I was about seven or eight the last time anyone gave me a bicycle. The seconds between my first glimpse of that shiny, red and chrome path-to-independence and the first turn of its pedals were simply agonizing.
While that moment is permanently etched in my memory, the truth is I don’t remember much detail about that bike. I began my career as a tinkerer early, modifying that red wonder and subsequent bikes many times over until the original was unrecognizable. Money earned from chores was channeled into a series of bikes or bike parts that I bought on my own until eventually I found my way to a torch, workbench and steel tubes.
Riding a new bike for the first time is always a thrill, but when it’s a bike that you build it’s a little more complicated. There’s always a mix of excitement and dread- a flirtation between my expectant pride should my hopes be exceeded balanced by a fear of failure, an anxiety that the new bike might not meet expectations. Yet for me that dynamic is a constant motivator. It’s why Serotta bicycle models were continually tweaked, tuned, caressed forward. I honestly couldn’t help myself.
Fast-forward to this past winter when I wrote about my past, contemplated my future and openly shared my sentiments with everyone. Somewhat self-indulgently, I blogged about the sadness that I felt riding my bike when I looked down and saw the logo that had for 40 years belonged to my family and stood for many good things, but had come to represent darkness. Among the many emails and notes I received there was one that was so different from the rest that I first considered it a fake offer- perhaps one of the small minded internet personalities was seeking a new way of trying to get me to engage in idiotic banter.
Curiosity finally got the better of me and I replied. “You want to give me a bicycle?”
And in the next exchange, “you of all people should continue to enjoy riding a bike and it would be our honor to build one for you if you will ride it…” Dumbfounded I delicately searched for what the catch was and eventually became convinced that they truly meant “no strings attached.” And that was my introduction to Formigli, the bicycle builder from Firenze (Florence, Italy) and Kensington, his American business partner, spokesperson, translator and #1 brand ambassador.
Touched, amused and curious I gracefully, if not somewhat humbly, accepted. In subsequent communication I provided detailed sizing information and component preferences. I insisted color was something that I wanted to come from Renzo, suggesting only that I was in the mood for something with flare.
As the weeks passed I was provided progress reports, which although I hadn’t asked for, were appreciated and if I had been worried, would have provided assurance that my order was never forgotten. Actually, it’s more than that. The correspondence made me feel like my new bike was the one bike that the company was focused on. Without thinking about it, a relationship between my new bicycle and I was being cemented.
~ ~ ~ ~
Two, short-enough-to-be-friendly horn blasts announced the arrival of the UPS truck that stopped in front of our house. The driver, who was familiar enough to ask, “you’re expecting a bicycle from Italy…?” moved to the back of his truck…and I realized that I was experiencing that childlike expectant giddiness- fixed smile, sweaty palms, tunnel vision focused on THE BOX.
Only vaguely aware that the UPS/Santa drove off, I realized that I had no idea if I’d even uttered any courtesies. Like a sugar-deprived child who has just stepped into a candy shop I was transfixed on the box. While my brain was calculating whether or not to take the time to fetch a folding knife, I was already ripping and tearing at the cardboard and then at the foam wrap that was protecting something brilliantly citron beneath it. Pulling the translucent padding back revealed an unexpected personal touch in the form of my own name… and with that I paused. It was as if someone wacked me on the side of the head reminding me, “hey!, someone has put great thought and care and time into making something special here, how about a little respect!” I resolved to set the bike aside, get my day’s chores out of the way, organize my tools and do this job the right way.
There’s something calming, maybe even Zen-like about staging tools for a task. It’s also a sign of respect for the job ahead. In truth, it took only a few minutes to prepare the bike for its maiden voyage- someone at the Florence workshop is a real mechanic. I had assured the generous Formigli folks that I didn’t need wheels so I did need to adjust the brake pads to match the wider HED Ardennes ( I use these as benchmarking wheels because they perform great in any condition and don’t impart their own ‘feel’ to the bike). Then a quick set of the saddle and bars and it was ready. The Formigli was the first non-Serotta bike that I had worked on in a very long while so I took some extra time just looking it over closely. This was a bike that someone poured thought and energy and care into making.
How was it going to ride?
