Sunday, November 18, 2012

HOLY GRAILS: 1974 Masi Gran Criterium

Circa 1974 Masi Gran Criterium
When it rains it pours, I guess. I've been covering my René Herse bicycle refurbishment in recent posts. Now I'd like to shared a short story I wrote about the vintage Masi that I recovered before I received the amazing René Herse.

Note: This story first appeared in my weekly Jim's Tech Talk column on RoadBikeRider, so it will read a little dated. However, it should provide a good record of where I started with this Masi project. 

That will be good for comparison with the finished bicycle. And, for this rerun I've added more detail photos than what I could provide in my weekly column.

This old Masi is a special bicycle, just like the Herse, but when I found it, it was a...

Basket Case

As our thoughts go out to those who were affected by Hurricane Sandy and we brace for the usual rainy season here in California, it’s time to plan an escape from winter. I recommend heading indoors for a fun bicycle project. I thought I’d share one of mine, which I’ve dubbed a basket case since that’s pretty much how I found it, as the photos show.

Well, I didn’t actually find it. My friend Ellen did. I tuned her bikes at The Bicycle Center in Santa Cruz. So, when her friend told her he had an old 10-speed to sell, Ellen emailed me. She said it was a Masi.

Awful paint, crash damage, no serial # but all there

From the Vigorelli Velodrome to California

When it comes to collectible road bikes, Masis are among the Holy Grails. I have a fondness for them and I know a bit about the marque, but I am no expert. 

I can tell you that Faliero Masi was already building frames by his 16th birthday in 1924, and that in 1952 he opened the famous workshop located beneath the Vigorelli Velodrome in Milan. 

He became such a legendary builder that all the greats, from Coppi to Merckx insisted on racing his meticulously crafted and super-fast frames.

He was also progressive enough to travel to Carlsbad, California, and open Masi USA in 1973 when he was about 65 years old. Perhaps the best-known Masi trivia is that the main character (Dave Stoller, for trivia buffs) rode a Masi Gran Criterium in the classic cycling movie Breaking Away. 

For more on Masi and a wealth of information on everything vintage road bike, be sure to visit Classic Rendezvous.

No sign of a proper serial number

Roger’s bike

My connection with Masi comes from the fact that the owner of The Bicycle Center, Roger Sands, rode one. Roger was a visionary bike guy. He foresaw the pedal-power explosion to come in the early ’70s and was among the first U.S. retailers to travel to Europe and import classic road brands from around the world. I was lucky to work for Roger, and as his top mechanic, I had the privilege of maintaining his Masi.

I needed to explain that so you’ll understand my irrational reaction to Ellen’s Masi, which I realized was a basket case in the most negative sense as soon as I turned it over in my hands. 

Collectors always hope to find an original bicycle, meaning that it has the paint, decals and components it left the bike shop with. It might be well-used, even beat-up a bit, but if it’s all there, you’ve got a winner. As we collectors say, “You can’t restore originality.”

Buckled and rusted

No such luck with Ellen’s Masi. You can see the awful paint in the photo. What you can’t make out is the buckled down tube and bent top tube, most likely the result of running into a parked car. And, while most of the original Campagnolo Nuovo Record components were still with the bike, they were as abused as the frame. Ellen asked me to take the pile of parts and try to figure out if the bike was worth anything so she could tell her friend.

I’ve restored enough bicycles to know a lost cause when I see one. Just the frame work alone would cost more than the restored Masi would be worth, never mind the cost of the vintage parts it would take to get it rolling down the road. I told Ellen as much, but agreed to take the Masi home and try to learn more about it.

The strange orientation lets the photo go really big

‘Fix me’

With the frame safely hanging in my garage rafters and the case of parts stashed below it, I did my due diligence, researched Masis Italian and American, and I eventually heard from another vintage veloman who had one just like it. 

His was from Masi USA and was built in 1973. That meant Ellen’s might have been partially built by the master himself when he was here in California.

I knew that some of the builders that apprenticed under Masi back then were still in Southern California and are now industry legends themselves, guys like Brian Baylis, Rob Roberson and Jim Cunningham. This got me thinking about the possibility of having the frame restored by someone with Masi blood in their veins, a direct connection to the maestro.

Lovely twin-plate crown rust and all

It was about then -- and you’re going to think I’m nuts, but I swear -- that that Masi started talking to me. Every time I went into the garage to get out my bike, and ducked beneath the Masi, I had the feeling it was calling out to me to fix it. 

