The story of Lino Messori, variously opera singer, poet, prizefighter, and framebuilder, trusted partner of Colnago, and maker of over 150 framesets, is absorbing. “I am nobody,” he says, “but I did a bit of everything.”
Now 88, Messori was born in Modena, in northern Italy in 1926, where he learned his trade at his father’s knee. Other influences on the young Lino’s career are perhaps better known: Cino Cinelli, whose advice he would garner when collecting items from Cinelli’s house in Lambrate, and Ernesto Colnago, whose acquaintance he first made at a race, where he agreed to become a dealer for Colnago bicycles.
“He came, he saw my work and he started to have me work for him. I shaped tubings for him; I made things that they were not able to do in Milan.” He proudly displays correspondence from the great man, and a signed picture. “You see? I am a nobody.” The statement is delivered without irony.
Red is his colour. A self-confessed “Ferrarista” (Modena is the capital of Italy’s supercar valley, after all) the shade seems entirely fitting with Italian engineering excellence. “To make a frame, it would take me three days. Others, would make ten in one day. They were capable as well, but my bikes are really perfect.” Evidence for the claim can be seen in any of the machines displayed in this beautiful short film by director, Luca Campanale – Alla velocità del cuore (“At the speed of heart”).
Campanale’s introduction to the ‘fenomeno’ Messori came via Modena bike shop owner, Paolo Chiossi, an old friend of the film director, whose premises had been a regular stop on his way home from university. “I was spending more time at the store than I was in class.” When Campanale returned from New York, Chiossi was keen that he should meet the master framebuilder. “I was sceptical at first. I tend to be sceptical when someone tells me that he has the ‘perfect’ story. Well, Lino wasn’t the perfect story, but [he was] definitely the perfect subject.”
Campanale describes in approving terms the defiant stance adopted by Messori at their first meeting. The framebuilder was, after all, a man of about 85 when the pair met for the filming in 2011; Campanale, by contrast, a “20-something kid”. There is something refreshingly honest about both perspectives, and Campanale is wise enough to appreciate it. “I believe that today many young adults don’t really relate or respect their elders. I grew up admiring the older ones because they lived before me and experienced a life that we ‘millennials’ can’t really imagine. I mean, if you saw the wars, the poverty, the hunger, and then sung with Pavarotti, made bikes, punched people (not just in a boxing ring), and one day a twenty-something kid comes to your house saying, ‘Can I film you?’” He pauses. “I mean, I would politely want to know, ‘Who the fuck are you?’”
The film’s enigmatic title, “At the speed of heart”, addresses both the perspective offered by the bicycle (“Not too slow, like walking, where you get ‘stuck’ in life, and not too fast, like cars, where you blaze through life, not really experiencing anything,” Campanale explains) and the business model practiced by Messori and his peers, which the director claims has been obliterated by mass production and mass consumption. The working pace of the craftsman, afforded time to truly consider his craft rather than meet a production schedule, and life as viewed from the saddle, are, he believes, “a human speed – a sustainable speed.”
Astonishingly, Campanale’s moving portrait of Messori is his first film, the culmination of a hectic introduction to his craft in New York that had brought him a rapid ascent from coffee-carrying PA to camera assistant to editor working in his own suite. Returning to his beloved Modena (“the perfect cycling city; flat and with everything at cycling distance”) for a three-day shoot, he recalls very little time for preparation and a schedule he summarises as “go, film, and leave.”
Messori is a “true artist”, Campanale believes, blessed with vision, and able to apply that vision to many different arts and crafts. But he is also representative of an era that Campanale thinks is fast approaching its end. Messori flourished in a period in which Italy could still be regarded as the “cradle of civilisation”, he argues, in a culture that provided a creative “soil” he believes has now dried out.
Commercial pressures mean that the artist (and here he includes his friend Chiossi and the revered Dario Pegoretti) barely has time to work in his own field, far less to crossover into others. “It is not a world for artists and artisans as it was 50 years ago,” he laments.
