What's Cool In Road Cycling

Marco Balduzzi: Portrait Of A Bicycle Artist

The cycling world harbors many fascinating personalities – it’s one of the more appealing aspects of our sport, our community. Take Marco Balduzzi. Though his wrench genius is known to only a few, he merits a place amongst the celebrated. In a previous article, Marco shared with PEZ some wheelmaking tips. This time, we take a more thoughtful look into his bike brilliance.

Marco Balduzzi.

Silent Rides
Pedaling around the area of Bolzano in northern Italy, you won’t hear a bike from the hands of Marco Balduzzi. His bikes are silent: no wheels untrued; no pedals squeaking or cleats chirping [tip: a piece of sandpaper between the cleat and the shoe and a drop of silicon in each screw hole]; no chains buzzing; no headsets grinding; or any of the normal misadjusted mechanical cacophony. These aren’t just new, lightly-used bikes but include those 30 year old steel DeRosas whose riders drop you so easily in the Dolomites. Bo Felix Johansen bought his De Rosa Giro d’Italia over two decades ago, confirming that “when Marco sets up a bike, it runs perfectly, not one single screw ever needs tightening, nothing!”

Bo Felix Johansen with his Balduzzi assembled De Rosa, recently updated with Ergo shifters

Making Difference
“Marco’s the most pignolo person in the whole world,” says one customer, using the Italian expression for fussy or picky. This is an understatement. I walked into the shop one day and Marco was happy that he had finally gotten a customer’s bike to steer the way he thought it should steer – after 15 years! The bare frame, in spite of its plentiful battle scars, was wrapped in plastic to protect it from dropped tools and only the fork, headset and stem were attached. Even though the steering had worked well for the past decade and a half, it wasn’t perfect. This slight distance between excellence and perfection, noticeable to only a few, had haunted Marco from the moment he sold that blue bike and again every year when it came back in for servicing. That day he finally decided to dismantle everything and start from scratch trying out several different races and bearings and so on, without the owner knowing or paying for it. Marco insisted that I also test the steering and admire Perfection.

An unmarked storefront on Via San Quirino in Bolzano is home to a wonderful bike shop

Financial Messiness
Going beyond what the customer requests to satisfy his need for perfection is no recipe for financial bliss and Marco has asked himself often over the past 30 years how he can afford to stay in business. Profitability is a sore subject, especially now with the ubiquitous presence of the Internet and mega-retailers. The hope is that cyclists come to a shop like Balduzzi’s because they appreciate superior service and are willing to pay, and wait, for it. “People used to come here and ask and learn, nowadays everyone knows what they want,” says Marco, and the reality is that small shops can only charge what everyone else charges.

Civilizations are judged by the sophistication of their tools, bike shops can too: this one is a nipple wrench for the old Shamal wheels

Recently, a customer insisted that a frameset be sold at a very competitive price under the condition that he himself would install everything at home, despite Marco’s best efforts at dissuasion. The customer soon returned, daunted by the sawing and drilling that is required to set up an integrated seat post. Marco assembled the bike but missed out on the nice margin from the sale. He recounts these and other disheartening stories, such as those people who come to be measured and fitted and then buy their bike or other stuff online.

Here’s another homemade tool: a jig for cutting and drilling the De Rosa seat post

There is a price to perfectionism and meeting standards for which few can afford. Many shops simply attach the handlebars to bikes that have come from the factory pre-assembled and call it a day but Marco takes them all apart. He switches things that don’t fit well, like cables that are too short, or replaces grease that he doesn’t like. He even insists that the factory leave the forks uncut. He spends the same DAY AND A HALF putting together entry-level bikes as top-end ones. This is exactly why all his bikes run so silently.

How can it take a day and a half to assemble a bike? Marco spent over 20 minutes searching for and filing this bolt to recess perfectly into the fork

Balduzzi-ism No.356: he likes lots of spacers under the stem, rarely does a bike leave the shop with less than 1.5cm (and 3mm above it)

It is well known in these parts that if you want a bike to work like a Swiss timepiece, Balduzzi will set it straight, so he ends up fixing many bikes sold and assembled by other shops. He would love to tell these people off, tell them to get it fixed where they bought it – an obvious issue with online sales – or next time buy one from him. Instead Marco internalizes these backhanded compliments, always hoping that this goodwill will someday pay off.

