The first days of Legnano and Frejus in America: Tommy Avenia, Gene Portuesi, Ben Lawee and Paul Kent

In putting this collection of bikes together, there are several names that continue to resurface with the Legnano and Frejus brands. These were the guys that first brought these wonderful Italian ‘superbikes’ and they were called to America. Most of this history and what I am about to post pre-dates my beginnings as a cyclist and there is not a lot of good information to be had on the internet (which also pre-dates those early days) so I would greatly welcome information from anyone that directly knew these men or may have worked in their shop back in the day.

Tommy Avenia (New York)

If there is one name to be attached to Frejus in America it is Tommy Avenia.  By all accounts, Tommy Avenia was born in Italy and must have come to America with the first wave of Italian immigration after the first world war as his accounts of the 6 day races at Madison Square Gardens in the 1930’s are recalled by several people who have posted online.  Avenia’s bicycle shop for most of it’s history was located at 131 E. 119th St. in Harlem and Tommy had a brother Frank (source) that worked with him in the shop.

I haven’t found any information as to when Avenia opened the shop in east Harlem but most purchase references that I have run across do not predate 1960.  Perhaps a reader can help us out with that one.  Also, thus far internet has yielded a photo of Tommy Avenia if anyone has one. At some point in time the shop moved from 119th St., around the corner and down the street a couple of blocks to 2191 3rd Avenue.  And on or about the mid-80’s Tommy moved the shop upstate to Stony Point, New York where it remained.  Reports say Tommy lived will into his 90’s, passing away sometime after 2000 although an exact date still needs to be verified.

Here are a couple of online posts that give us a glimpse of the Avenia shop in those early years in east Harlem:

 

“Besides the narrowness of Tommy’s store, I remember the ingenious wood box stands he used for working on bikes upside down. My recollection is that the wood was quite worn as he had been using the stands for many years. I seem to remember that he did move from his original narrow location to a bigger store on, I believe, 3rd Avenue.”  (courtesy: Mid-Life Cycling. A blog by Justine Valinoti.)

” The acknowledged guru of the superbike scene in the area is Thomas Avenia, 131 East 119th Street. True to the mystical tradition, Avenia keeps a small shop, out of the way, marked only by a modest sign that says “Bicycles”—six locks on the grill and four on the door. Avenia is a small man with perpetually astonished eyebrows who reads Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, slides off the subject of bikes to put forward elaborate political theories without pausing for breath, and sells two of the big names, Frejus and Legnano.”  (courtesy: Bikeman by Owen Edwards.)

“On one occasion I collected the Frejus and noticed a big scratch that wasn’t there a week earlier. “It’s a bike, not a picture frame.”, said Tommy’s brother, Frank. I obsessed a bit less after that trip. (courtesy of Velocipede.com post #1332 by Richard Sachs Cycles).

 

Below is a receipt from the Avenia shop for the popular Frejus ‘ Tour de France ‘ road model that could be had for the grand total of $185 in 1970 (courtesy of Velocipede.com post #1332 by Richard Sachs Cycles).  The second image is a Tommy Avenia listing for the top of the line Frejus Supercorsa model that would have been from 1973 or later based on the description of the components (ie. Campagnolo Super Record drilled brake levers).

 

And here is a special bit of history about Tommy Avenia ‘the inventor’ that may not be well known, a patent filed on January 10, 1947 with the U.S. Patent Office for a bicycle fork fixture (source).

Avenia was a real Frejus aficionado, however the Legnano bikes were also a staple in his shop in distributing the Bozzi bikes in the USA. Various online posts also reference Avenia as one of the first if not the ‘go to’ shop for Campagnolo components in those early days.

 

Eugino ‘Gene’ Portuesi  (Detroit)

Gene Portuesi operated the Detroit Cycle Sport Shop on Michigan Avenue and is referenced by several owners as the place of purchase for their Frejus. Not a lot of information has come forward on Portuesi as it relates to Legnano, or whether he imported the Bozzi brands directly from Italy or if he was a part of Avenia’s distribution in those days. According to a recent eBay post for a Frejus bike, it stated that Portuesi moved his shop to Cadillac, Michigan in 1970. The post goes on to say , “Gene created the first mail order catalog for high-end bicycle components and parts called the CYCLOPEDIA & was also a business partner with Mike Walden Of Detroit. Gene was an Olympic bicyclist racing coach for the USA in 1964 and married an Olympic bicyclist competitor named Rita Labrash.  The picture below is of Gene at a track coaching (courtesy of a Pinterest post that was not footnoted).  Following that a page from the famous Cyclopedia catalog (courtesy: Hiveminer).  Gene Portuesi passed away in the year 2000.”

 

more to come . . .

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