The Mondonico family might be the oldest Italian framebuilding dynasty. Starting in 1929 with Giuseppe Mondonico and his brother Angelo, the Mondonicos have been personally building steel, lugged frames with their own hands (to see some photos from this era, click here). That tradition has continued right up to today, with third generation builder Mauro Mondonico working side by side with his father, Antonio. The family's involvement with cycling and racing is deeper now than ever.
The Mondonicos believe that their family has always lived in Concorezzo, a small village just outside Milan, very near the famous Monza Motor Speedway. Giuseppe Mondonico, the founder of the Mondonico shop, and his brother Angelo had been industrial mechanics. No one knows anymore exactly what that work entailed. But the family knows that they were always mad about bicycles, cycling and cycle racing. The pictures of Binda and Girardengo in the opening credits of OLN's Giro d'Italia are from Giuseppe Mondonico's collection of racers and racing from that great age of cycling.
On opening the shop in 1929, Giuseppe immediately started building frames and supplying the local racers. No one knows where Giuseppe acquired this skill. Mauro supposes that other framebuilders had taught him. While Giuseppe built frames, Angelo did the repairs. At that time in Italy, this was a big and important business because bicycles were the primary form of transport, especially in a small village like Concorezzo.
In those pre-war years, Giuseppe built frames using both Columbus and Falck tubing. The special characteristic of Mondonico frame building, the use of pins to secure the joints instead of a tack braze, had not yet been adopted. That came later.
With the coming of the great worldwide depression in 1932, Mauro says, the majority of the work done in the shop was in repairs. It was a hard job because in those days, no one had much money to pay for their work. Giuseppe and Angelo had to work long hours for very small sums of money.
Giuseppe and Angelo worked in the shop together through the war. As the economy had strengthened some in the ensuing years, life was a bit kinder to the Mondonico family. They opened a coffee shop (called a "bar" in Italy) next to the bike shop.
At the end of the war, the economy and conditions in general in Italy were terrible. The famous movie The bicycle thief shows the poverty of that time, in which there could be no more valuable possession than a bicycle and the mobility it could give. After the war, Angelo left the shop to return to industrial work. He passed away in 1971.
Meanwhile, Giuseppe continued to work in the shop, building frames and repairing bikes. As Antonio grew up, he worked in the shop. As a young man, Antonio was given the job of working on the racing bikes. The frames Antonio built then used Columbus SL and SP tubing. In those days, the lugs were long and heavy, called "lastra", being pressed and welded. The modern investment cast lugs didn't start showing up until 1977-1978.
When Giuseppe died December 30, 1973, the shop was closed. Antonio went to work in other framebuilding shops that were looking for a skilled builder. He worked in Gianni Motta's shop for two years, 1976 and 1977. He then moved on to the Colnago shop and built frames there until 1979. Colnago, as a young man, rode for a team that was headquartered in Giuseppe's shop and would visit the Mondonico home. In Italy, the cycling world is one big family.
While Mondonico worked at the Motta shop, he also worked as a team mechanic. This work was completely unrelated to his duties at Motta. This was purely an avocation born of love of the sport. Antonio had a French friend who was bringing strong riders into Italy, among them, a young Sean Kelly. Antonio was this team's mechanic. Antonio still remembers the your amateur Kelly who came to sleep in the Mondonico home in Concorezzo before riding and winning the Piccolo Giro di Lombardia. Mondonico has said that when a builder not only builds the bikes, but goes into the field and assists the racer, he gains insights that are impossible to gain any other way. Faliero Masi, another of the great Milan builders, calls it the only laboratory for a builder. In this modern age of multi-million dollar teams, this laboratory is almost impossible to re-create.
In 1979, Antonio Mondonico opened his own shop, and the Mondonico name was again available to discerning riders. There had never been a time when Antonio didn't build frames in his adult life. But for several years, it was always for others and it was those others who sold his work with their name.
Throughout the late 1970's and early 1980's, Paolo Guerciotti experienced a boom in demand for his bikes and frames. He needed a guiding hand to make sure that the frames were of high quality. Up until then, Guerciotti had several different builders building his frames. In 1984, Paolo Guerciotti and Antonio Mondonico went into partnership to produce both Guerciotti and Mondonico frames. They were wildly successful, with Antonio supervising the production of about 2,000 frames a year.
But, as they worked together, it became apparent that their goals were not really identical. Realizing this, they ended the partnership in 1989. Antonio returned to his real love; building a few, special frames, with his own hands. Instead of the big, tilt-up concrete factory under Guerciotti-Mondonico Cycles, the Mondonico shop is in the back of their house. There, as Antonio and now the third generation builder Mauro work, there is a constant stream of cycling and racing aficionados, coming to visit and talk bikes and racing.
Mondonico has built frames that have won Classics and graced the podium of both the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia. Sadly, as in years past, others got to take the credit for Mondonico's work. The frames he built for Claudio Chiappucci, as with Singer for Poulidor and Masi for Merckx, received the decals of other factories.
Today, Antonio and Mauro work side by side in their small shop, using many of the very same tools that grandfather Giuseppe used. There has been no change in the importance of handwork. Care and time reign supreme. Mauro prepares the materials. He cuts and miters the tubes and files and readies the lugs. Mauro also brazes in the fork tips, brazes on the “braze-ons” and assembles the main triangle in the jig. Antonio brazes up the main triangles, assembles the whole frame together, making sure it is all straight and correct. Mauro then does the final sandblasting and filing.