Balduzzi-ism No.287: when possible, run the cables neatly and smoothly, like on this early 90’s SLX

A peek under the bottom bracket shows how the cross over is done

Caring Too Much
There are lots of Balduzzi stories that illustrate his high standards and pride in doing the job right. Recently, a bike show organizer and a photographer picked up a bike from a noted framebuilder. They then decided that a different color saddle and bartape would make for a better shot. The two were sent to Marco, who had the right gear. Balduzzi told them to go get a coffee while he worked. “It’s obvious that this bike’s been hastily assembled and there isn’t any grease to get in the camera’s way. But it’s got a pre-release 2011 Super Record gruppo, which I haven’t had a chance to play with.” So of course he had to play with it.

Balduzzi-ism No.732: put a zip tie on the brake cable, also after cutting, use a lighter to melt the sharp edges

“I realize that the front derailleur is set up to rub really bad, so I fix this very delicately. Then as I’m running through the gears, I feel that there’s just too much play in the rear derailleur.” All this was for a bike that was not even supposed to be ridden. He continued, sheepishly, “I know, I know. Anyway, before I can get the rear to shift well, the couple returned from their coffee and picked it up. They looked at me suspiciously. I think they had been drinking.”

Marco has at least 3 sets of each tool (even the pricey Campagnolo ones), the most pristine are saved for the most pristine bikes

Bike Martyrdom Part I
The simple conclusion is that Marco Balduzzi is an artist and while some artists are savvy businessmen, most are idealists blinded by passionate conviction. In Marco’s case, this is an uncompromising personal vision of how racing bikes should be. If the customer shares the vision, things go smoothly. An appreciation for Marco’s unrivaled skill means humoring his eccentricity, mood swings, sermons, silences and so on. Though, he can be quite cheerful, especially around women and children. However, cyclists with differing perspectives (and leftist political inclinations) will find their ideas unwelcome at Cicli Balduzzi.

The De Rosa Endurace, a beautiful fillet brazed creation from the late 90’s

I recently bought a wonderful fillet-brazed De Rosa, recognizing immediately that it was assembled by Marco. The original customer paid a hefty 5,000,000 lire for it in 1999 and used it only sparingly. To him the De Rosa was a kind of trophy more than a tool. Everything was Ferrari red, from the bottle cages to the pedals and bartape and, regrettably, matching apparel was certainly involved. This kind of showboating client gets on Marco’s nerves. The kind that “knows better”, the kind that insists on upgrading everything, the kind that thinks a great bicycle should pedal itself. The former DeRosa owner now quite happily rides an Asian carbon bike rebranded by a local sports department store and cheerfully reports that he gets a new one every three years.

A really nice Pegoretti from the mid 90’s with a Balduzzi-set up Shimano 105 gruppo

Marco likes Pegorettis, and was one of the early retailers to carry the bikes. He recently pieced together a 10 speed Veloce/Centaur gruppo to get a Pegoretti within a customer’s price range. What he didn’t tell the customer is that this gruppo, when finely tuned, works much better than the pricey 11 speeds. After the customer’s friends derided his “supermarket gruppo”, he returned the bike, disappointed that Marco had sold him such a cheap compromise.

Balduzzi-ism No.404: use nipples for closing cables

Bike Martyrdom Part II
The most ironic (yet logical) twist of Bike Martyrdom is that Marco’s favorite clients are the least profitable. These are the ones that bought a steel De Rosa 20 years ago and faithfully bring it back yearly for maintenance. Bo Felix explains, “I have complete faith in Marco, I trust that he will keep my bike running perfectly, forever. But I do feel bad that I haven’t bought anything in so long.” For this very reason Cicli Balduzzi is an anachronism, out of sync with today’s short-term consumerism. The shop dates back to that same time when people spent serious money on custom-made, leather shoes that were re-soled and kept forever. Shoes today are constructed in a way that makes them essentially non-repairable and cobblers are nearly extinct. It remains to be seen how many of today’s carbon fiber frames will still be in use in 20 years or whether replacement parts for the myriad of new headset and bottom bracket “standards” will be available.

A serious bike store gives its customers serious water bottles

While exceptional, Balduzzi’s Way seems obsolete in a market – in a culture – that encourages us to buy a new bike every few years. Here in Italy, older people can often be heard criticizing the young, saying that “they know the price of everything and the value of nothing.” To which a good friend of mine recently added, “this economic crash was supposed to have cleansed our bad habits. Though it’s made us spend less, it hasn’t really changed the underlying mentality. In fact, we are being encouraged to return to our old spending ways to save the economy. Maybe the crisis didn’t last long enough.”

Balduzzi-ism No.36: perfectly wrapped bars are the final touch, Marco puts two “D” shaped pieces of tape behind the levers.

