Having been driven all over Europe as a child by my father and often found ourselves in northern Italy, among the various road trip memories the reaction my father made every time Milan was optioned as a route will never fade. I saw him have to park us in Turin at 10pm on a Friday night and saw it add wrinkles to a already furrowed brow. We drove to Austria one summer to cool off from Lake Garda and even unintentionally drove to Germany once because of a temporary detour, but Milan was out. That was a rule of engagement. The Milanese traffic was a myth too far for the Farmer family. Until 2015 when I drove The Belgian into central Milan to meet a frame building master and try not to crash another hire car.
My enduring memory of that high speed hot wheels track of a one way system into the heart of Italian industrialisation was stopping at a traffic light and glancing right at a couple looking longingly at a Fiat 500 dealer that was literally a car shop. Not a dealership, a three story narrow house like building with Fiat 500s parked in ever room and up the exterior walls. And one of those was of course the one they were dreaming of.
After swirling round a warp speed contraflow to the famous Vigorelli Velodrome, parking out front like an every day visitor seemed pedestrian by contrast. Unpacking cameras and notepads silently was a calm relief in an almost slow motion. A hundred metres away automotive Rollerball carried on playing another round but here we were on our feet in the way dry land must have felt to a sailor of old after they’d ‘gone round the horn‘.
As if a sign of things to come a battered and outgunned but timeless and stylish Abarth 131 Supermirafiori pulled in to the car park just as one had sat outside Marco Bertoletti’s Legend workshop on another visit. Being a child of the eighties this had rallying credence in my heart’s hard drive and I walked in smiling.
Into the walls of the velodrome to visit the man behind the historic name Masi was as mythical as it sounded as we walked into a scene like something from a 70s movie with the old guard of this neighbourhood. Resident in their chairs these friends of cycling history were seated talking to each other passionately in that Italian gesticulated way until they all turned in a filmic moment and looked directly at The Belgian and I as we walked in from another planet.
As The Belgian made his introduction to put face to emailed name, my eyes scanned the shallow room with a tall banked ceiling presumably narrow because there was a velodrome track just the other side of it. Projects and memories lined every available surface and created new ones where there was no longer space. Bikes at various stages of production and repair hung from every hook, rail or beam with accoutrements and mementos stamping numerous golden eras dotted about all over. Not in shiny things cabinets like they would be in a destination bike shop but just lying on a coffee table or sofa arm ready for their next inquisitive sitter. And the photographs and posters were like an auction house cycling history sale brochure. Signed and handed over paraphernalia from hallowed cycling names and the occasional Belgain racing driver lined the walls with family snaps and receipts pinned for future reference.
At the end of the workshop/ mates hangout den there was a narrow staircase leading up to a mezzanine room of sorts with the tail end of a huge ancient printed and painted racing poster framed and leaned up against the wall. In front of it a Faema Merckx with matching red and white signature slotted chainstays built here by Masi gleaming quietly away from the cycling world’s eyes waiting for a track pump to revive it to go out and play with the neighbours once more. The bike was something any cycling collection would cry out for but that poster was my chosen treasure find. I should have found out it’s history and age but a language barrier and assistant role to the serious work being interviewed for downstairs stopped that.
Frame building intricately continued at the bottom of the stairs as Alberto showed off some of his handywork to The Belgian, while his mates kicked back and enjoyed some of the wine dotted about with his name on. Filing and rubbing down then looking closely and doing the left side a little more, the assistant artist quietly creating an elegance long since departed in cycling, in the corner of the room while his mentors kicked back and enjoyed the nectar of their spoils through the decades. I suppose that’s a rite of passage to learn while they drink, and so they did it like one day he could.
Masi had a warm persona as he talked the Belgian through the history of these walls. My gleaning about one in twenty words meant this was to be a private history for the Italian speaking Belgian which was my loss as I had to imagine what had gone on here, for who and how little had probably changed over the decades while the outside world a hundred metres away had speeded up and got even noisier and thrustier.
The last bike we were shown before my calling to make Alberto’s portrait had the narrowest tyre clearance I’ve ever seen on a bicycle. Being proudly held and the shapes and surfaces felt and displayed by the hands that had made it was a fitting end to a scene I had understood little at but interpreted a lot from.
As the old boys kicked back to a disagreement about one Milan football team or other The Belgian and I said our goodbyes and buckled up for the racetrack re-initiation. Driving away looking back at this small anonymous corner of an old sporting theatre I felt honoured as I always do at times like this, at having been able to engage with the history of legend even fleetingly and make their portrait.