Interview with Jacek Berruti
We asked a few athletes, clients and friends of Effetto Mariposa to tell us everything about their love for cycling. We met 12 people, who told us about their background, experiences, skills and, most of all, how much they love bikes. Today we are introducing Jacek Berruti, one of the founders of Museo della Bicicletta in Cosseria (SV), one of the faces of “L’Eroica” race and cycling history expert.
A large number of people - not just cycling enthusiasts - know the Eroica, the vintage bike race started in Gaiole in Chianti, Italy. Every year, in this Tuscan village, flocks of tourists and cyclists from all over the world try to get a place at its starting line. They do it because they want to ride on spectacular unpaved roads, experiencing "the beauty of fatigue and the thrill of conquest".
The resounding success of this race goes beyond fatigue and cycling. In fact, Eroica is much more: it’s folklore, gastronomy, landscape, and history. As you know, all events have their own well-respected icons: Eroica has Luciano "Lucky" Berruti. With his iconic moustache (handlebar moustache, precisely) and fully dressed like Ottavio Bottecchia or one of the Pélissier brothers, he stands out on every billboard of the race. It seems like he comes straight from the past, directly from Grande Boucle of 1915 or so.
Luciano was heroic long before the Eroica. He sought out and restored old bikes when they were just waste iron, collecting hundreds of them until he opened a museum in Cosseria, his hometown near Savona. He did so until 2017, when Luciano left us forever, while enjoying one of his usual rides uphill.
His son Jacek took the baton, and he is now keeping the family passion alive and managing the Museum and his father’s many initiatives.
Jacek, how is “Museo della Bicicletta” doing? “Our Bicycle Museum is going well, we have so many initiatives going on. Among the many, we’ve just ended an incredible MTB course with Louise Paulin, world champion of the Enduro World Series. We are also promoting local guided itineraries since the current circumstances related to Covid-19 are pushing local tourism - we are located between the sea and the Langhe, a strategic place.
At the same time, we are also working on a new and interactive experience where museum visitors will have the chance to actually assemble bikes themselves. Additionally, a local bar even called us requesting a "bike corner" at their premises - with racks, pumps and all essential bike products cyclists need when they stop by. Finally, we are also quite busy cleaning MTB trails - my brother Leszek helps me a lot with that."
Jacek and Leszek: you have Polish names but are born and raised in Italy. Would you tell us more about this story? “It’s because my father, when he was young, decided to go to Moscow by motorbike! After the war, in the Savona area, there was a lot of bad talk about Eastern Europe, to which he didn’t believe. He said "it’s impossible that they eat children, that’s nonsense". As you know, he was very stubborn, and he set off to get to know these "scary" people. He left on his ramshackle motorcycle in the 1960s, with just a small backpack and a few lire, and headed towards Moscow.
Long story short, he never arrived to Moscow: he broke his motorcycle several times and soon ran out of money. But the journey was not vain: he learned that the former Soviet Union was actually a welcoming, fascinating place with supportive people. He made many friends with whom I am still in touch today: fifty years have passed and they still talk to me about how they helped him repair his old motorcycle. Last but certainly not least, he met my mother and they got married."
I still have your father's business card that he gave me around 15 years ago. It is in black and white, printed on rough paper, with a picture of him posing next to a velocipede and the words “Luciano Berruti - velocipedista”. Back in time, it sounded bizarre. Today, the Eroica, which he helped to create, is held throughout Europe, Japan, America, and even South Africa. "Yes, my father fully reflected the spirit of the Eroica. He and Eroica sort of grew together hand in hand: they needed each other, and they met."
Why and when did your father start collecting and restore vintage bicycles? And how did he find them? "My father always had a passion for cycling, he never got off his bike, they were in symbiosis. But his approach was different and focused on the very early days of cycling: he wanted to find the bikes that won the first Tour de France and Giri d’Italia competitions. He recovered some of the old bikes from the 10s, 20s and 30s, considered to be just waste iron. He took what others threw away, as he was sure that one day they would be considered extremely precious.