Business at an Italian Local Bike Shop
While American bike shops work on credit, the small Italian one buys everything outright. Every frame, shoe and jersey in Cicli Balduzzi has been paid for. And nowadays many distributors expect to be paid upon delivery, in cash – that’s one of the net effects of the recession. If a bike does not sell in the first year, the chances of moving it decrease dramatically as fashion and market hype advance in a too-rapid cycle. Marco has made costly errors like choosing unwanted colors for bikes, or unfashionable materials, or models shortly before new ones were introduced or carrying two noted brands shortly before their demise.

However, Marco is not naive. “If I could sell only steel bikes, I would. Only Americans want steel. This [selling all the latest products] is simply survival,” says Marco. He explains that in 1996, after turning away the 30th customer that had asked for an aluminum bike, he was forced to choose between selling what customers want or closing the business. This was a hard blow. His concession to himself was to try to offer the most affidabile (trustworthy) products available. Whereas most people would become cynical or lazy, a friend of Marco’s counters, “I’m really quite envious of him – he’s still a tempestuous child at heart.”

Balduzzi-ism No.89: long before Gore sealed cables, Marco was crafting his own (and still does)

The Provocateur in The Wild
Most artists are provocateurs. Seeing Marco outside the shop on a bike seems to be his way of getting back at everything. A yellowed white Batavus from the 60s, a carbon and aluminum lugged TVT and an older Klein with a bad case of bike mange are his rides. “I don’t really like riding the bikes I sell,” he says, displaying a willful disregard for PR. One bike is always in disrepair, donating something to keep the other two roadworthy. Their forks are mismatched leftovers from someone’s upgrade. Their gruppos are cleverly cobbled together 7-8-9 speed Shimagnolo cocktails. Their bartape, saddles, wheels and other components are a multicolored clash of anti-style. But man, do they all fly silently along – rapidly propelled by Marco’s anger.

Under those feet are 30 years of worn flooring.

His cycling apparel also serves as a f*ck you to the style conscious of the cycling world. The jerseys are from the 80’s; those fleshy synthetic ones either from extinct pro teams like Carrera or kitschy numbers in a fuscia, mauve, turquoise vomit of color. A zip tie around the bridge of his old Birko glasses keeps them off his nose and slip free. And a helmet awash with rainbow stripes (unsold merchandise) round out the satirical attire of Marco Balduzzi in the wild. Sometimes he can be seen with his 16 year old son, Davide, but most of his outings are solitary. It must be stated that Davide Balduzzi’s tasteful Pegoretti in solid gray and his usual white and silver kit are the stylistic opposite of his old man – further proof that there is a Cycling God with a great sense of humor watching over us.

Bad enough that he is an eyesore, but Marco remains a strong rider at age 55. Hidden behind a bunch of bikes in the shop, there is a certificate that testifies to his climbing the Stelvio in a little over an hour as an amateur racer (that’s a solidly pro time). Marco is a cold shower to much of cycling’s silliness where bikes cost more than cars, where the herd (peloton) mentality makes others’ opinions more important than one’s own, where lightest plus stiffest equals the best, where it’s better to look good than ride well and so on. I feel quite certain that Marco is sharing a laugh with himself at all of our expenses. The irony of being financially dependent on us becomes even more poetic – and isn’t this the common moral dilemma that torments most artists? Yes, it is.

A friend and client, made a comic about Marco, a copy of it is posted on www.ciclibalduzzi.it

Distortions in Journalistic Aspirations
In all portraits, the truth gets simplified, perhaps even manipulated, to serve the author’s needs. I hereby confess my guilt, this portrait is full of gross oversimplifications. It reminds me of watermelon bubble gum. Real watermelon has a complex wet flavor, while the artificially flavored gum is an overpowering, monotone Idea of Watermelon. And this article is the Idea of Marco Balduzzi, so I owe him an apology. Marco has warned me a few times, “I have to watch what I say around you, I can see you taking journalistic notes in your mind.” And I have.

My defense: all artists desire to exhibit their paintings or publish their novels or record their music and garner recognition for it. A sculptor friend once said: “Artists have no choice, we have to reveal our wounds.” Though our subject here is known and appreciated by a select few in Bolzano, Italy, his efforts, his wounds, his pride that will not stand for mediocrity, all deserve to be given a greater recognition. And if I had to simplify the complex to make a point, it was done for noble reasons.

I would like to thank Marco, Ornella and Davide Balduzzi. Also a thank you Pez Literary Editor, Leslie Reissner for taming this thing into an article.

Like PEZ? Why not subscribe to our weekly newsletter to receive updates and reminders on what's cool in road cycling?

Comments are closed.