Retro review: recreating the ‘Breaking Away’ Masi bike
There is attention to detail in the replica bike from the movie Breaking Away that requires considerable explanation. This is the online version of a ‘Retro Review’ that appeared in #RIDE74.
Studio photos: Tom Roschi
The ‘Breaking Away’ Masi: a passion project
– By James Sage
In early 2015 the opportunity arose to undertake a special project: to create an accurate replica of Dave Stoller’s Masi Gran Criterium bicycle from the 1979 film Breaking Away. From first viewing the film has remained a firm personal favourite and Dave’s red bike is a cycling and pop culture icon. The challenge was grasped with both hands.
I first saw Breaking Away in high school when my everyday mode of transport was the ubiquitous 1970s Malvern Star 10-speed racer so familiar to school kids of the time. Little wonder the story of Dave, played by Dennis Christopher, and his quest to face the uncertain time between high school and the rest of life armed with some good friends and his trusty bicycle struck an immediate personal chord.
Breaking Away received critical acclaim and went on to win multiple awards including the 1979 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. It was, however, released in a year filled with big budget blockbusters and these days not many people seem to be aware of it.
Those who know the movie have taken it to heart, especially within the cycling community. It features near the top of any list of the best sporting films and recently it ranked eighth on the American Film Institute’s list of Most Inspiring Movies.
Ah yes, the official poster complete with the good old flipped image of Dave Stoller (played by Dennis Christopher), showing the chainring on the left side of the bike (above).
Amongst cyclists it is revered as much for its technical bloopers as for stunning sequences of Dave’s rides through the Indiana countryside and use of cycling as a metaphor for overcoming life’s challenges.
Probably the most recollected scene is when Dave chases down and drafts a Cinzano semi-trailer on a highway at 60 miles per hour, whilst on the small chainring, to the soundtrack of Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony.
Unlikely, but stunning and memorable.
Gary Rybar, Dennis Christopher’s stunt double, actually did get up to 58mph (93km/h) whilst shooting the scene, being buffeted by trucks and cars on the freeway, which is an impressive achievement even on a big chainring. And if this kind of magic is not enough to love, there is of course the bike itself.
Any mention of Dave Stoller immediately invokes thoughts of his ever-faithful red Masi. A beautiful item in its own right and forming half of a partnership that is inseparable in people’s minds.
The completed bike on display in Adelaide (above).
The replica bike was to be exhibited at the 2016 Santos Tour Down Under Legends’ Night event where a very high degree of authenticity is demanded of exhibits.
There is an awareness that such a project would need to be approached with respect and attention to detail in order for the result to be embraced by those who love the film.
The foundation of a good quality vintage bike restoration, and especially one with a high-profile subject and Italian componentry, is to invest time confirming all the details before building. The quest had begun.
It was soon clear that, even with the benefit of digital resolution, it would not be possible to obtain the information needed from the movie itself. For an accurate replica, exact details of components – preferably right down to the correct size and matching year of manufacture – were needed, and this would require some other information sources.
A starting point was Tom Schwoegler, who provided technical assistance during the making of the movie. He remains involved with running the Indiana University Little 500, the bike race which forms the backdrop for the movie’s finale and is happy to provide information about the filming and background. This included screenwriter Steve Tesich’s insistence that Dave’s bike was to be a red Masi Gran Criterium, the quintessential embodiment of the classic Italian racing bicycle and perfectly reflecting Dave Stoller’s obsession with all things Italian.
(It is worth noting that the bad guys in the film, the Italian Cinzano team, were made to ride Colnagos).
Perhaps ironically, Dave’s bike was not Italian, but one made in America, the product of an intriguing chapter in vintage cycling history.
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The Masi Gran Criterium was created by legendary Italian bike maker Faliero Masi in 1969. Faliero is a giant of the Italian bike industry and, at that time, he was at the height of his powers. Having designed and built bikes for leading riders from the 1920s, he had the inherent skill to create bikes around the exact needs of individual riders which earned him the nickname ‘The Tailor’.
In the late 1960s, he was the bike supplier for many champions including Tom Simpson and Eddy Merckx who disguised their Masi items to resemble team bikes supplied by other manufacturers.
Faliero was approaching retirement, his reputation built on small-scale quality craftsmanship rather than large-scale commercial production. Much of the production of Masi’s frames had been outsourced during the 1960s to trusted artisans and his famous workshop under Milan’s Vigorelli velodrome largely handled finishing of the frames and assembly of the bikes.
