Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Closer Look at Italian City Bicycles

[Bella Ciao 'Moscova'; image via Bella Ciao]

As slyly mentioned in the comments of several previous posts, I recently received an Italian bicycle from Bella Ciao, of which a test ride report is forthcoming. Some who have noticed the bike asked about the difference between it and the Abici I test rode earlier, noting the similarities of the designs. So I thought I would take this opportunity to showcase some ladies' Italian city bicycles - and to point out that the frame is not a similarity between Abici and Bella Ciao per se, but a common design feature of Italian bicycles in general - one that differentiates them from the more familiar loop frames of Dutch and English bikes. From the "Mrs. Cinelli" bicycle I photographed at the Larz Anderson show, to the myriad of bicycles spotted in Rome by Chic Cyclists, this distinct "Frascona curve" has been a classic element of the elegant lady's transport bike in Italy for decades.

Here is Abici's take on it. Same distinct top tube curvature, but different proportions (look at the seat tube angle here compared the earlier picture of the Bella Ciao). 

[Abici 'Amante'; image via Abici]

Another Abici model. Completely different in some ways, but look at the curvature of the frame.

[Montante 'Florence'; image via Montante]

Same curvature on a Montante bicycle. (These are the people who created the gold bike on the Forbes "Most Expensive Bicycles" list.)

[Montante 'Fashion'; image via Montante]

Another Montante, for all the lovers of red bikes out there. I am pretty sure they also made the Gucci "Beijing Olympics" bike

[Orco Cicli 'Ariel'; image via Orco Cicli]

Same curvature on an Orco Cicli.

[Orco Cicli 'Nilde'; image via Orco Cicli]

And on another Orco Cicli model.

[Umberto Dei 'Regale'; image via Umberto Dei]

And same curvature on an Umberto Dei. I have actually seen a real-life Dei in person - a cream one, in Boston. (I think at some point there was a North American distributor of these bicycles, but they went out of business.) The Dei I saw was stunning, though monstrously heavy - a stark contrast to the lightweight Abici and Bella Ciao bikes. The classic Italian curve remaining a constant, other features can certainly vary. 

As I understand it, there are still many small, family-owned bicycle manufacturers in Italy who produce such traditional frames - brazed and lugged, and each in their own variation of the classic design. Some even still produce their own components and accessories. Amazing, when you consider that this culture is almost non-existent elsewhere. 

38 comments:

  1. Two of the top three slots of my current bicycle lust are taken up by the ANT Truss Bike and an Italian step through. If I lived in Italy I'd just pick up an old Atala or some such and redo it to taste. But then if I lived in Italy I'd probably be trying to figure out how to move to Austria. Just no pleasing some people.

    That Moscova is a bit over the top (and the "Fashion" is WAY over the top), but with some red panels painted on, a ring guard and vintage Campy Record brakes it might amount to something.

    I'll bet the price would be a bit over the top as well. I might wish Atala had taken the American bike boom a bit more seriously. That would make trash day a bit more fun.

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  2. I think that the Orco Cycles are different: there is no connection between the tubes in Ariel and the rake of the fork and the tilt of the head tube is different in Nilde...

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  3. "Amazing, when you consider that this culture is almost non-existent elsewhere."

    Unique indeed, but not amazing -- Italy is also the only Western European country without Starbucks. Italy likes to protect its small domestic producers -- which makes it a lovely and interesting place to visit, but does hinder the economy in certain ways. Still, I appreciate it.

    The difference between English and Italian city bikes is indeed bigger than you'd think -- I found that I could recognize a Raleigh in Florence at 100 meters, in a sea of Italian bikes, by geometry alone.

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  4. When I lived in Paris, I often used an Italian city bicycle lent to me by the Maltese concierge in my apartment building. It was gorgeous and looked like every other Italian city bike I have ever seen, and all those above.

    I often think Italian bikes would do well here in NYC because people so often are carrying their bikes up flights of stairs. OTOH, their minimal gorgeousness tugs at the heartstrings of style-conscious New Yorkers and blah blah theft etc.

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  5. I love the coral-and-beige Montante. And kfg, I remember those Atalas: they had a really nice curve to the top tube. They actually made a frame like that with Columbus tubing and equipped it with good alloy components (e.g., Stronglight cranks and Weinmann brakes).

