Words: Harry Dowdney | Date:
Some say style in cycling comes from Italy. Most people say it, in fact.
Think Bianchi celeste. Think Coppi (& Giulia). Think the maglia rosa. Indeed, the Italians are credited for developing the bicycle from a functional, no-frills utility into an aesthetic plaything, as the post-WWII commercial boom flushed the pockets of everyday men. With handsome pro racers sitting astride the first bicycles painted bright colours, the eyes of the rest of the world glanced oh-so enviously towards glamorous Italy.
But the Italians managed to marry substance to this effortless style, as innovation and craftsmanship became bywords for Italian frame building in the mid to late 20th century. Not only were the Italians riding the best-looking frames, they were the best equipped. From Tullio Campagnolo’s benchmark Gran Sport real derailleur to Cinelli’s cork ribbon bartape and Laser aerodynamic bicycle, invention was commonplace.
It was a landscape of tinkerers, from the factories – during their heyday in the late 1940s Bianchi were employing over 4,500 staff to produce 70,000 bikes a year – to the one-man workshops in the countryside. One such artisan innovator was Stelio Belletti, an aeronautical mechanic with a passion for two wheels. Stelio, who worked in his father Antenore’s renowned metal workshop, had raced against Ernesto Colnago as a youngster, and had always hoped to follow his erstwhile competitor into the bike business.
“It had always been a dream for me, for sure,” says Stelio from his workshop near Bergamo. “Working for years with my father on aircraft and motorbike prototypes had exposed me to the most advanced steel welding processes, ones that I thought could be brought over to cycle frame building. From the early 1970s I started using the TIG welding technique to try and build a ‘lugless’ bicycle frame. Three years later we had a finished product.”
TIG welding allows steel tubing to be joined together in a stronger, lighter and more aesthetically pleasing way than the fixed handles called ‘lugs’ with which bicycle frames were put together before Stelio came along. The result of this lateral thinking was the Integrale model. With a patent filed for the welding technique, Stelbel bicycles was born. Stelio is a perfectionist by nature and never allowed production of these hand-built creations to be rushed, meaning that there are only 2,500 Stelbel bicycles in existence. In 1990 he had to cease production for personal reasons, but in 2013 he ordered the Stelbel welder fired up again with the support of online cycle retailer Cicli Corsa.
“Stelio wasn’t finished building frames yet,” says Andrea Cimò, owner of Cicli Corsa. “When restarting the brand we wanted to replicate as closely as possible the pioneering, customised models of Stelbel’s past.” Stelio concurs: “The concept of innovation was always very important to me. No two frames we made were the same, because we were always looking to find improvements, no matter how small. I wanted this spirit to continue with Stelbel today.”
The most exciting of Stelbel’s newly launched range of bicycles is probably a replica of that very first Integrale. “Of course, we simply had to pay homage to Stelio’s masterpiece,” says Andrea. “It is a beautiful piece of metal work . . . the fork crown alone is nine different pieces of metal, shaped and filed together, then filed again for extra strength. It took us seven months – and lots of investment – to make a final version as loyal as possible to the past, but we did it, and we’re extremely proud.”
The Integrale is just the sort of classic model that vintage bicycle aficionados ride at the ever-popular L’Eroica sportive in Tuscany each October. Racing on the legendary strade bianchi dust roads, the 5,000 riders who participate must use bicycles with parts older than 1987, and are encouraged to wear suitably retro clobber too. It is a raucous celebration of Italian cycling style, food and heritage. Participants often call it their greatest ever day on a bike.
This year Rapha is offering a new Travel trip to Tuscany for those who wish to ride L’Eroica. Centred around participation in the event, the Rapha L’Eroica Vintage Retreat promises three captivating days in the heart of the Chianti wine region. This trip includes quality and style befitting a Rapha Travel experience, with lodgings at Il Borgo di Vèscine country house, Jaguar support vehicles, on-road nutrition and hydration, daily massage and bike maintenance..
Rapha has also partnered with Stelbel bicycles to offer participants of the retreat the unique opportunity to buy a custom Integrale vintage steel bicycle. The Stelbel team will hand build the bespoke bicicletta in time for the beginning of L’Eroica. Each vintage part is individually sourced and features a custom Rapha design aesthetic. This is the chance to buy a truly inimitable piece of cycling craftsmanship – and then race it over the Tuscan hills.
“L’Eroica celebrates real Italian frame building, done the way we’re still doing it, so we’re delighted to partner with Rapha to offer the participants of this trip the chance to ride our bikes on Italy’s most famous roads,” says Stelio. “My dream is to be involved in the comeback of the Italian frame building school . . . to see it return to the top of the trade in terms of quality, and events like L’Eroica are great in inspiring us once again.”
The Stebel & Rapha custom vintage bicycle offer is only available to participants of Rapha Travel’s L’Eroica Vintage Retreat. Those interested in purchasing the bicycle should contact Andrea at Stelbel directly: firstname.lastname@example.org