In 1976, I was riding the Raleigh Competition I mentioned fondly in my recent Reader interview, but I longed for a more distinguished mount.
The Raleigh was a “neo-pro” as we called entry level racing bikes in those days. It was a mix of Reynolds tubing types as most bikes were; Deciphering the various Reynolds decals was an art of no particular usefulness, like reading barcodes at Safeway.
Though my Raleigh rode and handled just fine, and exhibited no vicious habits, I felt I should have a bike befitting the rider I intended to be: a faster, stronger, tougher, more graceful version of the adequate club cyclist I was. Ah, vanity.
I made that longing known to Tony Tom, then and now proprietor of A Bicycle Odyssey in Sausalito. I told him I could not afford to buy a new Masi or Ron Cooper, desirable as they may have been.
Instead, I wanted to buy a used frame, then build it up using the parts from my Raleigh. Weeks later, Tony showed me an homely Bianchi, its paint stripped off in preparation for a new finish.
Oh my, a Bianchi, I thought: A bike for the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, for the hairpin turns of the Alpe d’ Huez, for the bike path from Sausalito to Mill Valley...
Though it was romantic, as ugly and unready for prime time as it was, the Bianchi was cheap. Tony looked at me, knowing I was imagining the jerseys a guy with a racing Bianchi might wear. The embroidered shorts. He smiled.
I bought the frame. I don’t believe I ever saw it with original paint on it. Twenty-five years later I can’t remember if I even knew what color the factory painted it. Not green, I remember that much.
We guessed that it dated from the early ‘60s, so it probably needed paint by 1976. It was a Specialissima, Bianchi’s top model. Made from Columbus tubing, far heavier than today’s featherweight tubes, it was entirely conventional except for the headset.
Unique to Bianchi for years, the headset design had long been abandoned by the mid-’70s. The one in the frame was trashed. I searched and found a new one at Velo-Sport in Berkeley, last one in the world, it seemed. Luckily it never wore out.
I took the frame home to my apartment. On my tiny patio, I removed the rest of the paint with foul liquid stripper. I sanded and sanded the frame, which was entirely chrome plated. The areas of chrome that had been exposed were polished. Areas that had been covered by paint were not.
I decided I’d have it painted sand-and-sable, a British staple, light brown and chocolate brown. The lugs and a panel on the down tube would be tan. The rest would be a rich-looking chocolate.
And that’s exactly how it turned out. Lovely.
I couldn’t find old-style Bianchi decals so I thought I’d have the name hand-painted on the down tube and the emblem hand-painted on the head tube.
I found a painter, and he got it dead right: Having never seen a Bianchi emblem, he painted an eagle on the head tube that was nearly perfect, its head facing in the proper direction. He got the script perfect on the down tube sides, too.
I began building up the bike with the Raleigh parts. I realized that from the time I began dismantling the Raleigh until the Bianchi was together, I had nothing to ride. Gave me a sense of urgency I might not have had.
I bought a few things as I remember, perhaps a seat post because of size, and a bar and stem because I just couldn’t face putting anything on my Italian thoroughbred but Cinelli or TTT.
When I got the bike together, it rewarded me for the effort. Solid and long from axle to axle, it glided down the road, steered flawlessly and gave me confidence on twisty descents.
It felt deluxe, if you’ll forgive the old-fashioned word: smooth, expensive, capable, unflappable.
At that point, I had only one set of wheels, the French-hub set from the Raleigh. I had the TA 3-pin crank; Brooks B-17 Narrow saddle; Huret derailleurs and shift levers, and crummy Weinmann centerpull brakes from the Raleigh.
In a matter of months, all those parts went away. I bought Japanese sidepull brakes because I couldn’t afford Campys. I could afford a used set of high flange Campy hubs, though. I bought them cheap and replaced their bearing races. Tony built me my first set of handmade wheels.
I bought a worn-out Nuovo Record rear derailleur and put a new spring, pins and bushings in it. I bought a Cinelli Unicanitor saddle.
I learned a lot as I built up that Bianchi and as my relationship with it evolved. I learned to trust Campagnolo: the two-bolt seatpost, the everlasting hubs and pedals, and eventually all their parts.
I learned how to wrap cotton tape, and how to break and re-rivet chains. I learned how to ride a paceline and sprint for city limit signs. I learned to stop for coffee after rides. I learned how much I enjoyed the company of cyclists.
I was preparing for my career, but I thought I was only having the time of my life.
I rode the Davis Double Century on that Bianchi, the one and only time I did it. I began racing on it, met my girlfriend while riding it, made dozens of friends while I had it who remain my friends today.
I wonder who has that old Bianchi today... Perhaps a Rivendell member has it, and doesn’t realize his old two-tone brown Specialissima made so much difference in one cyclist’s life.
If you do own that bike, let me know through the folks at Rivendell. I’ll come visit. Be good to say hi after all these years.