Lucho Herrera's bike from the 1986 Tour de France—an interview with Rebolledo Cycles

Colombia's population is 98% Catholic, with much of the remaining 2% being Christian of one denomination or another. Colombia's Catholic tradition is highly informed by native customs and rituals to an extent that would probably give the Pope an aneurysm. This mix speaks volumes about how seamlessly the Catholic tradition has blended with Colombian culture. They are now one and the same. As such, it would probably take a team of highly trained sociologists, anthropologists and theologists decades to simply begin to unravel Colombia's folklore and its history. Catholic tradition, pageantry and imagery has always been one with Colombian history. It's for this reason that I've always felt that the images of a bloodied Lucho Herrera at St Etienne (below) so resonated with Colombian audiences. The image of a cyclists in pain with a bloody face, who the media endlessly told us was suffering for us (the Colombian people), was a powerful one. It's this way that I will forever remember Lucho Herrera. A cyclist, a martyr, and a figure of religious proportions for all Colombian people.

If cyclists in overly-catholic Colombia were saints or even gods in the 80s, then the very objects they came in contact with while competing became relics of keeping with Catholic convention. Finding one of these objects is rare, and finding one within the borders of the United States is stranger still. So imagine my surprise when I found that a frame maker in the United States owned the very bike that Herrera rode in the 1986 Tour. As soon as I found his website, I contacted Mauricio Rebolledo to ask him about the bike, how he came to have it, and to ask how his Colombian roots have influenced his work as a frame maker. Thanks to Mauricio for answering my endless questions. I hope that at least some of you will be interested in the minutiae that I wanted to know about in terms of this bike.

You own an incredibly important piece of Colombian cycling, Lucho Herrera's bike from the 1985 or 86 Tour de France. How did you come to have this bike?

I think the bike may be from the 1986 Tour de France and not 1985. I came by the bike in a rather straight-forward way. My uncle, Rafael Herrera [No relation to Lucho Herrera], was an agronomist with the Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia when they sponsored the Café de Colombia Cycling Team. After the Tour in 1986, the Federacion had a party in Colombia to celebrate with their employees. At the party they raffled off some of the team bikes. My uncle won one of Lucho’s bikes at the party.

A joyous Rafael Herrera celebrates winning the iconic bike in 1986

When my uncle found out that I was building frames and keenly interested in the cycling history of Colombia, he promised to give me the bike. He passed away a few years ago after a battle with cancer and not long afterward, my aunt had the bike shipped to me in California. She had been approached by some people apparently representing Lucho Herrera that were interested in the bike for a museum in Fusagasuga [Herrera' hometown]. She declined and honored my uncle’s wishes. I have no way to corroborate that story other than to trust my aunt, which I do. I haven’t been able to find any information about a museum in Fusagasuga that chronicles Lucho Herrera’s cycling career and no one has ever tried to contact me about the bike. I do think that the bike belongs in Colombia and if there is ever a suitable museum founded there to commemorate Colombia’s cycling history then I will gladly give them the bike in my uncle’s name. I’ll miss it, but there are certainly many more people that deserve to see it in Colombia and feel the same kind of pride I feel when I look at the bike and remember Lucho’s historic Tour victory in the mountains of France.

Herrera riding the bike in question in the '86 Tour

The one picture I've seen of Lucho in '85, bloodied on his way to a solo stage win at St-Etienne (image above) shows him riding a silver, not blue, Vitus. The pictures and footage show him bloodied, after his bad crash on a descent in that stage. I believe the crash was probably bad enough that he changed bikes, hence the silver bike.This leads me to believe that you may have the very bike the crashed on. Perhaps this is just me making a long line of assumptions. Are there any signs that the bike was crashed?
There are no real signs that the bike has been crashed, only standard wear and tear from riding. The more I consider clues like this that have come trickling in over the years and believe that it must be a bike from the 1986 Tour de France.

1986 Cafe De Colombia team, posing with a blue Vitus bike. Herrera is fourth from the left.

Although I'm sure that there's been some color shift as a result of this image being scanned, look at the color of the rider's legs (furthest to the right in particular). This is what happens when already dark skinned Colombians toast their legs riding in the sun. I've seen no legs this color in the pro-ranks in years. Too bad.

I see in one of the pictures you took that there's a number "50" written on the saddle. Is that the size of the frame?
Yes, I think it is, the frame has a 50cm seat tube, measured center-tocenter. The top tube is 52cm long, center-to-center.

Are there any other unusual markings or unexpected things about the bike?
It is a pretty standard road racing bicycle from the mid-80’s. I think, as you noted, that the 86 on the crank arms and the derailleur is interesting. This may denote the year or it may just be a model number for the parts. I’m not terribly familiar with this Mavic component group. Maybe some of your readers can shed some light on this question. The one unexpected thing that I noticed, which hopefully will not make me seem like a complete nutter….are the cable stops and adjusters on the side-pull brakes. Yes, I said the cable stops on the sidepulls…pause for nervous laughter…..I assume that it was done to save weight, but someone took great care to turn down these pieces on a lathe in a very beautiful way. The lines are elegant and flow. The minimal amount of material that is needed is all that remains on a part that could have been easily overlooked. I don’t know if all the Vitus bikes from this era had the same cable stops or if these are just for these race bikes…. simply a beautiful detail. I can’t believe I just wrote that, but there it is all the same.

