All images courtesy of Joey Cobbs and Masi Bicycles. Used with permission.
The obvious question when looking at Italian bikes or those with Italian heritage is whether or not Campagnolo should be spec’d on them. Yes is the answer, by the way. This is the first talking point I raise to Scott Matsuda and Joey Cobbs, Masi Bicycles’ Product Manager and Digital Marketing whiz. The laughter quiets and the awkward pause immediately after introductions quickly turns to business. As Masi undergoes a major product shift and rebranding effort led by Scott and team, I learn it’s a conversation that comes up regularly and that perhaps a special edition launch in the future may combine the two. Sadly, the public doesn’t see this pairing often because the modern American cycling market is uninterested. Shimano and SRAM rule the roost in these parts. No issue need be found in this reality. But when talking about cycling intangibles, perhaps none capture them better than what was and what is, born in Italy.
I’ve been on the bike for over 20 years. You learn things in that time. Memory doesn’t serve a useful purpose recalling the who’s, why’s, and how’s of such knowledge. Campagnolo, for example. Elegant. Out of reach. Refined. I’ve never used it, but I know these things be true because I know. I’ve also learned and believe that all things Italian cycling have unrivaled wow. Bianchi. Pinarello. Cipollini. Cinelli, to name a few. They have soul others lack and undeniable lure. Masi is another.
Founded by Faleiro Masi in Sesto Fiorentino, Tuscany, in 1926 (thanks for the correction Dom Phillips of On Record), Masi bikes forged a reputation of speed, innovation, and ride quality unique its DNA. The cycling rock stars of old raced and won on Masi bicycles and professionals raced Masi-made frames covered by competitive sponsors’ head badges and logos. Quality doesn’t go unnoticed. The American cycling boom of the 1960’s demanded the best Europe had to offer and by the early 1970’s, Masi production in the US began in San Diego. The surprisingly uncertain future of the brand began here, after, as with most things, stakeholder disagreement on issues surrounding money, partnerships, and company vision.
Fast forward a couple of decades to the BMX boom of the mid-1990’s and two brands stand out. GT. Haro. Like Masi Bicycles, each had, and still has, its own unique cycling history. The business of bikes is strange and to increase its footprint, GT made a strategic and, seemingly conflicting, entrance into the road market. To offset the threat, Haro, now Masi Bicycles’ parent company, then partnered with Masi. In the years to follow and as they evolved, the Masi brand got drowned out by the noise of competing priorities, with none to drive the brand internally and externally, which had softened on road bikes.
Scott arrived four years ago to help pull the brand from the depths of irrelevance after years of neglect. I spent a couple of hours at the Masi Bicycles’ headquarters in Vista, CA discussing what the future holds. When asked what Masi is and wants to become, he is clear.
Our goal is not to be another big bike company selling cookie-cutter bikes with no soul. Instead, we are striving to contribute something unique and special to the market for those riders seeking a new ride experience.
Faleiro Masi brought with him a DNA of quality and innovation when the brand arrived in California. Scott understands that to be successful today, those same values must underpin everything done moving forward. I learn that becoming the next Specialized/Trek/Giant/Fill in the blank, is certain doom. In a previous Product Management role with a reputable bike manufacturer, Scott saw a sustainable brand with growing customer loyalty and quality reputation, eroded by new ownership’s ignorance, vision, and bottom line thinking. While the company wasn’t the biggest prior to the change in ownership, it was healthy. It was relevant. It didn’t need to be one of the big dogs; it needed to be itself. The same is true for Masi now but questions linger about identity.
Re-evaluating the why, what, and who of Masi Bicycles’ current and future position in cycling’s rapidly evolving market, a fragmented one at that, won’t be easy. The road market alone has 3-4 niche’s. What of e-bikes…where do they fit in? What to make of the now staple, and previously emerging, Gravel category. . .is it road or mountain? Let’s not forget frame materials: aluminum, steel, carbon. Titanium too! How does one make any sense of it? Perhaps, counterintuitively, the reigns must tighten. Less must be more; at least temporarily. This is exactly what Scott sees as necessary to regain relevance for the brand. The goal is not to grow the company bigger right now, but to hone in on a few products in a few categories and do them well. How is that done? A few ways.
