Roland Della Santa is known for his racing bikes; always has been. As most folks already know, he was Greg LeMond’s first sponsor. He also built racing frames for many other prominent racers from the 1970’s forward. Roland’s frames are beautifully made and ride like nothing else; spirited climbers and demons on the decent. Short of a few bikes that have come equipped with eyelets or a slightly longer wheelbases, most everything he’s ever built has been racing oriented, however, and that’s very much on purpose. So even with an inside line, talking him into a touring bike wasn’t going to be easy.
I’ve been helping Roland thin down his collection of vintage bike gear for years. Rather than take a cut, I’ve traditionally taken frames in trade. I don’t race nor have I ever raced, but I do enjoy riding a good racing bike. Ok, so mainly I enjoy looking at them as they hang majestically from their hooks, but on rare occasions I will ride one.
To be fair, I don’t tour either, but when I go out for a ride of any distance I enjoy riding a comfortable bike that’s also functional and pretty. …And there isn’t much prettier than a well-outfitted tourer.
Which brings me to a winter day in 2012 when I was visiting Roland in the shop. Between stories (Roland has great stories) he mentioned that it was probably time for me to start thinking about my new frame. “What do you want this time?” he asked.
Picture Ralphie in the movie”A Christmas Story” when his mom asks him what he wants. Rather than blurting out “a Red Ryder BB gun!” I heard myself say, “I really want a touring bike!”
“Touring bikes aren’t any fun to ride and they’re a pain to build,” was his quick and dismissive response. “They’re also heavy and slow.”
“I guess I just want a custom-fitted bike that’s more all-encompassing… Something that has cantilever brakes and a triple crankset. I want a Della Santa that has triple water bottle mounts and eyelets for fenders.”
His bushy eyebrows raised a little. “Are you going to ride in the rain?”
“Uhh, no. I don’t think so,” I said sheepishly.
“Then why do you want fenders?” This wasn’t starting off very well.
Truth be told, I’ve talked Roland into other unique bikes in the past: One was a relatively new frameset built exactly like a DS of the mid-1980’s, complete with Reynolds 531 tubing and Prugnant lugs; another was a Columbus “Star” tubing Ossubuco chainstay nightmare that took twice the normal time to construct (it’s featured here in an earlier blog).
He’d always shake his head in wonderment, but in the end, he’d build it. I think that was because, at their essence, they were racing bikes. Strange iterations, perhaps, but racing bikes nonetheless.
I ran the idea of a touring bike up the flagpole on two subsequent occasions with roughly the same results as the first. At one point during one of my pitches he turned from filing a lug and asked, “Who’s name are you going to put on this thing?” I hadn’t thought about that. He was obviously apprehensive about building a touring bike with his name on it. The last thing he wanted was for folks to see it and come asking for one of their own.
I’d like to say that Roland eventually warmed to the idea of a Della Santa touring bike, but the most that can be said is that, in the end, he grudgingly agreed to give it a go. Beyond everything else, Roland really is a sweet guy. I know he didn’t enjoy building it, but he built it anyhow. …And I could be wrong, but I even think I saw a glimmer of pride when he first pulled it out of the box, fresh from the painter. “There’s your touring bike.” he said. “It sure is heavy.”
The French have always taken their cycling seriously, proved by the existence of this diminutive Gitane (if it doesn’t look small, see the last photo which, for reference, has a 700c wheel behind it). With a seat tube of 38cm it fits riders as early as 6 years old but still came outfitted with many of the same features its larger brethren had (drop bars, downtube shifting, narrow, high-pressure tires, etc.)
Ok, so it also has a chainguard, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a poser. Some of the younger Callahan brood gave it a spin around the block, only to come back looking rather wide-eyed and concerned. “Something’s wrong with it. It acted all crazy” was the overall review, which boiled down could be translated as “way more quick and efficient than anything else Dad has ever made us ride.”
Coot even took it for a spin himself and confirmed that it was indeed a snappy ride, perfect for young Tour de France trainees. Sadly, no photos of the test ride exist. Picture one of those circus bears riding a tricycle and you’ve got the gist, though.
(Thanks to Randy at College Cyclery for providing us with a pair of 500mm Hutchinson tires for the bike.)