As a bicycle designer & builder there’s always a competitive spirit when riding a product that is the result of someone else’s efforts. It’s a crazy combination of excitement and fear. On the one hand, finding that what you’ve done still feels better than whatever it is you are testing is gratifying. On the other, as a cyclist, you’re always hoping that you will experience a break-though product. Or at the least, a performance that pushes the designer in you to keep raising the bar while still wishing no one else’s product is actually better than yours. About a year ago I went on a binge of trying popular bikes that sported all the details the cycling know-it-alls were suggesting any great road bike ought to have… and those bikes were OK. They looked great, but by the third ride the bloom was off. Some bicycles are just bicycles.
Others speak to you, imploring you to ride.
The Formigli sings.
It’s sound is a combination of hard driving rock and roll and classic tear-stained arias, the quintessential Italian machine, delivers bold, forward reaching design and meticulous performance. Clearly, Renzo suffers the burden of detail.
I’ve had the Formigli out more than twenty times by now and we’re still getting acquainted. Unlike most of the better-known carbon marvel bikes, this one has many dimensions, a bicycle you can build a relationship with. I’ve thought about this phenomenon during my rides. You might give the same sheet of music to two musicians. One plays it perfectly, but when the other plays you get goose bumps. How? It’s impossible to define. With the bike, it’s part technology, but I’m pretty sure it’s also part magic that infiltrates the bicycle. It’s OK to call it fairy dust, because it comes from a very small number of bicycle builders who not only have had years of experience building, but more importantly have been consumed, heart, mind and body, for countless hours trying to put their entire being into delivering something special. I’ve not yet met Renzo Formigli, but I know him. This bike is his raison d’etre (or whatever the Italian equivalent is) as building Serotta was mine.
As it turns out, my Formigli is three gifts in one.
The first is a bicycle that is pure joy to ride and for that reason alone, I’d keep it. The second and greater gift is a reminder that honest, thoughtful, unencumbered generosity still exists. But the third and greatest gift was least expected- the gift of inspiration. This bicycle has refreshed my spirit and reawakened the designer-entrepreneur-builder in me that had been tainted from the last couple years of, you know,…crap.
At the risk of seeming overly dramatic, I am refocused, reborn and there’s absolutely no turning back. Now that I’ve come to know this bike, I’m pretty sure Renzo intended it to be this way.
Grazie mille Renzo, grazie mille!
Hoping to see you on the road somewhere,
For more information about Formigli Bicycles go to: www.Formigli.com
Welcome back Ben, you were missed!
Ben, this is an absolutely beautiful read! Inspired and inspiring… o happy for you, on so many levels…
Ben, thanks for the wonderful story!
Ben, thanks for sharing this with us! I love this, and so true….: You might give the same sheet of music to two musicians. One plays it perfectly, but when the other plays you get goose bumps. How? It’s impossible to define. With the bike, it’s part technology, but I’m pretty sure it’s also part magic that infiltrates the bicycle.
Thank you for this wonderful story. I know these feeling well. In 1989 my friend Chuck Moore convinced me to save my money and buy the Red Serotta Nhx hanging on the wall at Village Cycle. He said I would never regret buying the Serotta; Chuck was right. I could not believe what pure joy I felt my first ride and still today every time I ride my Red Serotta. Peace!
Michael, thanks for the kind note!
And I remember when Ugo DeRosa complemented you on your fine line of bicycles and the same was done by Ernesto Colnago. You have designed great bikes and many of your tinkerings have become standards on other outstanding road machines. You should still have a few new ideas in the back of your mind.
Thank you David! … and yes, I do…
What a beautiful sentiment from both you and Mr. Formigli. After a quarter century hiatus, I am getting back into cycling again. I used to race for my university team, and loved the whole experience, every training ride, every race.
I recently had the “magic” reignited for me, hearing for the first time in a long time that first distinctive click of a cycling cleat on a tile floor. It gave me goosebumps, which was totally unexpected, and the serendipity made it possibly more rewarding. Stories like this are the reason that I want one of your bikes. I sincerely hope this inspires you to come back, with a vengeance.
“…the distinctive click of a cleat….” perfect…thank you for sharing and for the support!
There will be bikes! Stay tuned…
Hey, just saw this, so great to read. I’m glad you got a new bike!
