Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Museums in Italy

I’ve just spent a few days in northern Italy where 0ur son Michael was riding the two end of season races, the GranPiemonte and the Giro di Lombardia. It is a beautiful area and at this time of year a little less congested than in the heart of the tourist season.

The Gran Piemonte started in the town of Novi Ligure, outside the Museo dei Campionisimmi, a museum dedicated to the great Italian cycling champions. Novi Ligure was the hometown of Fausto Coppi so a special emphasis is devoted to him although most of the other top Italian cyclists are well represented.

I had visited the museum a few years ago and there have been a number of improvements since. If we had had the time I would have liked to spend the day there as there are many videos that can be watched which were not there on my previous visit. My particular interest is the old bikes. They have a couple of Coppi’s Bianchis which I have always found interesting. It would seem that he rode the same frame design for both road and track. The only difference that I could see was that the track bike had no mounting holes for brakes. It had road drop-outs with the gear hanger removed and quick-release hubs were fitted with the q/r levers cut down to about an inch long. I had always thought q/r hubs were banned on the track but I suppose that if your name is Fausto Coppi no UCI commissaire is going to give you a rough time.

Coppis track bike.

It looks like a road frame but there are no brake holes.

Road drop-outs on Coppi's track bike.

The quick release levers are cut short.

On the subject of rear drop-outs. I have always thought that rear opening track style drop-outs make no sense on any bike except perhaps on a specialized TT bike where every effort is made to get the rear wheel close to the seat tube. This is not an issue with a fixed wheel as there has to be a gap between the tire and the seat tube to allow the rear wheel to be slid forward to unship the chain when removing the wheel. Rear opening drop-outs have absolutely no advantage over horizontal forward opening drop-outs and have many disadvantages especially if fenders are fitted. However with the recent “fixie” craze every manufacturer is slavishly following fashion and building frames with ‘track ends’ It makes no sense. It seems that Coppi, or more likely his Bianchi mechanics, realized this back in the fifties but no one else has since.

There were some other interesting bikes in the museum but I was a bit upset to see how some were displayed. A number of the track bikes are displayed with the chain hanging down, no effort having been made to adjust it. The displays themselves are excellent but whoever mounted the bikes have next to no knowledge of bikes.

Moser's Obree style hour record bike. (With loose chain).

Moser's large rear wheel hour record bike. (Also with loose chain).

Down the centre of the museum’s main hall there is a good display of interesting bikes but again the display is spoilt by the signs describing the bikes are often in front of the wrong bike. How difficult can that be to correct?

Campagnolo's first generation Gran Sport derailleur.

(The derailleur that set the design for everything to come).

A pity that someone hasn't taken the time to clean it up.

An interesting very light (7 kg.) all aluminum bike with rod operated derailleurs. Made by Stefano Cavanna in 1947.

The museum is worth a visit by anyone interested in bikes or the history of racing. I will probably go back again.

A couple of days after being in Novi Ligure we made the pilgrimage to the Madonna di Ghisallo primarily to see the Giro di Lombardia riders as they pass this famous chapel. The chapel is dedicated to cyclists and is filled with bikes of various champions and memorabilia. Next to the chapel a new cycling museum is now open and worth a visit. In many ways it is similar to the museum in Novi Ligure. There are a couple of bikes that really interested me. One a 1930s Bianchi fitted with rod brakes with the rods completely hidden within the frame tubes. There is no visible connection between the levers on the handlebar and the stirrups mounted on the forks and rear stays. How it is done, I do not know. How do those rods make their way from the handlebars, through the stem and steerer into the down tube, around the bottom bracket to an opening on the seat tube? How does the front brake rod make it’s way from the steerer and into the fork blades? It is certainly one of the most fascinating bicycle engineering feats that I have seem. One has to ask how and why.

The Bianchi with all the brake rods concealed within he frame tubes.

The lovely wood Vianzone bike from 1945

Now that the museum is open it would be nice to see many of the bikes and memorabilia moved out of the chapel and into the museum. The chapel is so packed with items that it appears somewhat tacky. Perhaps the bike that Fabio Casartelli died on should remain and maybe the bikes of the greats Bartali and Coppi (Just how many bikes did he have?) but there doesn’t seem to be any need for all the jerseys of past and present champions.

