Thomas J. Bruni, 54, designer and builder of customized bicycles

July 15, 2005|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

For nearly two decades, Thomas J. Bruni quietly designed and built bicycles in his Hamilton home - innovative mountain, road and tandem bikes that were highly sought after by riders.

"They were completely unique, fast and beautiful bikes. Tom was a custom fabricator, who would meet you, measure you, and fabricate out of a few pounds of steel tubing some of the best bikes on the planet," said Phil Feldman, who owns three of them. "Bruni Bicycles are a common sight in Baltimore, and his customer base extended across the country and even to Europe."

On Saturday, while riding one of his bikes, Mr. Bruni was injured in a collision with a minivan at an intersection near Westminster and died at Carroll Hospital Center. He was 54.

Mr. Bruni who was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., attended City College of New York during the late 1960s.

"He was such a city boy that he thought that trees grew between the concrete cracks in the sidewalk," said his wife of 16 years, the former Therese Spadero, a Baltimore County public school teacher. "He came to Baltimore on a train with his bicycle in the early 1970s. He knew it was a good place to come because he liked the small-city aspect that Baltimore offered."

A master welder, Mr. Bruni held a succession of jobs - among them building ships at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point yard, teaching welding and sheet-metal working, and service technician for Electric Motor Repair Co. He also taught math, physics and electronics at area community colleges and Anne Arundel County public schools.

In 1990, he went into business for himself with the start of Bruni Bicycles.

"Riding bikes was a lifetime passion. His philosophy was that he wanted to enjoy riding and not get burned out or obsessive about it. When he was riding, which was sometimes three times a week, some days he'd go 30 miles and then there were rides of 100 or 150 miles," Mrs. Bruni said.

"His forte was designing and building bikes, and he also loved trouble-shooting and finding solutions for mechanical and design problems," she said.

"His belief that he could build the `better bike' drove him to start expanding his craft of building his own bikes to help others get more out of their lives," said Larry Black, a longtime friend and owner of College Park Bikes and Mount Airy Bikes. "He was never afraid to try new things or reinvent old ideas to make them better."

Mr. Bruni fashioned his bikes out of British-made steel tubing rather than the more popular aluminum, carbon fiber or titanium, and they weighed no more than 17 1/2 to 23 pounds. He patiently catered to every whim and need of the purchaser.

Every floor in his Sylvan Avenue home seemed to contribute some vital process in the assembly of the bikes, whose prices ranged from $950 to $4,500. Articles published on his Web site extol his "suspension bicycles" that ride smoothly, despite bad road conditions, and even make railroad tracks "almost cease to exist."

"When he custom-made a bike for you it took several months, and no two were ever the same," said Debbie Taylor, who has ridden more than 6,000 miles on her Bruni bike. "He was an eccentric and a genius, a real out-of-the-box guy."

"He was outspoken, and he'd definitely tell you how it was. He'd answered the phone, `Bruni,' and after 30 or 40 seconds, would say, `I gotta go. I've got lots of work to do.' And it was always A-plus work," said Bobby Phillips, a longtime friend and local bicycle racing legend known as `The Baltimore Bullet."

Mr. Bruni was always on hand to lend his bicycle-repair expertise at races. He also provided engineering expertise for several human-powered, all-terrain vehicles for the American Visionary Art Museum's annual spring Kinetic Sculpture Race. One of them included the elaborate and fanciful "Cirque du Sore Legs" circus train that provided a dramatic rescue in the 2004 race after the pedal-driven engine separated and the cars carrying costumed riders drifted away off Canton Waterfront Park.

"The 15-mile race is on land, water and in sand, and he certainly raised the bar for us," said Theresa M. Segreti, the museum's director of design and education.

"Tom loved bicycles - their efficiency - and the fact they were affordable transportation for almost anyone, and the absolute joy of descending a twisty tree-lined road at 40 mph or more," Mr. Feldman said.

"There will be no services because he believed in the Church of the Spoked Wheel. He'd say that every Sunday when we were out riding, taking in the countryside," Mrs. Bruni said.

Other survivors include his mother, Celestina Bruni, and a brother, Steve Bruni, both of Fort Myers, Fla., and several nieces and nephews.

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