Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Benotto dreams...

Before the US National Road Race Championship, August 1982.
Hard to believe now jongens, but once upon a time I could sprint a bike through a crowd fast enough that somebody actually saw fit to sponsor me.

It's a faded memory I needed to keep drawing upon several times this past season...

Way back in 1981 I was recruited by Constantin Negulescu to join his Northstar Bicycle Club.  The ex-Romanian national team rider had put together an elite US Amateur team, sponsored by a slate of leading Italian cycling brands:  Bicicletas Benotto, Gipiemme components, Ambrosio rims, Hutchinson tires and IscaSella Saddles.   With the exception of Hutchinson (who still makes killer tubeless tires... raced this whole season on one pair), most are brands either dead, or largely missing in action.  But back in '82, well, it was the perfect gear.

"Good enough for Roger DeVlaeminck or Moser,
good enough for you!"
Talk about Christmas morning... I can still remember being in Connie's Malden, Mass. basement on that pre-season day as he distributed the fruits of his considerable multi-lingual, entreprenurial talents to a group of hollow-cheeked, wide-eyed and hungry aspirants.   Big boxes came open.   He gave me my gear first. An omen, as it was the last time I'd be 'first' on that team, one filled with some really talented riders.

My Benotto was a 54cm, Columbus steel-tubed Benotto frame.  Mine had diamond shaped chainstays, but some were oval.  It was Benotto team issue, not sure if my frame was made in Mexico or Italy.  It could have been made of stovepipe, it didn't matter one bit to me.   For you see, it was a team issue Benotto.

What did matter was that it was painted in the exact same team metallic gold, with the same blue oval logo decals.   A team issue Benotto.   A pro bike.

Belivacqua solos to Roubaix, 1951 on his
Benotto.
This was the same frame that you've probably seen featured in the opening title sequence of 'A Sunday in Hell':  Moser's bike getting prepped for the Race to Roubaix.   And it was the frame that he won his World Championship in Cristobal Venezuela on, in 1977.

The brand his Sanson teammate Ole Ritter rode in his Mexico hour record attempt in 'The Impossible Hour.'   


And it was the brand that Antonio Belivacqua rode to Win Paris-Roubaix in 1951.
De Vlaeminck, Braun, Mount and Argentin. They all rode Benotto.  
Same frame that Roger DeVlaeminck won Milan San Remo on in '78.   Same frame Francesco Moser soloed over the pave with to win his first Paris-Roubaix that same year, and later that year would threw over the line on the rainy Nurburgring to lose his rainbow jersey by inches to Gerrie Knetemann.   Same frame that my wieleridol Freddy Maertens rode on in the '80 SanGiacomo team.

Moser's Benotto nailed at the line,
Nurburgring Worlds, 1978
Same frame that smilin' George Mount rode in the big time San Giacomo and Sammontana-Benotto teams those same years, in the big professional show in Italy.  Had a poster of George on my bedroom wall.  And one of Moser too.   In that team,  George rode shotgun for leader Roberto Visentini, where his job was to help him over the climbs and be there to switch bikes in case he needed it.

My basement had a Benotto calendar featuring a young Sammontana rider - not well known at the time - named Moreno Argentin.  I used to look at it while cleaning that Benotto, the saddle and bars hanging from old sew up tires as a workstand, and think, "I'm 21, that kid's 21, and he's already on the pro squad.  Why not me too?"

It was a thought seeded by Signore Giacinto Benotto himself at the New York International cycle show earlier that year.  Connie introduced me to him at the booth.  He pointed to the Poster of Mount and said to me, "If you can ride like him, we'll bring you to Italy too".   When you're young, anything seems possible - even if it isn't.  A truth that only set in when I watched Argentin win the Worlds in Colorado in 1986.

Giacino Benotto, and his team issue Benotto, circa 1982.
An Italian bicycle brand founded in Torino in 1931 Benotto was founded by a 24 year old racer - that same Giacinto Benotto.    He moved some production to Mexico a few decades later, where the brand became one of the strongest there, and in Latin America.  A total of 11 world championship rainbows were won on Benotto.  Giancino passed away in 1990, but Benotto continues on today.  For more, check out their website.

Our sponsorship didn't end with a Benotto frame.  There was also a full Gipiemme grouppo, which was actually a mix of outsourced and relabeled components made by other manufacturers:  The same brakes that were also labeled Modolo or Mavic at the time; Simplex derailleurs that had really super retro-friction, never-slip down tube shifters.  Then there were two pair of Ambrosio dark-grey anodized 32 hole rims; a leather covered IscaSelle turbo look alike saddle, and a fistfull of Hutchinson tubular tires.

And then there was Benotto cellotape.  The non-slip candy colored plastic tape in a wild range of colors that was the rage in the pro peloton in the 80's.    For us you could pick any color you wanted, as long as it was blue.  You had to file the sharp flash off the matching plastic end plugs though, otherwise you'd slash your leg at some point and get blood all over.



This 3rd in Manchester, CT was one of the few podiums my
Benotto ever saw.  Must have been the 'no socks, no gloves' 
And then there was the 'kit': A blue lycra skinsuit for the crits
and time trials.  A white long sleeved wool team jersey with flocked lettering for allenamento.  Black long wool tights and a few pair of black lyrca shorts which all had BENOTTO embroidered in white down the sides, and a semi-perforated white short sleeve synthetic blend jersey which was great in hot road races in days when wool was still de-rigueur in summer.  A half dozen white cotton Benotto caps with rainbow stripe for training, and some thin white wool similarly-striped Benotto socks.   And to top it all off a white vinyl Benotto shoulder bag to put it all in.  The only things we were left on our own to supply were shoes, leather strap helmets and freewheels.

