Craftsmanship and history: A tour of Italian cycling factories
Earlier this summer VeloNews traveled to Italy with the Italian Trade Commission, a government-funded trade promotion entity that promotes the country’s cycling companies.
Ernesto Gazzola’s house outside Maser in the Veneto region of northern Italy sits on the grounds of the shoe factory he founded in 1962. If you walk out of his back door and cross a small lawn, you come to a gleaming large, white sliding metal door. The door opens into a soaring, 43,000-square foot ultra-modern production facility that produces high-end cycling shoes for Gazzola’s brand, Gaerne. About 40 workers use presses, stitching machines, molders, and their own hands to produce approximately 200,000 high-end motorcycle and cycling shoes each year.
From the front door of his home, Gazzola hears the tap, tap, tap of his cobblers as they flatten seams on the shoes with specialized shoemaking hammers prior to the final stitching. The entire operation is, and has always been, under his gaze.
VeloNews recently traveled to Italy to tour the factories of some of the country’s smaller cycling brands. The purpose of the trip was to showcase just how healthy the country’s cycling manufacturing industry still is — and how much of the work is still designed, prototyped, and created under the same roof.
It was fitting that one of the trip’s main focus was on three mid-sized manufacturers of cycling shoes: Gaerne, DMT, and Vittoria. What has kept most high-end Italian shoe production from moving abroad is the sophisticated ecosystem of Italian-based suppliers who provide every component that goes into modern cycling shoes. Adjacent to the shoe factory are the workers who molds lasts, lay up carbon-fiber soles, stamp out buckles, inject plastic, etc. As Gaerne’s Marta Gazzola says: “Just like a good pasta, all the ingredients have to be good!”
The manufacturing equipment used to make shoes — presses and stamping equipment, super-specialized, industrial-sized sewing machines, and finishing grinders and mills — are typically also made in Italy. Oftentimes the workers who run the machines are former bicycle racers themselves. At two of the factories we visited, ex-pros and elite-level amateur racers strolled onto the factory floor after their respective morning rides, to give production staff and designers immediate product testing feedback.
We witnessed several other trends at these factories. We saw generations of the same family working side-by-side. Owners often live on-site at the factories. At the Gruppo Zeccheto factory, which produces goods for DMT shoes, Alé apparel, and Cipollini bicycles, founder Federico Zecchetto lives in a house quite literally on the factory grounds.
Across the globe, shoe production has become an automatic process, with elaborate multi-step production processes that rely on machines. What we saw at the factories of Gaerne, Vittoria, and DMT were production processes that relied heavily on human hands.
At Gaerne, a consistent hum of the production process filled the factory floor — absent were any erratic loud noises, yells, or stops and starts of equipment that you often hear in other factories.
Once known largely for its motorcycle boots, Gaerne’s first cycling shoe was produced in 1985. Today the brand has produced approximately 80,000 pairs of largely high-end shoes. The company has annual revenues of 18 million euro. Cycling stars such as Fabio Aru, Andre Greipel, Chris Horner, and Fabian Cancellara have won major races wearing Gaerne shoes.
Gaerne continues to work with top pros. A representative said that the company’s pro rider sponsorships are tricky, due to the fluctuations in shoe size that go on during a typical season. A shoe that fits perfectly in January may be too tight in July, as a rider’s feet swell from the heat, thousands of training kilometers, blisters, and crashes. Often times, a pro must size up a half or entire size from the start of the year until the Tour de France.
As he was winding down his professional cycling career, Celestino Vercelli founded Vittoria cycling shoes in 1976 in his hometown of Vigliano Biellese, located between Milan and Turin. Vittoria’s home is nowhere near Veneto, the traditional center of Italian shoe production. Yet Vittoria has found ways to be ahead of the curve. Vittoria was among the first companies to pioneer the use of microfiber uppers (as opposed to traditional leather). It also developed a dial-closure system in 1992, six years before the founding of industry leader Boa.
Today, the company produces 130 pairs of shoes each day. The volume allows Vittoria to do custom orders — it will create special colors to match any team kit. Vittoria continues to produce award-winning shoes today. The brand’s Velar model won the Design & Innovation Award 2018.
Just down the autostrada from Vittoria at Gruppo Zecchetto’s sprawling complex in Bonferro di Sorga, we saw another unorthodox dynamic at play in Italy’s shoe industry. Some of these companies produce products that are then bought and sold by other top-tier brands. At Gruppo Zecchetto’s DMT factory we saw shoes being affixed with the familiar swoosh symbol of Nike. Company representatives said Lance Armstrong’s Nike’s were often sourced here at DMT.
Adjacent to the Gruppo Zecchetto’s sprawling facility is APG, one of the most sophisticated custom sublimation factories in the world, even though it’s barely known outside of the apparel world. APG for decades produced high-end kits for Giordana and Nike — yes, including Armstrong’s kits. While other famous names such as Vermarc still use APG, the company now focuses on building its own brand, Alé.
Known for its electric colors, Alé kits are also produced in a unique manner. Every step of the production is done in-house. The company’s design studio is electronically linked to a proprietary in-house custom sublimation printing process. After a kit is printed, it is cut, sewn, and pressed at the facility. Alé even makes its own chamois in-house, rather than sourcing from chamois suppliers.
The third company headquartered in Gruppo Zecchetto’s complex is Cipollini bicycles. Yes, it is named for the eponymous flamboyant sprinter Mario Cipollini, who was famously fastidious about the design, manufacture, fit, and finish of his racing bicycles. As he approached retirement, Cipollini launched his own brand, partnering with Gruppo Zeccheto to realize his vision.
Like Alé, Cipollini bicycles manufactures its carbon in-house at the facility.
A trip to visit Italian bike companies would not be complete without visiting an artisanal, high-end custom framebuilder. We toured FM Bike, a custom e-bike brand. Founder Michele Favaloro makes his made-to-measure e-bikes out of 100 percent Italian equipment (Polini motors, Deddacciai aluminum tubes). As one of the first builders to build custom electric bikes FM has built quite a following, as the bikes handle like a good, un-assisted road bike. Wait times from placement of order to delivery is on average just 30 to 40 days, says FM.
Our final stop took us to Selle SMP, the saddle manufacturer that is located just outside of Padua. Founded in 1947, Selle SMP in the late 1990s produced about 5 million, mostly low-end saddles, which it sold to other brands across Europe. In 2000 the brand decided to break into the upscale market for saddles. This move corresponded with the rise of Asian manufacturing, which put the company’s entire business in jeopardy. The Schiavon family scrambled to come up with a new playbook.
Their solution was addressing an age-old problem: pain in the butt. More specifically, Selle SMP felt traditional saddle designs caused genital numbness and tingling. Could a better saddle overcome the problem?
Selle SMP commissioned a research project, hired urologists and gynecologists, and created prototypes. The efforts created the first saddle with a full-length “central channel” cutout design that has been copied by other saddle manufacturers. Other key designs came from the research, such as a drooping saddle nose, designed to reduce genital compression. When the droop saddle nose was introduced at the Milan trade show in 2004, a representative said the company was practically laughed off the show floor. The saddle’s look was simply too strange. But as years went on, riders flocked to the design.
“Rather than be focused on fashion we focused on ergonomics and coming up with saddles that put comfort and performance first,” said company representative Nicolo Schiavon. “We were behind at the time, so we had to gamble and didn’t really care what other people thought.”
A decade after that first saddle, nearly half of Selle SMP’s production is now under its own brand, and the company’s revenue has more than doubled. All production is Made in Italy, and Selle SMP is the leading independent saddle brand sold at dealers in markets as diverse as Italy and Korea.