In 1976, I was riding a new, black Raleigh Competition - 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 varieties as most bikes were then; deciphering the various Reynolds decals was an art of no particular usefulness, like reading bar codes 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 (as now) proprietor of A Bicycle Odyssey in nearby 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 to build up with parts I’d remove from my Raleigh. Weeks later, Tony showed me a homely old Bianchi, its paint stripped off in preparation for a new finish that had never been applied.
Oh my, a Bianchi, I thought: A bike for the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, for the hairpin turns of Alpe d’Huez, for the bike path from Sausalito to Mill Valley...
Ugly and unready for prime time as it was, the old Bianchi was romantic. And it was cheap. Tony looked at me, knowing I was imagining the jerseys a guy with an older racing Bianchi might wear – and the embroidered shorts. He smiled.
I bought the frame. I never saw it with a square inch of original paint on it. Nearly 30 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 tubesets, it was entirely conventional except for the “integrated” headset, much like those of today.
Unique to Bianchi for years, the old headset design had long been abandoned by the mid-’70s. The headset in the frame was trashed. I searched and found a new one at an old shop in Berkeley, last old-style Bianchi headset in the world, it seemed. Luckily it never wore out in the years I rode the bike.
I took the frame home to my apartment. On my tiny patio, I removed the rest of the paint with foul-smelling liquid stripper. I sanded and sanded the frame, which was entirely chrome plated. The areas of chrome that had not been painted were polished. Areas that had been covered by paint were not.
I decided I’d have it painted sand-and-sable, light brown and chocolate brown, a color scheme common on older British automobiles. The lugs and a panel on the down tube would be tan. The rest would be a rich-looking chocolate. Sounds lovely, huh?
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 parts from the Raleigh. I realized that from the time I began dismantling the Raleigh until the Bianchi was complete, I had nothing to ride. Gave me a sense of urgency I might not have had.
I had to buy a few new things. I bought a larger diameter seat post to fit, and a new Italian bar and stem; I just couldn’t imagine anything steering 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 pair of wheels, built on the low-quality French hubs from the Raleigh. I had the French TA 3-pin crank; a Brooks B-17 Narrow saddle; Huret derailleurs and shift levers from France and spongy Swiss Weinmann centerpull brakes, all 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 however afford a used set of high flange Campy hubs. I bought them cheap and replaced their bearing races. Tony Tom built me my first set of handmade wheels.
I bought a worn-out Campagnolo Nuovo Record rear derailleur and put a new spring and new 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 old 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 pace line and sprint for city limit signs. I learned to stop for coffee after rides. I learned how much I enjoy the company of cyclists.
I was preparing for my writing 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 a long-term girlfriend while riding it and made dozens of friends while I had it who remain my friends today.
I wonder who has that old Bianchi today... Perhaps YOU have it, and don’t realize your old two-tone-brown Specialissima meant so much in one cyclist’s life.
If you do own that bike, let me know through the folks at the Bicycle Paper. I’ll come visit. Be good to say hi after all these years.