Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Golden Era Revealed Through An Open Door

The following article appeared in the United Kingdom's GUARDIAN newspaper:

A golden era of cycling revealed through an open door

Milan's Velodromo Vigorelli may now be almost derelict but to the trained eye it still houses some of cycling's greatest memories

Bathed in autumn sunlight, the Velodromo Comunale Vigorelli looks much as it must have done in 1935: a monument to the rakish optimism of futurist architecture. Standing in the north-western suburbs of Milan, not far from the elegant Ippodromo and the majestic San Siro, this compact arena breathes history – and not just that of cycling, since the Beatles played here to a full house of 10,000 screaming Italian fans in the summer of 1965.

It is for its original purpose, however, that the Vigorelli claims a place in legend. Here, on a 400m wooden track, is where Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil and half a dozen two-wheeled heroes set new world records for the distance covered in one hour, which used to be among the sport's great tests. This, too, is where Coppi entered in triumph at the conclusion of one of his victories in the Giro d'Italia.

It is some time, however, since any cyclist, great or unknown, passed through the little door marked "Ingresso atleti". Nowaday the players and opponents of the city's American football club are the stadium's sole tenants and only an uneasy conscience keeps the municipality from tearing down an edifice that was rebuilt in 1945 after Allied firebombs had destroyed the original track.

On this beautiful afternoon the Vigorelli is sternly padlocked at every official entrance, with no caretaker in sight. One doorway, however, is open. And inside, the whole place comes alive.

Bicycles and wheels are hanging from ceiling-mounted racks. Clusters of lightweight steel tubes protrude from shelves. A set of vintage Campagnolo tools nestles in a fitted wooden box, the maker's name engraved in flowing script on its lid, several decades old but ready for daily use.

Alberto Masi, 65 years old, is the man who handles these tools. His father, Faliero Masi, set up this atelier in 1949, quickly establishing such a reputation for quality that leading riders paid him to make frames which were then painted in the colours of the manufacturers to whom they were contracted.

Faliero moved to California in the 1970s, selling the rights to produce bikes under the Masi name in the US before returning home a few years later. He died in 2000, aged 93. Alberto, who learned the craft at his father's knee, now produces a small number of new hand-built frames and spends the rest of his time restoring the classics his father built.

Here, he says, are some of his current projects. This is a Faema-badged machine ridden by the incomparable Eddy Merckx. Here is a Gazelle that belonged to another great Belgian rider Rik van Looy. And there, leaning against the wall in a back room, is a tandem painted in the Bianchi company's trademark sky-blue colour, ridden to a gold medal in the 1948 Olympics at London's Herne Hill track by Renato Perona and Ferdinando Teruzzi, ahead of the British pair of Alan Bannister and Reg Harris.

"Ah, Harris," Alberto Masi exclaims. "Grande campione!" And a friend of the family, he adds, as was Tom Simpson, whose Peugeot bikes were actually Masis in disguise.

Alberto goes up a stepladder to a loft and re-emerges holding a copy of a letter. It's addressed to his father, written from Buenos Aires in 1958 by Fausto Coppi, ordering new frames in time for the Giro d'Italia.

He points up at a corner of the ceiling. There, hanging from a rack, are two welded steel assemblies, in the shape of bike frames, dusty and discoloured. They are, he says, the jigs from which his father made Coppi's bespoke machines: one for road racing, the other for tracks like the Vigorelli, unused since Coppi's death in 1960. Honestly, if you'd taken me to the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in the centre of Milan and shown me the brushes with which Leonardo painted The Last Supper, I couldn't have been more impressed. Sometimes history is just the other side of an open door.

Photo accompanying article: The Italian Ercole Baldini rides at Milan's Vigorelli velodrome in 1956, AFP/Getty Images

ed: note: use the search button along the right side to find many articles about the Vigorelli velodrome and Masi, especially this one about future plans for the Vigorelli

Stories for the Italian Cycling Journal welcome; contact me at veronaman@gmail.com. There are more than 1,000 stories in this blog; the search feature to the right works best for finding subjects in the blog.

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