I’d been in this country an hour and a half and had been offered coffee three times by three different people. No wonder Italy was so energetic. With caffeine hitting the bloodstream, my guides Paolo Pizzamiglio and Leslie Zamboni got straight into my tour by introducing me to the history of this company adorning every wall. Framed jerseys, certificates and medals lined corridors in all directions. MOA Sport, Paolo told me, was founded in 1970 in the Mantova region of north Italy by Italian cycling hero and Olympian, Vincenzo Mantovani, with the aim of selling the race clothing made for him by the women of his village – it was the stuff of stories to me and I was hooked.
MOA Sport, more commonly known as Nalini, created many of the kits you see on home turf Sunday rides and in the pro peloton alike. Our tour started at the very beginning – the weaving of the very material that makes up their outfits. I was ushered into the first of many huge on-site hangers and into what felt like a mixture of a science fiction film set and an English Victorian cotton mill. Huge looms span and weaved what appeared to be hundreds of threads feeding into them from all sides. The sheer scale was really quite impressive. All the more so when you realize that these people have chosen to control their own base materials. To make as much in-house fabric as possible is admirable, but to start with your own weaving – that’s commitment. This is what Made in Italy meant in Castel d’Ario.
I’ve always pictured an industrialized production of these brightly colored garments with foreign words written all over them that we all wear at the weekend. But spending minutes watching just one sock be darned together it really started to hit home how much it wasn’t like that. How could it be cost-effective for a pair of socks to take the best part of ten minutes to darn and a use whole machine to do one at a time? It is however, a process strangely addictive to witness. I suggest saying yes, should you ever be asked if you want to watch somebody’s socks being made.
In the sewing rooms, there were lines of Italian mums flying through sleeves, pockets and labels. And upstairs is the designers’ space where stylish Italians wearing swish outfits sat behind computers drawing, shading and coloring what would end up at the other end of the building as fashionable ready-to-wear. Mannequins, photographs, idea boards, bikes, shoes and immaculately dressed humans filled the room. And everywhere we went, the smell of amazing coffee followed us. This light and airy space was notably quieter than anywhere else I’d been that day.
Back at the factory, we caught up with MOA boss Claudio Mantovani to talk shoes. And football. His office, a shrine to the beautiful game and it turned out he was a star goalkeeper for the mighty AC Milan before taking over the family business following the tragic death of his brother, Vincenzo. His passion for cycling becomes clear when Paolo told me of the time on the eve of the 2012 Tour De France start in Belgium, when a team needed to make a last-minute alteration to their kit and MOA worked through the night to meet the deadline, Claudio delivered it to the start line in his classic Mercedes, just in time. Commitment and class.
Signore Mantovani was keen to show off the Nalini shoes being made downstairs so we travelled through the huge cutting rooms with people piloting enormous futuristic rollers and into the shoe and chamois workshops.
The shoes were gorgeous shiny orange and green leather and of course handmade, but it was the chamois production that really surprised me. Multiple stacks of hundreds of them, each pile a different design sat beside yet more Italian mums performing yet more varied procedures. I imagined a chamois to be churned out on production line but this place surprised yet again with a process involving a person who layers, lines up, marks, sews and heat presses a chamois individually and passes it on to the next stage – another person doing the next part of the process, by hand.
Another coffee break later (I was up to five now and they were quite strong), and we were taken through an airlock into the noisiest environment yet – the screen print studio. They not only printed their own patterns for the jerseys (one paper page per garment), but they did it with their own homemade screens – of course. These were giant six-foot screens that need washing, baking, drying and cleaning. All by hand, by a team of Italian dads this time.
Wandering through the rows and rows of previous designs was like flipping through a who’s who of ProTour cycling. Movistar, Astana, Rabobank, Lampre, Cofidis, FDJ, Sky, they were all here. Or most of them anyway.
I watched in awe as a screen was born before my eyes. It was loaded up and ink was poured across it and then wiped by an enormous screen printer until pages start to feed out of the other end.
I was seeing the first view of that summer’s Astana outfit. Two-dimensional and all laid out like one of those cardboard cutout outfits for a doll on the back of a 1970s cereal box, but among others, these were for a very real and life-sized Nibali.
As I stood looking at signed team tops and rainbow jerseys on the walls, it was pointed out that the names I was looking at – Cavendish, Indurain, Wiggins, Cipollini – were just a few of the riders that have contributed to the 21 Grand Tour, four worlds and three Olympic victories in the MOA palmares. Tour team jerseys had long been the bread and butter here in Castel d’Ario, but the conscious decision to make a line of garments for regular cyclists using the same technology and materials developed with the pro peloton was brought to life three years ago with the MOA Collection.
The process went on and on. Each one had a new room and even more people staffing it. There was concession to the digital age when we were introduced to some massive and eerily silent digital printers scrolling out jersey patterns similar to their parent screens. “They’re the future” Paolo told me. “But for now the traditional screens are still better“. Quicker too, I pointed out. I left thinking there’s something nice in knowing that old-fashioned handmade and noisy procedures can still kick a digital process into touch. I was reminded of the pro-pack of Kodak Tri-X film in my pocket and felt some sort of old fashioned connection.
Back in the relative quiet of the collections rooms, I collected my personal MOA outfit in my size, bagged fresh off the line – packaging was done one by one by hand here. It was nearly time to go home, via the factory outlet of course. Teams of local roadies thumbed through jerseys of glories past looking for a gem. A typical middle-aged Italian man in Lycra proudly showed off his bounty, a decades-old Nalini Carerra denim Roubaix top. My fluent (read: pigeon) Italian translated a local pride in how Made in Italy his bike clothes were. He wouldn’t wear anything else.
Saying goodbye to Mr Mantovani I realised I had visited the natural home to a trinket I was given by a family friend on holiday in Tuscany’s Cinque Terra in the 1980s. I have cherished his aged and worn AC Milan key ring, handed down from his grandfather and dated 1967 and now it felt right to pass it back to it’s maker as it were – a man that guarded the AC goalmouth that season and for whom that small memento personally honoured. I was back in Italy where my childhood wanderlust was forged and so was the keyring. Full circle
©Augustus Farmer 2013