Professionally outfitted head to to toe, from there, as in the best Euro tradition, the rest was largely up to us.  That Benotto saw a lot of motorpacing miles, a lot of battles in all weathers and roads, and a lot of sweat. So much sweat, that by the end of the season, the paint was literally flaking off the tubes.   Not the best of paint.. but that didn't matter to me.  It was a team issue Benotto you see.

Moser in maillot jaune, on a Benotto in the 1975 Tour de France.
The most impeccable TT stylist ever.
It did matter to Connie though.  At the end of the season, we all returned our bikes with the same war weary, unsentimental resignation with which I imagine G.I.'s probably returned their M1's and helmets after VE day.  Later, I heard from a teammate through the grapevine that Constantin was (justifiably) complaining about the paint-stripped, oxidized condition I'd returned my bike in.

I admit, toward the end of the season, the care was getting less loving.  It was a bike after all, a tool.  And I was a guy who, well, when it came to 'profuse, corrosive sweating', was world champion material, no question about it.   Maybe the mystique had gone out of the bike, as on it I'd struggled to only a paltry handful of top 5 places, and no wins... a palmares far from the results needed to earn that berth in Italy.  Never mind maintain 'protected-sprinter' status on a squad that was continually searching for, and taking on more talented hopefuls in a rotating, rolling mind game that should have been the prototype for a reality TV show called 'Ciclismo Idol'.   It was every man for himself.    

Old school trick
(photo courtesy raydobbins.com)
Two teammates later told me about my D.S.' indignation over my frame's condition: "Bah..this Eddy...just look at how he brings his bike back to me?   Back in Romania, this would NEVER happen... we weren't spoiled like you Americans.  We appreciated and took care of our bikes.  Why, I even used to polish the spokes....every detail...yada yada.. why we knew enough to hammer a piece of wood up the steerer tube at the fork crown.  The broken roads might cause a failure, and the wood would keep it together.."


As he spoke, he flipped my rusty beat-up Benotto upside down... and lo and behold...discovered a piece of wood (it was an old broomhandle actually) that I'd jammed up the steerer tube as insurance the very day I put the Benotto together.   Yup, Belgian-bred old school baby - Gus Van Cauwenberghe had already taught this 'spoiled' 20 year old American le metier pretty darn well.   No eastern bloc flies on this flahute!

My teammates couldn't believe it, they about bust a gut holding it in, but didn't dare laugh until they told me the story later.  It may well qualify as the one and only time my direttore was left speechless in mid-tirade.

Ole Ritter was Benotto boy.
A year or so later, ambitions unrealized, I went back home where I belonged to my beloved CCB.  I met up with Constantin in Spain about a decade later where he'd emigrated and worked for the Shimano distributor.  In magical Castillian city of Segovia, on a sweltering July day I remember thanking him for his help and apolgizing for being such a young wise-ass.  We shared laughs and recalled old stories of those Benotto glory days over roast pig and gambas al ajillo and vino tinto at Meson Candido, under the ancient Roman Aqueduct.   A heckuva lot easier than being lined out at 30+ mph on that Benotto, in the wind, trying to stay with Steve Bauer and Davis Phinney.

With my ol' D.S. Constantin and Pilar in Segovia.
Nostalgia.  Miss old Constantin, hope he's doing well.  I still have Benotto dreams of those days.  Some center around an opening gap that I can't ever close no matter how hard I pull against blue plastic handlbars.  But in most, the pain has faded, and only fond memories remain.   Mostly they're of a really good guy who helped a lot of young riders like me, when there was little to nothing in it for him, other than a love of the sport, and a desire to create a great squadra.

Connie's team moved to other bike sponsors in following years. Batavus, and Colnago.  Benotto left the international Pro peloton by the early 90's, but the company still is prominent in Latin American cycling.
Constantin has his own bike brand now, available in Spain.  Check it out here.  I noticed in the photos there that Pedro Delgado is riding one.  Says a lot I think.

Happy Thanksgiving cafesupporters.   My best to your families, and eat some turkey (but not too much!)

9 comments:

  1. Jam..or was it, "...the story is this...!"

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  2. Great story Eddy.
    The picture of Moser in the 75 tour is the quintessential racing position. Wish I could achioeve that .

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  3. Eddy - I emailed the post to Constantin - brings back great memories from my Batavus days on Contantin's team.

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  4. Constantin emailed me tonight - here is his website for his bikes - pretty cool stuff!!!

    www.costantinohi-tech.com

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  5. Jorgen Leth is also my good friend so it was really cool to call him and discuss the film after I had watched it a couple of years ago - he told me he wrote the entire narrative himself - it was amazing just speaking about the film with him!!!

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  6. What a great blog! Really nice perspective on our shared love of the Benotto bicycle. I still remember opening the box on my new 3000 in '81. Very nice writing, and you really have a handle on the magic of cycling.

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  7. Thanks for the kind words Steven, glad you like it. My Benotto is long long gone, but hope you still have yours!

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  8. Costantine was the best motivator I ever met. I learned a lot from him going together to all the trade shows. I still have my Benotto. It was not as good as th Gios I had. It was not as good on log rides. The diamond tubes made the frame stiffer. Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories

    Sahag Ohanesian

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