Confente Art R Howe
By Russell W. Howe
Mario Confente is certainly one of the finest frame builders that ever put a torch to steel. Tragically, Mario died on March 8, 1979 at the young age of 34. He left behind a legacy that includes 135 frames bearing his name. Most frame builders spend years and build a thousand frames to achieve the recognition that Mario garnered in such a short time. The respect that he achieved is a testament to his devotion and passion for the bicycle. His standard was nothing short of perfection.
Mario Confente was born January 29, 1945 in Montorio, Italy, a small town a few miles from Verona. He was the third of five children and the only male child. His sister Gianna Confente recalls, “his infancy was not rosy because we were a modest family and only our father was working. It was a difficult period following the war.”
As a result, Mario began working at an early age. He first served as an apprentice in a hardware store. His mechanical aptitude soon captured the attention of a family friend, Mr. Tiberghien, who gave Mario a job in his wool factory. Mario worked as a mechanic and often repaired the looms. As he grew older, he furthered his mechanical education by attending the state trade school, the Leonardo Da Vinci. Displaying his artistic side, he also made religious crosses which he sold to the Vatican.
Like most young Italian boys, Mario was captivated by bicycle racing. He was just thirteen when he joined the Aquilotti club, his town’s local club. His prowess on the bike was evident due to his numerous victories. At the age of fifteen, he won the provincial championship as a junior while riding for the Gaiga club.
When he turned eighteen, the Bencini bike club invited Mario to join their ranks. The Bencini team was the best Dilettanti (semi-pro) team of that period. Local riders from Verona filled the squad’s roster. The director sportif was Guido Zamperioli. From 1963 to 1966, the Bencini squad members produced impressive results:
- 1963: Gold medal, Amateur World Championships, won by Bencini rider Flaviano Vicentini
- 1964: Silver medal 100km team time trail, Tokyo Olympics with Bencini riders Pietro Guerra and Severino Andreoli
- 1965: Gold medal 100km team time trial, World Championships, Bencini squad members, Pietro Guerra and Severino Andreoli, are part of the quartet.
- 1966: Bronze medal 100km team time trail, World Championships, Pietro Guerra is a member of the quartet.
Due to the demands of this higher level of competition, Mario chose to quit his job and race full-time. Soon he was traveling with the team to Torino, Milano and Switzerland. He supplemented his income by building frames. Mario’s father urged him to give up racing because it paid poorly and the risks were high. His father even remodeled a small workshop adjacent to their home to enable Mario to build frames. Soon, he built himself his first frame. Before long, his teammates were requesting frames as well.
As a semi-pro, he placed well in several races and even won a few. One teammate Severino Andreoli recalls, “Mario was a strong rider, not too much of a winner but often among the first places of the classification. He sacrificed a lot for the team during a break away or to block, while a companion took a flight for victory.”
Renzo Ferrari, another teammate of Mario’s from the Bencini club remembers, “I met Mario when I was 17 and he was 16. We were in a gym and we became friends even though we raced for different clubs. Mario was of good character and he got along with everyone even when he was racing. He was generous and highly esteemed for his passion of cycling. He distinguished himself from the other fellows for the attention, maintenance and care that he had for his bicycle.” He adds, “Mario was always adjusting my bicycle and he even taught me how to pick wild mushrooms!”
In 1963, during a race, Renzo and Mario broke away together and rode the last 20 km together. Renzo won the race and Mario had to settle for second. However, they remained friends long after. Bencini rider and former World Champion, Pietro Guerra recalls, “Mario did not win a lot of races but he was strong, generous, and always ready to help everyone.”
While racing on the velodrome in the fall of 1968, Mario sustained a severe injury from a crash. Once he recovered, he gave up racing and threw his energy into frame building. Mario’s work was impeccable and his reputation grew, thanks to his friends and teammates Pietro Guerra and Flaviano Vicentini. Both riders won numerous races and World Championships on Confente built frames.
Pietro Guerra remembers, “When Mario stopped racing, he didn’t know what to do. The passion he had for the bike was still strong so he learned right away how to build racing frames. He became a specialist in building racing frames and to make himself known in the field he gave me a track bike. It was a real jewel! With it, I won three Italian professional individual pursuit championships, 1970 at Varese, 1971 at Milano, and 1972 at Bassano del Grappa.”
