Roland Della Santa Remembered
If you check out pictures of the diamond in the rough that was the young Greg Lemond you’ll see the words, ‘Della Santa’ on the chest of his racing jersey. Frame builder Roland Della Santa supported the young future Tour and Worlds winner and continued to build frames for him right up until his days with Roger Zannier’s famous ‘Z’ equipe.
Lemond recently told Bicycle Retailer and Industry News:
“Roland had a big impact on my career. Really, when I was 16 I had no clue what pro cycling was — I showed up at my first race in a yellow jersey, I didn’t know you’re only supposed to do that if you won the Tour de France. But I rode to Roland’s house weekly. He had a living room that was maybe 20 feet by 20 feet and he’d have this huge stack of European racing magazines. That’s the first time I saw pictures of the great races and the riders and it got me hooked. So Roland was probably one of the biggest influences on my career.”
The word ‘legend’ is one which is over-used in these superlative laden days but in the case of Della Santa it’s entirely appropriate.
He began building in steel in 1970 and although aluminum and then carbon have come to dominate the pro peloton, Della Santa never blinked, remaining faithful to steel tubes, hand cut lugs and a brazing torch. Despite the proliferation of carbon – or ‘plastic’ as the steel diehard brigade would have it – frames, there were many for whom only a steel Della Santa would do.
When I first learned of the man and his ways I resolved that I would interview him some day. Sadly, that day never came, Roland Della Santa passed away at his home in Reno last month, aged 72.
However, I’m fortunate that in Bill Collier of Racing Relics USA – who we featured on the pages of PEZ back in February – we have a man who was a personal friend of Della Santa and knows many of the late brazing torch Maestro’s circle.
Bill did a great job for us, as well as his own recollections he’s gathered together comments from the likes of ex-pro Tony Cruz; Olympic and Tour de France Feminine rider, Inga Thompson; Jim Allen who provided the glorious enamel for Della Santa’s creation; Della Santa webmaster Frank Kratzer; Daniel de Vries who’s currently writing, ‘The Comeback of Greg Lemond’ and Jake Barrett, Della Santa’s apprentice and collaborator on many of his creations.
We started off by asking Barrett how he got involved with the Maestro:
“I worked for Roland for the last seven years. Having worked in the bike industry for the last 16 years and a background in machine tool/welding fabrication a mutual friend introduced us and it took off from there.”
Although famed for the lug work on his frames, I wondered if he’d ever built ‘lugless’ frames where the tubes are welded/brazed direct to each other without lugs; this method was sometimes used for super light frames to save the weight of lugs.
“Roland never did any TIG welded frames but there were a couple fillet brazed frames (which employs lower temperature, ed.) His favorite tube sets were Columbus and Dedacciai; he filed his own lugs but liked the Cinelli product; he never ventured into aluminum and I don’t think we ever did a frame with Carbon forks. And if he was supplying the groupset, it was always Campagnolo – only the best Italian components for the best frames. He was very proud of his Italian roots.”
And what about those rumors of MTB frames?
“He did make a couple of MTB frames for some racer friends – we were doing a couple of hundred road and track frames each year in our busiest years. It was not really his style so he never really liked to talk about them!”
And we just had to ask about those fabulous drilled and lined Della Santa chainstays, the idea borrowed from Italian Campionissimo frame builder Masi – who’s workshop still lives beneath the bankings of the legendary Vigorelli Velodrome. The principle of the lined slots was to stiffen the chainstays on track and time trial machines.
“That’s called the Ossobuco chainstay; he drew off the Masi idea, but those were oval cut outs. The transition from round to flat is a stress point and failed, that is why he went with all round holes. It would add about eight hours to a frame build to drill, sleeve, and file the chainstays. We would always get a chuckle at NAHBS [North American Hand Built Bike Show] when people would ask about it and what it did for the bike and our response was that it looked cool and was a good place for mud to collect!’ Delle Santa’s spray paint virtuoso Jim Allen has another take on the perforated stays; “pain in the ass for the painter!”
And can Barrett sum his late colleague up?
“He was a master craftsmen who was always so humble about his work. He never over embellished into artsy bikes, his product was always a classic, beautiful bike that rode amazingly well and was delivered in a timely manner; six weeks was our usual turnaround time to the customer.”
Jim Allen: Painter for all Z bikes and on through today
Jim Allen’s view on Della Santa reflects Barrett’s:
“He was the least assuming frame builder I’ve dealt with – it’s a group filled with too many who feel that I’m the only one that does it right. Roland always did it right and didn’t need to tell you, it was evident in the product. I never called Roland unless I was ready to trade long stores from back in the day!”
