There was a strong smell that inhabited the room. Warm, sweet, familiar and slightly burned. It more than filled it, defining the space – like a fog. I didn’t know where I knew it from but I recognised it. It was a memory – part Italian household and something more personal that made me feel at home. This country always did that somehow.
This was the home of Sportful and Castelli. The road to get here was starting to become familiar. Not know every overtaking point familiar but definitely know when you’ve gone too far and missed a turning. I’d been knocking about these low Dolomites for a few days, enough to get lost and found then lost again and know what time the supermarket ahead on the left closed for lunch. Having not been to Feltre before, but the rules of any Euro road trip having been engrained into me, the first thing done each day on the road was…find supermarket – buy provisions. This was central Europe after all and things close up for hours at a time, usually just when you need them most.
I took the last parking place at the far corner of the car park, my white Cinquecento slotting the final piece of the jigsaw together along with all the others. My guide for the day, Daniel Loots was a non native. A Scot with a Subaru on British plates and summer tyres in the Italian mountains. Braveheart. Brave passenger.
A small coffee in a china cup with a scorpion logo on the outside awaited in a meeting room that felt a bit like James Bond’s gadget lair. Sportful shares it’s building with sister brands Castelli and Karpos, nestled under a mountain, literally right out of the back door. Close enough to make me wonder if a bit fell off at the top, whether the world would have a Gabba jersey shortage that winter. The history is everywhere, as are the logos, and that’s important because the distinguishing line needs to be quite clear. The lesser known story is that Sportful’s owners bought Castelli a few years back and have managed to turn it around into in some ways perhaps the better known relative. They are aimed at different rides, but unsurprisingly when you scratch beneath the surface, you find an awful lot of shared DNA.
The two brands have cross over points but generally speaking, I was told, Castelli is all about the race and Sportful is more aimed at an all day rider in the mountains. Both are tech heavy and performance derived and both occupy similar design and fabric territory, both indeed backing pro tour teams, but the thought then was you might be more likely to see the scorpion in a stage, but the ‘S’ on a pass. Obviously this ideology crossed over and a punter would interpret and engage however they saw fit but you could see it planned out in the ranges. Castelli seeming comfortably in it’s groove, Sportful it seemed was taking a step further into the pro-cycling limelight. With a large background in cross country ski-ing at the highest level, it was well known in northern Europe, making team kits in various sports including the holy football, but it seemed timely that the rest of the world now took another look at this member of the family. And I can see how the solidity and reputation of Sportful along with some clever thinking from the Cremonese family and in particular it would seem, American Steve Smith had turned Castelli into the major player it is today. It also seemed logical that although the two brands are distinctly driven from different places, they can both help each other out along the way. At any time around then Sportful was to arrive in the US and as much as it wasn’t crucial, having Castelli as a close relative in a new school. it couldn’t have been a bad way to start the new term.
My factory tour started in the future, looking through next season’s garments. Among the bright flouro and slick black were the stand out colours of the Saxo Tinkoff kits Contador would be racing in. Talked through shapes, materials and features of the year ahead, two quite remarkable items drew my attention. The ‘Hot Pack’ and ‘Lightweight’ jackets. The arms race for the lightest, thinnest, most packable emergency windproof seemed alive and well, and possibly just won – a ridiculously light and thin jacket. A mere 50g of light and thin as it happened.
Just next door the printers whirred along back and forth spooling out seemingly never ending family snaps at a horrifically expensive dpi rate. Slow and on repeat they inched out shapes, patterns and blocks of colour until a pocket or a sleeve became identifiable. From a blank roll at one end into another roll of blue, red and yellow 4ft away at the other, they’d become jerseys, shorts and gloves for someone that summer. In the meantime they’d start life as a prototype in the room next door.
The scene was familiar. One of Italian mums sewing zips onto cycling jerseys next to baskets of offcuts and floors littered with the strips that got away. Giant machines that heat press the patterns into the fabrics rumbled and hissed in the background. Everything was big in a factory like this. Scaled up and industrial. From the printers and sewing machines to the dye transfer presses, it was all huge and powerful. Like household appliances photocopied on 500%. And then in the middle of all of it, amongst this physical might and the orchestrated violence of industrial machinery there would be a slight old Italian lady picking the thinnest strands out of a hem with the most delicate of sewing tools under a tiny lamp on a small perch, almost zen like in her ability to block it all out. We were accosted by a man wearing a striking early 1980’s looking dungaree with a huge Sportful logo across the front. I declared these very cool and before you know it, he’d disappeared, and reappeared with a brand new pair for me to take home. I imagine he’d done that before, but felt very special as I shoved them into the laptop sleeve of my camera bag.
Italy being the way it is, the pizzeria’s were by now swinging. Lunch was superb and the bonus was, there’s time to enjoy it in Italy. That’s a real culture shock if you’re from a British work environment where the longest non-work related part of a lunch is probably the 10min queue to collect it. I never seem to get used to that abroad. Dan and Steve clearly had, but I realised this was a treat laid on for me. What they’d be doing if I weren’t here, or had been smart enough to pack a bike, would be heading up into mountain climbs and doing what it says on the tin.
Back at the road I now knew so well again the visit was resumed. Wandering through the maze of modern corridors with slick frosted glass offices and achievements and signatures on every shelf or wall and the largest silverware cabinet I’d seen in a while, we stumbled upon a chance meeting where my hosts got plucked from the audience and asked to model the new alternative colours for the TDF Saxo team kit. I was privy to this by proxy but was still politely asked my opinion (not asked to model though I notice). Realising the importance of the answers I was giving, I upped it a bit. I suppose time would tell if I had any impact, in July.
Exploring the material stores was like being in a warren of seemingly endless turns and dead ends. Shelves of labels, hems, zippers and grippers on rolls line every surface. Sportful this, Castelli that. There were logos everywhere. I suppose there would be in a material store for a clothing brand and I suppose it was those race origins of Castelli that dictated that there were more ex race banners with round scorpion logos on the edges of shelves than S’s. Spools of reflective logos caught the light as I flickered past and then a few old boxes of iron-on transfers caught my eye. Years of pro team’s jersey insignia lay elastic banded together in piles. I flicked through decades of nostalgia. Saxo bank, Tinkoff, Mapei, the Italian national football badge, it was all here in a dusty box awaiting a time machine and a chap with an iron.
That smell re-appeared briefly and I was transported back to my childhood. Brain still sifting through memories looking for the right one, like the WOPR in Wargames, relentlessly searching for the launch codes, occasionally getting a partial hit – then it struck me – clear as day. 1984, the week of the European Cup Final. Liverpool vs Roma. An eleven year old me standing in a queue in a sports shop in Turin awaiting the turn of the heat press machinist. I wanted a no 7 on my red shirt. Kenny Dalglish – my hero. My turn came and I was engulfed in a sweet, warm slightly burned smell as my wish was granted. Now I was no 7. The feeling that Italy is in my soul started there.