– Words and Photos by Corey Sar Fox –
The Head Badge
Many of us have a soft spot for old head badges; noble and fascinating, anachronistic and decadent. A few years ago, I noticed one that proudly stated Cicli G. Turci Bolzano [pronounced TOOR – chee]. I assumed that it was merely a local shop’s re-badging of some generic bike – a common practice even today. Only later would I learn that there really was a South Tyrolean manufacturer of noted fame. His name was Gino Turci and his son, Giovanni Turci, still carries on. The story of Cicli Turci is an interesting one because it closely follows the Italian bicycle industry, from its artisan beginnings to the halcyon days of the 70’s and 80’s and its decline over the past decade.
An anonymous bike store houses a rich history.
Just outside of the historic center of Bolzano, in the post-war constructed section, there is a small, sign-less bike shop. This is Cicli G. Turci. Every morning, a small man in his mid-sixties chains up rows of bikes outside the store, thus clearing a narrow passageway that leads from the front door to a U-shaped counter and then to the workshop in the back. The front space is no larger than 20 square meters. At closing time, he diligently packs the stray bikes back inside. Closing Time is usually very late in the evenings and often Sunday’s too. Inside the store, I feel pleasantly besieged by all of the bikes hanging from the rafters and haphazardly leaned against each other – especially the rows of old Masi’s and Colnago’s. Despite the large display windows, very little light seems to pass through the dense, dusty mess; it’s a Genius-Order-In-Chaos type mess.
There must be about 50 bikes crammed into 20 square meters.
The Tough Nut
Giovanni Turci, always dressed in mechanic’s overalls, is quick to greet every customer. Sometimes he is grumpy, sometimes somber, yet he can also be quite chatty. Simple questions can take him over decades of memories and experiences in fascinating monologues littered with digressions that may never lead him back to the original thought. Then Turci will sigh, nod, look off into the distance, offer his grease-stained hand for a shake and then return to his workshop. I have learned through experience that Turci is an old fox who dons this routine when he no longer feels like talking or when he is simply overwhelmed by the futility of explaining.
Giovanni Turci with one of his father’s frames.
I’ll never get him to sit down for an interview, nor will he straightforwardly answer straightforward questions. The best tactic is to visit the shop periodically and afterwards record my notes from Turci’s monologues. The following account represents what I’ve inferred, researched and concluded from the past couple months. Obviously, much of this information comes from a nostalgically biased source.
The Beginnings – The Father
Gino Turci was born on the 29th of April 1912 in Carpi – located in central Italy, near Modena. The region has long been famed for its scrappy, enterprising people like Enzo Ferrari. Giovanni deftly swerves into a digression: Carpi apparently contained the most renowned toupee makers in the world, claiming even Frank Sinatra as a patron. Now back to the story… at the young age of 14, Gino Turci (the Father) staked out on his own and rented a former horse and carriage depot and turned it into a bicycle officina with enough room for over 200 (I’m thinking that it must have been about the size of the one in Bolzano).
Gino Turci is obviously on the left with his sportier positioning.
The Carpi Officina
The years between the wars accompanied the decline of horses and the rise of bicycles for transportation. Typically, people from rural areas would ride into town and leave their bikes at an officina, clean themselves a bit (the roads were dusty affairs), do their shopping or whatnot and then pick up their freshly serviced bike for the trip home. Since fixing bicycles was primarily a warm weather enterprise, Turci put on fireworks displays for Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. His other ambitious activities included building bird cages, lighters, and clocks with all of the gears carved from wood. The young man was also regarded as being a respectable mandolin player, singer and dancer.
A badge taken from an old saddle.
The second World War drafted Gino and sent him to Bolzano. He was assigned to a cavalry regiment due to his slim build. Naturally, Turci brought his innovating spirit to the army. He organized the troops into new, more efficient firing formations and was promptly promoted to the rank of Sergeant. After the war, opportunities were bountiful in Bolzano, so Turci sent for his family and set up his second officina.
The Gino Turci Story reads very much like many industrious immigrant stories – each break yields another and leads to even more success. One of the first opportunities was buying retired army motorcycles, repairing and then reselling them. As an extra feature, Turci added rear shock absorbers. They sold like hotcakes. The next need was for tires, none could be found, so Turci made his own.
However, his real passion was always the bicycle. Since he wanted to offer his own frames, Turci sought out a welder. The welder taught Turci and (of course) he mastered the craft quite easily. His reputation spread and the city asked him to help with many of their reconstruction projects. His paint studio was commissioned to make the first road/traffic signs in Bolzano. In the 50’s, Cicli Turci had five employees building and painting frames. Gino Turci designed and built special delivery bikes for bakers and other tradesmen. As cycling became socially acceptable for women (yet they lacked the skill), Turci offered a 3 wheeler with a shopping basket between the rear wheels. However, what concerns us the most, is that Turci made racing bike frames for an illustrious company, though I am not at liberty to say which.
Cantilevered, center pull brakes… and a smart head badge.
Side Bar: Every Bike Tells a Story… here are two
Maybe not every bike, but hidden amongst the rows of bikes hanging from the rafters in the store is a mangy chrome and white one. Giovanni points it out for a number of reasons. It seems to be one of the first examples of center pull, cantilever front brakes used on a road bike. Gino liked their lightness and the way they looked, so he welded bosses on the forks. Originally, the bicycle had a smaller rear wheel. The customer believed that it would aid him in climbing. When it turned out that the chopper-look did not help, the customer returned the bike to be converted to a standard 28 rear wheel. Many years ago, Giovanni bought it back from the customer. The “why not”, the “at first you don’t succeed, try, try again”, the “you can always fix it”, the “cherish history” attitude strikes me as being very quaint and heart warming.
