16 June 2011

If You Build Your Bike In Italy from Reynolds Tubing, Name It After A French Town

Today I saw a listing for a Frejus bicycle that was made in "Torino, France."

I wrote to whoever listed the bike to correct his/her geography:  Torino--known in the English-speaking world as Turin-- is, of course, in Italy.

One of the ironies of that listing is that the town of Frejus is actually located in France.  Granted, it's not far from Italy and was, at different times in history, ruled not only by Italy, but also by several Italian city-states as well as the King of Sardinia and the Dukes of Savoie (Savoy).  

And it was part of the Roman Empire.  That is evident in the ampitheatre in middle of the town.  In fact, when I was there, I recall reading something (a brochure?  a plaque? a book, maybe?) that said it is the oldest surviving Roman ampitheatre, not to mention one of the  oldest surviving structures, in France.  There are also the remains of an acqueduct as well as a number of other Roman structures.

Perhaps they built chariots back then.  However, nothing that I've read in French, English or Italian indicates that any bicycle, or even any part for one, was ever produced there, though--it being in the south of France, after all--quite a few people ride bikes for recreation as well as transportation. Well, at least they were when I was there.

Even if we never rode or owned one, Frejus bicycles are special to cyclists of my generation or the one immediately before us.  As Sheldon Brown points out on his page, they were often ridden by the few active racers in the US during the Dark Ages of the sport in this country.  And it was one of the bikes of choice for relatively well-heeled enthusiasts in the early days of the Bike Boom.

Accounts vary as to their ride qualities. And, as pretty as many of them were, the workmanship was actually pretty mediocre, even on their best Campagnolo-equipped models. But, for many of us, they defined what an Italian racing bike was.

They were imported and sold by Tom Avenia, who was also one of the first importers of Campagnolo equipment.  I met him when he was a very, very old man.  (He lived to be about 95, if I'm not mistaken.)  Frail as he was, he still rode and could tell stories about the Six Day Races in Madison Square Garden during the 1930's (which would be the last most Americans would hear of bicycle racing for about another half-century) as well as his own participation in such races as the Somerville Classic.  I could see how the man all but singlehandedly kept the torch burning, or at least flickering, on his zeal alone.

And he rode a Frejus track bike, equipped with a front brake, nearly to the end of his life.

And, yes, he reminded me that Frejus is actually a town in France, even though the bikes were made in Italy--of Reynolds 531 tubing.


  1. Eugene Sloane included Frejus amongst his short list of "best" bikes and that has always stuck with me, though I have never actually seen one.

  2. Steve, you're right about Sloane's recommendation. Isn't it amazing how much we were influenced by his book, even when he was biased or just plain wrong? Then again, there weren't many other cycling books available in the US at that time.

    You've never seen a Frejus? The reason may well be that not many got beyond the East Coast. Tom Avenia was based in New York, and most American racing (what existed of it, anyway) was in the Northeast, the Chicago and Detroit areas and California. Also, I suspect that the number of Frejus bikes that actually got imported to the US wasn't very high, at least in comparison to the numbers of some other bikes. Finally, it seems that Frejus merged with, or was bought by, Legnano at some point, and the Frejus brand disappeared, or at least was no longer imported to the US.

  3. I bought my Frejus in 1963 from Gene Portuesi in Detroit. Another one of the old mythical names.

  4. Al--Ah, yes, Gene Porteusi. I first heard of him when I read Sloane's "Complete Book of Bicycling" just as I was becoming serious about cycling.

    Naturally, I sent for Porteusi's catalogue, Cyclo-Pedia. I think I ordered a thing or two that the local shops didn't have. Even after everyone from Frank Berto to Consumer Reports was touting SunTour derailleurs, Gene's catalogue listed only European equipment. Like Tom Avenia, he was one of the few comprehensive Campagnolo dealers and also one of the few retailers who offered a good selection of racing and sport bikes. As I recall, both carried Bottechia, Legnano and Atala bikes, as well as Frejus, when they were still relatively rare in the US.

  5. I knew Tommy Avenia, and still have the Frejus I bought from him in 1971. I think I paid $275. The Frejus was the cheapest of the "serious" bikes available: Reynolds or Columbus tubing, campi components. Mine was all campi except for Universal (I think) center-pull brakes, which I eventually jettisoned in favor of Campi side-pulls. Tommy took me for a ride once early in the morning in Central Park when it was closed off to motor traffic. I gave him my road Frejus and he let me ride his Frejus track. It was terrific. Not stock, the seat tube had an arc in it where the rear wheel fit, giving the bike an ultra short wheelbase. Tommy could pedal it backwards, like a circus clown. When he dismounted, he didn't swing his leg over the saddle, but frontwards over the handlebars. He was awesome, and he had a guy who repaired blown sew-up tires. A lot of the racers in Central Park in those days rode fixed-gear bikes. Claimed they were good for conditioning because your feet are always moving.

