Take a look inside Bike Empire in Bologna. This is far from a typical Local Bike Shop. Max Brusa and his crew showed me around their ‘LBS’ on the day the Tour de France was in town…

 


– Story of video by Rob Arnold


 

 

Situated just around the corner from the site of the stage finish on day two of #TDF2024 were a couple of garage doors that usually don’t open on the weekend. It was a Sunday and with the bike race in town it could easily have flooded with visitors, but it remained closed for much of the day, only opening in the late afternoon because owner Max Brusa enjoys spending time at ‘work’ where he surrounded by a vast array of items collected over the years.

If fans of the Tour knew just how much cycling history was inside, this small space would have been packed. But it wasn’t opening for business, per se. Rather, it was a chance for Max and the staff to hang out with mates late on a hot summer day.

I met Max the evening before the TDF arrived in Bologna for the first time. The bike he was riding served as the catalyst for an introduction. Less than a minute after crossing the road to take a closer look at what I would later learn was originally a track frame that had been converted to a road bike, I’m pleased to say, a friendship born.

A serendipitous sighting of a lovely steel-framed Faggin was all it took for Max and I to begin a conversation about a few things we love: cycling and nice bikes.

He had ridden to a local bar not far from Bike Empire, a shop he’s owned for several decades. I was in Bologna for the bike race. He spoke a little bit of broken English. I knew only a few words of Italian but my poor language skills were no barrier. Within minutes we were sharing stories and showing photos of bikes we liked and talking about why something from yesteryear is still highly relevant today.

“My shop is just around the corner from where the stage finishes tomorrow.”

“Righto, I’m going to swing by to have a look around and find out more.”

Buono.”

We swapped Insta addresses and talked a few minutes more and agreed to meet again the next day.

On Sunday 30 June 2024 the weather gods were working overtime in Bologna. The sun was shining bright and the heat was turn up high! Thousands of people were lapping up the vibe while this festival of cycling was in Italy and there was a carnival atmosphere all around town. It was warm in the morning and bloody hot by the afternoon.

Bike Empire was a few hundred metres from the media room and just around the corner from Via Irnerio where Kevin Vauquelin saluted the crowd after a fine ride to win the stage to Bologna.

The inescapable stench of discarded Red Bull cans filled the air. Litter was piling up as the caffeine/taurine/sugar-laced syrup give-away bonanza became a feature of the TDF. Plenty of people had obviously accepted the freebies from one of the competing teams new title sponsor but it certainly didn’t seem like it was going to be cleaned up any time soon. This was one thing I wanted to ignore about The Big Race coming to town but it was omnipresent and not at all a pretty sight.

While the usual hubbub of post-stage activity filled Bologna with noise and as the huge crowds dissipated surprisingly quickly, I took my cue and went around the corner to Bike Empire on Via Piero Maroncelli. Standing outside were some of the staff, most young and I assumed part of the Brusa family but I never had a moment to ask. As soon as I wandered through the front door I was greeted by Max.

With open arms he embraced me and declared, “My friend! It’s great to see you. Let’s talk about bikes!”

In the time it took for me to prep my camera, some space had been cleared in the crowded ‘showroom’. I use the term loosely as it really is a cluttered bike shop. There may be some method to the madness. If there is, I’m confident to say that only Max knows it.

At a glance you may call it a mess but look a little closer or take some time to wait for him to delve into the cupboards and, as I’d discover, all cycling aficionados would realise that Bike Empire is a treasure trove of bikes and components that you aren’t likely to find anywhere else in the world.

For a little less than an hour, I filmed what I could and attempted to complete an interview with Max about his collection. Distraction came easily and not only from the regulars who dropped by to say hello while the Tour was in town; rather, it was the realisation that I was interested in what may lay deep in the catacombs of this small and unique local bike shop.

It could be that there was a new bike on display. If there was, I didn’t see it amongst the vast collection of products from yesteryear.

I’m not sure if Max calls himself a bike shop proprietor or a collector. He is both and, I’m guessing, he’d also be pretty handy with the tools… that is, of course, if he can find the ones he wants when he needs to get a job done.

Bike Empire’s traditional opening hours are 11.00am to 7.30pm Monday to Friday. Saturdays and Sundays are set aside for riding and socialising and yet I’m confident to say there would be moments on most weekends when he or a member of staff would drop by, slide up the garage doors at the front of the shop and spend some time inside. Perhaps they’d be looking for a long-lost item that they knew was in there somewhere (but exactly where, as I’d learn during my visit, would often be a mystery). Or maybe they just wanted to hang out and explore. There is plenty to see, including some amazing surprises that would even capture Max’s attention again while he showed me around.

It would be easy to spend plenty of time in Bike Empire and yet not even come close to seeing all that was inside. Max and co might turn up even when there was no prospect of customers visiting and simple sit and contemplate what project bike should next get some attention, and what components in the considerable collection might be applied.

If we only consider the three bikes featured in the video that prompted this article, it’s obvious that there is an eclectic mix of exotica on bikes that have never been part of mainstream cycling culture. And, as you’ll see if you click ‘play’ on the link at the top of this page, there is some logic applied to the spec even but it’s far from a quest to maintain what might have been the bike’s original component arrangement.

The ‘Story Of A Bike Shop’ begins with Max attempting to explain the bike that first caught my attention. Originally the steel-framed Faggin was track bike but over time it has turned into a city bike. It’s now Max’s pride and joy. He switched the drop-outs after deciding to build it up for personal use and added derailleurs and some components that may well be the only examples of historic products still in use today.

Most cycling aficionados have a soft spot for Campagnolo’s (in)famous Delta brakes, for example. They look stunning and seem to be engineered to perfection. There are many highlights, but they also weigh a lot and… well, they never really functioned terribly well (ie. you might be able to slow yourself down a little but stopping on cue isn’t exactly something you wanted to do while using them). You could say they are ‘brakes’, in theory alone.

The Delta brakes on the Faggin that Max now rides around town, as he was doing on the evening we met, are actually prototypes for what would become the product that first arrived on the market in 1984.

The fact that the Delta brakes on the Faggin were a prototype is one aspect of the bike that Max did explain during what became a wild, fun, and interrupted interview session. There was also plenty of laughter as he sat on the lounge near the front door of Bike Empire and attempted to find the words of a foreign language to explain the bikes and components which were all around us.

The younger staff eventually chimed in, helping Max with English. “They are my friends, but today they are my Google Translators,” he laughed.

Once the formalities of a very informal interview were complete and I needed to get moving to The Next Phase of my Italian journey, the conversation continued. There was limited time and it had already been a very long day but when you have a chance to get shown the kinds of products and collectibles that were pulled out of cupboards, it’s hard to resist.

Bike Empire is a ‘local bike shop’ in Bologna, but it’s much more than just another LBS. It is the perfect example of a ‘Third Place’ James Stout wrote about in RIDE Cycling Review (issue 58) back in 2013 – “that space that isn’t work and isn’t home but where you go when you don’t want to be in either”.

 

– By Rob Arnold