In 1969, Faliero was approached by American businessmen Roger Smith and Roland Sahm to sell the “Cicli Masi” brand and manufacturing rights in the US, and assist with establishing production in California. After much negotiation, a deal was struck in 1972 for a handsome sum and an ongoing retainer for Masi as advisor. This was not a universally popular move within his family and there is evidence of attempts to separately register the Masi name in the US before the deal was in place to frustrate the arrangement.
In September 1973, Faliero travelled to the US to assist with the establishment of large-scale production in a new purpose-built workshop in Carlsbad, CA. He was followed by three trusted assistants including the talented young framemaker Mario Confete.
Over the following 18 months, Faliero visited the facility and instructed the workforce in the art of Masi bicycles before ultimately departing in 1975, leaving Confete in charge of production.
Production of these beautiful ‘Italian’ bikes progressed erratically due to difficulties building a skilled workforce from scratch and create processes to build large quantities of an item that had previously been made on a cottage industry scale by experienced artisans. Between 1975 and 1978, ongoing challenges led to several dramatic changes of key personnel, including the departure of Confete, and the relocation of production first to Rancho Santa Fe in 1977 and then San Marcos in 1978.
As a consequence of a succession of people building the bikes some variations in detail inevitably resulted.
Against this background of events, an order was placed in spring 1978 for two Masi Gran Criterium bicycles to be used for filming Breaking Away.
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The head tube shows the black headset spacer that distinguished Christopher’s bike from the second Masi used in filming. The word ‘Milano’ was removed from the headbadge — one of the 1978 decal modifications made by the Californian builders.
Tom Schwoegler confirmed the urban tale that not one but three bikes were used as Dave’s bike in the movie. Two were Masi Gran Criteriums whilst the third was a Sears Spirit, a mass produced supermarket model, which was painted to resemble a Masi.
This latter bike was used instead of a valuable Masi for the Cinzano race crash scene when a pump is thrust through Dave’s front wheel.
Masi was not willing to supply a decal set for this bike and so all the graphics were hand painted.
When viewing the actual film the Sears bike is detectable by its Weinmann brake calipers which have opposite cable handing to the Campagnolo items fitted to the Masi bikes.
With the benefit of this knowledge, it is possible to identify not only the Sears bike but also the individual Masi bikes which have visible detail differences. One Masi has a distinctive black headset spacer and yellow Masi decals on the rear chainstays whilst the other Masi has blue ones.
It is also evident that rear wheels were changed during filming as the hubs often change between high and low flange models, even between shots in the same sequence. Tom confirmed that, on the set, there were huge amounts of back-up items to ensure filming was not interrupted.
A large number of wheels were sought from local sources and were regularly changed when punctures occurred or different gearing was required.
At this juncture, faced with two bikes, it was necessary to decide which Masi would be replicated.
The classic scene in the movie is Dave’s Cinzano truck chase and it was clear to me that this would be The One – the bike with a black headset spacer and yellow chainstay decals. It was to be a choice that would ultimately make this project far more rewarding.
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The Campagnolo Nuovo Record rear derailleur with Patent 73 stamping denoting its year of manufacture. The frame used for the replica was made in 1981 and fitted with short rear dropouts rather than the long versions on the movie bike. At the end of the project this was the only known detail difference between the original and replica.
Bob Hovey is a lover of all things Masi and he maintains an excellent website containing information to help enthusiasts determine details of bikes such as the differences between Italian and US-made bikes. Bob’s site has an extensive register of Gran Criteriums which details the frame serial numbers, dates of manufacture, frame sizes and key items such as fork crown type for hundreds of bikes.
Happily, one of the Breaking Away movie bikes is listed and the register confirmed it was made in 1978, the same year filming occurred. It also notes that this bike had been repaired by Gängl Cycles involving the replacement of the down tube and top tube and repainting of the frame.
Images were located of the repaired bike being displayed on Richard Gängl’s stand at the 2013 North American Handbuilt Bike Show. It was evident that the bike had been rebuilt in a manner far different than its original form and so could not be relied upon to confirm the movie bike details.
Contact was eventually made with Richard who was able to confirm the tale of this bike.
It had been retained by Steve Tesich but, as the frame was too small, he gave it to a close friend. Shortly afterwards the rider was forced off the road and crashed. The damaged bike hung in the garage for many years until the owner’s wife secretly took the frame to Richard to be fully repaired as a birthday present.
The damaged top tube, head tube and down tube were cut out and replaced but the original fork was undamaged and retained. The bike was then rebuilt by Schwab Cycles in Denver, Colorado where it now remains on permanent display on loan from the owner.
