The last time I was in Vicenza was 1984. I seem to remember we stayed at a monastery or a convent for some reason and I watched the European Cup football final on TV with a load of monks or nuns. Roma v Liverpool. Bruce Grobbelaar’s infamous wobbly leg antics saving the day in the penalty shoot out. 29 years later and an invite came to return. A certain Italian component manufacturer was becoming an octogenarian and off I went to eat some birthday cake and tweet about it.
My rental Fiat Cinquecento and I rolled through the gates of the church of cycling after breakfast, in true Italian fashion leaving it where it stopped and disembarking on foot. What gripped me immediately, after asking myself if they could’ve made the ‘Campagnolo’ on the front of the building any bigger? was how it looked architecturally. This building is from an awkward time in architecture, if there ever wasn’t an awkward time in architecture. Seventies/ eighties in Europe meant among other things, post, post war rebuilding in a time of modern economic and political hardship. This was pre re-generation and new money Europe and they so often got it wrong. Every now and then though they got it utterly brilliantly right, and while walking past the understated, even plain exterior of this building probably doesn’t conjure much aesthetic emotion, the inside is light and fresh and functional but well thought out too, and crucially it’s perfectly preserved. Purpose built for Campagnolo in the early eighties, the first thing you see when you walk in is the original switchboard, all wood, dials and huge switches, all completely hand made and just a reminder of what lies ahead through the doors and why it’s still here, in Italy. I love the interior of this building, in so many ways it’s just so cool.
First things first and my guide and to an extent chaperone Joshua Riddle tops me up with caffeine. If you spend any time in Italy generally, you get to understand this is just as much a part of the day as water, lunch or air. Josh is a sharp witted, charming and professional bike afficionado. He is a great balance of respect of the past and bringer of the future for Campagnolo and if he didn’t speak English you’d never know he wasn’t a native, but when that wit comes out it’s in a North Carolinian drawl that you can’t help but warm to if you’re from London.
As you may know, there is a certain air of secrecy about what lays behind the doors at Campagnolo. There always has been. This is a company at the cutting edge of technology in a very competitive market. They don’t tend to do tours, much less let you take snaps of their family silver. Cameras and phones are generally to be switched off, but this time I was lucky enough to have been invited in with all my accoutrements. What I was to witness over the next few hours was to genuinely blow my mind. A mixture of old fashioned machine shop with its metal and heat and noise and aroma, and a more delicate side of hand/ eye co-ordination, experience, care, design, love and dare I say it, Italian-ness. Watching a Ghibli wheel being made for example, will be etched onto my soul forever. I only wish I could share it with you. But it remains an undocumented process here. That’s rare, frustrating and kind of refreshing in many ways in a world where everything is recorded and regurgitated immediately for an insatiable appetite for disposable amazingness.
On entry to the factory, one of the first signs that greets us proclaims ‘devieto de fotografare‘. Which I realise I am in fact photographing when Josh gives me the nod and we move on through to the first of the huge industrial spaces, making the chain rings, rims and brake calipers out there actually winning Giro stages. One thing strikes me immediately is that these chapels of mechanised worship always smell the same. My head tells me it’s a mixture of oils and metals I suppose, but my heart says it’s also of age and experience and generations of stories, every one handed down and smelling the same when it’s re-told. Suddenly it’s feeding time for the huge long machines in front of us rather like cannons as deep strips of steel tube are devoured from one side and regurgitate delicate looking cups from the other. They don’t look capable of anything but smashing things and yet it’s like watching a heavyweight boxer nursing a newborn baby. Then comes a monolith of a machine, an enormous press, stamping out a rhythmic pulse that would awaken the gods. Dwarfing the row of cannons down the line, the giant smasher rumbles my insides to about 120bpm long enough for me to reminisce about the early days of dance music and us to move on.
It’s a very well laid out factory, not dissimilar to American architecture’s grid system. You can walk and turn right and eventually you’ll end up in the same place. That’s certainly not true of a British town where you can get properly lost in minutes or indeed most of the engineering plants I have come across, but here it all seems to make so much sense. Rooms either side of you provide the next stage in the process and right in the middle is a kind of a trade counter where workers can get hold of the tooling they require, right where they need it. It all feels slightly German actually, although it does, like everything in Italy, have an underlying aroma of the best coffee in the world, all the time, everywhere. You’re never far away from socialising and culture in Italy, the smell of coffee just there to act as a reminder should you forget.
A couple of blocks downtown a charming and excited machine shop engineer seems really keen to show us what his machine does, eagerly producing a couple of shiny freshly machined silver shells previously laid by the noisy heavy industry next to his humble but charming workstation. I half expect to see pictures of girls everywhere like you always do in male dominated metallic environments, but there is something else instead here. Red cars. Everywhere. Modena isn’t too far away and it shows on every wall, workstation and computer screen. Ferrari pride. I’m reminded of the 90’s Fiat Coupe print ad that read “In Italy, no one grows up wanting to be a train driver“. No doubt true and so evident here. They do however grow up wanting to be a bike racer. And there’s quite a few of them round these parts, posters sharing wall space with the cars and real three dimensional ones drinking coffee in the foyer.
