Sunday, December 12, 2010

Confente, the "Stradivarius" Bicycle

The following article was written by Gabriele Alloro for the Montorio community website. Montorio, in Verona province (abbreviated VR), is the birthplace of Mario Confente. The article was later translated by Carol Saito. Mr. Alloro interviewed Gianna Confente, Mario's sister, as part of his research for the article.

Note: The search feature to the right works best for finding previous articles, of which there are many, in this blog Mario Confente.

MARIO CONFENTE, the "Stradivarius" bicycle

Mario Confente: an unknown name for many, which conceals a talent, a mechanical genius, yet at the same time, a humble, hard-working man with a big heart that deserves to be remembered and treasured.

The “love story” with his bicycle began when he was thirteen when he started racing and later producing bicycles of the highest quality that he was defined him by his friend and team-mate Jim Cunningham the “Stradivarius" bicycle.

Mario Confente was born in Montorio Veronese on 29 January 1945 from a modest family. Third son and only boy of five children, he didn’t have an easy childhood; he began working very young as an apprentice in a local hardware shop owned by Mr. Carli in via Olivé 26, but his nature and passion for mechanics were soon noticed by Antonio Tiberghien who, knowing Mario because he was friends with his kids, offered him a job as a frame repairer in the large wool mill he owned. Some time before this he enrolled in the professional school “L. Da Vinci” where he had the possibility of learning more on mechanics.

As many of his friends, racing bicycles fascinated Mario. He was only thirteen years old when he became part of the “S.S. Aquilotti Veronesi” team and a few years later he won the provincial junior championship with the CS Gaiga Verona shirt. Seen he was a very good passiste, at eighteen he was called by the G.S. Bencini team, the best “amateur” category team, under the guidance of the sports director Guido Zamperioli, obtaining great results in the 1963- period 66:

*1963: Flaviano Vicentini wins the “amateur” World Championship;

*1964: Pietro Guerra and Severino Andreoli win the Silver medal at Tokyo Olympics in the 100 km team time trail specialty;

*1965: Italy wins the gold medal in the 100 km team time trail World Championship: Pietro Guerra and Severino Andreoli are members of the quartet;

*1966: Bronze medal 100 km team time trail, World Championships, Pietro Guerra is a member of the quartet.

Due to the demands of this higher level of competition with G.S. Bencini, Mario chose to quit his job and race full-time. Soon he was traveling with the team to Turin, Milan and Switzerland. He supplemented his income by building frames in the “Grandis” lab in Verona. As semi-professional he obtained good results and placing winning a few races. His team-mates remember him like this:

“Mario was a strong rider, not strong enough to always win, but enough to always make it among the first classified. He sacrificed a lot for the team during a break away or to block, while a companion took a flight for victory” (Severino Andreoli).

“I met Mario when I was seventeen and he was sixteen. We were in a gym and became friends almost immediately even if we raced in different teams. He had a nice personality and got along with everyone even during the races. He was generous and highly esteemed for his passion for cycling. He distinguished himself for the attention, maintenance and care he had for his bicycle. He usually was the one to fix my bike and he taught me also to pick wild!” (Renzo Ferrari).

“Mario did not win a lot of races but he was strong, generous, and always ready to help everyone” (Pietro Guerra).

When G.S. Bencini closed Mario became part of the U.C. Veronese CSI team up to 1968 when racing on the track, he seriously injured himself and had to give up races. Overcome and deluded because he had to give up his life’s passion, he started building frames in a little lab his father built him in a small room near the kitchen. At that time the Confente family lived in “Casa Vaona”, a manor of the seventeenth century in the beginning of Montorio in Via Olmo 73, which now has been demolished (too bad!) during the first years of the 70’s and where they built a modern housing area and a small supermarket (that later became a pizza hut).

From 1968 to 1970 he built frames for the famous Bianchi company; and since work kept flowing in, he moved to a new workshop hiring apprentices to face the growing requests. The Confente family therefore left Casa Vaona and moved to via Olivé 17: the garage in the basement, even if modest, was transformed in a mechanical workshops, while the small apartment above became Mario and his parent’s home. Some time later, his old team-mates Pietro Guerra and Flaviano Vicentini (who raced with bicycles built by Mario) introduced Mario to Faliero Masi, of the Cicli Masi Company in Milan, who was greatly impressed after having personally viewed the frames of the two champions. Faliero Masi and went to Montorio, accompanied by the famous TV commentator Adriano De Zan, to talk business Mario. Masi, witnessed the slow growth of the Italian market, and was thinking of opening a company in the United States, which was experiencing a deep energetic crisis and the bicycle market was living a moment of glory. Faliero Masi sold the trademark rights to Roland Sahm, rich businessman in San Diego, who had previously contacted some Italian companies to produce bicycles under their licence. According to this agreement Masi bicycles would have been produced in the United States. Mario was offered to manage the production in the new establishment in Carlsbad near Los Angeles, where he arrived in October 1973. In the overseas Masi establishment, Mario Confente supervised the production of approximately 2200 bicycles during the following three years.

Mario’s widow Lisa, who was his fiancé at that time, remembers: “Mario had great respect of the Mexican boys working for him. He had lunch with them and became fond of tortillas. These men came from Mexico to work in the States and send the money they earned to their families at home. These were people Mario admired”. She then remembers the trip to Italy (April 1976), and when he came across Tullio Campagnolo and the champion Eddy Merckx: “He was being massaged before the Milano-San Remo race when he said ‘Hey Mario, I like your bicycles… I would like one made by you. Mario told him he would make many bicycles for him, but he would have had to sign the frames with his name”. Lisa also remembers: “In the United States one of the things Mario disliked most was the fact that he had problems with the language. In Italy he was another person: he was so strong there …”.