The information obtained from the Hovey site, pictures of the movie bike repaired by Gängl, and the 1978 Masi catalogue all indicate that a semi-sloping Cinelli fork crown was required for the replica project.
After a two-month vigil, a suitable Gran Criterium frameset was located in the US. It had been given a hideous repaint but this was not an issue and importantly the fork had the correct crown.
The Californian Masi bikes were available in a range of colours but red is really the definitive colour. Listed as ‘Red Orange’ in the Masi catalogue, it appears quite orange on the screen but in real life is more like the colour of a creamy Heinz tomato soup. For accurate reproduction, a hard copy sample of the original would be essential.
The vintage bike community is extremely supportive and generous with information and assistance. A call for help went out on the grapevine and soon an email was received from renowned American bike painter Jim Allen.
It turned out that Jim had been the main frame painter at Masi when the movie bikes were made. Not only did he have an original 1970’s Masi colour sample display which was used at bike shows, but also a can of the original Masi red orange paint in his shed.
You cannot get more authentic than the real thing! A brush out sample was soon on its way with Jim’s compliments.
(An online wine store in the US was located with the ability to deliver a wide range of South Australian wines. A good Barossa Shiraz was soon on its way to Jim’s door by way of thanks.)
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The Record front derailleur is a 1972 model, the last before a circlip was added to the pivot bolt to improve reliability. And the 1973 Nuovo Record chainset featured ‘Patent Campagnolo’ stampings on chainrings, axle covers and chainring bolts and were the first to have the year of manufacture stamped on the rear face of the crank arms.
A red steel framed bike of that era has inherent beauty, with its purposeful greyhound-fine tubing, sun-catching chrome, polished high-spoke-count wheels and hand-finished alloy components. By chance, a decision was taken at Masi in 1978 that would elevate the beauty of Dave’s bike and others built that year to a higher level.
The standard Gran Criterium decal set, comprising many visually complicated elements, was modified and simplified which significantly enhanced the appearance of the bikes.
Depending on who is telling the story, this change occurred either because of difficulties with applying the Italian-supplied decals resulting in the decision to reduce the number of them, or because there was only one Masi model produced in the US and it was felt unnecessary to have ‘Gran Criterium’, references to Milano and international flags all over the bike. Whatever the reason, the effect was brilliant.
With the decal clutter removed Dave’s Masi was a thing of beauty that even a layperson could appreciate.
It was a one-year mod that happened to coincide with the movie and the following year the original cluttered Masi decal set was back in use.
A replacement set of the modified Masi 1978 decals was carefully created by Greg Softley of Cyclomondo using original Masi artwork. Greg is internationally recognised for the quality of his work and this was no exception.
Steve Munyard at Sun Graphics provided a luscious new paint finish to the frame and applied the new decals with careful attention to position. In the 1970s bike production was very much a ‘by eye’ affair and the position of decals could vary quite widely between bikes, so scale images of the movie bike were used to precisely position each item. In all scenes, Dave’s bike is fitted with a matching Silca Imperio frame pump and a correct item was sourced and refinished. The finished frameset is stunning.
The early Campagnolo steel pedal cages were manufactured with loops for the toe straps until 1972. Like most bikes of the era the movie bike was fitted with Christophe Special toeclips and Binda toestraps with metal rollers. The yellow chainstay decals distinguished Dennis’s bike from the other movie Masi which had blue items.
My quest to confirm the correct components was slightly more challenging. But it’s part of the story of this bike and worth recounting how it came together.
From the movie, it was evident that the bikes were fitted with a Campagnolo Nuovo Record groupset but it is not clear what the other components were, or indeed the size and year of manufacture of parts. What was needed was pictures of the original items or someone who knew about them.
Unfortunately neither Tom Schwoegler or Jim Allen could recall this level of detail and even after much searching and following up leads, there were seemingly no good quality images of the bikes to be found, despite the myriad blogs and forum posts dedicated to the movie.
There are certainly a number of candidates claiming to be the real thing but these were soon discarded as imposters based on incorrect size or other details. In this day and age when you can usually find anything you are searching for online, it appeared the second movie bike and any images had simply vanished without trace.
Search long enough, with a variety of terminology, and something occasionally turns up… and indeed it did.
In October 2012, Entertainment Weekly ran a reunion issue featuring the cast of Breaking Away on the cover and there, hanging over Dennis Christopher’s shoulder, was part of a red bike. Contact was made with the photographer, Joe Pugliese, and he confirmed the bike was an original from the film, still owned by Christopher.