As we wander into the next area, I notice the re-emergence of the no photography signs and ask, only to have my fears validated. This is one of the carbon design/ assembly/ testing/ areas and it appears to have the same rules as Fight Club. Suffice to say, the room I’m outside of looking in is a treasure trove of photogenic opportunity. Huge rolls of carbon fibre being carefully unwrapped, laid out and cut by hand into specific shapes to create what, I don’t know, but it is undoubtedly rare, expensive and light. And cold. I notice that the people inside the circle of trust are wrapped up in down jackets and gloves. “It’s gotta be kept real cool, for the freshness of the carbon” Josh informs me. To the side of the cold store is a small workstation comprising of an old wooden stool, a workbench, a wheel jig and a Ferrari calendar. Is this the legendary Ghibli wheel tuner I had heard mythical reference to? I will never know, but seeing how hands on a process bonding and truing a Ghibli disc wheel is, yet again the hand made-ness of Campagnolo really can’t be overstated. In this day and age, you wonder how that can compete with the likes of high quality mass automation in the far east, but that is the point here and Campagnolo knows it. They know where their bread and butter lies. There’s something about carbon too that makes you want to take offcuts and turn them into key rings. Not even the mighty titanium can do that, even to a ti lover like me. There’s something just so cool about those woven layers of stiffness and the way the light bounces off them unequally that makes me want to keep bits I find around the place, but I daren’t and we exit the area empty handed and empty memory carded.
Before lunch there’s just enough time to squeeze in one of the testing labs and see small groups of EPS front mechs being tortured in a way that not even the most indecisive gear changer could possibly treat them. Silently they sit changing up, down, up, up, down endlessly, flawlessly. It’s a bizarre scene, but again, one that is reassuringly small scale and oddly for such a hi tech device, interacted with humans. People are everywhere, helping, moving and setting up. You imagine this sort of facility would be in clear perspex boxes serviced by robotic arms and data logging screens, but genuine real humans with Italian accents and good collars watch over them, giving them a helping hand, writing stuff down on paper with scribing objects of years gone by. It’s in keeping and reassuring.
As I’ve said before, us Brits don’t really do lunch. It’s like we’ve all been schooled by watching Wall Street, but the Italians I have learned over the years really really do lunch. And if you’re here to observe Italians working, you might as well eat lunch with them as you won’t be finding any on the shop floor during the day’s middle food break. The canteen at Campagnolo is really quite something too. It’s importance in the wider picture is mirrored by it’s sheer scale. And it’s aroma, noise, light, style amd sense of occasion. If you want to really know Italy, to live Italy, to get Italy, you need to pay attention at meal times. Italy is a lot of things but mostly it’s food. They can and do make even the most simple and potentially dull meal of beige and green taste like it’s made of heaven. It’s such a cliche, but the Italians just are so passionate about everything, starting with food. They don’t play down things. They couldn’t be more opposite to the north of europe if they tried, and I love them for it. They are an exotic, loud, over the top intense people and deep down, we’re all jealous in the north of the continent. There is a real sense of human connection and interaction in the canteen too. Purpose built modern floating seating and integrated tables jut out from concrete wall supports under giant modernist graphics and wall murals. Original, intact and poignient because they are more than decorative, they are among other things the Campagnolo alphabet. A kind of hieroglyphics for cyclists. This means derailleur, that means delta brakes. Obscure until highlighted, then obvious and intriguing. Because I am not used to Italian portions of food Josh and I are the last to leave and on the way out he shows me the dinner service reserved for VIPs. A china dinner service with tiny Campag logos printed subtly on the edges. Cups, plates, gravy boats, the lot. I drift off wondering which of my heroes sat at this dinner table eating from these plates. Merckx? Anquetil? Lemond? Probably all of them seeing as two of those three were drinking from the vending machine in the lobby yesterday anyway.
Apres-lunch finds us in the chain department. Doing a real time 360 panorama by spinning slowly round on the spot I count no breaks in what must be the world’s longest 11speed bike chain. It quite literally sets off from the place it is assembled and journeys around an entire room, through various machines and stages of production until it reaches a box, where it is chopped like a string of sausages and sent away to Tommy Voekler or Giovanni Visconti or you. It’s like a miniature railway set, winding it’s way through, passed, under and along, every now and then stopping at a signal or having a clean or a lubrication service and then chugging away en route to destination unknown. All the time perspex fronted machinery allowing the workings of the process to be completely transparent, various magnifying glasses hovering over it for close inspection render any privacy the process might have wanted redundant.