He didn't just collect them: he wanted to ride them. At the end of the 1980s he signed up for a hill climb in Savona riding a 20s bike. It was just an unthinkable thing to do. The race direction did not let him compete as they thought it was a joke. But all he wanted to do really was riding like the early cyclists who used 16-pound bikes, he wanted to use those same gears, materials, and brakes. Years later, he finally had his revenge: today, if you show up at the Eroica with a modern bike, you are not allowed to compete."
He told me that his intention was actually to experience the essence of those bikes, it wasn’t just a matter of collecting them. “That's right, that was his philosophy. For instance, he climbed Mortirolo with a 15kg Griffon bike from 1915 and a single 42/26 gear ratio. He also participated in the Paris-Roubaix with his 16kg Peugeot from 1916 and 44/15 gear ratio.
He turned into a cyclist from the past: when descending downhill, he often inserted a piece of wood in the pedal so that it would be scraped on the ground by pushing it hard with the foot as needed in order to compensate for the lack of efficient brakes. He repaired torn tires by filling them with grass and maize leaves, to then keep on riding for hundreds of kilometres.
He regularly read about the amazing adventures of early cyclists and wondered: “what did those men feel? I want to do the same”. So he left at 4 in the morning for Paris-Roubaix with a 10s outfit and a 10s bike, with no food nor supplies, just like they used to do in the past. His challenge was to manage to get by, somehow. He stopped where he could, meeting someone who could give him food. Once, he even ate some leftover bars found on the ground. He did it because he wanted to understand how the body and the bike reacted in a race from the early 1900s. He wanted to identify himself in all respects with those athletes and their experiences. He wanted to feel the same fatigue like those men did.
One day, he took me to do the Milan-Sanremo with vintage bikes: we left Milan at midnight with 5 degrees °C and pouring rain. In Arenzano, I felt sick: I was literally half-frozen and almost fainted, but I didn't give up. He was proud of me because I wasn't wearing any “modern” material and I didn't bring anything to eat. “If they could do it back at that time, we can do it too”, he said. And we did it. We completed the race just like you would have done in the past – although, I am sure it was even worse at the time. Only after living such an experience, I really feel like I know what I am talking about when it comes to “heroic” cycling."
When we think of Luciano, we immediately think of the star of L’Eroica and the honorary citizen of Gaiole in Chianti. But, beyond that, Luciano Berruti was also a cyclist who played hard. As an amateur, he won over 450 races! “My father was a great student. He was a “good” domestique rider, although too generous and not very shrewd, he had pure strength and had no strategies. He has always raced in an On-Off way: once started, he simply went full throttle throughout the race (he laughs). He stopped early and resumed as an amateur at the age of 40, winning several titles and more than 400 road, Cyclocross and MTB races. He really succeeded with the MTB too as he used to go downhill like crazy. He created many trails too, he was a forerunner trail builder. I have also been using the MTB for a few years now, my partner Elena Martinello introduced me to it, and I must admit it fascinates me. I always bring with me several Effetto Mariposa products, such as the Espresso Inflate and Repair cartridges, the Caffélatex with the ZOT! and the Shelter to protect the frame from the chain. Furthermore, I believe that torque wrenches are increasingly important nowadays. "
Your father was very genuine, and that is what really charmed everyone. He spoke a universal language. “This is because he loved to share his knowledge genuinely, he never did it to brag. And he managed to get understood by everyone, all over the world. I have seen crowds of listeners of all nationalities around him over the course of his life: although he spoke Italian, he could really manage to communicate in every language.
Giancarlo Brocci, founder of L'Eroica and a great friend of his, loves to tell a little story about my father. They were in Uruguay for an event when my father, during a dinner, decided to leave early to go to sleep. After half an hour, Giancarlo came out of the restaurant and saw my father in the parking lot of the restaurant talking about his bike to a crowd of thirty people. Yes, he entertained thirty people for half an hour in Uruguay! (he laughs)"
I was always amazed by your father’s passion: he had his job and he has always given up sponsorships, which is a rare thing. Moreover, he managed to collect hundreds of stunning bikes without being a wealthy person... “He has always had only one house that he built by doing two jobs. As a child we didn't see him very much because he always worked, he was a carpenter. On the other hand, he came from a very poor family. Our family is really proud of our humble origins, and such pride becomes useful when racing too. If I have to compete against a wealthy person, I have an edge over them. Once, being a cyclist was less tiring than doing any manual labour, unlike today perhaps. My father admired the humble champions, like Ottavio Bottecchia, one of his favorites along with Gino Bartali. Today, Egan Bernal is an athlete with the same humble origins of those champions of the past, that’s why he knows how to suffer and win.