Pugliese loves the film and he was able to provide a few other shots of the bike taken on the day to help with the project on the copyright proviso that they were not circulated. The images didn’t give a lot of detail but clearly showed the bike was still in existence. (Another bottle of fine wine was soon on its way.)
Shortly afterwards, some posts on the Velospeak blogsite were discovered. A display of the original Masi bike from Breaking Away had occurred at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles.
The bike, which had been stored in a secret location, had been loaned by Christopher. Some fantastic high resolution photos of the bike were posted by Velospeak creator Alex Yust, and there, clear as day, was the odd black headset spacer and the yellow chainstay decals – the quest was at an end!
Yust is a big Breaking Away fan. He runs Velospeak, dedicated to all things cycling, as a personal passion outside of his day job in the film industry. He confirmed that the bike exhibited definitely belonged to Christopher and that it was indeed the real thing, as they lived in close proximity and had spoken at length about making the movie. Following the shooting of the final scene, he had literally walked off the set with the bike and it has remained in his possession ever since.
Despite having the perfect physical build for cycling and playing the role of Dave so well, Christopher is not an avid cyclist; the bike was only ridden a few times after filming before being carefully stored for three decades.
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3TTT Record stem and Record Competizione Superleggero handlebars fitted to the movie bike were current model in 1978. Faliero Masi had a distinct preference for 3TTT cockpit components in the 1970s after reputedly having a disagreement with Cino Cinelli.
Alex Yust was keen to assist with the project and Dennis Christopher happily agreed to make the bike available for a series of photos of component details. This provided the information required. It also confirmed that the bike was entirely original with the exception of a Masi pantographed stem and new bartape.
The stem was a gift to Christopher from Faliero Masi and was fitted after filming by the famous I.Martin store.
I.Martins was not only his local bike shop but had supplied the bikes for the movie and assisted with fitting Christopher and providing advice on how to ride like a professional rider.
Christopher and Yust had provided all the details needed and a reciprocal offering of wine was provided, of course.
There was no doubt about the authenticity of the bike, but after reviewing the photos some things did not make sense if it had been produced in 1978. Every Campagnolo component on Christopher’s bike dates from 1973 or earlier, and the fork has an earlier era Fischer crown with square shoulders rather than a sloping Cinelli type. Similarly the frame serial number is not consistent with any numbering system used at Masi workshops. Further research was required…
The mystery of the Campagnolo components’ vintage was soon solved.
Brian Bayliss, a respected member of the US handbuilt bike scene with a gift for producing finely detailed bikes, had began his career working at the Carlsbad workshop under the tutelage of Faliero Masi and was happy to share his knowledge. He explained that, when the Carlsbad workshop opened in 1973, an enormous stock of Campagnolo components had been obtained in preparation for the anticipated large sales. However, as the planned level of production did not eventuate, this stock lasted many years and was being fitted to new bikes years later, possibly up to 1978.
It later emerged that this stock was part of a purchase of product by Roland Sahm that was so large he was gifted a Ferrari as part of the deal. Sahm was hoping to become Campagnolo’s US distributor but ultimately this was awarded to a Texas company and he later dumped his entire stock at drastically reduced prices.
The story of the frame’s unusual details was ultimately answered with the help of expat Englishman Dom Phipps. He had been commissioned by Haro, the current owners of the Masi trademark, to produce a book to commemorate Masi’s 90th anniversary. He has an amazing drive to source information and ensure that the facts are sifted from the tales and had undertaken a huge amount of research including interviews with almost all key players still alive in Italy and the US.
Phipps filled in many gaps in the Masi story generally, and in particular background information of the period when the movie bikes were ordered.
It became apparent that the events surrounding Masi’s move to America and its early years were as colourful and filled with intrigue as any good Italian story and it is a pity that the full extent of his research was not able to be compressed into the final published book.
Phipps explained that during 1977, Masi production was wound down at the Carlsbad workshop in preparation for relocation to a new facility at San Marcos. As an interim measure, production of frames was initially outsourced to builder Albert Eisentraut and later to Keith Lippy who each built small batches in 1977.
We surmised that Christopher’s bike might be one of these which would explain the unique numbering and fork details.
