By Phil Miano
Before Colnago, before Derosa, there was Cicli Mondonico, an artisan bicycle
frame shop in Milan, Italy, founded by Giuseppe Mondonico in 1929. While today
you can find the carbon wonder bikes of the larger, better known Italian bicycle
frame factories in the thousands around the world, you can also find Giuseppe’s
son and grandson, Antonio and Mauro Mondonico, building each year a few hundred
bicycle frames by hand in their backyard shop outside Milan, Italy.
Cicli Mondonico in 1929.
The Mondonicos are quite literally “Old School”. Antonio is fond of saying
that he grew up with “steel filings underneath his fingernails” from helping his
father in the frame shop. Antonio has built bicycle frames all of his life,
initially with his dad, and then for Motta, Cinelli and Colnago. He was also a
partner and supervised all production for Guerciotti during the glory years of
the late 1970’s through the mid 1980’s.
Regardless of the name on the down tube, Antonio applies the art of melding
steel tubing together with pins, sand cast lugs and bronze to each frame set
that he creates. I recently visited with the Mondonicos as they began a custom
fitting tour of the US, organized by their exclusive US importer, Bill Semonian,
founder of Torelli Imports. I caught up with the Mondonicos at Smart Cycles in
Norwalk, Connecticut, the third of 23 shops they will visit in 10 days in the
Antonio Mondonico is probably past legal retirement age in most western
countries that have rules about such things. I only know this from my pre-visit
research and some simple math, knowing how long he’s been brazing up world-class
framesets. In person he is energetic and quite debonair. Attired in a long
sleeve azure blue polo shirt with “Cicli Mondonico” embroidery he exemplifies
Italian style. Assisted by his son Mauro, Antonio measures each new Mondonico
owner. Antonio works quickly, taking perhaps 20 minutes with each person for the
actual measurements. Like any master craftsman he makes his art look easy.
Antonio Mondonico measuring a Mondonico owner.
Much more was happening as became evident as the frame spec sheet was
reviewed with each client. As usual, top tube and seat tube length varied by the
riders size, but how about 3 different choices of tying the seat stays to the
top tube depending on rider and their riding style, or specifying a mix of 3
separate tubing types in a frame to provide optimum performance? A full analysis
of the merits of a custom frame goes beyond the scope of this report, but let it
suffice to say that a box of Columbus tubing brazed up on an assembly line may
look the same on paper, but is a poor imitation of a custom frame done right.
Amazingly, while certainly not inexpensive, custom frames by Mondonico can be
had for less money then the bigger “name” Italian brands.
But how do they ride? Conveniently enough I had recently replaced my Trek
5500 primary ride with a Mondonico Futura Leggero fashioned with Columbus Brain
OS tubing. Built up with Shimano Dura-Ace components and a few trick bits such
as a carbon FSA crank set with ti bottom bracket and a ti Cinelli Grammo
threaded stem, my steel frame and steel fork bicycle weighed in at just 19 lbs.
Mondonico Futura Leggero
I use a 5.2-mile circuit from my home for my everyday morning training laps.
It features both flats and a decent climb with some twisty 90-degree turns mixed
in. The Mondonico was pleasant as any high dollar bicycle should be on initial
rides but felt a bit off on the hills and when sprinting out of the saddle in
comparison to the Trek. Instead of the immediate gratification that the Trek
gave me, the Mondonico felt, well, different.
It was only after several 6:30am rides, a rainy hilly century and an
impromptu sprint and 4 mile, 40 mph motor pace behind a moving van that the
Mondonico revealed itself to me. At times the bicycle disappears underneath me
and I ride with the utmost ease, sometimes I get out of the saddle and sprint
and look with disbelief that my accurate Cateye computer is showing 35 mph, but
overall I get the feeling that this bike is telling me, “Ride me, I will show
you how it's done; ride me.”
I can tell you how Antonio builds his frames, how he is careful not to
overheat each joint so as not to make a “hard” frame, but I think the ride is
something different, something to learn over a long time. Like Grappa or Verdi
or Palladio, this is an acquired taste that reveals its riches over time. A lot
to say about a bicycle? Sure, but that is the romance of it all. How Italian!
“La bicicletta che vince.”
Antonico Mondonico, Phil Miano, Mauro Mondonico.
Special thanks to Bill Semonian of Torelli
Imports, Alex from Smart Cycles,
Norwalk, Connecticut USA, and Antonio and Mauro Mondonico.
P.S. Visit Bill’s web site for huge amounts of great information about
cycling and bicycles.
"Chairman Bill" Semonian of Torelli.com