Saturday, March 6, 2010

Some rememberances of an old friend, Mario Confente

In 1973 and 1974 I worked at Masi in Carlsbad, California. I can't tell you in words how formative that time was for me. Imagine a young car guy being offered the opportunity to work at Ferrari. To us bicycle guys who worked at Masi, it was just as rich and validating an experience. I remember the first day at Masi. That day could make a story in itself. Everybody who worked there left an impression on me.

There were three Italians who I worked with and they all are remembered fondly. Masi. That name can be a sentence, can't it? Faliero Masi was at the factory for some of the time I worked there. He was a dignified sort of man. Aurelio Fantoni was a frame filer, imported from Italy. He looked like Jack Lemon and we lived in the same neighborhood. Sometimes, we'd ride to work together. He was a crack up. Every few pedal strokes on his Raleigh three speed, he'd pause, pull up his pant leg and resume pedaling. Mario Confente had an apartment down the street from where I lived and it was there that Aurelio lived. Mario's frames are legendary today. People pay the big bucks for them and as far as I know, most of them are collected and ridden rarely. It is Mario who this piece is written about.

Mario was a super talented craftsman. He would come to work in wool slacks
and one of those almost girlie t-shirts that Italian guys wear so
successfully. By the end of the day, I'd look like I'd been dragged through
the dirt and he could wash his hands and be ready to go out for dinner!

He taught me about brake lever positioning on the bars, that is, putting
them a little lower than most people did to make them a good place to hold
onto while climbing out of the saddle. He also would show me to ride out of
the saddle while climbing in a more relaxed way. His way of showing that was
to splay out his ring finger and pinky while loosely holding on to the brake
lever. I hope that comes across OK. It left an impression on me.

It seems people want to know more about Mario. He had us over for dinner a
few times and he would cook up a pot of that spaghetti that comes in the
blue paper wrapper and pour on Ragu sauce. For real, that's what the Italian
Stallion ate for dinner. Ragu, folks, it's the real thing (evidently).

Each employee got to have his own frame made at the factory and we got to
buy the frame for the cost of a set of tubing or we could add on the parts
to make it a complete bike at cost. I won't tell you what those prices were
because they were so low it would sound funny in terms of what that stuff is
worth today.

Mario designed the frames for each employee. Mine is a 56.5cm. The frames
could be painted colors that were not available on a stock Masi. Also, most
of them had some sort of custom part or configuration. Mine has vertical
dropouts and a special fork crown and recessed brake bolts which were a new
thing at that time (1974). I think at least one employee got his bike with
stock dimensions instead of having Mario design his bike custom. My friend
Morgan still has the figures that Mario wrote down on a paper in the process
of designing his bike. Morgan's is a beautiful bike and hasn't been ridden
since it was made. In other words, it is like new. The figures are very
interesting as Mario didn't measure the top tube center to center.

In 1977 or 1978 Mario came to my shop and told me he was striking out on his
own. I think he felt betrayed by Bill Recht and felt that his friend, a Mr.
Ferrari was a true friend and a "simpatico" guy. I bought one frame from
Mario, I think it was one of the first he made when he decided to go out on
his own. I don't know if it was made on spec or a custom order that someone
backed out on. It was a 58 or 59 and I sold it to my customer and riding
buddy Bruce Colby. I ordered a frame for myself with a $350.00 deposit and a
final price of $750.00 upon receiving the frame. I was excited at the
prospect of representing Mario's frames at my shop and Mario seemed excited
as well. He seemed to me to be a stand up guy and though, few, our business
dealings were done on a handshake. He died before my frame was made.

It was a shock to learn of Mario's death. He was so young and seemed so
healthy. To this day I remember the irony of Lisa having finally gotten the
love of her life and having him taken away so soon and so suddenly. Some
things are so hard to reconcile in one's mind.

The frame I sold to my friend Bruce had a problem within a very short time.
The seat stays both came loose from the seat lug. I had been representing
Jim Merz frames and had him fix the frame so that there was a recognizable
name attached to the repair. I gave Bruce full credit toward a Jim Merz
frame which was a super nice and beautifully built frame. Bruce rode that
Merz frame for many years until he drifted away from bicycle riding. I have
no recollection of who finally bought the repaired Confente frame. It is one
of the first and last of that last era of Mario's frames. If you know who
has it, it would be cool to know how it is.