There was one rather disappointing aspects to both museums. Despite the fact that there were hundreds of cycling fans outside each building to see the pro bike races few of those fans entered the museums. It would seem that not many have any interest in the rich history of cycling. Maybe it is because I grew up with Coppi, Bobet, Gaul and Bahamontes as my idols and by visiting these museums I can relive part of my youth. Perhaps in fifty years time those young fans will be visiting the museums to relive the exploits of Armstrong, Contador and Cavendish. Recently there has been a surge of interest in the classic bikes of the 50s, 60s and 70s perhaps that interest will get more visitors into the museums.

It is not just the racing bikes that I find interesting. There have been some very interesting designs in city and everyday bikes that get very little recognition. The Bianchi with hidden brake mechanisms is one, another is the wonderful Vianzone wooden bike from 1945. Probably the finest bike I saw during my short visit to Italy was not anything in the museum nor was it one of the fancy logo covered carbon bikes of the pros. It was a fifties Bianchi ‘gentleman’s bike' being ridden through the streets of Varese by an elderly gentleman who has probably ridden it through those same streets every day for the last fifty odd years. He had obviously taken great care of it as the black paint and chrome lugs gleamed like new. The Campagnolo Sport single roller three speed derailleur seemed to be working as well as it did in 1955. The full chaincase kept his suit pants off the chain.

These museums are just two of more than twenty museums dedicated to cycling in Italy. The only other one that I have visited is the Museo Nicolas near Verona. That is a wonderful private collection of vintage cars, motor bikes and bikes. It is well worth a visit.

Further details: www.museodeicampionissimi.comune.noviligure.al.it



OAP said...

Those are really interesting bikes! The Moser record bike looks like a Dali painting and the Bianchi's hidden rods mechanism is mind boggling.

Coppi's mechanics must have had very strong thumbs to close those QRs properly!

PS. if we could have access to close-up pics it'd be great!

dbrk said...

wonderful, mike. if you've more photos, please post them. some of us are eager to see more! thanks for the great note.

wayne@learningblueprint.ca said...

Great fun reading your blog, thank you for taking the time to post.
Wayne Jolly

Anonymous said...

Mike, go to this website and you will find out how Taurus resolved the internal brake rods. Quite simple actually:


Davide said...

Dear friend, I look for along time ago, photos of Moser bike that Francesco used in Messico 1994. Please if someone have photos of this revolutionary bike, I hope that he can send me them to:


Bruce said...

Hi Mike:

Your comments on the fixie craze for rear-opening dropouts are well-taken. I've always assumed that they're configured this way to prevent the axles from shifting under the enormous power of the track rider's furious pedaling. But road racers exert as much force as track riders. What other reason could there be for a rear-opening dropout?



Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Mike! You may remember me from our RAF days...it's Ronnie Johnston here (from Berwick-on-Tweed, Northumberland, England). I've tried to get in touch for years and have now found you through our new laptop! Contact you soon on e-mail/phone. All the Best, Ron.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the nice pics of Coppi's special six-day build. I manage a site for my good friend and frame builder Peter Dreesens. He just finished a re-do on a customer's road frame. The story is that years ago Dreesens saw pictures in a magazine of Coppi racing six days w/ horizontal road dropouts.
He used the idea and trimmed off the hangar for a customer that wanted a road dedicated fixed gear. New paint and decals were done too.
Here's the page on the site: http://dreesens.wordpress.com/2010/08/29/just-like-coppi/

I stumbled on your site looking for pics of this bike Peter was talking about, voila!
Your blog is nice!

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Larry and Heather said...

Nice post, thanks! We include a visit to Novi's Museum of Champions during our La Primavera tour in May and Magni's museum in Lombardia during our Legendary Climbs tour. And of course WE pay the admission fees! www.cycleitalia.com

Anonymous said...

I own a bike, looks a lot like the wooden one, it was build around 1936. How can I find out what the value is on this bike. I like to find it another home where it is appreciated more.

Anonymous said...

i recently bought a vittoria bike with the front bike plate saying vittoria made in italy marca de fabricca and it has an olympic symbol on it trying to find out more about it can anyone help.....????