Il Bellissimo Regalo

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. IMG_0370

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,


IMG_0373For more information about Formigli Bicycles go to:

The Soul Patch is redefined.

Amidst the trite, over-commercialized, phony, fake and fraud filled world that Imagesurrounds us, real authenticity is still out there to be revealed. It’s fostered and protected by people who understand the difference between inventing something they can sell with fake ‘authentic with original heritage!’ and actually creating something that will in time be revered as authentic and original. Real authenticity has soul you can feel, you don’t have to have it pointed out to you.

Ray Charles and a relatively small cadre of musicians are/were authentically cool. Original sound with deep soulfulness there was simply no need to convince anyone of anything and unlike most performers, visual imagery had nothing to do with it. Ray Charles = Cool. If anything, the soul patch he sported beneath his lip was just “a little extra somethin’ for the ladies”, like a nicely placed grace note, not necessary, but it just goes.

But this isn’t a story about facial hair or music.  It’s about my ongoing search for true authenticity.

The inaugural issue of PAVED*[1] magazine (2011) featured an article that highlighted six people who helped shape the modern era of US racing.  I was honored to be among the group as was the revolutionary wheelman, Steve Hed. Although we shared several decades in common, oddly, we never came to know each other or our respective products beyond the cursory.

About a year ago I made a commitment to start seriously evaluating the feel of bicycle frames by changing out wheels and with that, I finally branched out beyond the Mavic, Campagnolo and Zipp wheels that had been the mainstay of my former company’s test fleets.  I soon found myself on the phone with Tim at HED who after listening to me describe the bike I wanted some new wheels for- an all season, all road, no worries, just go and ride bike, suggested I try a pair of Ardennes (a model featuring aluminum alloy rims) with 23MM tires.  This was the first sign that HED was a different kind of company. HED is known for producing cutting edge carbon wheels so I was primed for and expecting to be coaxed into buying a set of expensive carbon wheels, as after all, I just wanted to be led to the best.  Here on the phone was a genuinely enthusiastic cyclist who listened and advised without prejudice. I took his advice… and boy was he right.  I hadn’t been happier with any new set of wheels.  My first generation (early proto) MeiVici rode like a new bike…happiness.

A couple months ago at the Interbike show I finally had a chance to meet Steve, Annie, his partner in everything, and Dino, for lack of a better description, a right-hand-man kind of guy. As I told the trio how much I had been enjoying my wheels I saw in their eyes that knowing glance that comes with the confidence of habitually making great things.  The trio silently and simultaneously acknowledged my words of praise with a look that said “of course you have.” The first spoken response coming from all three, “then you need to try the Ardennes Plus!” which was said (out loud this time) with the enthusiasm of kids who’ve just hopped off their new favorite amusement park joy ride, running to get back in line.  I felt among my kind- people who lived to make really cool, really real things. No pretense, just confidence.

A couple weeks later the Plus wheels arrived and as recommended I mounted up some 25MM tires.  As Emeril would say, the combination just kicked it up a notch… or three. These wheels just do everything well and they’re surprisingly light considering how tough they are (not that I am one for counting grams). On my second outing I was delighted to end up on a stretch of roadway that was being prepared for re-paving.  Stripped of anything resembling smooth surface I relished the speed and sure footed confidence the 85psi round profile tires provided and I just let the bike go on the winding decent, able to lean harder into the loose corners than I would have dared before.  Then, just ahead of the last hard turn, I hit the fresh pavement and let the bike gain even more speed simply knowing that the bike would stick the corner.  Joy. This is what Steve and his gang knew would happen.

I decided I needed to make the trip to Minnesota to see where these wheels came from.

Since the company’s inception, HED wheels have been pioneers in the advancement of wheel technologies- from disc, to the patented H3 tri-spoke wheels and innovative rim profiles.  All in all HED has accomplished enough to deserve a marbled shrine, but within the neat but nondescript buildings that house HED CYCLING, there’s no edifice to themselves to be found.  While there are photos and jerseys from the most exalted competitors in wheel sports seemingly in every nook and cranny, each with personalized messages to the HED gang thanking them for delivering some extra speed, the facility itself is all business. Touring the plant with Dino and Steve revealed a combination of high-tech and ‘Yankee know-how’ tech with no showmanship and no apologies for anything that looked a little homemade. The place simply exudes confidence knowing that the only show that matters is the performance of the wheels.  There was a busy calm throughout the facility that I recognized as a signature of people who just know how to do their jobs flawlessly, efficiently, effectively.

That day’s special excitement was that the company’s new 85MM carbon wheels for fat bikes were nearing production-ready status and beneath the serious demeanor that everyone maintained, I could feel the undercurrent of giddiness that comes with excited anticipation.

This was true authenticity found.  Somehow, against the staggering odds of competing with giants like Mavic, Zipp, Campagnolo, Shimano and the many other brands who have mastered the art of borrowing innovation and employing Asian manufacturing, Steve, Annie and their dedicated crew have built an enduring business based on highly principled brand identity.  Steve, who without a recognizable office, is at the same time both nowhere and everywhere within the compound… summed it up like this.  “We just have to make really great product that we like to ride… and the rest just takes care of itself.”

Yeah, Steve saying that that was really cool, a Ray Charles kind of cool.  He wasn’t trying to sound anything, he was simply, truthfully revealing his company’s approach to making a living from building great wheels.

On my first ride after retuning home, happily carving corners on the Ardennes Plus I momentarily glanced down at the contact point where tire meets the road. With some guttural bluesy riffs playing in my mind, it occurred to me that those few square centimeters that connect our soul to the earth beneath us is where this magic we call cycling happens. Cycling’s soul patch.

Thank you Steve.

[1] It was with great sadness that I learned that the current edition of PAVED is the last issue, at least for a while…  It was a special publication, an original, which deserved much greater success. If you can find one, I’d urge you to snap a copy up, each issue was worth keeping.