Search for a while down one of the Northern alleys on the showroom floor, and you’ll find a discrete and unadorned booth typical of the early years of the show: four frames staggered on a folding table, the builder sitting behind them, looking out at the flow of the crowd. After seeing so many bikes with oversized tubes and 1&1/8” steerers, the small-looking frames—all of them with horizontal toptubes—seem from another time. The man behind them glances back and forth, his bushy eyebrows shading his eyes, a somewhat uncomfortable looking smile on his face. Roland Della Santa need not be shy; he is one of a few builders of steel frames who can legitimately emblazon them with the world champion’s five colored bands. And as I had hoped, once I got him talking, he was full of information and anecdote.
I was attracted to one frame in particular, Della Santa’s fortieth anniversary Corsa Speciale. A similar frame won “Best Road Frame” at the Indianapolis show. Roland told me that he had purchased a couple dozen sets of Nervex Pro lugs from Geoff Butler Cycles in London on a whim, and while he said they are difficult to work with, the finished frame was stunning. Roland, who is self-taught, said the frame was built with a long toptube in comparison to the seattube, with a slack seattube angle—an arrangement similar to the one requested by Greg Lemond when he raced for Team Z.
When Lemond won his second World Championship in 1989, Della Santa was already twenty years into frame building. But I asked him if he thought it was responsible for young, sometimes self-taught builders to produce frames for sale to customers without putting in years of work at the bench. He said that his education began with a Rudiments Of Metal shop class under the stern and unbending guidance of Mr. Yuri, “a Nazi,” in whose classroom “there was no screwing around.” “Do the math,” Roland said: Joe Bringheli (a friend of Della Santa’s and fixture manufacturer) is selling a certain number of fixtures every year, but, while “everyone can build a frame, not everyone can sell a frame.” I think Roland was pointing to the fact that one cannot simply buy the tools and be a frame builder; implicit in the word, “sell,” is the hard-won credibility and experience needed to promote one’s self as a worthy professional. Some in the craft started in a production house, as Dave Kirk, Dave Wages and Kelly Bedford did at Serotta, and so have hundreds of frames to their names before a single tube is mitered in their own shop. But what advice would Roland Della Santa give to others who don’t have that privilege? “Take Metals 101 at a community college, then take metals 102, then some chemistry.” Then, one imagines, work at perfecting the craft for forty years.
Roland is the first to admit that “there is no perfect fit,” but he adheres to a kind of system that has largely disappeared since the passing of the era of steel bikes in the pro peloton. A perfectly horizontal toptube is the first essential element—from it comes a reference for the head- and seattube angles among other measurements. Round tubes are better than shaped or fluted ones because their centerlines and outside diameters don’t change. With just a few known dimensions and some rudimentary tools, anyone can reproduce all the intended points of contact, even if components are changed. Some of the clever, incredibly useful tricks Roland showed me are, nevertheless, outmoded by contemporary frame building norms. The surface of a flat steel fork crown is a good place to set a fixture to find handlebar height. But how many carbon forks have any crown to speak of? Saddle offset is stamped into the non-drive side dropout because it will never rub off and the non-drive side dropout doesn’t ever break. Roland seems to keep a kind of mental catalogue of these numbers, and he recited all of Greg Lemond’s frame dimensions almost without thinking. It is incredible to think that if Roland had one of Lemond’s bikes in front of him, he could set it up exactly the way Greg needed it to be in 1990, anywhere in the world, at any time. Regarding saddle position, Roland said, “a lot of (pro tour) guys could sit on an ice cream cone and tell you what flavor it was.” He said this with a smile; I imagine more than a few frame builders would be too intimidated by the idea to do that.
Chris Bishop, who is soft-spoken and pleasant with patches of gray hair at his sideburns, doesn’t seem to care much for 1&1/8” steerers, either. I imagine it’s not because he is entrenched in a refined, long-practiced process as Della Santa is, but because he likes to invoke a certain aesthetic: that of Roland’s period. “I always wanted a (Colnago) Master Light, but I could never afford one.” So for five years, he said, he was a messenger and rode a Colnago Super, which he says he wants to restore one day.
Since he started building four years ago, Chris has sought the strange and innovative in steel tubing—one of his show bikes is a track bike he built for himself using Columbus MS (Multi-Shaped), a tubeset designed to counteract drive train forces through the use of heavily shaped and asymmetrical tubes, a practice now favored by some carbon engineers. The lugset is likewise unique and proprietary, and Chris decided to give the headtube lugs bi-laminate treatment—it appears Chris is never satisfied with unshaped points or inelegant curves. He admitted that he probably wouldn’t be able to distinguish in terms of the ride between the MS frame and one of identical geometry built with round tubes; when I asked him why go to the trouble, he said that he appreciated the ingenuity and imagination that came out of the collaboration between Columbus and Gilco in the eighties and nineties with the intention of producing a steel tubeset that would outperform round tubes. The fact that the fruits of that era are somewhat moldy doesn’t bother Chris in the least, and it doesn’t seem to bother his customers: as I conducted our interview, a man asked Chris how many MS tubesets he had and could he have a bike built with one? Another man interrupted and said that the one remaining MS tubeset in Chris’s hands was already spoken for (by him). Chris just chuckled and shrugged his shoulders, enjoying the enthusiasm that others clearly had for his work.
The MS track bike’s geometry is based on a Cannondale that Chris says was perfect for messenger duty. It had a seventy-five degree headtube angle, seventy-four-and-a-half degree seattube angle, twenty-eight millimeters of rake, fourty-five millimeters of bottom bracket drop, and three-hundred-eighty-three millimeter long chainstays. A real track bike for the road, and no brake. He’s ridden similar bikes all over the world, from Baltimore to Athens (not his favorite city on account of the heavy air pollution). And Chris clearly thinks that a track bike is the best for city riding. “Manhattan is great for a track bike; that’s traffic slalom all day long.” I have to agree that, especially in bad conditions like rain, snow, and ice, a fixed gear is much more communicative than a bike with a freewheel and brakes—“like driving a stick instead of an auto.” But what about the steep angles and incredibly narrow wheelbase? He described a method of changing a line in which he “pops” the entire bike from one course to another—it reminded me somewhat of the kind of thing one might do on a pump track.
At this point Chris was clearly comfortable with the conversation and was recalling alleycat races and fixed gear events of all kinds; and while he always smiled and conducted himself in a warm and good-natured way, remembering all the rides past seemed to set him even more at ease. “That track bike,” he said, pointing to the MS, “has nothing on it, nothing can break. I still have my first Phil Wood wheels.” Since he doesn’t use brakes, the rim surfaces never wear down. “The rear hub is on its sixth set of bearings, and the front is on its fourth.” In his appreciation for the tried and true and practical, and despite the ostensible differences between them, I imagine Chris is among the young builders of whom Roland Della Santa would approve. And one of the next frames in Chris’s queue will be built with Nervex Pro lugs. (Since this interview was conducted, last week, Chris Bishop won the award for Best Steel Bike at the 2011 North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Austin, Texas. Congratulations to him!)