Faliero Masi made some of the best bicycles that not many people have ever heard of. Known as “il Sarto,” or “The Tailor,” Masi was born in Sesto Fiorentino in 1908 where he learned how to build bikes at Cicli Compostini. He raced for Compostini and competed in the Giro d’Italia in 1931 and 1932. Masi retired from racing in 1946 and then embarked on his framebuilding career.
Masi established his first shop in Sesto Fiorentino but moved to Milan in 1949. The first shop in Milan was on Via Michelino da Besozzo, but a few months later, Masi moved into the now legendary shop under the curve of the Vigorelli Velodrome where it is located today.
Masi built bikes for some of the greatest cyclists to ever race – Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet, Miguel Poblet, Rik Van Looy, Jacques Anquetil, Felice Gimondi, Vittorio Adorni, and of course, Eddy Merckx, among others.
During the early 70’s the US experienced an energy crisis and a cycling boom. Several Italian bike makers including Bianchi, Colnago, and Masi were approached by American businessman Roland Sahn who wanted to acquire the rights to build and market their bikes in the US. All turned down his offer except for Masi. In 1972, Masi sold the rights to the Cicli Masi name and trademark to Sahn and travelled to the US to help set up a manufacturing plant in Carlsbad California. In his absence, his son Alberto took over frame building at the old workshop under the Vigorelli.
After a dispute arose with the US investors, Masi returned to Italy and severed relations with the US Masi operation. Since the name and trademark was still owned by the US company, Masi was unable to sell bikes under their own name in the US, a situation that persists to this day. Today the rights to the Masi name and trademark in the US are owned by Haro Bikes. Several of the big names in American frame building like Brian Bayliss, Jim Cunningham, Dave Moulton, and David Tesch learned their craft at the Masi plant in California.
Considering the stature of the bikes he built and the impressive list of clients, Masi’s operation was surprising modest and never produced more than 1000 frames a year. Each Italian Masi frame then, as now, was built to measure – no mass production for Masi.
Faliero Masi died in 2000 and the business was taken over by his son Alberto who learned everything there was to know about bikes and bike building from his father. When he was 16, he was Fauto Coppi’s mechanic at the Giro d’Italia. In 1982, he built the first bike made with oversized and ovalized tubes – the Volumetrica. Alberto makes about 500 frames a year and sells a small number of them in the US under the Milano name.
Because Cicli Masi is completely separate from Masi USA, there can be a lot of confusion about the origin of a bike – whether it was actually built by Faliero or Alberto Masi, or by Masi USA. To muddy the waters further, some Masi USA frames are actually built in Italy, but not by Masi. Pre 1972 Masi’s, for example the Gran Criterium, Speciale, or Special Corsa were made in Italy, either at the shop under the Vigorelli or by skilled subcontractors approved and supervised by Faliero.
Production of US made Masi’s started in 1973, first under the supervision of Faliero Masi and then Mario Confrente. How do you know if you have an Italian or American Masi built after 1973? Well, it’s all in the numbers. Italian built bikes have the frame size stamped on the bottom bracket and sometimes a matching size stamp and date stamp on the head tube. American made Masi’s have a serial number (with a few exceptions) or a serial number and frame size stamp. Gran Criteriums built after 1978 are US made. So, if you want to buy an Italian made Masi, do your homework. Even buying one made in Italy doesn’t guarantee that it was made at the shop under the Vigorelli.
Although a lot of famous cyclists rode a Masi, one bike is probably the most famous Masi of them all – the US built, 1978 Gran Criterium ridden by Dennis Christopher (and stunt riders) for the movie “Breaking Away.” You will likely be hard pressed to find a serious cyclist who has not seen this movie multiple times.
So, if you happen to be looking for a vintage bike to add to your collection and a classic Masi comes your way, especially one built under the Vigorelli, don’t let it get away. The pantheon of great Italian bikes is large, but few classic bikes have the mystique of a Masi touched by the hands of the great Faliero or Alberto Masi.
Here’s an interesting bit of Breaking Away trivia. During the making of the movie, a Sears Free Spirit bike was repainted to make it look like a Gran Criterium. It was mounted on a platform and was used for close-ups of Dave. How can you spot the prop bike? It had Weinmann brakes and the brake cable is mounted on the side opposite to the cable on a Campagnolo brake caliper.