    BG: It's ironic that Italy still doesn't have Starbuck's because the founders of Starbucks styled their original cafes after Italian coffee houses. Then again, that might be the reason why Italy doesn't have Starbucks: What would be the point of having them?

    Your point about how Italy protects its smaller manufacturers is good. However, it might actually help them in the long run by giving the country niches in the world economy.

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  6. kfg - You think the Moscova is over the top?? That bike is like my idea of the little black dress! Probably the most elegant modern women's bike I have seen thus far, at least judging by pictures. (Though I would replace the headset immediately.)

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  7. I hope you won't be offended if I ask what the retail price of the Bella Ciao is in Euro? I am curious to know how the price point compares to the various Abici models.

    LOVE Italian city bikes... enough to make me daydream about getting one of these in addition to my ANT (apparently my greed for lovely city bikes knows no bounds).

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  8. Anon - The retail price in the EU translates to just around $1,000 from what I can tell, but I have no idea what it would be if the bikes were imported into the US. I think it depends on the dealer they make an agreement with, the quantities shipped at a time, etc.

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  9. Well, my idea of the bike version of the little black dress is the little black bike :)

    Perhaps "over the top" isn't exactly what I meant. Just yesterday I was shopping generic chrome frames for a possible custom cruiser project (my mind has been getting all funny lately), so I like my chrome, but I think it needs some sort of accenting to break it up a hair, or it can appear to be just one big lump of undifferentiated shiny.

    A decal, a panel, maybe a pinstrip. Something else for the eye to rest on that isn't just reflection. Even the little black dress needs a string of pearls or a gold chain with a locket to make it work.

    Agree on the headset though. Getting the black headset and stem off the Redline 925 is up there on the "to do" list.

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  10. Pinstriping could work, and brown leather accessories would warm it up - but something in me is drawn to its unapproachable Ice Queen look as is. The tragic thing is that actually offered me this bike, but I couldn't handle the idea and went for the standard production model : )

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  11. Well for some reason "unapproachable ice queen" isn't the vibe that fills my heart with warm, pink fuzzies and makes me want to take it home a keep forever. I'm just funny that way.

    "actually offered me this bike"

    Really? Oh, my. Well, it's probably just as well, or I'd probably be on an Amtrak right now, with a crowbar, and the whole thing probably wouldn't work out very pretty.

    In the meantime I guess the pic will replace the Bugatti as my desktop wallpaper for awhile. It's a pretty serious piece of "you want me" bike porn (see today's BSNYC), given that I'm imagining it putting on some clothes.

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  12. What I find intriguing is that Bella Ciao is in fact a German company located in Berlin, which buys these frames with the Frascona curve from a supplier in Northern Italy, then has them powder coated in Germany as Italian paint is not all that durable (as owners of Alfa Romeo cars may know only too well), and builds them up in Germany with German and Japanese components (they say so on their website). Does this constitute Italian manufacture? According to this reasoning, most bikes in the world would be Chinese.

    BTW the president of FIAT Motors caused quite a stir this week when he said that FIAT might do well to close its factories in Italy as their quality is poor and productivity is low. So much for protection of home manufacture. Although Mr Marchionne is of course predominantly Canadian.

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  13. Oh my. I am wondering if you'll be hanging up some of these city-queen beauties in the kitchen soon...

    It reminds one of a certain vintage Lygie with crazy-beautiful lugs, which unfortunately slipped through our fingers.

    I am looking forward to the ride report. That is a stunning green by the way- one of the best factory colors I've seen outside of a 1958 VW color chart.

    Corey K

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  14. Frits B said...
    "...Does this constitute Italian manufacture? According to this reasoning, most bikes in the world would be Chinese."


    While I dislike the fact that most bikes today are made in China, I would not call them "Chinese" unless the design itself is Chinese. Flying Pigeons are Chinese bikes. Current production Batavus, however, are a Dutch design, made in China.

    Contrary to this, Bella Ciao bikes not just made by an Italian frame builder. The design itself is Italian. As for the company itself, I would call it international, as the owners reside all over the place.

    On a separate note, I don't know how I feel about Shimano components on classic city bicycles. Not because they are Japanese (Sturmey Archer is, what, Taiwanese now?), but because of how dramatically their look clashes with the frames. Just my opinion.

    Corey - Yes, I love the colour, though I think even the folks at Bella Ciao cringed when I asked for it : )) If I keep this bike in the long run, then I will most likely sell one of the ones I already own. Did not plan on this acquisition.

