Between Myth and Legend
Umberto Dei - between Myth and Legend
He raced on the track and was such good sprinter that he competed with the
best sprinters of the late nineteenth century and, in those days, national titles had great importance.
He raced and at the same time was a perfectionist, making his own personal “machines” with which he competed and at that time were particularly admired. So, in about 1896, Umberto began to build cycles for his friends and fellow racers in a small workshop located in the heart of Milan on the Via San Vito, at the end of the Via Torino.
He soon became a gifted builder due to the the experience he gained on the track and became known for the accuracy of his work: to build one of his cycles it was necessary to calculate the costs of materials given Umberto’s limited financial resources and staff. It was said that he was the first to test his creations and that, until his production reached large numbers, there was a direct relationship between his staff and the buyer, who paid a bit more than than to his competition, but was assured of extraordinary quality.
A notion that was perpetuated in bicycle racing was that to ride a Dei one had to “pay a fortune.” In reality it wasn’t like that, or perhaps just at the beginning of the century, since Mister Umberto understood the importance of promoting his product and was shrewd in giving his bicycles to a few champions to use in challenge races.
In reality until 1908 Dei remained true to the fact that he never subsidized racers:
“The finest names in Italian cycling and many foreign champions were and are our clients, buying and paying us for their cycles, and many times refuse lavish financial offers from competitors to desert our cycles which were so good that they led them to victory.”
Of course it’s likely that although Dei didn’t subsidize racers it’s a fact that in certain circumstances he would provide a good bicycle as shown below.
In 1912 the attorney Eberardo Pavesi organized the Gerbi-Galetti challenge race, with the blessing of Mr. Costamagna of the Gazzetta dello Sport; for one thousand lira you risked your reputation against the stopwatch on a 300 Kilometer Lombard race course. The well known racer Galetti found himself without a cycle for the event, and Mr. Pavesi recalls the episode:
“Umberto Dei had stopped track racing and was making great bicycles in Milan. I appealed to him directly: Umberto was a good sportsman and accepted enthusiastically. Within a few days Galetti had two bicycles made to measure (which could be changed during the race) and Dei was on the race course with a large group of fans to see his favorite triumph.
About 1915 Dei already had about one hundred employees including a significant number of children: those were other times since today he would certainly be accused of exploiting child labor! But the social mores were different then and offering work to one’s neighbors, regardless of their age, was an opportunity for them to eat.
In fact working at an early age later led to a real school of highly skilled workers that, all during the 1950’s, produced goods of very high quality.
Dei became the promoter of a functional product, exclusive and especially beautiful. He used to say that one should be especially careful with the fork crown since that was the first thing one noticed on a bicycle and compared it to a tie as a sign of distinction and elegance. Both track and road bikes had a unique charm universally recognized by connoisseurs. Dei didn’t have to envy his competition, not even Bianchi, who had their own insuperable nickel plating
People who visited the factory during those years report the utmost seriousness that inspired teamwork and a team spirit that went beyond other business enterprises, and this is primarily due to Sir Umberto: although he was very serious, dressed in a suit and tie in the factory, and inspired considerable awe, he was very accessible and proactive with everyone. In fact Dei’s production ranged from track to road racing bicycles since he understood the concept of “the trip on a bike” in its most unique and well developed form. One has only to recall the exclusive Imperial model with its simultaneous activation of the front and rear brakes.