Ascari Bicycles founder Helio Ascari creates custom two-wheelersworthy of his legendary race car–driver name and fashion-model background
elio Ascari knows something about speed: He shares a name (and, according to family lore, a line of descent) with renowned two-time Formula One champion Alberto Ascari. Helio Ascari also knows something about taking it slow: The former fashion model is obsessed with details, whether they’re on vintage garments or old mechanical objects.
With his fledgling bicycle design company, Ascari Bicycles, Ascari brings to life a passion for cycling and an eye for distinctive, exquisite details. Each bicycle is handcrafted in the USA by Ascari and his business partner and frame builder, Gary Mathis, and strikes an extraordinary balance between form and function, nodding to the past with its design yet charging into a future of sustainable transportation.
With its light frame and bright white wheels, the Ascari bicycle is a perfect marriage of design and function
Recently, Ascari and RRL collaborated to create a custom bike. Made with copper and brass–brazed badges and dropout faces and bearing the Ascari and RRL logos, the machine is a testament to both companies’ design philosophies and, quite simply, elevates bicycle construction to an art form. We sat down with Ascari to discover his inspirations, techniques and favorite places to cycle when he’s not in the factory crafting beautiful new machines.
Ralph Lauren: Why bikes? What was the catalyst for starting Ascari Bicycles?Helio Ascari: The bicycle has been a passion of mine since I was a little boy. Everything started when I was 8 years old and found an old bicycle in the basement of my home. It blew me away. I immediately started taking parts away and figuring out how to restore it. This was undoubtedly the beginning of a long journey, one that developed my perception of a simple, essential machine that connects people and places in such an elegant yet humble way.
What is your background in design? I never went to school to study design or anything. I was 11 years old [when I started] working in steel and wood factories in my town in Brazil, and the fact that I was surrounded by people with such amazing knowledge and skills helped me understand design and fabrication. Later, after 13 years working in the fashion industry, I decided to work with my very first passion: bicycles. I love to build something from scratch and combine the timeless sense of beauty with sophisticated design.
What is the appeal of old or vintage items? I grew up in an Italian village in the south of Brazil, and everything I had surrounding me was old stuff that the immigrants brought from Italy. You don’t find these things anymore—the durability of the pieces, the time it takes to make them, the passion in the beautiful details, the quality of the materials. There was a substantial soul attached to them. This is exactly what I like to bring to Ascari Bicycles.
You’ve been quoted as saying, “looking back to move forward.” What do you mean by that?I am attached to the beauty, the passion and the craft that existed in the old days. To me, the challenge of design is to make something that you wouldn’t want to live without, to create a bicycle that can be part of your living room yet also be a tool for a more sustainable planet. I have a fascination with such a simple machine that helps us to move forward using only our energy.
How did you connect with frame builder Gary Mathis? I met Gary at UBI [the United Bicycle Institute in Ashland, Oregon] when I was taking classes to learn how to build frames in the classical way. He was my master. Gary is such a talented frame builder. I wouldn’t be afraid to say that he is the best in the United States. I’m the dreamer, and he is the technician who makes the dream come true. Together, we create a great balance.
What are some of the details that distinguish an Ascari bicycle from others?For me, a bicycle is a design object I build with the precision of a goldsmith that will be transmitted from generation to generation. I love the saying, “A luxury object is an object you want to repair.” I create special accessories for my bicycles, as well. Ascari is a complete lifestyle story.
Fashion has had an obsession with bicycles lately. How do you think both connect? And are you inspired by others in the fashion industry?I really believe that the fashion industry is a powerful communications channel nowadays. My inspiration comes from my love for everything that I envision beauty in. It can be an old bicycle or an old piece of garment or a piece of furniture or a musical. Ascari Bicycles is a piece of my soul.
What is your favorite ride in New York City? I love to cross the Brooklyn Bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn. You get such an amazing view of New York City. You can ride over the East River, and it’s always beautiful at any time of the day or the night. Of course, there’s my neighborhood, Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which is the most inspiring place in New York. There is something very special here, and if you ride your bike around, you will sense what I am talking about.
NICK SCHONBERGER is a graduate of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture at the University of Delaware and a coauthor of Homeward Bound: The Life and Times of Hori Smoku Sailor Jerry.