I first road a Serotta in 2000. It was loaned to me by Wade Hall of the Spokesman in Santa Cruz CA to ride over the weekend. It was one of three bikes that were touring the country to various bike shops. The frame was just a bit to large for me, but I took it on my favorite ride around the Big Basin loop. The loop is composed of CA Highways 9 and 236. It has 2000 ft of climbing in the 27 mile circuit, 90% in the Redwood Forest. The Magic was in that Bike. I did all of the climbs in one cog smaller than ever before. The descents were rock steady. I could feel the dollars flying out of my pocket. I had to have one of these machines. The next week Wade did a fit for me and I ordered a titanium Colorado Concept and Look fork (later exchanged for a Serotta F3). I have never regretted buying my Serotta and hope someday to liveup to its full potential. I also hope that you find peace and never give up building bicycles. You put plenty of Magic in my bicycle.
Thank you for the very kind and inspiring note! While I’ll never forget the ugly side of the final chapter of the old company, I’ve been able to turn that poison into positive energy. Starting a new company is a big project…. and I’ll need that energy and then some, but… there will be bikes! Delivering great product is a little bit addictive, I would even call it seductive. The vicarious joy and thrill of participation with cyclists like you is something I’ll never tire of. Stay tuned for updates!
My first “real” racing bike was a red-fad-yellow Colorado II. I began racing in New England back in the early 90’s and didn’t understand what I had my hands on. After moving through some of the lower ranks of racing, I began looking to “upgrade” and tried many other brands, styles, etc… It was then that I recognized how special my first Serotta was. I followed this with a Serotta Ti Custom and my first Serotta GP Suisse cross bike. Over the past twenty years I have upgraded components, transitioned out of racing but have found that there really was no upgrade to these bicycles… and I still own each of them. They have become part of my extended family. Ben: You are a gift not only to the bicycling community but to humanity. Over the past seven years I have seen many companies suffer the agonies of contraction but none have created the pit in my stomache as your story has. I join the legions who wish you well in whatever you pursue.
Thanks for sharing…and for your encouragement! Those red/yellow fade Colorados were our mainstay for a number of years…so popular in fact that after several years we dropped the finish from the line-up because the guys in the paint shop threatened mutiny if they didn’t get a break from red & yellow!
Leaving bikes behind is simply not something I’d do,… I’m beginning work on a line of next generation Colorados…. maybe I’ll have to include a red/yellow option?
Great to hear you,re back. Never forget how many people you’ve provided that same thrill of riding a bike they loved.
My first road bike was a Schwin LeTour back in the late 70’s. I replaced everything I could with Campy gear over the next few years and rode with the Western Wheelman out of DuPage County, IL, often putting in 30 to 40 miles, 3 to 5 times a week. I had an incentive to ride daily because my girlfriend at the time lived 50 miles away from me – and her brother drew me in to racing with his stable of shiny Colnagos!
A decade later, with Kreitlers in tow, I made it to college at Iowa State, and decided to take it up a notch and get a bike that could handle the stress of everyday training, and increase my throughput. I bought my first real road racing bike, a blue, Serotta Colorado. The ride was amazing. Hitting and holding 30MPH was not even a chore. Mechanically, it was superb. I spent a few months preparing for the Iowa Games, using a new training technique that I developed using heart rate intervals with a heart rate monitor, and a few hundred squats per week at the Rec Center. I finished in the top 10, if the time to fix a flat was taken off just before the start. I had a blast! The bike is in perfect condition, and my brother now owns it, and it will be passed down to his son.
I’m 54 now, and although my bike racing days are behind me, I was poking around on Twitter and saw that Serotta was no more. I was really taken aback. I’ve been the owner of a couple of businesses and I know what you are going through even though I never had your success. If you can find peace in what you’ve accomplished and call it a day, I completely understand. If not, then rock on my friend!
If you decide to mount that “mechanical bull” again, which is the business of assembling one of the finest bicycles hand made, here in the good ol USA, I’ll get in line for another one, better than my first. I’m itching to get another set of Kreitlers too. Old habits die hard.
I wish you and your family the best.
Thanks so much for the wonderful personal story and well wishes. As you closed, old habits die hard, so I’ll be climbing back on that “mechanical bull”. Within the next couple weeks I’ll start explaining what the next wild ride will be… thank you for your support and encouragement!!