Eisentraut framesets have a distinctive fork bend and so it appeared Keith Lippy was the more likely candidate. Phipps subsequently interviewed Lippy and came away confident that he had been the likely builder of Christopher’s frame in late 1977 at his workshop in Bend, Oregon. To do the work Lippy had been supplied with Masi’s residual inventory of parts comprising a mixed bag of lugs including old Fischer crowns. One of these was used on the frameset that ultimately ended up in Christopher’s hands.
The frame was subsequently painted and finished by Jim Allen in the new Masi San Marcos workshop in early 1978 alongside new frames starting to be produced there. Thus it came to pass that two Masi Gran Criterium frames, different in several respects, were supplied to the I.Martin bike shop in spring 1978 to fill the order from the Breaking Away production company.
By coincidence, Dennis’s Masi Gran Criterium is thus not only a cult icon for its role on the silver screen but also the quintessential embodiment of the quirky details and parts arising from Masi’s challenging formative years in the US.
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The 1973 Campagnolo Record brake calipers were fitted with flat style quick-release levers and had ‘Brev. Campy’ on the centre bolt. In 1975 the stamping changed to ‘Patent Campy’ and the levers modified. Introduced in the late 1960s the side-pull caliper design was so successful it remained fundamentally unchanged for over 15 years.
With the mysteries satisfactorily explained and all details at hand it was time to build.
Because the bike was going to be exhibited and is so revered, only mint condition parts would be appropriate. With knowledge and patience it is possible to obtain many components from the 1970s new and in original packaging.
Sourcing and opening vintage Campagnolo boxes with their distinctive aroma and greaseproof paper to reveal a beautiful handfinished component is addictive and in a short time most required items had been secured.
Inevitably, one or two items are not so easily found when very specific requirements apply. In this instance it was the Campagnolo Record crankset which had to have 170mm arms, 1973 date stamping and 52/44 tooth Nuovo Record chainrings. In such instances the underground collector’s network comes into play and, with patience and luck, the required items can be located and gently prised from a fellow collector’s treasured collection.
Shortly afterwards the crankset was in transit from Illinois with a negative effect on Australia’s trade balance figures.
The exhibition was fast approaching. Andy White of FYXO fame is held heavily responsible for an introduction to the joys of vintage steel bikes and has a well documented fondness for all things orange including the Breaking Away Masi.
It was with a sense of karma that the exhibit build was entrusted to his instinctive style and amazing eye for visual detail and balance.
There persisted one final challenge to test the resolve and commitment to absolute authenticity which was proving difficult to ignore. To be truly accurate, a replacement fork with the correct square shouldered Fischer casting crown was needed. By this stage the journey had progressed so far down the rabbit hole that it had to be done.
It transpired that Brian Bayliss still had a small stock of the original Fischer castings and Reynolds 531 steel fork blades used in Masi production and he agreed to build the replica fork. Sadly, it was a commission that was never to be completed.
In 2016, Bayliss contracted pneumonia and quickly succumbed to the complications that followed. The speed of his passing shook the handbuilt bike community and tributes flowed for a long time filled with stories of his larger-than-life character and readiness to put forward a colourful and passionate point of view. His absence will certainly be felt and the bike industry will be poorer for it.
The search for a framemaker to take on the fork project continued.
Warren Meade, forever helpful and knowledgeable on all things vintage cycling (and the original author of our ‘Retro Reviews’), suggested Victorian Peter Campbell of Oaksport fame. Yet again, the boundless enthusiasm for a bike project challenge was encountered and Campbell used his own frame builder network to obtain the required parts, including high-profile American builder Richard Sachs who provided the fork crown.
A flow of workshop pictures on Instagram appeared and the finished fork emerged, complete with bright chrome and luscious red paint.
Unfortunately, time had been against this last effort and the fork was finished too late for the exhibition in Adelaide. The bike would be exhibited with the Cinelli fork as fitted to the other Masi in the film, and therefore accurate, but the completed replica of Christopher’s bike would have to wait until the new fork was fitted a short time later.
The night of the Legends Dinner arrived… the finished bike poised on its display stand, all polished and glowing under lights was striking.
Putting this bike together was an amazing experience, the culmination of parts sourced from around the globe and incredibly generous assistance from so many people. It also occurred to me that the project had proven a fabulous boost for the SA wine industry.
During the event, a constant stream of guests moved around the bike, intently taking in every detail, watching the backdrop video of the Cinzano truck chase sequence and engaging in excited reminiscing with friends about something that brought them joy. In a room filled with other legendary bikes the Masi proved to be the most popular exhibit of the night, and the rewarding culmination of an extraordinary project.
– By James Sage
*Note: this article first appeared in #RIDE74, published in December 2016.