From 1968 to 1970, Mario continued to build frames in his home workshop. During this period, Ditta Bianchi asked him to build frames for his company under a piece work agreement. Soon, Mario had more work then he could handle by himself. He quickly outgrew his facility. In 1970, Mario hired several apprentices and was forced to relocate his frame building business. The new shop, though modest, was expansive and he lived above it in a small apartment with his parents.
His reputation continued to grow and Pietro Guerra adds, “We presented Mario to the famous Masi of Milano. In the beginning, Masi brought work to Verona for Mario. At the time the bike market was slow in Italy, so with the Masi project he transferred to California in search of better luck.”
In the early seventies, the US experienced an energy crisis and a subsequent bicycle boom. Roland Sahm, a wealthy business man from San Diego contacted every Italian bicycle manufacturer on licensing their name and building frames in the US. According to Sahm, Cinelli, Colnago and Bianchi all refused him. However, one Italian bicycle manufacturer recognized the potential of the growing US market. Falierio Masi sold Sahm the rights to produce a Masi bicycle in the U.S.
Mario arrived in Los Angeles in October 12, 1973. As evidenced by the following letter he did not expect to stay long. Dated October 21, 1973, Ernesto Colnago wrote to Mario in California:
A few days ago I passed your house to say hello but I was surprised to see your mother and father a little demoralized by your leaving. They assured me that you will be back in 20 to 30 days. This pleases me because as we agreed I was going to propose a business with large profits. Come back soon and when you arrive in Milan, give me a call and I will come and get you and bring you home. Write to me.
Although Colnago and Confente never engaged in a joint venture, it would certainly have proved interesting. Confente did build for the Masi California project and eventually built under his own name. His impact on the U.S. bicycle market was profound and he quickly established a new standard for U.S. custom builders.
Faliero Masi sold the rights of the Masi name to San Diego businessman Roland Sahm. Under their agreement, Masi bicycles would be built in the United States. Failero came to supervise the start of the new venture. He brought Mario with him to initiate production.
At the US Masi factory in Carlsbad, Mario oversaw production of some 2,200 bicycles over the course of three years. To reach that level of production, Mario was required to train a number of Mexican workers. They were hired to do the majority of the preparation work that goes into building a frame.
Mario’s widowed wife, then girlfriend, Lisa recalls, “Mario respected the Mexican guys who helped him. They would often have lunch together, Mario enjoyed the tortillas. These men would come up from Mexico and make a sacrifice to take care of their families, send home every penny. These were the people that Mario admired, people who worked hard and took care of their families. He was so Old World.”
She also recalls meeting Eddy Merckx when they traveled to Italy together. “We went in when Eddy was getting a massage. He was getting ready to ride the Milan-San Remo race. Eddy said, “hey Mario, I love your bikes and I want another bicycle.” Mario said that he made many bikes for him but he would always put his own decals on the frame. One thing that was sad about Mario being in the U.S., is that he did not have a strong command of the language. In Italy, he was like another person, he was so strong over there. We went to see Signor Campagnolo, Eddy Merckx, Signor Cinelli and all of these people. They way he spoke to them was so different then how he was over here.”
However, when it came to building and marketing bicycles Mario was anything but “Old World”. In an effort to conquer the US bicycle market, Faliero Masi and Mario went to the Encino velodrome one evening. The reigning sprinter of the 70’s, Jerry Ash was at the track working out. He was offered a Masi track frame.
Ash recounts, “Before I received the Masi, I was riding a Rickerts and before that, a Paramount. I went to the Masi factory at Carlsbad and I was measured for the frame which Mario then built. I wanted an all-around track frame that would be good for sprinting. The ride of the bike was tremendous.”
While it was encouraging that top riders were bringing recognition to the new Masi venture, Mario was not content. The one thing that eluded him up to this time was the chance to build frames bearing his name. As the Masi California operation struggled, a New Jersey businessman, Bill Recht, attempted to buy the business from Roland Sahm. Unable to reach an agreement, Recht did succeed in hiring Mario away from Masi. Mario would finally build a bike with his name on the downtube. It was a dream come true, or so he thought.
