The first days of Legnano and Frejus in America: Tommy Avenia, Gene Portuesi, Ben Lawee, Paul and Peter 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’ as 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 didn’t exist at that time) 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.”

 

Ben Lawee (Long Beach)

Jones Bicycles has been in continuation operation since 1910 and is one of the oldest bike shops in America. Frank Samuel ‘Bicycle’ Jones founded and operated the business until 1959 on Long Beach Boulevard in Long Beach , California. According to the historical account on the Jones Bicycle website, Ben Lawee purchased the business from Frank Jones in 1959.  In 1965 Lawee sold the retail operation and became a distributor for Legnano and Bianchi bicycles in the USA.  Ben Lawee passed away in 2002 at the age of 76.

Readers may be familiar with the Italvega line of bikes that Lawee had designed and built at the Torpado factory in Padua, Italy for distribution in America.  There were a half a dozen or so Italvega models with the top models constructed of Columbus tubing in full Campagnolo trim. Italvega came to market in 1970 and was pretty much a defunct come 1977.

As mentioned in another post, The Spoke in Boulder, Colorado was also a place to buy a Legnano bike back in the day and two of the bikes in the collection still wore their Spoke decal on the seat tube when I acquired them.  I can’t be certain however I suspect that these Legnano bikes were a part of Lawee’s west coast distribution rather than direct imports.

 

Paul and Peter Kent (Toronto)

Bloor Cycle in Toronto was by all accounts the first importer of Legnano bikes to Canada if not the only one.  Bloor Cycle was founded by Paul Kent and later co-operated and owned with his son Peter.  It was Paul’s kind and welcoming face that I remember as a young boy looking through the glass showcases and quietly coveting the prestigious Italian and English road bikes that filled their expansive shop on Bloor Street west, hoping that one day my pockets would be deep enough to own one. As it turns out that dream was to be fulfilled many years later with the 1967 Legnano Roma in the collection that was originally sold by Bloor Cycle and it is one of my favourites for this reason.

Bloor Cycle began operations in 1934 according the sign over their store and was touted as the largest in Canada. An online post suggests that Paul Kent  purchased the shop from Margaret Porter in the late 1950’s after her husband passed away. I have not been able to determine when Bloor Cycle eventually closed their doors (I suspect it was in the late 80’s or early 90’s when the downturn hit the industry as a whole) and surprisingly the internet hasn’t provided many pictures of this wonderful shop, however perhaps a reader can help out here.  The photo of the storefront above and one of their catalogs is shown about, courtesy of the Canadian Cyclist , preceded by a photo of Paul Kent. I also come across this article and interview with the Kent’s in the Ottawa Journal from September 1972 that provides some insight into the spirit of the place and their owners.

 

“Peter Kent’s face has an expression that could pass for rapture and he reaches for superlatives as he describes one of the bluest of the bicycle world’s blue bloods. “Don’t tell me this isn’t a work I of art,” he says, caressing the sleek,. grey-painted frame with its shiny chrome spearpoint lugs wrought like fine jewelry. “Look at the harmony of lines, the flowing elegance.”  The object of Kent’s reverence, is a Cinelli, adorned with 10-speed gears and equipment from the world’s top manufacturers. “I don’t just SELL a Cinelli,” explains Peter Kent, whose father, Paul, runs Bloor Cycle and Sports Ltd. in Toronto, probably Canada’s biggest bicycle dealer. “I try to find a good home for it, someone who . knows what he’s getting and appreciates it. . “A dollar is a dollar, I know, but ‘ I hate selling one of those machines to someone who really ; doesn’t know what it is, doesn’t know what he’s getting.”

