Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Mario Confente, Part IV

The following article appeared in WORTH (a publication of Sandow Media which reports on issues related to comprehensive wealth management) in March, 2005; written by Brendan Quirk.

"Few photographs exist of Mario Confente. Those that do are in black and white and coarse throughout. Viewed together they offer a blurry, unstaged portrayal of a man attending to the mundane details of his life’s work. They serve as proof positive that labor is at the root of all art, and that, as an artist, Confente toiled in relative obscurity.

Confente was a master builder of bicycle frames. The backbone of a bicycle is its frame, upon which wheels and all other components are mounted. Nothing is more vital in determining the ride quality of a bike—its smoothness or stiffness, its springiness or rigidity. Bicycle frame making is a craft equaled perhaps only by the handmade production of musical instruments or firearms in the way in which aesthetic detail directly impacts the performance of what is, in essence, a functional object.

Confente trained under the legendary Faliero Masi in their native Italy during the early 1970s. Today Masi remains a patriarch of the modern road-racing frame and has the distinction of being the personal frame builder of the greatest bicycle racer in the history of the sport, Belgium’s Eddy Merckx. Confente showed such skill at the torch that Masi chose him to head his new American facility in Carlsbad, Calif., in 1973. Confente built Masi frames there for a few short years before the American operation slowed down. He then seized the opportunity to fulfill his lifelong dream of building frames with the Confente marque, and opened his own workshop in Los Angeles.

Confente made his public debut at the 1977 New York City International Bike Show, where his frames stopped cycling purists in their tracks. His bikes represented a masterful combination of two schools of obsession: the Italian fixation with style and artifice, and the puritanical American mania for manufacturing processes and structural integrity. Confente historian Russell Howe interviewed America’s premier frame builders for the Classic Rendezvous website ( about that now legendary show, and their impressions are remarkably consistent.

Mario made beautiful stuff, and he pushed the American builders beyond a look that we all had, which was kind of simple, plain lines,” said Tom Kellogg of Spectrum Cycles in Breinigsville, Pa. “He forced us to class up our act.”

“After seeing Confente’s bikes at the New York show,” said Ben Serotta, a frame builder in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., “it was clear that he raised the standard.”

The effort required in producing such gorgeous frames was evident in their price. While a custom frame made by Kellogg, Serotta or one of the other American elite in 1977 cost less than $200, a custom Confente ran $400.

Two years after the New York show, Confente died of heart failure. He had built 135 frames: 124 for road racing, 11 for track racing. In the 25 years since, the unparalleled craftsmanship of his frames have become intertwined with the immutable laws of supply and demand. No other brand of bike has seen such a precipitous increase in value. A $400 Confente frame in 1977 required an additional $400 to equip with components. If pristine, this $800 complete bicycle commanded $3,000 to $4,000 in the late 1990s. As recently as 2003, Confentes sold for well over $6,000.

Given this consistent and dramatic climb in value, would it be wise for the investment-savvy cyclist to hunt down a Confente? The fact that there is no such thing as a clearly defined vintage bicycle marketplace complicates the answer. Rather, vintage bicycle cognoscenti have a few favorite gathering points, the best-loved being the Classic Rendezvous website. But Classic Rendezvous is hardly commercial; it is a not-for-profit site maintained, it states, “to encourage those interested in enjoying and preserving vintage lightweight racing-style bicycles of the period from the early 20th century until 1983.” Its goals are to identify makers, present pictures of fine bicycles and information about the marques and their history, offer information about resources and offer “camaraderie among the buffs.”

But commerce follows close behind. Classic Rendezvous has both an email list and a classified section to provide the closest thing to a solid marketplace for vintage bikes that an enthusiast can find. One collector, Douglas Brooks of Rochester, N.Y., lovingly describes it as the kind of place where you see “devotion usually reserved for religious zealots and neurotic dieters.”

The passion of Classic Rendezvous devotees, though, cannot obscure the fact that the vintage bike market is by all accounts both small and thin—a truly esoteric cul-de-sac of a marginalized sport. Buying a bike in hopes that it will appreciate is inherently risky, in light of the size of the market. If, like millions of Americans, an enthusiast has caught the bug by watching Lance Armstrong win six consecutive Tours de France since 1999, and is determined to purchase a bicycle as an investment, a few absolutes apply.

To begin with, the buyer must invest in a proven marque. Beyond Confente, the other solid bet is the French cyclotouriste bikes of Rene Herse. What Confente has become for collectors of road-racing bikes, Herse’s bikes of the 1950s and ’60s are for the touring crowd. While Confente made frames alone, Herse took a holistic approach to bicycle manufacturing; he crafted proprietary lights, fenders, stems, bars and drivetrain components. Each bike was a comprehensive solution for getting riders from point A to B in a comfortable, elegant and completely self-sufficient fashion.

Collectors must also purchase a bike that is as close as possible to its mint original condition. As Brooks says of Japanese Herse fanatics, “There is no price they won’t pay for a perfect French bike, which may send my children to college.” Michael Kone echoed this sentiment in an article in the Vintage Bicycle Racing Newsletter: “Because the original proprietary bits are nearly impossible to find, missing parts can severely impact value. Theoretically, really mint examples in small sizes with all the right bits may have values much greater than $4,000 . . . .”

Among the details required to manufacture an exceptional steel frame, bicycle aficionados pay attention to two above all others: the ornateness of a frame’s lug work, and the quality of the brazing that mates the steel tubing to the lugs. Think of a lug as a socket into which the builder inserts various tubes of the frame in order to make the bike whole. What distinguishes a lug from a socket is that a socket is a bland interface with no cosmetic virtue, while each lug—a bike sports five or six separate lugs—is a minisculpture. Gorgeously detailed tendrils of steel snake from the body of the lug and encircle the ends of a bike’s various tubes. A frame builder uses brazing heat and molten metal to marry each tube to the lug itself. The more intricate the lug, the more difficult the brazing process.

Some collectors treat their bicycles as objets d’art. But Confente owner David Novoselsky of Chicago suggests that there are fundamental differences between bicycles and traditional aesthetic collectibles. He also sports a fine coin collection, of which he admits, “The thrill of the chase gave me more pleasure than the collection itself. But riding my bikes is the best part of collecting them.” Brooks is of the same school of thought. “Some, like me,” he says, “won’t keep any bike that isn’t his size and isn’t meant to be ridden. It is true that I rarely take out the four-speed Cyclo rear derailleur 650B Rene Herse, but it does ride perfectly, and it’s my size.”

The majority of bicycle collectors are, first and foremost, cyclists. Not unlike the crisis of an oenophile, the bicycle collector is forever tempted to savor his object of desire. Bicycles are designed as functional art, and nothing would be more natural on a warm spring day than to take a spin on a mint Confente or Herse. For the investment-minded collector, however, it is best to put aside function. Bikes with obvious signs of use might not dissuade a buyer with plans to ride the bike, but, as Kone writes, “If it isn’t of interest to a hard-core collector, then it may only be worth a fraction of what the really desirable ones fetch.”

The best possible solution for the financially motivated bicycle connoisseur is to locate a mint Confente or Herse and delight in it as pure art—make it a treat for the eyes, rather than the quadriceps."

Photo: accompanied article

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