Framebuilder Roland Della Santa passed away on May 4, 2019 at age 72. CXM’s Clifford Lee takes a break from product reviews to memorialize the legendary framebuilder.
Just 11 days ago, the cycling world has lost a dear friend, a legend, and an influential framebuilder.
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Whether you ride road, cyclocross, gravel or mountain bikes, chances are, either directly or indirectly, Roland Della Santa has had some influence on your cycling life.
One of Della Santa’s biggest claims to fame was being a sponsor and bike builder for a young future Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, but his roots in cycling go back to his road racing days in the Northern California-Nevada district in the late 1960s and early 1970s alongside other bike luminaries as Gary Fisher, Tom Ritchey and Joe Breeze.
The Reno native’s racing career was good enough to take him to the Red Zinger Classic, which later became the Coors Classic, the biggest American stage race of the time.
Della Santa built bikes throughout LeMond’s career, as it was common for riders to have a personal builder with the bike painted to match the sponsor. When LeMond joined La vie Claire, Della Santa was one of the team mechanics.
Della Santa also built bikes for Inga Thompson, one of the world’s best female cyclists from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. “Toward the end of my career he was the man who stepped up to the plate to sponsor me when no other company would,” said Thompson to Patrick Brady on his podcast about the builder.
Greg LeMond and Roland Della Santa built a long friendship that lasted beyond LeMond’s professional racing career. Della Santa built the lugged steel LeMond bikes when the company first started.
In the days when Della Santa began building bikes, an Italian racing bike was what most aspiring road racers desired, aside from the odd Raleigh 753 or Teledyne Titan. With a name like Della Santa, which translates to “of the Saint” from Italian, his bikes followed the Italian style of the time.
That was steel with cast semi-sloping fork crown with fork blades that arced gracefully from the crown to the dropouts. He built primarily with Columbus steel and used a 70mm Italian threaded bottom bracket.
Della Santa and his work gained the utmost respect from fellow framebuilders. Paul Sadoff of Rock Lobster Cycles first met Della Santa at Interbike, around 1994, on a pre-show ride in the desert and then reconnected at NAHBS #2 in San Jose.
“I wanted to know how he got started building frames and if he had learned from another builder,” Sadoff recalled to Cyclocross Magazine. “Turns out he figured it all out himself. I got the feeling that he was much smarter than your average framebuilder by a good amount. His bikes always looked extremely well executed. What I liked the most is that he mostly built straight-ahead racing bikes. They may have looked really nice but those bikes were made to be ridden really hard.”
“I got the feeling that he was much smarter than your average framebuilder by a good amount.” -Paul Sadoff
Buying Into the Della Santa Legacy
After owning cheap, cobbled-together bikes because it was what I could afford, piecing them together with whatever parts I could source or trade, I’d finally reached a point in life where I was fortunate to purchase my own dream bike. I’d wanted a Ron Cooper, and so I ordered a custom bike from the London builder. After riding that bike for several years, I still dreamt of something that better met my riding and aesthetic desires.
I met Roland Della Santa in the late 1990s when he came to San Francisco to visit the Bike Nook, a small local bike shop that was his sole agent in the city. During our short meeting, I’d decided that his bike was the bike that would top them all.
Later, I had some trouble connecting with him over the phone. Looking him up in the phone book or using 411 wasn’t straightforward, as his first name was actually Peter.
Though aluminum construction had become the peloton’s favorite of the time with some carbon bikes creeping in from Giant and Trek, lugged steel was still in vogue, and a bike built by Roland Della Santa, builder of Tour de France champion LeMond, certainly had caché.
Della Santa adapted and took advantage of modern steel manufacturing as it evolved. New steel alloys from Columbus and Dedaccai, new lug castings and fixtures were a part of his newer builds.
When I called to discuss the build of my personal bike, we literally spoke for hours about fork castings, seatstay endcaps, bottom brackets and dropouts. During the conversation, he wove in tales of LeMond, repairing team bikes from sponsors, or rattle-can painting a sponsor’s paint scheme in an open lot just to get a bike ready that LeMond needed for a local event.
Roland did not typically paint his bikes but had a longtime partnership with painter Jim Allen, who also painted Masi bikes when the Milan company opened an outpost in Southern California.
Over the years, Della Santa remained true to the brazed lugged steel road racing bike. He would add internal cable routing if a customer desired it but did not like the idea of no cable stops for a SRAM eTap build.
Although eTap is here to stay, Della Santa learned his lesson from Mavic Zap wireless components. He once built a bike for a customer who planned to use Zap. When the component group was discontinued, the customer came back, wanting to add cable stops. Want disc brakes on your road bike? That was for other builders.
Roland richly filled every conversation with anecdote and his dry humor. He told me he’d built a few cyclocross bikes with cantilever brake bosses, but it was not his thing. He said cyclocross bikes get so much abuse, I should get a cheap bike to thrash on the race course.
My bike was the last bike Della Santa built in 2000, #31. The tubing is Dedaccai Zero with a conical downtube. He used investment cast fixtures engraved with Della Santa including short point lugs, flat seatstay caps, horizontal dropouts, and a semi-sloping fork crown. The maximum tire width is 25mm limited by brake caliper placement. It remains my favorite road bike and accompanies me still on and off the road on adventures that are too smooth for a ʼcross bike.
One Last NAHBS
I just chatted briefly with Della Santa at NAHBS 2019 less than two months ago. He was in his element, surrounded by the framebuilding community and enriching their lives with stories and opinions.
“I’ll miss hearing his stories at Cyclocross Nationals and at the bike shows,” Sadoff said. “He always brightened my day and made me laugh.”
“Thank you for being for being so generous and for being my first ‘official’ sponsor,” Greg LeMond said on his Facebook page. “How many 14-year-old kids get a free, hand-made frame by a master framebuilder? I don’t know anyone that was so fortunate.”
(Peter) Roland Della Santa will be missed by many.
I’ll ride my 2000 #31 in his memory.