  6. d--That's quite a story. Tommy was something, wasn't he?

    $275 in 1971 sounds about right for the bike you described.

    And, oh, yes, how coudl I forget the bend in Tommy's seat tube? A number of biike makers have offered, at one time or another, that feature for the reasons Tommy gave.

  7. My first bike was a Frejus, a blue, single speed with training wheels which my Dad purchased for me from Tommy Avenia. My second (red but, other than the size and lack of training wheels, identical to my first bike), third, (red 10 speed), and fourth (yellowish green 10 speed identical to the previous bike other than size) were all bought from Avenia. After my fourth bike was stolen around 1984 in Boston, I tracked down a used top of the line Frejus (all Record equipped (other than the Universal center-pull brakes which I also ultimately replaced with Campy side pull Nuevo Records or Records, not sure)) which I purchased as, by then Tommy had closed up his shop in East Harlem and moved upstate. Besides the narrowness of Tommy's store, I remember the ingenious wood box stands he used for working on bikes upside down. My recollection is that the wood was quite worn as he had been using the stands for many years. I seem to remember that he did move from his original narrow location to a bigger store on, I believe, 3rd Avenue. I still have the last Frejus I bought(as well as the red 10 speed and a 5 speed woman's bike which was purchased for my Mom (but which I have no recollection of her riding)) and ride it occasionally in Central Park.

  8. David--Do you feel like you are riding a piece of history when you ride that bike in CP? Do you feel the presence of Tommy?

    Emey Hoffmann, who used to have a shop on East 25th Street (where I worked for a time) used stands like the ones you describe. He said that he learned how to make them from Tommy. Small world, isn't it?

  9. Wow! What memories! I grew up in the South Bronx and bought my first "good" bike from Tommy Avenia -- Frejus, campi equip except for the universal centerpull breaks -- while still in high school, about 1960. I was never a racer, but I lived in a five story walk-up so wanted a light bike. I rode it to HS, then to college (Columbia), and everywhere on the streets in NYC. When it was stolen I bought a second Frejus, used, that was slightly too large for me. I took it to London for a year at the LSE -- commuting to Highgate Hill -- and toured around East Anglia. After that, Cambridge MA. I used to ride in Metro West and often to western MA, the Cape and Nantucket. Several times I hitchhiked with the bike to VT (took off the front wheel and cars stopped because they thought I needed help). The second bike was stolen in Harvard Sq, but six months later I saw someone riding it on Mass Ave and took it back. I think it called me as it passed! In later years I gave up sewn tires, made other touring changes, and took the bike to SF and Seattle. I finally donated it to Bikes Not Bombs in 1992 because my knee was so bad I didn't think I'd ride again. Now the knee is fixed and I'm sorry, tho I have five other bikes. (I'm 72 and thinking seriously about pedal assist electric) I still have the narrow leather Brooks racing saddle from the Frejus and a few other parts.

    Riding the Frejus often led to conversations with other bikers and I was amazed at how many of them knew or had heard of Tommy.

  10. David--You've given us some cycling (as well as personal) history just by writing about your Frejus bikes!

    I think that nearly all cyclists of a certain generation--at least those in the northeastern US--knew about Tommy, as he was one of the first to import high-quality racing bikes and components.

  11. Ahhh...Gene Porteusi I bought my first from Gene at his shop in Cadillac, MI in 1970 and my first century ride that year from Traverse City to Gene's shop and back. My buddy Bob Balance and I rode our bikes all over northern Michigan - doing a second century run the next year back to Gene's. When we arrived at his shop he welcomed us - and tuned up our bikes while we rested. Wish I'd kept that bike - but it got left in Grand Cayman in '85. Let me know if you see it!

  12. Myk--What a story! If I am ever in Grand Cayman, I'll definitely be on the lookout for your Frejus!

  13. I used to ride Central Park almost everyday with my Gitane Track Bike. There was a group of us that rode every day and on weekends hung out at "the bench". I remember Tom Avenia and his shop as well as Stuyvesant Bike and Sal Corso. I used to ride the Kissena Track one night a week for club races. I would race after riding there from Central Park. I miss those good old days and often wonder what happened to all the guys that hung out. Ken

  14. Ken--Those were the days, weren't they? Thanks for stopping by!