Roland Della Santa has been creating frames longer than any other builder at this year’s NAHBS. Born in Carson City and raised in Reno, he was in on the ground floor as the frame maker—and first sponsor—for Greg LeMond, when LeMond was a junior racer.
“The sponsorship almost bankrupted me, but it paid off,” says Della Santa. The poster image of the young LeMond in a jersey emblazoned with Della Santa’s name still appears in bike shops as far away as Italy.
From a racer to maker
Della Santa had been a racer himself, and had dabbled in frame building starting in 1970—or earlier, if one counts an effort he undertook to build a frame with a friend in shop class. “It took a year; we couldn’t figure out the fork.”
He rode the racing circuit until 1976, after which he decided to retire from racing and make frames full time. He’s been doing it ever since.
“I’ve never gotten a regular paycheck, never had a real job,” he says.
“There was a market for frames,” he says. He made one-offs for road racers. “My bikes were like disposable razors.”
Evolution of a craft
Materials were hard to come by in the early ‘70s, Della Santa says. “There were only a couple importers for frame components—dropouts and tubing. You got what you got when it was available.” As a consequence, “All my frames were schizophrenic.”
While the parts and materials Della Santa uses have dramatically improved as the industry has evolved, Della Santa sticks to a tried-and-true method of manufacture. He supplies a single frame type, the Corsa Speciale, a classic lugged steel double-diamond, custom sized for the buyer.
“You use certain lugs and fittings and become efficient at making things in a certain way.” The design is classic, and the ride is predictably excellent.
A good steel frame
His frames are still steel racing frames, which of course are not ridden by racers, who have long since moved to carbon fiber. His customers are “people who just want a good steel frame.”
And just as with his racing frames in the 70s, there’s a market for that.
Della Santa comes to NAHBS to show his wares to that market. As far as NAHBS, “Don Walker [the founder of NAHBS] made something out of nothing. The existence of this show has been good for American makers.”