It’s not the first time we hear this – even Paolo Alberati, one of the first people who discovered Bernal’s talent told us about him. Paolo pointed out that the strongest cyclists today are often Colombians, precisely because of their humble background and ability to endure fatigue. “It's true. I know Esteban Chaves well, he has a strength and simplicity that is hard to find here in Italy. I talked to him after he lost his pink jersey at the Giro d'Italia 2016. Esteban was still very happy because he reached the second place after a champion like Nibali! Moreover, he said that his parents had never left their small town in Colombia and that day they were there with him, which was enough to make him happy.”
You go against the modern trend of “fashionable cycling”. You said “cycling is not the new golf”. "Any kind of cycling is welcome, the important thing is riding. However, above all, I believe that cycling should be an accessible sport, it shouldn’t be class-conscious. I am all for a pure and essential approach. A cyclist's calling card should not be the bike he rides, the shoes he has, the suit he wears. In my opinion, if someone shows up with wool socks, a crooked helmet, eyeglasses, I would still warmly welcome them and would be very happy that they joined. I will "test” them on the road, not based on the money they spent.
We have to pay more attention to the real essence of cycling, as they often do abroad: I have seen amateurs taking part to the Tour of Flanders wearing jeans. There, they all ride their bikes without fuss, without even checking the weather forecast.
When I go for a run with my steel Gios, they often look at me like I’m an alien, but then maybe I go even faster than others. I was also lucky enough to bite the dust of people on whom I would not have taken my odds.
Today, I feel like I’ve acquired the awareness of what my cycling needs: years ago I was looking for the top of the range bike and high-profile wheels; today I want to be safe in case of wind and I want low-profile wheels. I no longer look for professional geometries but for more relaxed corners; I am no longer for the straight forks and short chain stays that make the bikes too reactive - in fact often the average cyclist does not know how to ride them. I use a more deflated tiers that are more rideable.
I encourage you to try a bike from the 1920s, it is very comfortable and stable and it has incredible driveability as it has a hub-to-hub wheelbase like that of a truck! (he laughs) "
Do you still use the giant bicycle wheel you have behind your house? Why did you build it? “Yep, behind my father's house there is this 4-metre diameter cycling wheel. The idea came from my father, of course, and his curiosity and stubbornness. In the evening, he would sit in front of the stove and leaf through old books and newspapers on cycling. One evening, while reading one of these newspapers, he saw a photo from the 1920s or 1930s of a circus-style cyclist pedalling inside a giant wheel. He told me: “I want to build it”.
It was going to be crazy, he was about to make a wheel as big as a house. He did it! Once completed, he often used it with a vintage bike, as a sort of prehistoric roller. I am slightly scared to use it honestly as it is extremely dangerous: if you fall into it, it takes you up to four meters and slams you on the hub, then brings you back up and slams you on the hub again, until it stops...you can easily hurt yourself or even get killed. And it doesn't stop easily, it actually runs very well because it has great bearings!”
You managed to replicate the vintage atmosphere in your home too by building an old workshop from the late 1800s in your garage. When crossing the threshold, you just go back in time. “Yes, it is built using authentic materials recovered by my father from nearby abandoned houses. It’s not a replica. As you said, when you cross the threshold you go back to the past: there is rust, iron, old wood, even the electricity wires are from that era. That is our shrine: I often go there, I sit on that old chair in silence. It works just like a yoga session or a prayer."
After the movie “L’Eroico”, the documentary “Veloretro” and many other initiatives, it looks like you are still up to something new… “We work hard every day to make the world a more bike-friendly place. I hope to be able to carry on the values that my father taught me as well as his message. With the Bicycle Museum we want to promote ethical cycling as we believe that a good cyclist should also be a respectable person in life, who helps others, smiles and respects everyone. But I also have a small dream of mine: my father took his beloved 1916 Peugeot bike to all continents except Oceania. I'd like to take it there one day."