While the Mondonico specialty is lugged frames, they also build silver fillet brazed frames. With the advent of multi-shaped mega tubes, lugs cannot always be used to join the tubes. Of course, the Mondonicos have not only adopted modern, super-thinwall steel tubes in the different sizes and shapes, they also use carbon for the rear triangle. Yet, their heart is in steel. While every other builder has run from steel, the Mondonicos embrace it, loving its beautiful feel, long life and grace appearance.
With luck, that tradition will continue long into the future as riders looking for that beautiful, perfect ride rather than the material or trend of the day, seek out the Mondonicos and one of their beautiful hand-made frames.
There are many intangible reasons why a demanding rider would want a Mondonico bicycle: their beauty, their handling, among others. We'll discuss those, but there are some specific, quantifiable reasons why a Mondonico frame is the best of Italian bikes.
Antonio at work
Nearly all builders assemble the tubes of a frame on a large steel flat plate called a jig. Each joint is heated to brazing temperature and a bit of brass is applied. This is known as "tack brazing". The frame is then put on an alignment table and made straight. The frame is then put in a stand much like bike shops use to repair bikes and the lugs are completely brazed up.
While this is the technique of nearly all builders, it is not the technique of Mondonico. Tack brazing requires that the tubes be heated twice, robbing the special, exotic cycle tubes of some of their special qualities. When the tubes are assembled on the jig, Mondonico drills each lug and inserts a tapered steel pin. Then the frame is aligned and brazed up. The joint is heated only once, preserving the resilience of the Columbus tubing that Mondonico uses. The pins are then filed flush with the lugs. Obviously, this is a vastly more time-consuming method. Feel the inside of the tubes of a Mondonico frame at the bottom bracket. You can feel the pins, your guarantee that at least one craftsman is dedicated to making the best, not the most.
If a Mondonico frame is so great, then why don't we see Tour de France teams riding these bikes? To equip a major pro team requires millions of dollars. A builder must pay 100's of thousands of dollars to equip even a mid-level team. There is no way that an artisan building a few frames can sponsor a team. It is an interesting paradox that the bikes that are often the most highly thought of by some enthusiasts because of their racing promotion are those that are the products of near mass production: "industrial frames", we call them. Yet, Mondonico frames have seen racing success at the highest levels. Mondonico is what is known as a "framebuilder of trust". This is a builder that builds for top pros, yet supplies their frames unpainted. The rider then has the frame painted in the team colors. This is an old tradition, because top riders often want that edge that the finest builders can give them. Singer of Paris built for Polidor, Masi built for Merckx and Coppi. Among others, Mondonico has built for Chiappucci.
It is time to discuss why an Italian frame and specifically a Mondonico frame should be the choice of a serious rider.
Why should you buy one?
There is only one place in the world where there is a happy meeting of a resident professional racing class, frame builders, raw material suppliers and component manufacturers. That place is northern Italy. The builder hears from the finest riders in the world, and can then communicate immediately to the tubing makers and other suppliers exactly what these demanding and skilled riders have to say. It's like a nuclear reactor with the carbon rods removed. There is nothing to slow down the communication. The proximity and the pride of these master Italian builders also fuels a competitive spirit that drives them to seek perfection. The closeness to the racing competition also makes them practical builders. There is a slow evolution of design grounded in the need to produce a bike that wins, not innovation for its own sake.
The great builders rarely enter the trade without a long apprenticeship. Many are former racers. Others, like Mondonico, grew up surrounded by bikes and framebuilding. To quote Will Durant in The Life of Greece, "...a long lineage of masters and pupils carrying on the skills of their art, checking the extravagances of independent individualities, ...disciplining them with a sturdy grounding in the technology and achievements of the past, and forming them, through this interplay of talent and law, into a greater art than often comes to genius isolated and unruled. Great artists are more frequently the culmination of a tradition than its overthrow...." So it is with bikes, and so it is with Mondonico.
Fashions in frame geometry change almost yearly. One year, seat tubes have to be ninety degrees. The next year, they have to be laid back. Mondonico spurns this sort of pop trendiness. There are a few unyielding rules of ergonometrics that generate the specific way a Mondonico frame is laid out. Only over the longest time will these measurements change, and only when the change is proven to improve the bike. Each size of a Mondonico has its own geometry. A 6'4 man is not a scaled up version of a 5'5 man. The proportionally longer arms and legs of the larger rider require specific solutions. This specificity is time consuming. Factories like to use the same jig settings, even the same length tubes in different size frames if possible. This does not happen with a Mondonico. The Mondonico of a given size is the result of many, many years of design evolution aimed at creating the ultimate stage-racing bicycle.
A Mondonico bike rides with a nimble, quick feel, well suited to the tastes of American riders. Yet, with this quickness, there is no loss of that most essential quality any good racing bicycle must have: stability. The rider must descend with confidence. He must know that a corner will be taken predictably. These important qualities are there in abundance in a Mondonico. Because Mondonico builds in steel, there is none of that harshness that comes with oversize, non-ferrous bikes.
There is the last question of value. Because Mondonico shuns a fancy factory, team sponsorship, and other expenses, a Mondonico is a stunning value. You will find it costs the same as most "industrial" racing frames. The discerning buyer will not be swayed by needless hype and will seek performance and beauty. This will come to him at the best possible price in the form of a Mondonico frame. Source
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