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 streaming cold. Amid a freak snowstorm. A planned, organised algorithm between two appointments, with a mini break in between somewhat muddied by illness and weather, then the misfortune of a small pre booked Audi Quattro 4×4 actually becoming a Ford Mondeo estate with bald front wheel drive summer tyres. It was an eventful trip. Old friendships were cemented while new ones created and nostalgia evoked from where I spent my childhood and focused a camera for the first time, all those years ago.
After dropping off my first journalist travelling companion in Venice a few days before picking up the next, I 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 Tuscan flu haze later I headed back 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 was constantly apparent I realised I hadn’t seen another vehicle on the motorway for what was probably a couple of hours which 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 a joke.
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.
Talking with the Meo’s conversation drifted fluidly between caffeine and cycle racing. And dogs. There’s always time for dogs. These two racing Kiwi’s had bought the failing Rocket Espresso brand and arrived in both cycling and coffee’s heartland – north Italy years before with a dream of combining two personal and Italian passions seemingly only linked at the time by occasional chance meeting in a town square after a ride. Caffeine became cycling fuel – became cycling culture in a 15year journey that turned the pro-peloton into endorsers and in turn, consumers then gave global cycling culture a poster boy for their thimble of lifeblood before a ride.
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 a caramelised appearance. It’s smoothness bore a visual presence reminding me of the aural feeling of some old calm Blue Note horn played 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 warmth, 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 standard builders/ 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. Instead this was strangely mesmeric to an outsider and future coffee 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 a Mario power up yes but with a similar welcome after effect.
Managing to free the car that sadly hadn’t morphed into an Audi Quattro overnight, I plodded through idyllic town 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, but on a wintry day, in the snow and ice? More brave or crazy even. A millionaire presumably living the dream snow or shine. I remember realising my Defender is always about a thousand miles away when it snows and made note, ‘must remember to pack the Land Rover next time’.
In the entrance of Rocket I met with ‘power up’ number two as my hosts floated about in the background between the offices dotted around. There was cycling paraphernalia everywhere. Not least a chunk of the pro peloton’s jerseys as signed receipts for coffee machines received. Much had been written on the Rocket people but what was apparent to me quickly but subtly was that these weren’t people that got into cycling or coffee with the new wave, this was a cycling family proper, but one 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 acquaintances, like Darren Crisp before them and Alberto Masi a few days later, if they would allow me to make a portrait with them before we even knew each other. They gracefully obliged and helped record my latest episode of Italian cycling’s who’s who portraits.
Veins fuelled, we boarded the mothership. The factory floor was neat and tidy, ordered, and happy. I watched people from on high in the loft space where Felix was roasting coffee beans in a circular ended machine that vaguely resembled chain link production over at Campagnolo, but was admittedly a better smelling production process. The people below carried out their respective tasks in neat production lines like one imagines ought to be how cars and bikes and computers are made but rarely are these days – by humans. This was a very hand made set up. From the intricate ornate pipework inside the coffee machines to the industrial looking aesthetic of the consumer end of these objects of desire. Patches of steam were dotted around in isolated pockets of product testing. Component drawers delved into and different stages finished in unison, in order row by row. By hand. Looking long enough you would be able to see your own machine clearly take shape in a way so popular in internet configuration culture but so unlikely to be possible in modern mechanised manufacture. As I often think in a visit to a factory of the famous in the cycling world, I wouldn’t be surprised if people would actually pay to see how their shifters or wheels or post ride coffee machines are made as a kind of cyclists’ theme park attraction.
Walking amongst the rows of little shiny silver pets waiting for new forever homes to go to and energise, I couldn’t help but pick up on both the care taken by the assemblers and the good grace their tasks were undertaken with. It’s assumed there is a pride in one’s work if that work is on the top tear of a chosen field, but to see it it commonplace there, even after the caffeine hit had warn off, seemed both unsurprising and yet still warming.
Rocket Espresso felt like a familiar cycling mothership in some ways, vast, industrial and machine like with production line targets and logistics like a factory ought, but there was 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 were they – Good Rocket people.
The last year saw the Meo’s move on from their caffeine journey after one and a half decades refining this serum, and arguably putting coffee into the DNA of professional cycling. Though their racing never disappeared, now with coffee mission accomplished, the family podium chase resumes with two generations side by side. Rocket fueled.