I took the frame down over and over, looking at the careful lugwork, the lovely M cutout in the bottom bracket, the awesome twin-plate fork crown. I decided I had to have the basket case and gave Ellen the price her friend wanted.

All in

About a month passed. I tried to ignore the Masi but couldn’t. It’s a 57cm frame, perfect for me. I started dreaming of riding it around in some retro woolies and shoes and showing it to the guys. 

I thought about rigging up an alignment jig and trying to fix the frame, maybe then spray painting it just to save it for someone else to spend their life savings on. But that just didn’t feel right. It felt like the Masi ended up in my hands because I was meant to save it.

Thinking about how to do that, I remembered Joe Bell of Joe Bell Bicycle Refinishing in Spring Valley, California. Joe is maybe most famous in the handmade bicycle world as Richard Sachs’ painter. It says something when one of the world’s great builders sends his frames 3,000 miles to be painted. And I knew Joe had restored plenty of Masis.

I called Joe and told him about the Masi and in a few minutes I was ready to send it to him. He said he would ask Brian Baylis to look at it, and that Rob Roberson worked right next door and he would check it out, too. Wow. I got it in the mail straight away.

Nicely crafted lugs and stays

Later that week Joe called with the exciting news that it was indeed an early Carlsbad Masi and might even have been worked on by Masi himself. Plus, Joe said that even in its bent and battered condition, Brian was so happy to see my Masi, that he took it home over the weekend with him.

Brian is repairing the frame by replacing the bent top and down tubes. I don't know if there’s any way for him to tell if he built the frame originally, or if Faliero worked on it. But, it’s perfect to have it restored by one of the first Masi USA framebuilders. 
[Update: only a new down tube was needed and Brian believes Faliero raked the blades!]

Once Brian finishes, there will be some chrome work on the fork and then Joe will add the bling with his paint perfection. I think that instead of going with Dave Stoller’s Masi Team Orange I'll go with the more subtle Champagne.

Instant Karma

As excited as I was to have the Masi in Joe and Brian’s capable hands, I was still feeling a little stupid for undertaking such an expensive project. I felt this responsibility to save Ellen’s Masi, and it’s going to give me hours of joy tracking down the right small parts and reassembling Brian and Joe’s masterfully restored frame. But, if I took the same money I’m already spending on the restoration (not to mention the additional cost of the parts I need), and got a little lucky, I could probably find a complete original Masi.
Hard to see, but it's been run into a car, or

With this buyer’s remorse ruining my sleep patterns, I received another email, kind of like Ellen’s. But this old friend wanted to gift me three vintage road bikes, including a 1975 René Herse in very good original condition. 

In car terms that’s a bit like someone giving you a classic Ferrari. It’s always been a bike of my dreams, and I never thought I’d own one. It, too, is a 57cm.

You don’t suppose that restoring the Masi had anything to do with the Herse coming my way, do you?

Stay tuned. As I finish the Masi, I’ll share it with you.

Have fun with your bicycle projects and let me know if I can help! Jim

Sunday, November 11, 2012

René Herse Restoration - 2 more photos

Crankset by René Herse
In my previous post about the René Herse, I forgot to provide photos of what is perhaps the most beautiful component on the bicycle. So here are two pictures of the René Herse crankset that I hope you enjoy.

If you have a René Herse missing its signature crankset, you'll be happy to know that you can now purchase a reproduction and replacement chainrings, too (I'm excited about that because it means I can save my original chainrings and log miles on the reproductions if I want)!

The second photo (below) shows the Herse sealed- and pressed-bearing bottom bracket. Modern bike companies seem to believe that this is a new design, but Herse was doing it decades ago.

You can also see the integrated tube in the bottom bracket shell for the internally routed front derailleur cable and more detail of the extraordinary craftsmanship that went into constructing this frame.

Wanted: Huret Jubilee front derailleur
This bicycle was originally equipped with a Huret Jubilee front derailleur (illustration), not the one shown in the photo.

If you have a Huret Jubilee front derailleur or know where one is, please let me know so that I can get the proper one back on this bike.

René Herse sealed-, pressed-bearing bottom bracket

Friday, November 9, 2012

HOLY GRAILS: René Herse Restoration

Happy winter, everyone,
As we spend more time indoors, here are some photos of an exciting winter project I'm starting: refurbishing a 1975 René Herse randonneur bicycle. It's in nice original shape with most of the parts it left Herse's Paris shop with. It was built for my friend, lifelong cyclist and bicycle lover, Richard Payne (as was required by French law at the time, Dick's name and address are engraved in the stem cap; photo 4).