Technically then there was no doubting that he was one of the finest frame builders of his generation but he was also a simpatico individual who helped many riders, not just Lemond. Multiple US champion and twice Tour de France Feminine podium finisher, Inga Thompson told Collier:
“Roland was my first experience in bicycle racing. His passion is what led me to want to be part of the sport. Later, when no other bicycle company would sponsor me in 1990; even after I’d been on two Olympics Teams by this point in my career, Roland stepped up to the plate and build me two frames and supplemented me with cash to help me through the year. All as an independent frame builder. I owe so much to this man!”
Saturn, US Postal and Toyota rider, former US Criterium Champion, Tony Cruz had this to say:
“I met Roland in 1997 when I decided to return to cycling after a six year ‘break’. I started to train for the local races after watching my good friend, Ernie Lechuga compete the summer before in the Nevada City Classic, a race I had always wanted to win as a junior. The Reno Wheelmen were kind enough to make me a member of their club and support me as the main racer for the pro/cat 1/2 races.
It was at this time they reached out to Roland and asked if he could build me a custom Della Santa. Roland agreed and I spent the following three months getting to know him at his home. I learned about his passion for pro cycling, he could tell you stories for days about the European peloton and all of the domestics racers. His favorite was Lemond of course and he would always crack up during his story telling of the French pronounced Lemonds name, which was, ‘Lemon.’
I was already a fan of bike racing at this point, but Roland helped me visualize myself racing in Europe. After what seemed like an eternity to build, my new Della Santa was ready and I was off to the races that weekend with it. Roland even fired up his old Derny a few weeks later and paced me behind it. I’m pretty sure it was on the same route he use to pace Lemons.”
And how about his name, how Italian was he?
“He would share stories of his Italian relatives on occasion and I remember him showing me a photo of a younger cousin who was a pro Italian racer in the late 80s-90s. Roland was very proud of his Italian heritage and it showed in the craftsmanship of his work. He also enjoyed his Italian wines and his Roma tomatoes garden.”
Daniel de Vie, who spoke to Della Santa as part of the research for his Lemond book told Collier:
“Roland told me the following – he was second generation Italian, his father and mother were born here hence the Della Santa name, the family had left Italy to work and were all from Tuscany, specifically the Lucca province.”
Cruz meanwhile sums up Della Santa thus:
“Roland to me was the ultimate road cycling purist who lived and breathed the art of frame building every day. He was a hard ass cynical jokester who you had to impress with your legs pedaling your bike before he would call you a friend and invite you into his home and into his world. No ifs, ands, or buts!”
But going back to the beginning, how did he get into the craft of frame building, de Bie explains. “He worked in a bike shop and the owner of the bike shop, Gene Smith had some tubing and some frame parts, and Roland was going to build his own frame, he told me; ‘At the time I was in high school and I had taken metal shop 101 so I knew how to cut and weld and do stuff from metal.'”
It took Roland about six months to build his first frame, he said:
“I just became curious about how these things were constructed. By 1970 I was thinking that there were a couple guys in the USA who make frames, and they were backlogged. So it started out as a hobby until about 1976, that’s when I went full-time as a profession.”
De Bie has no doubt about Della Santa’s place in US bicycling history:
“Roland embodied the spirit of cycling. He built magical frames, he raced, he studied the sport like a scholar, and he more or less created the career of the greatest male bicycle racer America has ever seen.”
Yes, Della Santa didn’t just build bikes, as a young man, he raced them too, albeit he didn’t speak much about it, Bill Collier explains:
“He talked a lot about racing Nevada City and Reno through the years about the Coor’s Classic and being the mechanic for La Vie Claire and US National teams and racing a lot in Southern California. Also about running Greg LeMond to races all over this country in the younger years as well as being his first bike sponsor. Roland became his manager in those years.”
Cruz confirms that Della Santa wasn’t a man to tell ‘war stories’ about his own racing days:
“I don’t remember the exact span of Roland’s cycling career. I believe it he started racing around the late 60s, early 70s. He was modest when it came to talking about himself and his racing career. He usually preferred to talk about the Americans who were trailblazers of the European peloton, riders like George Mount, Jonathan Boyer and Greg Lemond.”
Collier sums Della Santa thus:
“He loved life, cycling, bikes, racing and women. I remember him telling me the story of Jan Ullrich and a friend of Roland’s stopping by and partying to all hours. He had a great time being himself. He loved telling stories, amazing his memory on names from 50 years ago. But there are some stories I can’t tell. He was so humble, a friend forever, thanks for the memories, Roland Della Santa (RIP ) a buddy to all.”
And last word to Frank Kratzer who ran the Della Santa frames website:
“He was a one of a kind, a consummate story and joke teller. He was also very direct and did not beat around the bush. I found Rollie to be very modest and a perfectionist when it came to his frames. He loved bicycle racing, especially the Coppi, Anquetil and Merckx eras and of course the LeMond era. He was a genuine lifelong friend who lived life on his terms.”
REST IN PEACE, Roland Della Santa.
With thanks to all who contributed, in particular, Bill Collier.
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,700 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.