The Discipline of Steel

While the Tour de France races along on carbon fiber bikes, Clevelander Dan Polito builds a name for himself, old school

Like deer at a pool, Cleveland's bicycle messengers gather at the end of the day at the Blind Pig. They sit at the bar, their exotic rides locked to fences and trees outside. Misty Golinar, a tall girl with brown hair to her shoulders, is one of the longest-tenured riders in town, having lasted five years on the job, weaving through traffic and zipping down alley short cuts to get packages there on time, even in the winter. If you work downtown, you've probably seen her.

She's on her bike all day, every day. She rides an old Serotta now, which she says is the "baddest" of the half-dozen bikes she's used downtown. Beneath the scratches, it's a pretty fine bike, but nothing like what she'll be riding this time next year. Golinar recently plunked down the $500 deposit required just to get in line for a bike made by Dan Polito in his new shop on Perkins Avenue. Polito is one of three people in the area who still build custom bicycles by hand — not goofy tall bikes or funny-looking contraptions for parades but serious machines using the highest quality old-school steel as raw material.

As if inspired by his hometown's heritage, Polito is building a business — and a name for himself — in steel. Earlier this year, he won Best of Show in the prestigious North American Handmade Bicycle Show, which attracts about 100 custom builders of bicycle frames and about 6,000 shoppers from around the globe. He won with an orange fixie designed for grass-track racing. The seat tube is curved to follow the contour of the back wheel, which moves the rider's weight back and makes the wheelbase shorter, for traction and handling. It seems like it might be aces for wheelies.

"It makes for a really nimble rear end," says Polito.

The bike comes with a pedigree too: Polito got the steel tubes from what's left of the shop of Norm Taylor — a mid-20th-century English frame builder for the family-owned Jack Taylor Cycles — who died in 2008. The tubes seem to flow into each other at liquid-smooth joints, fillet-braised with molten bronze. It's that attention to detail that won him the judges' praise. And as the center of custom steel-bike building has shifted from Europe to the U.S. in the past two decades, it puts the Clevelander among the top steel-frame makers in the world — at a time when the cycling world is leaving steel behind.

Polito gets tools and supplies from a minor legend of Cleveland cycling, Joe Bringheli, one of just four U.S distributors of high-quality steel tubing for bicycles. Bringheli has been making bike frames in his Parma shop since 1979. He came to the U.S. from Sicily at the age of 22, and his first job was at a now defunct clothing shop at West 55th and Lorain. He took a class to learn how to weld, then taught himself to braise and build bikes. He sold them to a generation of Cleveland racers who were active in the '80s. Since then, he's watched the market for steel dwindle; now he primarily sells tools to other frame makers.

"In Italy in '70s and '80s and early '90s, there were hundreds of small frame builders working inna steel," he says, his words still touched by the rhythm of his native Italian. He's talking about master builders like Ernesto Colnago, Cino Cinelli, Sante Pogliaghi and Paolo Guerciotti, who once built the hottest bikes in the world. "Now do you know how many there are? Zero. Zee-ro. No one wants to learn, no one picks up a torch."

He says big companies like Trek and Giant, which manufacture millions of bikes, have pushed small builders aside. But he adds that a more significant change was the evolution to carbon fiber.

The last person to win the Tour de France on a steel frame was Miguel Indurain, in 1993. Prior to that, just as Cleveland grew up on steel, so did cycling's biggest race. Launched by a newspaper to boost sagging circulation in 1903, the Tour de France rolled on steel frames for all but the last few years of its first century. Twenty-seven winners of that granddaddy of European cycling events rode bikes made of one specific brand of steel, Reynolds 531. Racers like the legendary Eddy "The Cannibal" Merckx, a Belgian who rode every race to win, leading from the front without strategy, simply charging ahead to win the Tour five times; Frenchmen like five-time winners Jacques Anquetil and Bernard "The Badger" Hinault. Unknown in the U.S., they were superstars in Europe. Even the American who beat Hinault — Greg LeMond, the first American hero of the Tour — rode a steel bike. These were the guys who dominated the sport before the age when doping was a scandal, before specialized training regimens were designed as if no other race mattered. Before the age of carbon.

The last person to ride to victory in the Tour on any kind of metallic bike was Marco Pantani in 1998, who won on a Bianchi made of Scandium, an aluminum alloy. The next year, Lance Armstrong began his string of seven victories on Trek bikes made of carbon fiber.

"The change to carbon fiber — it's the choice of the pro," says Bringheli. "What the pro is riding, that's what everybody rides. Period. There is no other way to put it. It doesn't matter if they are reliable or not. If they break, that's OK. They are light and stiff. That's what [riders] like. That's what they got."

By invoking reliability, he's referring to one of the criticisms of carbon fiber bikes: if they are in a crash, and stressed in ways bikes are not meant to be stressed, they are more likely to crack or break catastrophically.

"Carbon fiber has improved," says Bringheli. "But they still can break just from fatigue. If you crash carbon frames, they are more prone to break beyond repair than steel. Steel you can fix. Carbon, you throw it away. You can't fix them. Steel has this property. You repair it and put it back on the road."

But that doesn't matter in top-level racing, where team cars follow in a caravan waiting to hand off new bikes to riders who suffer so much as a punctured tire.

As the 2009 Tour cruised through the Pyrenees mountains with 37 year-old Lance Armstrong in third place, everyone was riding carbon. After six stages, four of the top five riders were all on Armstrong's Team Astana, all riding the same carbon fiber bike, a Trek Madone. "Now imagine a 20-year-old guy or a 15-year-old guy starting up in bike racing," says Bringheli. "Do you think he's going to buy a steel frame?"