How much does the bike weigh in its current state?
Approximately 21 lbs. I say approximately because I weighed it on my shipping scale, which I believe to be accurate.

I admit that I don't know much about Vitus frames, only that some were aluminum tubing that was bonded. Is that the case with this bike? Steel fork?
I’m with you, not too familiar with Vitus. The frame has aluminum tubes that are bonded into aluminum lugs. Fork crown and blades are aluminum, as are the front and rear dropouts. The fork crown, front and rear dropouts are all cast aluminum pieces. Rear brake cable is
internally routed through the top tube.

Is the shifting indexed?
No, purely friction.

I notice that the handlebar tape on the bike doesn't seem to use electrical tape or anything else keeping it in place. Can you tell how it's staying on?
The wrapping starts at the stem and wraps over itself to secure it. The handlebar tape is wrapped clockwise all the way to the end of the bar. The part of the tape that extends past the end of the bar is folded into the hollow part of the bar and secured with a bar end plug, as you’d expect.

What gearing does the bike have? In particular, I have to know what cassette was used by the greatest climber of all time, according to me. I'm sure he changed his gearing around, but I've always wondered.
I agree, the greatest climber of all time! Up front, Lucho had a 53-42t chain ring combination. On the back, there is a 7-speed Regina CX/CX-S 12-21 freewheel (12-13-14-15-17-19-21). Rather humbling, when considering the speed with which he ascended the Alps and Pyrenees.

I see in the pictures that Lucho used a Turbo saddle. Aside from the saddle and the tires, the bike is pretty much all French (Mavic/Vitus). Any other exceptions?
Toe straps are Errebi, Italian, I think. Christophe toe clips. I don’t know if the down tube shifters are Mavic or not, no identifying markings. Brakes and levers are Mavic branded but they are made by Modolo.

The head tube has a "Cafe De Colombia" sticker on it. Is it covering a Vitus badge?
There does not appear to be a Vitus head tube badge under the sticker. I’m not sure if the Vitus bikes had badges or just decals on the head tubes of their bikes.

Are you planning on restoring the bike? To what extent do you plan on restoring it?
I only intend to clean the bike up. It could use some new cables and housing, which I intend to replace. If I can salvage the housing I will. Neither of the sew-ups is holding air, so I’m going to unstitch them and either patch the tubes or replace them. The front brake has a small broken lever that opens and closes the side-pulls, which I’d like to repair. The water bottle cage is also broken, but seems repairable. Everything else on the bike is fine and only needs some minimal cleaning and lubrication.

Your family is from Colombia, and you spent your summers there as a kid. Did your passion for bikes and cycling start in Colombia?
At that time, we lived in Huntington Park and La Mirada in Los Angeles County, I was more into bmx bikes and boogie boarding. But I think that the seed for my future as a cyclist and a frame builder was planted on those trips to Colombia and nurtured on every return trip. We spent a great deal of time with my Dad’s parents who lived across the street from a bus station in downtown Palmira. They ran a small parking garage for bicycles that also housed a repair shop. People would ride their bikes to the bus station and take the bus into Cali for work. They would leave their bikes with my grandparents for safekeeping and sometimes for repairs. That parking garage and shop was one of my favorite playgrounds, a sea of bikes….what else could a kid ask for?

Herrera in the '86 Tour

Do you view cycling, and your work as a frame builder as a link to your Colombian roots?
I certainly do. Colombia and cycling are inextricably linked and I see my work as an opportunity to honor Colombia’s cycling heritage and the character of the Colombian people. I hope to become a small part of the Colombian cycling narrative. I hope to give people another glimpse into what is an incredible country, one with a complicated, tragic, inspiring and vivid history. No different than any other country in this world, and one that has more to offer than guerrillas and drug traffickers. Agua panela and bocadillo for starters!

Note the Colombian flag on the downtube

Aside from simply owning this great piece of history, you are a frame builder yourself. How and when did you begin building frames? How did you learn the craft?

About ten years ago I began an apprenticeship with Jeremy Sycip from Sycip Designs in San Francisco, CA. What started out as one day a week, soon became two, then three days, then full-time employment. I spent a total of six years with Jeremy and his brother, Jay at Sycip Designs. I had already been cycling, mainly mountain bikes, for many years and also done work repairing bikes in two after-school programs with kids. The apprenticeship arose out of curiosity with the frame building trade and, initially, I had no intention of starting my own business. Over time, it became apparent to me that I was much happier making bikes than doing anything else I had done up to that point in my life. After that realization, it was only a matter of time before I decided to go out on my own and build the bikes that I wanted to build.