Then just as I find the anodising department to explore, it turns out it’s time to visit the boss. Valentino Campagnolo’s office resides at the top of the building amongst numerous meeting and board rooms. Each named after a groupset. All finished completely in beautiful exotic hardwoods you’d probably not be allowed to turn into boardrooms these days. Floors, walls, ceilings, doors, tables, chairs, drinks cabinets, everything. If it wasn’t so original it’d almost be kitsch, but the design and the style and the depth remain and it’s not in the slightest, it’s actually really really cool. And immaculately preserved. The flooring alone being a thing of great beauty.
Entering the ‘Sala Record’ passed the original 1930’s delivery bike in pride of place outside, we sit down at a huge boardroom table under a large and presumably very expensive piece of original modern art on the wall, I notice quite how scruffy I appear in shorts and Birkenstocks and 5 o clock shadow. Just as I realise this is now something I can’t do anything about, an immaculate and smiling Mr Campagnolo walks in and shakes my hand. Valentino Campagnolo is a quiet, sensitive calm person and he immediately appears warm and welcoming. It’d be easy to be intimidated by such a character from the annals of cycling, a man with such power, history and responsibility, but his warmth is disarming. You can’t help but be drawn into his smile, it has an innocence about it, an outward looking child like optimism. That’s not to say he is naive, quite the contrary, he is a shrewd businessman, able to steer an ancient brand through troubled times and stay on top. I imagine it takes quite a lot to square up against the opposition these days and Campagnolo aren’t the biggest or the most modern player by any means, but they are clever. They realised a long time ago what so many brands need to pay a fortune to be told by marketing gurus. What they have in abundance can’t be bought. Heritage.
I scrabble to remember all my pre determined questions for the conversation with a legend that I will have 15mins for and instead decide to put my book down and start to talk about cars and life and paintings and architecture and design and we find ourselves on the same page immediately. It’s understood that Campagnolo is at the cutting edge of technology and that there is a healthy mix of history and the future, but I am interested in what part that Italian-ness, that design, that aesthetic, that longing for something to just be beautiful for the sake of it plays in all this. Incredibly, in the most unlikely of scenarios, I seem to have found a kindred spirit that can both recognise and understand the importance of a Fiat Coupe’s headlights being modelled on the shape of a renaissance muse’s bottom. When the conversation shifts onto The Fiat Multipla’s rear light cluster being shaped like a cartoon heart at 45degrees, Valentino jumps up and runs out to his office. Josh and I look at each other as I ask if this is normal. “Nope, never done this before” he replies, adding “Dunno where this is going but I’m intrigued“. A few seconds later, he re-emerges clutching an original Record rear derailleur proudly showing me that it too has unnecessary heart shaped pivot points underneath it. “They are not obvious to the eye” he says, “they took more time to craft, were more expensive to make, and mostly you won’t see them, but you know they are there, you know someone wanted them to be there because the heart is an important gesture“. Right there, if you were ever in any doubt – Italian-ness. So, an American, an Englishman and an Italian all walked into a boardroom…. and were equally enthused by an understanding of why function alone isn’t really enough. At this point Valentino disappears a second time. “Now I really don’t know where this is going” Josh exclaims as I start to wonder if all of this is an elaborate show they put on for all the passing journalists, but am reassured it’s not. Feeling privileged at being involved in something out of the ordinary, in such a high place, I am unaware that I am about to be humbled greatly by a gesture of such rarity, that no one in the factory, from the workshop floor to the boardrooms has even been privy to it before. I am about to see first hand and touch, where it all began 80 years ago. Out of his office comes a definitely proud Valentino Campagnolo carefully clutching a small tatty box with ancient string tied round it and just as old handwriting and signatures in ink on the top. Gently lifting the lid with the care and respect Indiana Jones might, Valentino takes out a small rusty length of steel and hands me the first ever original prototype skewer his father Tullio had made all those years ago when he invented the quick release. This is the very one. This in my hands, right here right now is where all that immediately surrounds me comes from. All that rides around on hills and racetracks all over the world, helps champions step onto their podiums and makes road cyclists everywhere smile with every click, comes from. This is real life cycling history in the flesh recorded through my viewfinder. The point is then made that even this prototype, that will have changed and evolved through generations of designs before it was finished, been tested and never really seen by anyone, was made to look beautiful. And it is. It may be the most pretty quick release I have ever seen and I have seen a lot of gorgeous skewers. How is that possible? The first, made by hand, not even needing to do anything but clamp and undo quickly, and it’s arguably never had it’s aesthetic bettered. I hate to say it again, but it’s just where it’s from. As the box is put away and the conversation reaches it’s natural end, two hands reach out to shake goodbye to me as we go our separate ways and a calm respectful confident voice says something that will stay with me forever, I just pray he doesn’t say it to all the girls. “You and me, we are made from the same pasta“.