Following on from the Prendas People blog entries of Robert Reis and Phil Houghton, we are delighted to publish the latest in the series from our long-term customer GS Coritani who is in love with riding a bike now as much as when he started riding all those years ago!
Words by Timothy John
"My first obsession, which I still hold to this day, was with a set of Campagnolo toe clips; the blue box with the Italian language printed on the side, which I still have in my basement. I needed to know what those words meant. Before Google Translate, you had to go to the library and read an Italian-English dictionary."
Mark Kenny makes little secret of an all-consuming passion for Italian cycling. He is the not the first, and is unlikely to be the last, to succumb to its allure - an intoxicating mix of beauty, bravery, machismo, panache, and occasional skulduggery - but this Derbyshire-based tifoso indulges his passion to a degree greater than most living beyond the borders of Bella Italia. He even tweets in Italian.
Cycling holidays to Como, the Dolomites and Tuscany with his wife Allison, whom, Mark insists, knew of his obsession before they were married, and is herself a cyclist, provide the sporadic, but essential immersions into a magical world first glimpsed through the prism of a blue box containing toe clips. More recently, Mark's passion has found an outlet in Prendas Ciclismo's Rocket Espresso jerseys and clothing.
"I treated myself to a Rocket Espresso machine, just before Mick and Andy made their connection and launched the Rocket Espresso kit. I update my Rocket kit regularly. I've Tweeted pictures of myself wearing it outside the Vatican and in the Texas desert. I try and Tweet mostly in Italian. When I finally met the guys at the Rouleur Classic exhibition, Mick referred to me as: 'The international man of mystery.' I told him he would be disappointed."
In truth, there has been no disappointment on either side. Mark readily confesses his esteem for the passion and detail behind Prendas' famous replica jerseys, handmade by Santini in Bergamo, and for the speed and reliability of its mail order service.
In turn, Mark's name was among the first suggested by Andy for this occasional series of customer profiles. The mutual admiration shared by the respective parties is clearly not limited to Italian craftsmanship.
Mark discovered cycling at the age of 11, when his older brother, a footballer, sought new training methods. A cross-country runner of some talent, the younger sibling took easily to the bike, "an old red Raleigh, which was probably rubbish." A seed was sewn. Mark never returned to running.
His passion for the bike was not entirely without precedent. As a young man, his father had regularly cycled to the coast and back in a day from his home in Yorkshire, a round trip of around some 140 miles, "probably from lack of anything better to do in the 1950s.” His son, however, had his sights set on racing, rather than touring.
"It was a short leap for me from picking up cycling to racing in junior time-trials and junior road races," Mark explains. "I had no speciality. I was quite good at time-trials but didn't enjoy them. I preferred mass start road racing and worked my way up through the ranks in my teens and early twenties. I was decent but no more than that."
As with many aspirant racers, Mark was drawn to his local bike shop. Ellis Briggs Cycles (more of whom later) would ultimately win most of his custom, but as a young rider with Batley CC, Hargreaves Cycles was the shop of choice. Their range of Puch bicycles from the upper echelon of the Austrian marque’s road range made the shop a magnet for a young man with his heart already consumed by cycle sport.
"My club was Batley CC, and one year, we were Batley CC-Puch. I was very fortunate growing up in Batley that our local bike shop, Hargreaves Cycles, was a stockist of high-end Puch bikes. One season, we raced on the same frame that Sean Kelly used at Sem-France Loire. They were made in the same factory in Carnielli; essentially, they were rebadged Bottecchias."
To have been able to ride the same machinery as King Kelly must have been a fantastic coincidence, and the frame's Italian provenance an additional bonus. Neither would be enough to satisfy Mark’s passion for all things Italian and cycle-related, however.
Mark's obsession began early and lasts to this day. He cites a number of staging posts, not least Jørgen Leth's film of the 1973 Giro d'Italia, The Stars and the Water Carriers. His admiration for Beppe Saronni was counterbalanced by a school friend's support for Francesco Moser.
When it was the norm to study French and German, Mark pushed for Italian lessons. Later, at university, a department head's relationship with the University of Catania produced a field trip that coincided with the Tour of Sicily.
Mark recalls pulling down a race poster as a souvenir and “borrowing” a Gis Gelati pennant, hung in the hotel where his fellow students were billeted, and where Saronni’s team had held their pre-season training camp. He hopes that Prendas will one day reproduce the 1982 Gis Gelati squad’s navy blue training top.
"I have always had that Italian obsession. I subscribe to Bici Sport to this day. An Italian magazine lasts a month because it takes me that long to read it. Through Twitter I'm silly enough to follow people like Pippo Pozzato, although, at this time, the best rider in the peloton is Vincenzo Nibali, in my opinion."
Our conversation diverts briefly to an appreciation of Lo Squalo's consummate victory at Milano-Sanremo; a performance of such panache that I wonder aloud if the sheer joy brought to the watching millions will be replicated by any other victory this season. "When he tops that with a second Tour victory and comes back to win Lombardia," Mark replies.
We are getting off topic. Mark's admiration for Nibali ("His approach is like Hinault's; he recognises that the cycling season is a year-long") is only one sign among many of an all-consuming passion. Riding the Ghisallo "numerous times" is another. Then there is his internal conflict with the frequent doping infractions of Italian riders, including the failings of arguably the most loved of all.
"We all knew that Pantani was a dark character, who probably doped throughout his cycling career, but I still like him. I struggle to rationalise that. It's the beauty of the Italian cyclist and Italian cycling, and the bigger picture of Italian culture that I can't resist. I should probably get help."
Mark’s infatuation with Italian cycling might by itself have been enough to cement a relationship with Prendas Ciclismo, whose relationship with Santini we have mentioned, but there is another connection: the Dave Rayner Fund.
Prendas has been a generous and committed supporter of the fund for several years, and Mark’s purchase of a Dave Rayner supporter’s cap was the first he made from Mick and Andy. He had good reason to do so, having raced against the late cyclist.
“In the 1983 season, I came through the start-finish area at a race, shouting at my father for a bottle, when Dave Rayner was already about ten minutes up the road. I had to ride the last lap ‘dry’ because my father had given my bottle to Dave - one of our biggest rivals. When I finally finished, Dave came over and gave me my bottle back.”
Mark chuckles at the memory. His father’s admiration for Rayner clearly lay at the heart of the gesture, even if it was to his son’s detriment. Like everyone who met Dave Rayner, Mark only has fond memories of a hugely talented, but likeable rider, who refused to put on the airs and graces that his ability might have excused.
“I spent most of my hard earned cash at the Ellis Briggs Cycles shop in Shipley, where Dave’s father John was shop manager. He was a traditional guy with a brown housecoat and would appear from the workshop at the back. John was great. He would get in specific Campagnolo items, or if you wanted a particular ProTeam kit, he would go out of his way to get it.”
More recently, Mark has found a similar level of care at Prendas Ciclismo (“The service is excellent. You order something and it arrives at 8.30am the following day. There’s no one better in the mail order world than Mick, Andy and the guys at Prendas”), the same knowledge of the sport and commitment to it.
Prendas Ciclismo’s “international man of mystery” turns out not be so mysterious after all. His passion for Italian cycling will be easily understood by those who follow the sport, and his admiration for Prendas is likely to be shared by any who have placed an order with them. At a glance, Italy, the Peak District and Dorset make an unusual triangle, but understanding Mark’s story and his passion for Italy, cycling, and, in particular, Italian cycling, lends it a meaning that any cycling fan will easily decode.