Are there any builders, brands or bikes in particular that influenced your style and what you look to accomplish as a builder?
The work of Mario Confente and Richard Sachs are a big influence on me. Their bikes are, in my eyes, very elegant examples of lugged steel racing bicycles. I think that some may look at their bikes and see only the singularity of their style, perhaps even a narrow mindedness. I see the refinement of an idea that is expressed through each joint, through every frame, time after time. In any trade, skill is acquired through this practice and repetition. I consider myself a
journeyman frame builder and hope to one day have my work merit comparisons to theirs. I’m also a fan of Peter Weigle’s work. His bikes are understated, yet artfully created. The attention to detail and execution is second to none and an inspiration to me as a frame builder and cyclist.

What is the average number of frames that you are currently building in a year?
I’m only building part-time, so somewhere between ten to twelve frames a year. I also work with White Industries, a bicycle component manufacturer in Petaluma, CA and do some stay at home dad duty with our two children, Felix and Camille. Busy, but perhaps the kids will take an interest in filing and brazing with dad.

I often wonder what type of person opts to have a frame custom made. What is the general profile of your normal customer? Is it roadies that enjoy vintage steel bikes, or people with unusual needs in a bike?
My average customer is an avid cyclist, male, in their late 50’s to early 60’s. Most of them started cycling on lugged steel bikes, then went to aluminum, maybe scandium, then carbon and have now returned to steel. I do think some of them feel nostalgia for the steel bikes, but many complain of discomfort riding really stiff newer racing inspired frames. They tell me that the new bikes are really light and stiff, but they also transmit an inordinate about of road shock/vibration to the rider. The new bikes also don’t allow them to run wider tires, typically. I think it is difficult to spend a great deal of time in the saddle of the same bikes that are used in the pro peloton, without having a soigneur at the end of each day to look after you. The race bikes are technologically amazing, but I don’t think that they are for everyone or even necessary for someone to enjoy cycling. Some clients do have unusual needs that cannot be readily met with a stock bike. I would say that they primarily fall into the realm of needing a special riding position to accommodate an injury or limited flexibility, for example.

In some cases, I've noticed that handmade frames are built up with a Civil War re-enactment mentality. By this I mean that the bikes are period-correct (even though the frame is new) and almost become caricatures rather than bikes. Do you think there's room for new technology and a mix of components within the world of custom steel frames?
Agreed. I think that there is plenty of room for the mixing you have in mind. Almost every bike that I’ve made uses only traditional joining methods. The tubing and lugs are all modern and currently in production. The components are all currently being manufactured. I think that the beauty of the bikes is that you get the styling of a classic lugged steel bike with modern steel tubing and components and in many cases reduced weight and better function. I know that some can and will debate this point…however, I find it hard to believe that frame builders in the 60’s or 70’s would be building frames and hanging parts on them from the 30’s and 40’s, unless it was some kind of restoration. I guess the bottom line is that not everything new is better and the converse is also true that not everything old is better. My feeling is that I want to make bikes with readily available parts that can be serviced or replaced by my clients when worn.
Disclaimer: My parents currently live in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and though they have attended several Civil War re-enactments in the past, to the best of my knowledge they have only observed and not participated. Do not judge them too harshly.

As an outsider, I have sensed a significant rise in press and attention devoted to custom built frames (those in places like Portland in particular). Has this translated into an increased amount of business for you?
Shows like the North American Handmade Bicycle Show have really raised the profile of the work in the mainstream consciousness as well as the media coverage you mentioned. The web has, perhaps, made the biggest difference. There have always been frame builders plying their trade here, some for over 30 years or more that are still building. But I think that the web makes it seem like there has been an explosion very recently. I really don’t know if there are more builders now than there were before, perhaps there are, but it is certainly easier for us to get the word out about our work very cheaply and quickly via the web and for potential clients to get into contact with us. I do think that this rising tide has generated interest and business for me.

Much has been made as of late regarding two different approaches to custom frame building. One approach is that of a master at work. By this I mean that the frame maker does not take suggestions, but rather makes a significant amount of choices for the customer. The other approach is a collaborative one, in which the builder becomes the hands for the client's wishes. Where would you say that you fall within that spectrum?
I would say that I fall somewhere near the middle of that continuum. I enjoy the collaboration with each client to design a bike that will suit their needs, riding style and tastes. Paint, braze-ons and sizing are all agreed upon with input from the client and my wife, Meredith, who proposes most of the color schemes. I have final say on geometry and tubing specifications. The reason for this is that at the end of the day, my name is on the down tube and I am responsible for how the bike rides and handles, as well as the safety of the rider and the durability of the frame for its intended use. If I let a client dictate tubing specifications or geometry and it works out then it’s no problem, but if it doesn’t work out and the bike handles poorly or worse yet, there is a failure…then no one is going to remember that the client specified this tube or that angle, they are going to read the down tube logo and decide what kind of a builder I am. Either way it’s my reputation at stake, one that I am trying to build one frame at a time.

What is your dream bike? Do you have one?
This remarkable Mario Confente road bike that I saw at Velo Rendezvous in 2007.

Anyone or anything you'd like to plug or mention to the fantastic Cycling Inquisition readership?
Levi Leipheimer’s King Ridge Gran Fondo is in its second year, I missed it last year, but I’m planning on doing it this year. If you are into soul and R&B…check this band out!

Rebolledo's Flickr account. Includes more pictures of Herrera's bike as well as other frames built by Mauricio

Rebolledo's website