better bike.

CB: We know that you collaborated with Tullio Campagnolo on the derailleur. You also invented the internally lugged frame [the remarkable Tre Volumetrica which had thin-wall oversize steel tubing years before the rest of the world adopted the oversize tubing standard]. What other inventions were you involved in?
FM: I made brakes for Campagnolo. [Vittorio] Adorni won the [world] championship with them [at Imola, Italy in 1968]. I have also invented a way to make wheels round. Four years ago I was on my way to Mavic when the head of Mavic died in a car accident. [This was Mavic owner Bruno Gourmand who died December 7, 1985. Since then, Ambrosio has licensed Masi's rim balancing technique].

CB: What do you think of the components of today? [This was asked before Campagnolo had come out with their modern Ergopower groups with integrated brake and shift levers].
FM: The Nuovo Record and Super Record were the most functional and beautiful ever. Today's groups are tanto fumo, no arrosto [all smoke and no fire].

CB: There is a story that when you were a Director Sportif for one of the tours, you saw an opposing racer discard a food wrapper. You then ordered the follow car to stop so that you could see what the racer was eating in order to know how the rider was doing. This story is told to demonstrate your very careful approach to your work.
FM: The food wrapper story is not true.

CB: With what racer did you enjoy the closest working relationship?
FM: All of them.

Here's a last shot of Signor Masi.