As he's watched steel bike sales slow to a trickle, Bringheli sees the U.S. as the only place that still has a market for steel frames, and even here business is exceedingly slow for all but the hottest builders.

"For as long as that lasts, hallelujah," he says.

He notes offhandedly that in early July, he took his first order for a frame this year. "Hallelujah," he says again. "I'm a-gonna build a bike this year."

Connoisseurs of the way bikes ride still praise steel for its feel on the road. It gives a little, so it feels alive and absorbs road shock, but it's stiff enough to turn your pumping into forward motion with minimal wasted energy.

"They are really comfortable on the road because they don't translate a lot of shock," says Mike Cushionbury, senior test editor at Bicycling Magazine. "That's why a lot of retro riders like steel. Because it's hard to beat the ride."

Polito puts the difference between frame materials like this: An aluminum bike is like riding a two-by-four. Riding a carbon fiber bike feels like paddling a kayak in the water. A steel bike feels like the road.

Don Walker, founder and president of the NAHBS show, agrees. "Steel absorbs the road shock much better than other materials." He adds that steel's durability and poetry also help it maintain appeal.

"More and more people are looking for an heirloom type of product," he says. "People revere things that are handmade."

Sure, steel bikes weigh a little more. But they capture a kind of beauty, history and romance that speaks loudly in a rusty old town like Cleveland.

Misty Golinar uses the word "intimacy" to describe her relationship with her bike. It's what connects her to the road. Her Cicli Polito bike will be built for her body, personality and the way she rides. It matters to her that the person who made it worked only on her bike from start to finish, that he smoothed the lugs with a file by hand.

Her bike will be a single-speed fixie, a track bike with steep angles for quick handling. But it's going to have some custom elegance in the frame geometry that she's keeping a secret because, as she says, such a bike has never been built before. It was her idea. On a courier's pay, it will take her several years to pay it off. Polito's frames run $2,500 and up.

"People like us have to work really, really hard to get anything," says Golinar. "I have to be sure of what I want and get something that will last forever. This will be the biggest investment I've made in my whole life."

Friend and fellow courier Leon Correll is already riding a Cicli Polito bike. It leans against the fence at the Blind Pig, causing passersby stop and stare at its funky deep-vee, aerodynamic rims. But what's really distinctive about Correll's bike is the shape of the frame. It's the same curved seat-tube style as the bike that won Polito acclaim at the NAHBS convention, but he asked Polito to update the traditional grass-track design, building it out of teardrop-shaped, aerodynamic tubing.

Like most couriers, Corell has been in a couple of accidents; one of them happened less than an hour earlier. En route to a delivery at East 28th and Cedar, he was "doored" — someone sitting in a parked car flung their door open without looking. He flipped over the handlebars of his three-week-old, hand-built bicycle. Correll got a couple of scrapes on his elbows. The driver fled the scene. Fortunately, his bike is unscathed, except for some abrasion to the handlebar tape.

Correll's dream bike was made possible by another accident in December 2007. Someone in an SUV ran a red light and hit him, sending him tumbling over the windshield. He was in a wheelchair for several months with a broken femur. The driver's insurance covered $50,000 in medical bills, plus lost wages and pain and suffering.

"When I broke my femur, it was her fault," he says. "I told myself that if I got anything out of that settlement, that I'd buy a nice bike."

While the mainstream market for custom steel bikes declines, Polito's business is growing. He's had to move into a larger shop to accommodate equipment. That's partly because of his relationship to Cleveland's urban bike scene. He was a messenger himself, so he knows a lot of people who use bikes as the tool of their trade. He sponsors bike night at the west-side bar Now That's Class, buying the first beer for anyone who arrives there by bike on Thursday nights.

Winning that Best of Show prize didn't hurt either. He had a run of orders the week after that, and now has a 10-month queue. He'll build 15 bikes in 2009 and hopes to build 25 in 2010.

Polito's current project, a bike for 28-year-old University of Toronto graduate student Adam Hammond, came about after he won the NAHBS prize. Hammond hired Polito to build him a "randonneur"-style bike for Paris-Brest-Paris, a two-wheeled, amateur cycling adventure that predates the Tour de France by a dozen years.

"Randonneurs" are the hard-riding amateur adventurers who test themselves on fast, 100-plus-mile jaunts just for fun. Paris-Brest-Paris — launched by another French newspaper in 1891 — is a grueling test of endurance that goes on for 1,200 kilometers, or 744 miles, over rolling hills and some flats, from Paris to the Atlantic coastal town of Brest and back. It's not a race, but only finishing in less than 90 hours gets your name entered into the event's "Great Book." That means covering almost 200 miles each day for nearly four days.

Unlike the Tour, these riders are not followed by team vehicles stocked with replacement bikes and staffed by mechanics: In Paris-Brest-Paris, you're on your own. Reliability and things like lights for night riding and fenders for rain and mud are critical.

"For a ride like Paris-Brest-Paris, it doesn't make sense to ride a standard racing bike," says Hammond. "It also doesn't make sense to ride a standard touring frame: They're not built for speed." He needs a bike that can carry equipment, manage in the mud and still go fast.

"I'm not being deliberately archaic in choosing a steel Polito frame," continues Hammond. "Steel is by far the most practical material from which to have a PBP bike built."

Polito is building the bike out of Reynolds 531, the same stock that for so long dominated the Tour de France. He's got the tubes cut to length and mitered to close tolerances. Next, he'll set it up true on a jig and heat each joint with the steady, hot breath of an acetylene torch, the old-fashioned way. He'll melt bronze into the joints to turn the loose tubes into a bike frame.

"This will be a direct collaboration with the spirit of the old riders," says Polito.

For as long as that lasts, hallelujah.

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