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  15. You cruel person, Velouria, posting such lustworthy bicycles all in one place! The Moscova is indeed elegant but I've lost my heart to the Orco Ariel. Light and elegant in design -a very modern take on a classic bike - but solid and useful in function. And that colour just does it for me. A shame the chainguard looks determinedly plastic, but I could live with that if one turned up on my doorstep. Bella...molto bella... *sigh*

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  16. Carinthia - I am pretty sure Orco Cicli delivers to Australia : ))
    (Oh, I am bad!)

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  17. Love the slack seat tube. Hot.

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  18. ... BTW, I am now thinking that the chrome bicycle should perhaps have been made in gold? ("Opulence... I has it")

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  19. I want a Bella Ciao Neorealista. That's all there is to it.

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  20. I love that Italian curve! I wish I had a bender that had a large enough radius to make that curve :( I have one that can get close, but not close enough. I have been looking at this style of bike for sometime now and after this post you made it has inspired me to work harder!

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  21. Velouria said...."Did not plan on this acquisition" -- though how often does one plan on an aquisition that really becomes necessary because of a chance introduction? You can't plan for some of the best things....

    I've always loved that curvature. I wonder if it has a functional origin, or how/why it became an esthetic trademark.... Gorgeous.

    Look forward to the ride report, and how it will or won't fit into your stable of bicycles--and how that stable might change over time with other unplanned aquisitions. Is it fair to say there might be more of those? :)

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  22. Frits - My Magneet proudly displays a "Made in Holland" decal at the top of the seat tube, and the frame was, but the design resembles an English impression of an Italian bike, the mechs ARE Italian, the wheels German, the cranks and tires English, the brakes and kickstand Swiss . . .

    But I'd posit that the Made in Holland sticker is accurate enough.

    Velouria - "I would not call them "Chinese" unless the design itself is Chinese."

    My "Schwinn" cruiser, on the other hand, is of "American" design down to some very small details, but the original was actually designed by a German and it was 100% made in China without so much as even an American holding company involved.

    I consider it as Chinese as a Flying Pigeon (a localized knockoff of an English design).

    Jeanette - Oddly enough this relates to a very long mixte post I haven't actually written yet :) Since I look at a mixte from an engineering point of view, if it don't have twin tubes that run from the head tube to the rear dropout, it ain't a mixte, because it doesn't accomplish the STRUCTURAL goal of the design (which is to stabilize the head tube). The "Mixte" that just has extra stays in the rear isn't a real mixte, it's just a step through, but the extra stays DO play a functional role; they take what would be a bending point load on the seat tube and distribute it across the rear triangle.

    The Italian way of doing it also addresses the issue of the bending load on the seat tube, but by spreading the load over a larger area of the tube and giving the load transferring member a bit of spring to it.

    Plus it looks smashing.

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  23. hello! Been in Italy for two weeks visiting three of the most cycle-friendly Italian cities I have ever seen. The bike there is second nature, an obvious choice of transport for everyday life. There's still, thankfully, a real appreciation of craft and skills, so I am pleased to say that small family businesses are still supported. There's also an element of appreciating things that are quite unique and not mass-produced :)

    I've posted about the trip on my blog :)

    L x

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  24. "Carinthia - I am pretty sure Orco Cicli delivers to Australia : ))
    (Oh, I am bad!)"
    Bad doesn't begin to describe it!! I think I'll have to contact Orco Cicli and find out their pricing, just to put myself out of my misery (or give me hope!) :-)

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  25. i like the italian curve a lot, but i think whoever built the moscova in the first photo should resign, having marred that beautiful curve by running the brake cable so haphazardly. i couldn't live with a detail like that... especially at that price point!

    fritz-- the issue of "origin" is a complicated one, and one that i would be interested in having a discussion about. i've often wondered if my american designed and built trek (designed and built in waterloo, wisconsin) isn't more japanese, since just about every part that hangs from it was made in japan. what contributes more to the "feel" or character of a bike: the design, the frame construction, or the components? this has been touched upon in an earlier post, but i don't think there's any one easy answer. given the origin of the raw materials going into the bella ciao bikes, i i really don't know if i would be inclined at this point to consider them "italian". possibly, if only for the characteristic frame design, but i'm still not sure. it is an interesting question.

