|All photos by: Alejandro Bustamante Campillo|
Matt Rendell, the British author and journalist who penned the preeminent biography of Marco Pantani, found himself without much recourse last year. His local bike mechanic had badly cross-threaded a replacement bottom bracket damaging his prized Kuota frame, seemingly beyond repair. Rendell was unable to find any mechanic who could remedy the situation, as they all noted that forcefully removing the bottom bracket would only make matters worse. As far as they were all concerned, the frame was done for.
With that bit of news, Rendell did the only thing he could think of. He stripped the bike, and took the frame to the Manchester velodrome where the track World Cup was being held. There, he handed his Kuota to the mechanic for the Colombian track team. Three weeks later, Rendell got his frame back through British cycling legend Chris Boardman, at the track World Championships in the Netherlands. The frame was in perfect working order, with the bottom bracket installed flawlessly, and all damage having been repaired. So who was the mystery man behind the repair, the one whose abilities were worth the ten thousand mile round trip that the frame had taken over those three weeks?
He’s the only man who men like Rendell trust to work miracles, a Colombian frame maker known by a single name: Tinno.
Born in the populous city of Medellín, Colombia, Agustin Hincapie (no relation to George Hincapie, whose parents are also from Medellín) fell in love with the bicycle at a young age. It was during his childhood, that his obsession with Italian cycling led to his name (Agustin), being shortened simply to Tino. Eventually the second “n” was added for a pseudo-Italian flair.
Already using that single name, Tinno raced on the road as well as the track, often against some of Colombia’s best-known figures, like hour-record holder and Giro stage winner Cochise Rodriguez. As much as he loved racing, and he most certainly did, it was bicycle frames in particular that got his attention. Tinno would often frequent the velodrome when he wasn’t racing, simply to study the rare Italian track frames that riders like Cochise Rodriguez had brought back from their European adventures. Tinno studied every angle, every lug, sometimes sitting in front of a bike for ten minutes or more, only to do so again the subsequent week.
His outsized passion for bikes led to him open up a shop, where he eventually decided to start building his own frames. But in 1970s Medellín, there was no one to learn from. Even examples of well-built bikes were hard to find (hence his lengthy staring sessions at the velodrome). Additionally, Tinno had no experience in fabrication, much less welding of any kind. Luckily, a friend found a lengthy article explaining how road frames were built, and gave it to Tinno. When he was first told about this article, he excitedly thought he had the keys to the kingdom.
But there was a problem. The article was in English, a language he couldn’t speak, much less read. “So for the next month,” Tinno remembers, “I translated the entire thing, word by word, using a dictionary.” Such was his dedication to the prospect of building frames. Today, Tinno laughs as he remembers the month-long span of time that he dedicated to translating the article. Funny as it may seem now, those late nights with a dictionary in hand were the beginning of an illustrious career as a frame builder, which now puts him unequivocally among Colombia’s master frame builders. At his prime, Tinno’s shop built frames for the country’s most promising talent, including Tour of Britain winner Mauricio Ardila, and track star Ephraim Rodriguez, who set three track cycling world records atop Tinno’s frames. In all, he's been building frames for over thirty years.
A fantastic video about Tinno. Even if you don't speak Spanish, it's worth watching, as it shows both his shop, and some of process. Tinno from juan felipe rubio on Vimeo.
Today, his shop stands directly across the street from Medellin’s velodrome. Like almost everywhere else, track racing in Colombia is no longer as glamorous and beloved as it once was. “I remember that here in Medellín, on Fridays, people would happily forego a night of partying and dancing to come to the velodrome instead. The stands would be packed, and you’d see people hanging off the lighting rigs that made night races possible, just to catch a glimpse of their beloved cyclists.” But today, the velodrome is much quieter. Races still go on, and riders like Sky’s Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao still train there when they’re back home, but no one hangs from the lights during night races.
Regardless of how many people frequent the velodrome across from the shop these days, Tinno continues to build frames. Colombia’s love affair with the bike continues, and he’s happy to build frames for those who still value finely made goods. He remembers the golden age of both cycling and frame building in Colombia fondly, though he’s quick to point out that many of the builders who initially thrived during that time started to build for the wrong reasons. “These guys would learn how to weld, they’d start building frames and then think they were going to get rich doing this. All of a sudden, they’d hit a wall. The financial reality of being a builder would become clear, and they would loose the love they originally thought they had.”
As he sees it, many builders started shops because they saw an opportunity, but what some had in business acumen, they lacked in passion and understanding. “It’s really not just joining some tubes together. In order to build a great frame, you have to understand how a bike moves, how it reacts, and you have to know what it’s like to suffer when riding a bike. That’s the only way that you’ll ever identify and pinpoint the qualities that can make a frame be truly great.”
As Tinno says this in the context of frame building in Colombia during the 1980s, I can’t help but think about the wave of interest that currently engulfs frame building in the United States. I wonder when, and just how many current builders will hit the wall that Tinno speaks of. Particularly when he mentions that many have incorrectly started to think of frame building as an art, one that is glamorous and poetic. Similarly, he argues that some have reduced frame building to pure engineering.
“Sure, building frames has an artistic aspect to it. But it’s not pure personal expression, because there’s real function involved. But it’s also not just math. You don’t sit there with a calculator doing advanced mathematics. What allows you to make great frames, I think, is a gift that you are born with. One that requires an acute sensibility, and allows you to know what feels right when riding or racing on a bike, in order to reproduce it.”
And it’s that sensibility, one that allows Tinno to know how to build a great bike, that has kept him in business through the lean years. Gone are the days when his shop produced 300 frames a year. Like everywhere else, many in Colombia now dream of carbon wonder bikes, but Tinno still prefers to build steel frames. He’s worked in titanium, aluminum and even carbon, but he always comes back to steel. “Steel wants you to work with it. It’s easy to get along with, and wants to be made into a bike. Steel is easy to love, because it loves you back”, he says with a smile.
But Tinno’s love affair is not exclusive to steel tubing. It’s the bike as a whole that he fell in love with as a kid, and that he continues to love. So for him, its the prospect of building and working on bikes that makes the three hours of daily commuting from his rural home outside of Medellín into the shop bearable. And its precisely because of that passion that men like Matt Rendell will happily send their bike from five thousand miles away to be worked on by Tinno. Because they know that his love and understanding of bicycles, as well as his skill level, are all absolutely unquestionable.
If you want to read about another fascinating Colombian frame builder, who did work for presidents, top professionals and some of the most feared criminals in history, go here and here.
This article was originally published in Road Magazine
If you are interested in Tinno's work, he can be reached at his shop in Medellín by calling: +57.312.721.6943
You can see some of his work on Facebook, and in this gallery
As I've stated before, the name of this blog has nothing to do with either an investigation of any kind, or the Roman Catholic tribunals that sought to spread that faith through inflicting punishment as a result of heresy. Instead, the blog's name came as a result in faulty reasoning that I now have to live with.
Having said that, it would be unusual of me to not provide a link to an article I read over the weekend considering this blog's name. It has nothing to do with cycling, but deals instead with the fact that an unusually high percentage of residents in Colombia's cycling-happy department of Antioquia are direct descendents of Jews who hid their identity in the face of the Spanish Inquisition. This article from the Washington Times details their past, as well as the current conversions to Judaism in rural Antioquia. If you enjoy that article, might I suggest another one (which I've posted before), which deals with "Cholombians", Mexican teenagers who are obsessed with Colombian culture, and in turn devote every bit of their lives to a bizarrely inaccurate caricature of what being Colombian means.