Custom Bicycles by Confente was located in Los Angeles. One of the first things Mario did was contact Jerry Ash and offer to build him a road and track bike. Ash went on to ride the Confente track frame in the World Championships in 1976, 77, and 78. In 1977, he finished seventh in the match sprints, the highest finish for an American in over a decade. Before long, other top riders, including Jonathan Boyer, were traveling to Los Angeles for a Confente frame.
Lisa recalls that Mario poured his heart and soul into this new venture. “He worked like a fiend. I would have to tear him out of the place in LA. He would not leave until it was spotless clean. I would help him sweep the floor – anything to get him out of there!”
Confente frames were the rage at the New York bicycle show the first year that they were unveiled. Tom Kellogg, of Spectrum Cycles, recalls, “Mario made beautiful stuff and he pushed the American builders beyond a look that we all had, which was kind of simple, plain lines. He forced us to class up our act. Mario’s frames were the first to combine American quality and the Italian look. That had never been done before. Fairly rapidly after that the Americans made their frames look slicker.”
Ben Serotta adds, “After seeing Confente’s bikes at the New York show, it was clear that he raised the standard.” Richard Sachs recalls looking at the Confente brochure and shaking his head in disbelief that someone could charge $400 for a custom frame. At the time, Sachs was charging $180 for a custom frame. Sachs notes, “I remember asking myself, what could a builder possible do to a frame to make it cost so much more?”
As beautiful and skillfully made as the Confente frames were, they were also expensive. Recht decided to capitalize on Mario’s name and innovations. Unbeknownst to Mario, Recht was preparing to launch another, less expensive bicycle frame. When Mario ordered 100 dropouts for the Confente bicycles, Recht ordered 200. The Medici frame was to be unveiled at the next New York bicycle show. Prior to the show, Confente learned that his name was going to be used to launch this new frame. He perceived the Medici frame to be an inferior product. He promptly handed in a letter of resignation and was immediately locked out of the factory. Unable to retrieve his tools, Confente headed north to the one place where he knew he could continue to build frames, Monterey.
Mario had traveled to Monterey previously to meet with Boyer and a sponsor of Boyer’s, George Farrier. Farrier had a machine shop in his garage and Confente was impressed by the size of the shop. In the year that followed, he worked without distraction. Farrier recalls the day Mario showed up at his property, “Mario pulled into the driveway in his car. I was surprised to see him. I asked him what he was doing here and in his thick Italian accent he said that he was here to build bicycles.”
While Farrier’s accommodations were first class, Mario still longed for his own shop. He and Jim Cunningham put together a business plan. In addition to developments in his career, Mario’s personal life was taking a new step forward. Mario proposed to his longtime girlfriend and the two were married shortly thereafter.
Lisa remembers, “I left Mario. I went to Houston for a while. I wanted to get married and I knew that he would never marry me. He sent a lot of money home to Italy. Yet, Mario thought you had to have a lot of money to be married. I had a little house in Encinitas and I believed that we would be all right. When I realized it wasn’t going to work out, I said that I’m out of here, we’ve been together for five years and there is no future. Mario was bummed out and very lonely after I left California. Six months later, when I returned from Texas, he asked me to marry him.”
The newlyweds settled into Encinitas and Mario renovated the garage into his new shop. Sadly, as Mario was on the verge of achieving his dream, he abruptly passed away. Mario and Lisa were married less than two weeks. An autopsy later revealed that he had an enlarged heart and suffered from heart disease. Lisa remembers Mario on his last morning, “He was going to go back to Masi to work for a short time, just to make some cash. He was supposed to meet with the Masi foreman that morning. He was really upset and stressed about going back there. I felt like it was something he didn’t want to do, yet he felt he had to.”
The next thing she remembers, “This biker guy found him… a Hell’s Angel kind of guy. He banged on the door, it was 5:30 or 6:00am. , he says, “Lady, lady there is a man out here and I think he is dead.” I went out there and saw him lying in the road. I just lost it. All I said was, “are his hands okay? He works with his hands.” He wasn’t breathing or anything. For some reason my car was in the middle of the road. He may have been trying to move my car. He was found beside the car, sort of out in the road.”
The cycling community was stunned by the death of Mario Confente. In his all to brief career, he was transforming the cycling industry. With the talent and passion that he possessed, one can only wonder about the frames he would be building today. One can only wonder about the man he would be today.
For comments or questions please contact the author at RWHowe@nycap.rr.com