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“We are surrounded by a sea. This is a sea made of apparently different products. People struggle to find the differences between them, others pretend to give evidence for originality and uniqueness. But most of the time, at the end of the day, they all smell the same. Some things can change from one year to the next, you know, factories can change the colors and their combination, and they might find new fancy decorations or even change shapes and materials; but, let’s be honest, who cares about all this? I have the impression everything is so static and boring when I can’t recognize a man’s touch, the details. I have no doubt, it’s all about the hands of the craftsman. On top of this, did you really mean your bike to be like that?”
Holy words. But what is to be found today of the old craftsmen? What remains of the different artisan traditions? Cobblers, blacksmiths, shoe repairers are almost extinct nowadays. Yet with their handmade work they created true works of art, unique, recognizable and distinguishable pieces.
Unfortunately the same holds for the traditions in Italian cycling. Benotto, Galmozzi or Masi are just examples of three incredible artisans and frame builders who disappeared and paved the way for today’s large cycling industries. What remains of those craftsmen who back in the day welded steel tubes with a flame?
This ancient tradition is often nowadays just a memory. But in Tuscany, and more precisely in the city of Grosseto, this tradition is more alive than ever—thanks to the calloused and tireless hands of Irio Tommasini that still produce, create and forge world-famous frames and forks. “It was 1948,” he says. “I still had to decide whether I would be a cyclist or a craftsman. But, I had no doubt, I was certain that my life would turn around the bicycle and its world. Somehow I was sure of that.”
Tommasini’s hands began to get dirty more than six decades ago. But he didn’t do it alone. There was the need of a great teacher, a maestro. The craftsman is an artist and art is often handed down. Just like Giotto was handed down from the talented Cimabue. In Tommasini’s story, the maestro was the man who built frames from Merckx, Anquetil and Van Looy.
“I went to Milan, working for a large company and here I met Giuseppe Pelà, one of the most famous frame builders of the time. His teachings and ideas have always helped me. Still, today, his words are in my head while I weld. In 1957, I returned to this Tuscan Maremma region with the intention of starting my own business. But instead it went differently….”
In those days in Italy the idea of stability was everyone’s dream, while the life of a craftsman can be precarious and doesn’t give guarantees. Tommasini didn’t let go of his dream, but he couldn’t ignore the attractions of a steady job in an office with a regular contract.
“I worked for the Post Office as a public servant. But this didn’t lessen my innate passion for pedals and two wheels. I continued with a bike workshop in my spare time. That has always been my priority, no matter what I did. The turning point came in 1971. Together with my wife, Anna, we decided to found Cicli Tommasini in order to increase production, sales and the network in Italy and abroad.”
And that’s how Tommasini remained faithful to his gift from Pelà—a special and exclusive gift that could not be overlooked.
Old photos and posters hang on the walls of Cicli Tommasini today. There’s a private collection of rare and amazing bicycles. History. He has 13 employees, who work together as a family-run company producing and exporting worldwide. Like the old good days. Here the tubes are assembled and welded, almost magically, into a Tommasini bicycle. They’re mainly steel, but carbon too. The goal is to survive, to avoid drowning in the big sea of the market.
“Nowadays it’s hard for everybody, including me. That’s because there are no true bicycles anymore. Yes, there are carbon bikes, but, well, I make those too. I customize them, like the steel ones. But the classic bike doesn’t exist anymore. There was a time when professional cyclists used to come to me. I made the frames for them, and they could put their own brand name on them, like Benotto or Bottecchia. Now it’s completely different. It’s hard for professional cyclists too. If they don’t ride the bikes they are given they simply can’t race. There’s no choice. There are only standard bikes out there, bikes made for everybody, bikes that smell all the same.”
Once the frames used to have a name and surname, a true identity, not just a brand name, Tommasini remembers. They were unique, personalized, built for the rider’s legs, specifically for those legs. “I like to think about them as a natural extension of the body,” he says. “That’s how you should feel in a bike which is made for you and not for anybody else.
“You just have to watch Paris-Roubaix to understand the difference—I just watched it. Did you see how many crashes there were? Did you see how much the riders struggled? They have always struggled there, no doubt. But if only they had a steel frame, built for them…an elastic bike, and not a rigid one. Such bikes can flow easier, even on the pavé.”
Tommasini says his bikes meet the needs of each and every customer. Today, most of those customers live abroad. That’s how his company has been able to survive, thanks to global sales. “In Italy, almost no one looks for a customized steel frame anymore,” he mourns.
A custom bike is made from details. That’s how the charm of the artisan doesn’t remain in the shadows. The forks, steering, welds, tacks, joints…everything is taken care of to the extreme. “It takes a long time, but the outcome is something special,” he says. “Each frame you make becomes your baby, something you grow fond of. And if you see somebody not taking proper care of it, damaging it, well, I feel sorry, since I have put passion, effort and perseverance into that bike. It’s a great job, but if you do not have the proper passion you can’t go far.”
While many have disappeared and most have surrendered to the big brands, a few are still out there, true and dedicated to their work. Irio Tommasini is definitely one of them.
From issue 31. SOLD OUT!