Without giving away secrets, Scott shares that one example may be to include frame characteristics unique to Masi Bicycles across all price points. Let the speculation begin. Internal cable routing? Screwed on head tube badges? Tube position or tube shape? In other words, If the flagship carbon model has a slightly curved carbon tube with flare at the junctions, the aluminum one should too. Perhaps that requires custom drawn tubing increasing the price point bike slightly, but not without significant effect. It’s memorable and makes the Masi story consistent from top to bottom. Most importantly, it tells the customer that care was taken in crafting their ride experience on par and consistent with Masi’s expectations for higher end offerings. That, people, is a story to tell. Actually telling it is hard. There is more.
A tremendous amount of insight and educated guessing to get the product mix right is necessary. An avid cyclist himself, Scott works with athletes and enthusiasts, studies market trends, reaches out to key retail partners, and collaborates with component makers which help shape the product line. In most cases, he is looking to identify future trends 2–3 years out. In this bizarre development reality, e-road bikes are of deep curiosity right now and I am privileged to get eyes on a few functional prototypes.
Somewhere along the lines I became a cycling snob and have largely dismissed e-bikes. No, not true. I have totally, in every way possible, dismissed them. After discussing their merits with Scott, or lack thereof, I concede they have a place. Largely because I find myself fascinated by Scott’s command of and considerations for developing these purpose built bikes; much different than the ones used by upright sitting, high-vis yellow wearing, commuting, nerds. Mostly, I’m tired of getting destroyed on the climbs by them and their motors.
There is tremendous nuance that goes into making the best bike and best experience for a customer. Scott pointed out that in addition to testing various motors for the still in development e-road bike platform, geometry can’t be overlooked. With a traditional road bike the geometry is such that bio-mechanical positioning optimizes efficiency. Chainstay lengths are relatively short and weight is positioned rearward for quick and snappy handling. In concert, these play a critical role in efficiency. E-bikes change the constraints. The extra 250-500 watts in pedaling power open previously universal design limitations. With a motor aiding the effort, longer chainstays create greater stability and comfort and may not necessarily compromise efficiency. Other considerations include what to do about stack height and how ride handling is affected between taller and shorter head tubes. For bikes across all categories, it’s for Scott and team to define, test, and ultimately, decide.
Perhaps nothing above will come to pass; maybe all of it. Regardless, Scott believes it will take a couple of seasons to see the fruits of the strategy and with it, a reinvigorated brand push. Past product lines were disjointed and lacked a common thread. It takes restraint and discipline to commit to a vision and not get distracted with cool ideas that intentionally and unintentionally threaten to interrupt. To win, Masi must stay the course and connect dots between intent, design, and price points so as to tell a cohesive and connected story.
Scott shares that it’s all hands on deck for the launch of Masi’s next generation of carbon road bikes. On a tour of the warehouse, I saw, tucked away in a corner, a white and red accented Gran Crit. Steel. Custom drawn tubes. Lacking disc mounts. . .almost perfect. Curious if a disc brake version was in the works, he was non-committal. There are a lot of conversations about what to launch as Masi nears its 100 year anniversary. There is much to celebrate and much to look forward to. Coming full circle, perhaps a Campagnolo equipped disc version of the white and red road slayer will be released. This is the morally right thing to do. Scott, take note.
In regards to design, Masi can take risks, and it wants too. It’s one way it can separate itself from the competition. Anyone who’s spent time in a pack knows that eyes roam and silent judgement ensues for bikes lacking what self-proclaimed experts deem legitimate. If Masi can stand out in that type of environment and earn both verbal and silent nods of approval, they win. Curiosity creates interest. Interest becomes revenue. Masi customers want to stand out from the pack. Not for the sake of standing out, but to experience something uniquely functional, competitive, and attractive.
We’re back to Masi’s DNA. The innovation gene has slept for too long. It’s awake now and will define Masi’s future. Scott and team have built the roadmap with what appears to be an embrace of the past. Time will tell if Masi Bicycles’ heritage of passion, craftsmanship, and ingenuity can cast a large shadow of relevance in modern cycling world. We’ll all find out soon enough. Count me among those in for the ride. . .
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Masi Bikes was founded in Milan in 1926.