There are few visits with cameras that resonate as deeply as the time I was in Northern Italy one fortnight for two separate assignments with a weekend of Tuscan childhood reminiscing in between and a cold. And a snowstorm. A planned, organised algorithm for two journalists and a mini break in between somewhat muddied by illness and weather and the misfortune of a small pre booked quattro actually becoming a Ford Mondeo estate with bald front drive summer tyres. It was an eventful trip. Old friendships were cemented while others, created and familiarity rediscovered from where I spent my childhood and why I began photographing in the first place all those years ago.
After dropping off my first travelling companion Journalist Tim Wiggins in Venice a few days before picking up the next, Frederik (The Belgian), I oddly opted on heading south to Tuscany where my favourite childhood memories were forged and old friend and Titanium frame building maestro Darren Crisp lived amongst his beautiful creations in a workshop on a hillside overlooking my childhood.
48hrs of drug fuelled flu haze later I headed north once more to the next warm family welcome just outside Milan at Rocket Espresso. The evening closed in and as the snow started settling across the road and my lack of four wheel drive and more importantly decent tyres became constantly apparent I realised I hadn’t seen another vehicle on the motorway for what was probably a couple of hours. That was a pretty disconcerting, but red flashing crosses above all lanes was the icing on the cake. I neared Milan and came off the motorway to exchange futuristic freeway catastrophe fear for good old fashioned rural back road hedge bound concerns before I turned into my destination village, road and apartment car park to see a smiling Nicky Meo leaning from a first floor window welcoming me in. The crunch of fresh powder under sliding tyre and seeing the glow of a warm family house made my conversation opener about moving in for a few weeks only half joking.
I was welcomed in to a home cooked family meal with what would become for me another contender for the ‘Nicest family in cycling’ award, The Meo’s. Immediately bonded with the adorable Lucy, the giant schnauzer under the table, I was fast revived by home made soup and a natural family dinner etiquette that warmed my heart after a day driving through a snowed on Mad Max set.
The following morning I awoke hours after my hosts had gone to work. My first experience of #rocketpeople was a warm kind welcome and family dinner. My first experience of a Rocket Espresso machine was when Felix the charming and talented racer and son in this scenario made me a thimble full of rich subtly flavoured awakening with an appearance so caramelised, it’s smoothness bore a visual presence reminding me of the aural feeling of some old calm Blue Note horn playing by one of the greats. Calm, strong, confident and reflective. It seems pretentious to describe a cup of coffee as a cocoon of Miles Davis playing comfort, and it surely would be if i weren’t whacked out on drugs for flu still, but this felt different from my normal mug of bog standard cooking tea before even words are switched on in the morning. All of it a strange but welcome ritual. Not an urgency of plastic kettle and tea bag eventlessness practicality, instead this was strangely mesmeric to an outsider and a future convert. There was steam, sound, subtlety and patience, almost audience, in the refining of this vital morning ingredient. The trickle of potent nectar collected in a more subtle way than Mario power up yes but with similar welcome after effect.
Managing to free the car that sadly hadn’t morphed into an Audi Quattro shaped former self overnight, I plodded through idyllic and countryside alike until pulling up outside the Rocket factory I was asked directions window to window by about two hundred grand’s worth of F430 Scuderia. Random enough perhaps, on a wintry day, in the snow and ice? Brave? Crazy? Millionaire presumably living the dream even in the snow. I remember realising my Defender is always about a thousand miles away when it snows and made note, must remember to pack Land Rover next time.
In the entrance of Rocket I meet up with ‘power up’ number two as my hosts winged about in the background working hard in and out of the offices dotted around. There is cycling paraphernalia everywhere. Not least a chunk of the pro peloton’s jerseys as signed receipts for coffee machines received. Much has been written on the Rocket people but what’s apparent to me quickly and honestly but also subtly is that these aren’t people that got into cycling or coffee with the new wave, this is a cycling family proper, made of coffee.
In what became a string of factory visits that actually evolved into an elongated country wide portrait session, I asked these new friends, like Darren Crisp before them and Alberto Masi a few days later, if they would enable me to make a portrait of them instead of the more traditional factory feature I had planned. They obliged and helped record my latest episode of Italian cycling’s who’s who portraits kindly and gracefully.
Much has been written on the Rocket mothership that it seems unlikely I could add to, but instead I thought I could at least try to impart the feeling I came away from this honey pot of cycling nectar with.
The factory floor was neat and tidy, ordered, and happy. Watching people from on high where I stood along side Felix roasting coffee beans in a circular ended machine that resembled most the chain link production process at Campagnolo mesmerically enjoyed years before, but was admittedly better smelling. The people below carried out their respective tasks in ordered production lines like one imagines ought to be how cars and bikes and computers are made but rarely are these days. This is a very hand made set up, from the intricate artistic pipework inside these machines to the industrial looking capabilities of the aesthetic of the consumer end. Patches of steam are dotted around in isolated pockets of testing, component drawers are delved into and stages finished in unison, in order row by row. Looking long enough you could see your own machine clearly take shape in a way so popular in internet spec sheet procedure and so unlikely to be possible in actual manufacture. As I often find in a factory of the famous in the cycling world I wouldn’t be surprised if cyclists would actually pay to see how their shifters or wheels or post ride coffee machine are made as a kind of theme park attraction for cyclists.
Walking amongst the rows of little shiny silver pets waiting for new forever homes to go to and energise I can’t help but pick up on both the care taken by the assemblers and testers and the good grace their tasks are undertaken with. It’s assumed there is a pride in one’s work if that work is on the top tear of a chosen employment field, but to see it it evident here is both unsurprising and warming.
This feels like a mothership like so many in some ways, vast, industrial and machine like with production line target and logistics like a factory ought, but there is a friendly familiarity and confidence among the human beings in this metallic opera of steam and hiss. That usually only happens when a place is run by good people. And these are those. Good Rocket people.