Sunday, May 12, 2019

A death in the family

I have been delaying writing this post as the whole idea that Roland Della Santa is gone has been hard to accept. I can't say I was a close friend to Roland but he did show up in the pit at the Nationals and would treat me like a long lost friend - he would tell me stories that had me laughing hard enough to wonder if the UCI officials would kick me out of the pit area. That is the common thing that all of Roland's friends remember about him- his ability to hold court and tell stories about racers and racing that were brutally honest, unbelievably funny and the kind of stuff that would be hard to forget.
This disarming humor hid to a degree the level of excellence as a craftsman that Roland posessed. Most people upon meeting him might find it hard to connect the guy telling the funny stories with the guy who made Greg LeMond's first serious road bikes- the same guy who set the standard in the early '70's for American custom built frames- the same guy who year in and year out was an advocate for talent in American bicycle racing who had a keen eye and a very benevolent approach to nurturing talent when he saw it. He was not just a frame builder- he was behind the scenes a real supporter of the sport of road racing in the US when enthusiasm in the general public for bicycle racing really didn't exist yet.
The first time I met Roland was maybe 1993 at Interbike in Las Vegas. A shop owner who was a dealer for my frames and Roland's as well had set up an early morning ride through the desert surrounding Las Vegas with myself, Roland and George Mount. I didn't know that Roland would be conducting a non-stop monologue during the 90 minute ride.....I knew of his frames but I didn't know the man personally. This introduction was in a way perfect as it was on the road with only a few people- on bicycles riding at a pretty good clip, away from the trade show that we all pretty much hated but needed to participate in. It was one of those little windows of sanity in a weekend of trade show misery. I don't think I'll ever forget it.
The next time I remember talking to Roland was at NAHBS # 2. There was a party in the host hotel bar and I had put together a band to play in the restaurant. While the band was on break I went to the bar and sat down next to Roland. I wanted to ask him how he got started in frame building. I wondered if like most of us in the '70's he had some sort of mentor to teach him the basics. It turns out that Roland pretty much figured it all out by himself. I was amazed- his building style really spoke to his Italian heritage and the level of execution made me think that he had been at Masi or had worked with one of the more prominent Italian frame shops. This was not the case- turns out that Roland might have been the smartest of all of us, having deciphered the way to build at the highest level all on his lonesome out in Nevada.
More recently I would be in the pits at the CX nationals and I would see an older guy walking up to me with the style of cycling hat I had not seen in maybe 40-odd years. It took me a minute or so to realize that this guy talking to me was the same Roland I had seen year earlier. I listened to his stories for a few minutes before I figured out who I was standing in front of- it had been a decade since I had seen him and we had both aged significantly. This was the Reno nationals and I should have put two and two together-I should have known immediately as soon as the stories started flowing- I guess that I was too caught up in my own drama of getting my pit space ready for the upcoming race where I would have to be ready to support the riders on my team.
As soon as I realized that this was Roland I dropped what I was doing and shared some great minutes with him- we had similar duties as frame builders and race team directors ( or in my case ,  mis-director...) so we definitely shared a few laughs about the things that we had dealt with trackside at events such as the one that weekend. People would come through the pit and immediately recognize Roland- he had a lot of friends there. For someone who's involvement in cyclocross was minimal he nonetheless was a person who many people gravitated toward . I stood aside and watched the parade of notable racers who came into the pit to chat with Roland who was only there to sightsee and connect with a few friends.
Roland was a big part of a generation of frame builders who started their craft in the '70's when really nobody in the US was aware of any domestic custom bicycle frames. It was about as obscure of a job in a sport that hardly anyone cared about. It is obvious that Roland cared about the sport enough to elevate it almost single handedly , building bikes for riders that would become the first Americans to shake up the world cycling scene. It all emerged from his small shop- the bikes, the riders, the culture. He created something much larger than his craft or himself and the impact has lasted many years.
There is unlikely to be another Roland Della Santa and I am very glad to have known him . His works will no doubt live for a very long time and his impact on American bicycle building will endure.
The last time I saw Roland was at the most recent NAHBS, just last March. He was the same old Roland, funny as hell and able with a few sentences assess the entire weekend in a way that was both insightful and hilarious. I was really glad that he was there- I was participating in the show for maybe my last time so connecting with Roland was a real treat. By that time Interbike had folded and the CX nationals would be moving on to another part of the country so I was unlikely to cross paths with Roland again- Learning of his passing hammered home the fact that the generation of frame builders from the '70's were not going to be around much longer- some of them will live on in their works and Roland is great example of that enduring nature of his impact.