VICENZA, Italy (VN) — Campagnolo has long been known for guarding its trade secrets fastidiously, and when it comes to seeing the workings of its factory, many sections for some time have been off limits to anyone outside of the company, and photography was strictly prohibited inside the production areas.
But a new spirit of openness has swept over the company as it hits its 80th birthday. Its directors recognize that the market is much different now than during the days when Campagnolo dominated the high-end bicycle component world. In this day of online social networking, a lot of interested bike riders are bound to appreciate the company opening up more to the public.
This October, anyone who has registered before the event fills will be able to get the weeklong Campagnolo Experience. This involves being immersed in Italian cycling culture, riding the roads that inspired company founder Tullio Campagnolo, and seeing the workings of the factory he started and that now is run by his son Valentino.
The Campagnolo Experience starts in Rome on Sunday, October 13 with the Granfondo Campagnolo Roma, in which riders will pedal past the Coliseum and through the Castelli Romani hills on roads completely closed to traffic. Then, along with Thomson Bike Tours, riders will head north for four days on a fully supported, 800-kilometer ride through the Apennines to Vicenza. On October 18, they will wander the hallowed ground of the Campagnolo factory floor.
Thing is, that experience is only open to 30 riders shelling out $3,000 each plus airfare. So I’ll share my recent factory tour with the rest of you.
This time, I was able to take photos in the factory, something I had not been allowed to do in over a decade, although there were still some sections I could not see, and some areas I could see but couldn’t photograph. In the mid 1990s when Campagnolo parts were primarily made of forged aluminum (forged outside by subcontractors and finished by Campagnolo) with steel or titanium bolts and pins, I was allowed to publish photos in VeloNews that I’d taken in the factory; I was not, however, allowed to see assembly of Ergo Power levers. But with the advent of carbon-fiber parts, Campagnolo closed the entire factory to photography and blocked visitor access to carbon-fiber production and research areas.
This time, I was able to see some carbon-fiber production, something that was not allowed when I last toured the factory in 2009. EPS (electronic) system components are made in Vicenza, but I was not allowed to see them being made, and carbon production was off-limits for photography.
Campagnolo claims to be the only global component manufacturer in the western hemisphere. Its sales have risen significantly for the past few years, despite a poor Euro exchange rate that punishes European producers. The growth can be attributed to pioneering 11-speed drivetrains, often beating competitors in weight, growing the Fulcrum wheel brand, moving aggressively forward with EPS electronic components, and following the popularity of gravel-road events with three complete triple-crank groups.
Seventy percent of Campagnolo sales are in Europe, but a 33 percent increase in 2011 sales in Japan promises to slightly shift that number. OE sales (i.e., for assembly on complete bicycles) account for 30 percent of the company’s sales.
Campagnolo has three factories: its original one on Via della Chimica in Vicenza, which employs 350 people, and two Romanian factories. MechRom 1, founded in 2005, employs 349 people, while MechRom 2, which opened its doors in 2011, has a 37-person workforce building carbon and aluminum wheels.
Like any factory making hardware, this one in Vicenza makes a lot of banging and whirring noises. The machines run 24 hours a day, with workers putting in three 7.5-hour shifts daily. There is a big difference in the machines, however, from my first visits there over 20 years ago.
In those days, Campagnolo did not make chains or stamp out its own cogs, so there were not the huge stamping presses or the completely automated chain-production lines that can be heard busily pounding steel and titanium and rapidly snapping pins into chains. Furthermore, rather than operators machining parts at small milling machines and having lathes peppered throughout the factory, super high-tech CNC (computer numeric control) machines now automatically crank out parts faster, precisely to the specifications programmed into them.
Central to the factory both in location as well as in importance is a test lab and quality control department, and these areas also have advanced greatly from the versions of 20 years ago. In there, engineers precisely measure adherence to specifications, and machines constantly drive wheels and drivetrains in all sorts of conditions. Test machines even repeatedly run the Campagnolo iconic corkscrew through its paces to make sure that it will hold up through a lifetime of wine drinking.
The EPS electronic group is tested at both low and high temperatures and in the wet. The tests ensure that it offers flawless performance at 14 degrees to 122 degrees Fahrenheit. The battery is tested to ensure that it holds a charge from -4 degrees to 176 degrees. Test machines simulate riding in water and mud, and electronic components must be able to run continuously for a week underwater before they pass inspection.
Campagnolo test engineers can mimic six months of riding on an entire bicycle drivetrain in only two days in the lab. The tests are entirely objective, and Campagnolo tests its own components as well as SRAM and Shimano components this way.
Campagnolo has built a number of data-recording bikes, and technicians compare six months of telemetry data from the bikes with perception data recorded by the riders of the bikes. The equipment records the bike speed and the positions of the derailleurs and front and rear hubs. Using the data, Campagnolo engineers built test machines to duplicate the conditions the bikes experience on the road.
A bike with data-acquisition equipment on board was ridden at speed on the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. The data was digitized and those same conditions are simulated in the Campagnolo lab.
Campagnolo’s recently implemented “tribal marketing” approach attempts to connect people, their passion for cycling, and its brand together. Opening the factory to the press, OE manufacturers, distributors, dealers, and riders is part of that new corporate approach. May you be one of the fortunate 30!