The San Pellegrino frame, notice the specially crimped chain stays.
The Team San Pellegrino Frame
In 1962, a local velocista (sprinter) named Bruno Brasolin signed a contract with the professional team San Pellegrino, DS’d by Gino Bartali. Brasolin had always ridden Turci frames, so he celebrated his promotion by ordering one in the team’s orange color. Since San Pellegrino provided riders with frames, this one has remained in the store for over 45 years. Brasolin never made it big and returned home the following year. The lug work is gorgeous and the creamy tangerine color is splendid. Turci points out another feature, his father crimped ridges into the chain stays after the bridge for added strength.
A delicious row of old Colnago’s – from Battaglin to Saronni.
The Son – Giovanni Turci
Giovanni was born in Carpi in 1943. At the age of 3, he moved to Bolzano. At the age of 14, he was conscripted into his father’s business – still a common practice. In the 70’s, Giovanni would make his mark by convincing his father to offer frames from other brands – notably Colnago. They quickly saw the brilliance of this decision as sales boomed, clearly helped by Merckx’s Hour World Record in 1972 on a Colnago. Gino Turci died on the 27th of October in 1981, leaving the officina to his son.
While Giovanni never mastered frame building, he is regarded as an exceptional mechanic – even Valentino Campagnolo sought out his advice. Accordingly, after Gino’s death, Cicli Turci ceased making their own frames. It was now a bike shop, or rather the only bike shop in the whole region that offered the finest creations from Masi, Cinelli, and Colnago. Sales blossomed well into the 80’s with many customers coming all the way from Germany (and an American ambassador from Moscow, but that’s another story). It should be noted that one of Colnago’s innovations from this period was the (relatively speaking) mass production of quality frames and Cicli Turci was an important channel for this output.
Ooh… 80’s Masi.
Although I’d like to avoid a History Lesson (especially a potentially contentious one laden with oversimplifications), it is a necessary evil. In 1984, a man from the neighboring region of Trentino would set a new Hour World Record. His name was Francesco Moser. Like Merckx with Colnago, Moser ignited a sales bubble for his own bikes which were sold exclusively at another store in Bolzano. The fickle nature of customers and their desires to be associated with winners and “The New” was the first hiccup for Cicli Turci, and more importantly, the Italian industry. The next hiccup (more like a fart) would be their failure to understand the popularity of mountain bikes; Act I of the American assault. Act II comprised the Yanks’ successful application of oversized aluminum tubes in frames and the Italians’ technological struggle to catch up [note: there was a brief respite for Colnago with carbon fiber, the Mapei Juggernaut and a Rominger Hour Record in 1994, but ironically, no Turci… just wait]. The final act involved a certain Texan riding an American bike with a Japanese gruppo and his proclivity for winning a popular French race in July.
The Dynamic Duo that fueled Turci’s success.
As if all of the previous Bad News was not enough, Turci did not believe that carbon fiber was an acceptable material for bicycles. He still does not trust it, claiming that he will not sell something that he does not understand, nor can he repair. Despite coaxing from the Mago di Cambiago (Ernesto Colnago), Giovanni Turci has stood by his beliefs. However, judging the Carbitubo by today’s standards, it is quite easy to sympathize with Turci’s skepticism. Nowadays, he spends most of his time servicing city bikes and his remaining, faithful clients (some even 3rd generation) with their beautiful bici d’epoca or historic bikes.
Stepping Off The Carrousel
In the 70’s, Turci was part of the (literally) cutting-edge Lightness Pioneers. Holes were drilled into almost every bike part permissible – Merckx’s Hour Record bike weighed a mere 5.75 kilos. This probably explains why very few bikes from that era are still around. In the 80’s, Turci peddled Italian aluminum, offering Alan’s novel bike constructed from glued tubes and lugs. After a couple disastrous fork failures, he discontinued selling the brand. In the 90’s, Turci heeded the Titanium Wave by selling Passoni, yet was once again disappointed in the quality. While the onus to constantly “innovate” falls on the manufacturers, the responsibility to clean up any potential mess resides on the bike shops. Not to mention all of the revolutions made to gruppo’s over the past 50 years, it can be very tiring keeping up with change. About 15 years ago, Giovanni Turci decided to step off the Bicycle Carrousel. Unfortunately, he has no heirs that could have convinced him to keep taking risks on new ideas. Although this story and Turci’s reasoning are not as simple, nor as linear as I’ve portrayed them, the fact remains that he drew his line in the sand.
The frame on the bottom was Gino Turci’s last, it remains unfinished.
Like many that can look back on a life of highs and lows, Giovanni Turci can float from conceit and joy to modesty and regret. Today, Turci complains that, “men no longer know how to dress well or properly groom themselves. Men no longer know how to dance. Men no longer win races to impress women, which is the only True Inspiration.” It also upsets Turci that women have settled for such sloth. Yet strangely, Turci does not lament the path of his own business. He compassionately refers to his shop as the Museo della Bici (Bike Museum) and rebuffs all attempts to part with any of his old frames. It leads me to conclude, or at least conjecture, that when one gets off the Carrousel they willingly accept that they have reduced their business to a niche; one that serves an ever smaller, yet appreciative clientele that has drawn a similar line in the sand. This is Cicli G. Turci Bolzano today. Though their histories may vary slightly, many Italian businesses find themselves in a very analogous situation.
I’d like to offer a very special Thank You to Giovanni Turci and his sister, Luciana, for letting me hang around their shop.
Corey Sar Fox lives in Bolzano, Italy. When not teaching or consulting or writing, he finds time to actually ride bikes. Alarming Fact no.3: Fox plans on buying the 2011 Rock Racing / Ricardo Ricco’ TdF KOM jersey – skulls n’ polka dots, baby!