“People like Lino are getting fewer and fewer, because the culture has changed. Would you see Richard Sachs singing with Bono, then becoming a painter? I mean, he could probably do it, but today you can’t really afford passions. You can barely afford to be a professional in the crafts you are great at. A great frame builder, for example, must invest all his life, time and money into that craft to succeed, otherwise it wouldn’t be sustainable.”
Perhaps the most striking revelation of the film is Messori’s humility. “I am nobody,” he says, “but I did a bit of everything.” Campanale admits that his purpose in making the film was both to celebrate Lino and his bicycles. It’s fortunate for the wider world, unaware of the framebuilder’s talents, that he has. Messori clearly has little taste for self-promotion, another quality, like his “who the fuck are you?” stance that Campanale admires greatly.
It is Messori’s “vision”, however, that the director believes is the framebuilder’s greatest quality, one which, in practical terms, has given him a direction and purpose in life that has allowed him to become a successful entrepreneur, among other things. More important, the director believes, is Messori’s self-awareness – that he is not, for example, an Ernesto Colnago or Giovanni Pinarello: men who, in commercial terms at least, would be described as more successful.
Mention of such giants, alongside whom the likes of Messori and Pegoretti must surely be considered, poses an obvious question: what is it about Italy that produces bicycles of such beauty and revered performance? We’re far from the first to have marvelled at the glorious union of form and function that characterises the output of much of the Italian cycle industry, but Campanale seems a good man to ask.
“First off, you live in a land that is both beautiful in terms of landscapes, and that also has the most grandiose ancient arts and architecture, all concentrated in a land that is smaller then California,” he says. “From the Colosseo to Donatello’s David, from the Romans to the Arabics. There is so much in that small strip of land (and few islands) that definitely has an influence on it’s citizens – at least the ones with the sensibility to embrace it all.” He offers Colnago’s Arabesque as a prime example of a machine influenced by Italian history and culture. “That frame tells not only a story of craftsmanship, but also the influence of a culture that was in the south of Italy for centuries.”
Further influence can be found in the innate diversity of Italian culture, of a small nation comprised of still smaller regions, each with innumerable dialects. Framebuilding, Campagnale believes, is just one more manifestation of a need to be different; a desire concentrated by the relatively small size of the territory, and evident in other aspects of culture as different as food and language.
This is a beautiful and moving film. For all the beauty of the bicycles (not to mention Modena), and Messori’s inspirational qualities, there is an underlying sadness, that an era in which such talents could flourish has now passed. Campagnale concurs. “When Messori says ‘it’s not easy to make bicycles anymore’, for me it is a metaphor that life, that [living at the] ‘speed of heart’ is not sustainable anymore, and that we live at an unsustainable speed.”
Messori and Campagnolo
Messori’s bikes are dressed, for the most part, in the finery of Campagnolo. 1 contributor and Campagnolo expert 298 identified a mix of Record and Super Record on the first machine featured, which appears in the film at 3.30. “Note the top-mounted gear levers that have been hand-shaped with a curved profile. Also note that the chainset on this bike is a triple specification with the inner ring removed: you can see the threaded holes on the spider where the inner ring would normally mount.”
More finery from Vicenza appears on the bike shown at 5.58. “I think we can see more Record/Super Record, with a triple chainset. This time the inner ring is fitted,” Dubash says. “The gear levers are conventionally mounted, but look like Corsa Record (also known as Record-C), which had a clutch, like the old Simplex levers. The front and rear mechs are a puzzle but look like Simplex, probably because they had greater capacity for triple operation.”
The Forata is Messori’s personal machine and arguably the most beautiful in the film (the voids in the frame and forks make the chassis appear a masterpiece of fabrication). It is the simplest, too. As is the way with fixed gear bicycles, componentry is limited to a single chainwheel and sprocket, and a front brake, which Dubash identifies as an Aero Gran-Compe calliper, controlled by a standard Campagnolo lever, “with exposed cable. How strange!”