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  26. I was inspired to splurge (just for fun, really) on a single speed Abici granturismo (in grigio) by Velouria's test ride a couple of months ago (thank you!), and I've been loving the surprising combination of sportiness and a gloriously upright position (I'm on the tiny frame and it fits perfectly at 5' 2"), as well as that special Italian curviness in the loop frame. I've diminished the simplicity a bit by adding a lovely Bobbin and Sprocket skirt guard, as well as a rear rack. So I'm now wondering whether one can have that exquisite Orco Cicli Ariel as a 3-speed (the example on their website seems to be single speed), as well as about their prices. I'm in the middle of selling my car (hooray!), but I really should wait and see if I manage to get tenure before I add another bike to join the Pashley, Betty Foy and Abici in the stable/garage...

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  27. Oh. My. Goodness. You were offered the Moscova and didn't take it?!? That is a seriously beautiful bike. Though I'd probably prefer it in a matte silver finish, just to avoid putting people's eyes out! The "Opulence... I Has It" clip absolutely cracked me up. How did I miss this? I love this blog!

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  28. OK, i have to ask: What's wrong with the Moscova's headset? I imagine it has something to do with the same thing that's wrong with shimano components, or moto-style brake levers, or unicrown forks.... But, i just want to be sure.

    -rob

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  29. The Bicycle Thief is a fantastic movie for all you Italocyclophiles. Check it out!

    Also, Velouria have you heard of alpinabike.com?

    They make Italian style bicycles in Romania. Very cool and much more affordable.

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  30. rob - The headset has these black parts in it that the eye gets drawn to immediately. Why not use a regular all-silver headset?

    Mr. Haramis - where in Romania? I was in Bucharest over the summer and did not see anything resembling these bikes.

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  31. I have recently rebuilt an Italian bike and it's simply amazing. The frame is a Lygie, built in 1974 with gorgeous lugging with a mostly chrome finish. It was designed as a light road bike that I now use for my daily commuting, as well as for my bicycling fantasies.

    Although I've added on some newer components (BB and crank) as well as sourced some used parts (the rear-wheel is definitely the cheapest component on the set up) the bike as a whole simply flies. Plus I am completely in love with the curvature of my top tube, just like the ones in these newer models.

    My budding romance with my Lygie has definitely sparked my interest in other Italian frames!

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  32. Julianne...Your Lygie...this wasn't a green/chrome one off of the SF Bay Area Craigslist, perchance?

    If so, congrats, that's the very one I let get away.

    Corey K

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  33. Corey, no, I found mine hanging from the ceiling in Bikerowave in Venice CA (http://www.bikerowave.org/). It's truly a wonderful bike and I'm glad I took a leap of faith in my ability to revive an old frame.

    I'm working on getting a post about it up on my site that I can forward when it's done to make you really drool.

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  34. No idea where in Romania. But I e-mailed them and they explained that the frames were built in Romania; however, the company is Italian.

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  35. By the way: I should have asked this earlier, but can somebody please explain the shape of the fenders to me? It looks like the rear of the front fenders is flared, or extra thick?..

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  36. I'm drawn to balloon tire bikes. I was happy to hear Yuba Bicycles may import the BigBoy into the USA in 2011.

    I want something that is as functional as the Retrovelo but not with the price-tag. And it is German-made.

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  37. Although I already own a Swedish Pilen (based on the Swedish Military bicycles) I recently purchased a slightly damaged (a small dent on inner side of the chain-case) blue Abici Gran Turismo Uomo single-speed simply because I have a huge fondness for the Italian bicycle tradition and their simple elegance.

    The Abici is so light and nimble and is a perfect companion to my Pilen, which is a surefooted, free-rolling gentle giant. While the Pilen is better made the lightness of the Abici certainly holds tremendous appeal and garners looks.

    My passion for bicycles has led me to investigate frame-making courses with a view to making my own bicycles in the Italian tradition. Early days yet and there's much to learn but I think there's a real market for such bikes in cities where urban cycling is a growing phenomenon.

    Cicli Blume - yet another italian manufacturer to consider:
    http://www.cicliblume.it/site/

    These appear to be a tad cheaper than the Bella Ciao's and Abici's.

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  38. Take a look to www.rossignoli.it cheapest but I think very beautiful bycicles.
    Garibaldi 71 mmmmhhh...starts at around 400 euros....I asked for it by email..but I'm italian, no problem for getting one, just a two hours trip to Milan, I don't know about shipping abroad.

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