René Herse randonneur as photographed about 2004
Dick was still regularly riding his beloved Herse into his 85th year. It was passed on to me by his family who knew how close we were and that Dick would have wanted me to have it so that I could resuscitate it.

My goal is to bring it back as close as I can to how it was in 1975 when Dick purchased it. He kept the original order forms so I have a record of how it was equipped.

These randonneur or randonneuse bicycles were made for what we Americans sometimes call credit-card touring, where you carry lunch, a change of clothing and ride relatively long distances for the joy of it, continuing at night, in the rain, and only stopping at hotels to rest up for more pedaling adventures the next day.

Gracefully raked blades, elegant dropouts and marvelous Maxi-Car hubs
While I have never visited France or ridden there, of course I've seen the awesome terrain watching the Tour de France on television, and it makes it easy to appreciate how the French came up with this type of bicycle to enjoy it.

Route sheets and registration forms that Dick saved and are in the same file as the bike specifications, show that he toured in Tunisia on it, too, where he lived and worked as a teacher for decades before returning to his other home in Santa Cruz, California for his retirement.

I'm familiar with René Herse bicycles because I worked on a couple of his masterpieces over the years as a mechanic. But my appreciation for him and his work has piqued, and my knowledge grown immensely thanks to the writings of Jan Heine in his fine publication that covers randonneuring bicycles and builders old and new, Bicycle Quarterly. He covers new bicycles and technology, too, so there's something most cyclists will enjoy in every issue.

What's unique about these treasures is that the builder made the frameset and also crafted or designed many of the parts, such as the front rack, crankset, stem and small pieces. Before he became a master "constructeur," as these renowned bicycle builders were called, René Herse worked making airplane parts, so he brought expert machining skills and knowledge of engineering precision parts from ultralight materials to his bicycle building.

Also unique is that these bikes were made to be ridden long distances, carrying a small load in all conditions. And unlike the heavily laden long-distance tourists with front and rear panniers or even trailers crossing America or riding round the globe, these randonneuring bikes were made for performance riders who not only wanted to cover long distances, they enjoyed doing it in record time and there were even timed events and records to be had.

Dick's Herse has a magic ride. It's wonderfully smooth and stable and easily gets up to speed, and stays there. It looks heavy but it feels light and lively and you don't want to turn back once you're in the saddle; you want to keep riding.

Herse rack with built-in light, wire runs through rack
To carry the gear and handle all conditions, the bikes featured a front rack that supported an easily accessed large handlebar bag, a lighting system and full fenders. For reliability and durability, the fenders were metal and firmly attached so as not to loosen or rattle, and the shift and brake cables were internally routed for protection.

As an example of the painstaking effort put into designing and building this René Herse, it had a generator (dynamo) that attached to a precisely positioned threaded post brazed onto the left seatstay.

A dedicated Huret Jubilee down-tube style shift lever allowed you to turn on/off the generator moving it to rub against the rim or move away from it. (Without a photo to go by, it took me hours of experimentation with many different generators before I figured out how this worked - which will be the subject of a future post.)

There was probably a small seatstay light powered by this generator (it may have been on the fender instead). To power the front light, that you can see is integral to the front rack - the wire leaves the generator and goes into the hollow channel in the edge of the fender. It then exits the fender, goes into the left chainstay, through the bottom bracket, up the down tube where it makes contact with the head tube, I believe (I haven't taken the front end apart to investigate).

Meanwhile, the front light wire traveled through the hollow rack tube, exited the rack underneath the fender, traveled to the fork steerer and into it, where it attached to the contact brazed inside the steerer. To get the electricity to bridge from the steerer, which has to turn - to the stationary head tube, there is a carbon brush that always touches the steerer and causes no drag you can feel. Ingenious!

There are many other details to admire, such as the lovely lugs and bottom bracket, the arrow pump peg, the cable hanger built into the seat lug and the unique and stout dropouts. The right rear dropout actually includes a chain holder that acts as an extra freewheel cog so that you can shift onto it for wheel removal and your chain will remain in position as if a wheel was still in place. Herse thought of everything.

Enjoy the photos, and as I bring this incredible bicycle back, I'll post updates. Best of luck with your winter bicycle project, too!


Pointed lug tips, Herse sealed bottom bracket
Herse custom stem, engraved stem cap, integrated bell (I made this copy)
Hand lettering
Herse dropout, internal shift cable, peg holds rubber stay guard
Exceptional lugwork and crown
Stylish braze-on for internal cable routing
Another view of the cable port
Elegant pump peg, seat cluster and dedicated lever for generator
Look closely: that's a chain carrier on the inside of the dropout