In 1976 Bill Recht, a New Jersey businessman, contacted Sahm offering to buy his bicycle production business. The two did not reach an agreement, but Recht was able to take Mario away from Masi California opening a lab in Los Angeles where written on the signboard was “Custom Bicycles by Confente”. Mario had the occasion to make his dream come true: from that moment his frames had is signature and the “Confente USA” trademark. One of the first things he did was contact Jerry Ash, great sprinter and track US national champion, offering to build him a custom-made frame. The result was that Ash during 1976/78 raced with a Confente frame in the World Championship and classified in 7th position in1977, result that an American hadn’t obtained in the last ten years! In the meanwhile, other top riders tried the Confente frames and went personally to Los Angeles to have them custom-made. In short time Mario’s frames became a reference point, a new construction standard.

Lisa remembers: “Mario threw himself body and soul in this adventure. He worked so hard. I would have done anything to get him out of his Los Angeles workshop, but he never came out before he finished and perfectly cleaned his lab. I would have helped him clean the floor if he would have accepted”.

Tom Kellog of Spectrum Cycles declared: “Mario built great things and pushed American bicycle builders to look beyond those simple and plain lines, making them change their way of working; his frames were the first to represent a fusion between American quality and Italian style”.

Ben Serotta added: “After having seen the Confente bicycle at the ‘New York Bicycle Show’ we noticed Mario had raised the standard”.

In an interview Mario said: “A frame has to come out perfect under all points of view. You cannot make even a half centimetre mistake. Riders would notice it right away and this would mean I’m not a serious frame builder. Therefore, maximum perfection. Frames must be precise. They have to correspond to leg, body and arm length. They mustn’t be over a kilo and a half. My frames are exactly 1,490 kg”. The secret of his welding technique was working at a temperature under the steel melting point in order not to damage, distort or crystallize the tube, to avoid exposing the molecular structure to excessive heat that would have weakened the metal. To assemble his bicycles he used only the best components: complete Campagnolo equipment, Cinelli handle bars and saddles, Clement tubular tires, Regina transmissions and chains, Reynolds and Columbus steel tubing.

As any object that is beautiful and well-made it is sold at a high price, also Mario’s frames were quite expensive and Bill Recht decided to make even more profits using the Confente trademark. Without Mario knowing this, he prepared the launch of a new less expensive frame produced in lager number and signed Confente: “Medici”, would have been presented at the following New York Bicycle Show. Shortly before the opening Mario realized that Medici was a substandard product and immediately went to Recht to give him his resignation letter; consequently he was left out of his industrial unit and deprived of his equipment. He therefore decided to move north in the only place he knew he could continue building his frames: Monterey. Some time before he had gone there to meet the American cycling rising star Jonathan Boyer and one of his sponsors, George Farrier. Now he was going there to look for a place to work. Farrier lodged him in his workshop inside his garage, which impressed Mario because so big. In there Mario and his faithful friend and collaborator Jim Cunningham (that he met in Masi towards the end of 1975) set the basis of their business. On February 12,1979 Mario married Lisa, and moved to Encinitas, a city north of San Diego on the coast; at the same time he restored his garage and opened a new shop.

On the morning of March 8, 1979 he woke up early; he had decided to go back to work for Masi for a short period of time to put some money together. He had to meet with Masi’s foreman, but as he was walking out the door he had a heart attack and fell to the ground. Mario was 34 years old and had been married for less than a month; his talent and passion, after years of bitterness and delusions were ready to open him a bright career. But, as some like saying, his task in this world had probably ended.

Mario Confente left us a precious heritage that includes 135 bicycles (124 road and 11 track bikes) with his trademark; they are appreciated for their exceptional technical and aesthetic qualities that exert a strong influence and innovative push on the market. They are considered true masterpieces and have became cult objects for collectors."

Note: I have been contacted by Russell Howe who points out that this article contains text and information from an article he first wrote. Howe's article, with appropriate credit, was published here in 2008.

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1 comment:

  1. I think your bloggers will find this interesting reading about the Confente cover shot.

    Pretty sure that is Kareem's frame.
    Purchased through Hans Ohrt Lightweight Bicycles in Westwood Village, now a Helen's Cyclery.
    And not too much later Mario got locked out of his shop.
    Built into a bike by me. Almost too long a head tube to use the Campagnolo tool kit to install the head set.
    18" seat post by Gilbert Hatton.
    180mm cranks.
    He rode the bike for all of ten minutes, and under load tried to shift too many at once.
    Collapsed the rear derailleur
    bent the rear dropout.
    I straightened it, put on a new mechanism, and gave him some shifting lessons.
    Nice guy.
    Sales price at that time was $1,800 about with tax.
    Medium dark blue with gold head tube.
    A variation on Bruin colors.
    Wilkes also bought a bike there
    And Walton bought all the players of the UCLA team custom ordered bikes when he graduated and got his first pro contract.
    A long time ago.
    Kareem's bike may or may not have perished in his house fire.
    My college room mate designed the art nouveau stair case railing in that house, pretty wild.

    John Jorgensen