Kent’s attitude would be understood immediately by the guys who sell Rolls-Royces or Ferraris: I mean, what’s the point of selling a status symbol to a person who won’t realize he’s got one? The cycle craze gripping Canada has, in fact, created a new snobbism that ranks with ownership pride in the aristocrats of the automobile world. Keeping up with the Joneses in 1972 could mean whizzing around on a classy Italian, French or British machine, an activity likely to make a $750 dent in your bank account. Or if you really wish to one-up Joe Jones you could shell out another $250 and have Signor Cino Cinelli custom-build your bike in his Milan workshop not too far from the home of that other renowned Italian status-maker, Ferrari. But don’t expect immediate delivery. Cinellis, like Ferraris, are put together with the painstaking craftsmanship and precision that goes into assembling a $2,000 Swiss watch. Signor Cinelli, a former cycle-racing champion in Italy, personally designs the frames and supervises their construction by six craftsmen.

Peter Kent is a 26-year-old graduate in political science, economics and law who prefers to sell bikes for a living. He has been around them since birth and he’s practically on first-name terms with the men who build the great machines. Let him be your guide. Names to remember in the top division are Mercier and Singer, Holdsworth and Bob Jackson of England, and Cinelli and , . Legnano of Italy. There is a coterie of designers and manufacturers (they’d hate that designation) who are so exclusive that even- knowledgeable people in the business have never heard of them. “Their car equivalent would be Jensen, Aston Martin and Lamborghini, I guess,” said Peter. One of them is Ellis Briggs of England whose machines are almost unobtainable because they produce so very few. Another is Herse of Paris who is so exclusive , that he will sell only to individuals.

The larger manufacturers can be a little snooty, too, according to Kent.  “It look us two years to obtain agreement from Singer to sell his bicycles. Actually, Singer produces only 150 machines a year of which we get 14. They move fast, though when they come in. We’ve already sold nine of our quota in about six weeks.”  “No dealer in his right mind would try to make a living from these aristocrats. The Kents, for example, have been waiting almost a year for a supply of Bob Jacksons. The ultimate in bikes says Peter . . . the Cinelli is not just a bicycle. It is a Cinelli. You can tell. by the harmony, the elegance and the price tag. Retail: $700. The Holdsworth is one of England’s two answers to the continental monopoly on aristocratic bikes. Its Canadian price is $625. The Bob Jackson is England’s other proud bicycle. If you can do without pedals and things, the version pictured here can be bought for $363. All dressed, it costs $600. The Singer, a French bike, can be bought for the same $750 you were planning to spend on a secondhand car. The air pump is optional. The Botteccha is built by Carnielli of Italy and is a steal ‘ at $385. It comes with – an empty water bottle.

 

To conclude, here is a YouTube link to what appears to be a TV advertisement for Bloor Cycle in the early 80’s. And as previously mentioned, contributors to this post would be greatly appreciated.

 

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5 thoughts on “The first days of Legnano and Frejus in America: Tommy Avenia, Gene Portuesi, Ben Lawee, Paul and Peter Kent

  1. Thanks for writing! I discovered bicycle racing about 1971, and bought a used Frejus “Professional Model World Champion Extralight” frame and then went to Avenia and bought all new parts. I could have bought a complete new one off the floor for less. I remember him working on the bikes upside down with the handlebars resting in notches in a wooden box. I worried about getting the gearing exactly right. He boasted of keeping up with young riders on hills by standing up and dancing on the pedals. The Frejus was magic compared to my Schwinn Continental!

  2. Having worked briefly at the Spoke “On the Hill” in the early 70s, it was my understanding that we purchased from Pettee Cycles in Denver, a major distributor in those days. We also obtained many high end Gloria and Urago from Pettee, and given the amount sold, I am rather chagrinned that I never see these bikes coming back on the market.

    • Thanks for that bit of background Dave. It is not a name associated with Legnano that I have come across but it is worth chasing up. Perhaps another reader can add to this. Thanks again, Mark.

      • I wish I could provide you further documentation. Yet much like the complete regrettable disappearance of so many Gloria and Uragos, all I have is my memories from some 40+ years ago.

  3. Bloor Cycle had a cycling team that was anchored by Canada’s dominate cyclist of the 1970s, Mr. Jocelyn Lovell. There are many articles and photos of Mr. Lovell wearing Bloor Cycle swag during races.

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