After nearly 20 years of visiting the various factories and offices of the big names in the cycling world, this is one of the only times I started behaving like a fan searching for an autograph. Admittedly, as enthusiast experiences go, it’s hardly like riding up Alpe d’Huez or meeting Eddy Merckx for the first time. But, standing in front of this mausoleum to famous footwear, row upon row of heavy plastic yellow and green replicas of some of the greatest champions’ feet that have swung a leg over a bike, or a motorbike, or possibly even both… whatever; for a cycle racing fan it’s a mixture of a walk down memory lane mixed with present-day celebrity spotting. Rominger and Indurain mixed in with Sagan and Martin. There are hundreds of them and it’s hard not to be impressed.
Very few of the marques we have visited over the years are able to boast such an impressive working reminder to their history in the sport as Sidi can with the contents of these shelves, with the names of top riders, past and present, all arranged in alphabetical order. With over 50 years of making shoes for professionals, there are simply hundreds of them. I get stuck on B: Bartoli (42.5), Basso (45), Bettini (40.5), Bodrogi (46), Breschel (41.5)… then briefly onto C, and in Contador’s (42.5) pigeon hole there’s always a pair made up, just in case.
This monolithic storage unit is at the centre of the factory at Sidi – it truly is right at the heart of the company. Sidi are what the Italians call calzolaio – shoemakers. Although they are one of the most recognisable cycling ‘brands’ they are still resolutely and exclusively ‘just’ shoemakers, and I doubt anyone wouldn’t be impressed by whose feet they have shod and the races they have won. Which means that there is a refreshing lack of ‘brand extension’, of stuff that is ‘other’ than the work of making shoes, evidenced by the custom lasts that are left, almost nonchalantly, gathering dust on the shelves, as testament to the hard work of the employees and the tenacious enthusiasm of their boss, Dino Signori.
Signori has just turned 77, which, when you meet him is pretty hard to believe. He still has the energy levels of a 20-year-old and the firm handshake you’d expect of a former cobbler, and he doesn’t need much prompting to tell his story either. He’s not full of himself as such, but with a huge smile and a rare matter-of-factness, he’s full of something. And yet there is no trace of ‘you have it lucky’, or any bitterness to his recollections. As he retells his rags to riches tale, Signori, I’m already thinking, was the template – or the last example, perhaps – for the expression ‘hard work won’t kill you’.
“I was born in 1935, so when I was five, Europe was at war. There was nothing to eat, nothing to drink, really nothing. After 1945, Europe was destroyed, so I started work before I was even ten years old, working 13-hour days – from 7am until noon, and then 1.30 until 8pm. The factories around Maser [a small Veneto town outside of Asolo and near Treviso in Italy’s industrial north] all produced shoes, so that is where I started work. All the work was done by hand then – there were no machines. In time I moved to a bigger company making hiking shoes where I learnt how to make shoes, using nails. I also wanted to learn how to cut the uppers, and I continued there for two or three years. And after a 13-hour day at work, I would continue my studies at home.”
In post-war Italy boots were really only used for walking and skiing, and these were the boots Dino Signori made. Outside of the little time he had left after working, the young Dino started cycling in the hills around Veneto, no doubt inspired by the post-war Italian cycling icons like Coppi, Magni and Bartali.
“I loved riding my bicycle, so when I was 14, I bought a racing bike. Then twice a week, I would get up at three in the morning and ride 100km before work. And then I would race at the weekends, and win! Jesus gave me a strong body, I think, and a strong mind. When I was 20, there was not enough time to train, but I could still win 200km races. I always raced to win. If I was second, I got mad. But for work I had a schedule. Some days I could do 15-17 hours, or I would sleep from midnight until 3am, then work 24 hours straight through.”
Signori’s getting involved now – his unwavering eyes stare straight through you. His demeanour suggests the punishing work schedule of over 50 years ago could still be achieved should he choose to do so. I’m left contemplating how fearlessly competitive he must have been as a racer, so I ask him if he missed a chance to make it as a pro.
“I am a realist. I have taken important decisions all my life. One of the hardest decisions I had to make was when I stopped racing. I was one of the ten best riders in the area. That was my passion. So I had the opportunity to become professional at 20, but I could see that there was no money in it, so I gave up on racing and carried on working. But my goal was to start my own factory. I even thought of moving to America to try and forget cycle racing. But I soon realised I had made the correct decision. I was 25 when I started my own company and in 1959, I had no money, nothing. So there were many difficulties starting this business.
“By 1971, I was still making ski boots, and had already started motorcycle boots two years before. We were making rear entry ski boots [his own invention] but I decided to stop making them, which was very difficult at that time. I was thinking I knew everything about making shoes and, seeing as the first machines to make ski boots with injected material were becoming available, I thought this would give the advantage to companies who had more money than we did, so I moved to motorcycle boots and then onto cycling shoes. I’d been a racer and knew all the problems for cyclists; for example the cleat at that time was still fixed onto the sole with nails, so first I worked on a way to make an easily adjustable plastic cleat.”
It doesn’t sound like much, but that adjustable cleat was arguably the first significant breakthrough for cycling footwear. It was 1973, and prior to this cycling shoes had not changed for decades – it would be a long while until cycling’s product development cycle sped up. Up to the start of the ‘70s, shoes for cycling had been handmade from leather, laced-up uppers with leather or wooden soles, often with metal plates inserted between layers of leather to make the sole stiffer.
Cycling shoes made in Italy were the best, although professional racers were just as likely to visit a local shoemaker as buy a pair from a bike shop. Shoemakers understood feet; they worked with custom lasts and could build-in extra room and security for individual feet. And then there was fitting the cleats, a tedious chore and inexact science. Toe clips and straps made for a secure foot, but the foot could still be pulled out backwards. At the time, the cleat or plate was a metal slot that retained one of the pedal cage sides and prevented the shoe slipping, but it was simply nailed in place (which was as dangerous as it sounds). There was no micro adjustment or re-adjustment: you simply placed it where the pedal cage marked your shoe soles and nailed it on.
The result of such simple attire was foot trouble, lots of bunions and blisters. Tour riders often abandoned when their feet simply couldn’t take the pressure of the pedals any more. Hot foot, pins and needles, cramps and sores for the stage racer in high summer, were par for the course. And the injuries sustained in a crash when strapped in… well, there was a valid reason why Look’s first clipless pedal was regarded as the ‘safety’ pedal. This was the age when cycling shoes were so laughably simple the next innovation took Sidi another six years to develop, when they introduced the first nylon sole with an integral and adjustable pedal cleat. By now Sidi’s market share was growing and they had managed to attract a few big names to their stable – their shoes were starting to look radically different to the competition too – so by the beginning of the ‘80s Signori’s hard work had started to pay off.
The late, great Laurent Fignon was a Sidi athlete, in an era when this probably meant little more than getting an extra pair of socks for the season. He was, in ’83, an early wearer of Sidi’s Revolution shoe, featuring the first Velcro closure on a cycling shoe, and also one of the first to breakaway from an all black leather-and-mesh colour scheme. The ‘80s saw so many technological advancements for bikes that shoe companies struggled to keep up, and the change to automated production was essential if you wanted to compete in the market. Shoes had been the same for centuries and advancements in production techniques meant much of the handwork in shoemaking was being lost. Sidi and Signori were determined not be left behind and their background in ski boots would came in handy when clipless pedals began to emerge. Signori knew that Velcro wouldn’t be strong enough to hold the rider’s foot in place for the sprint, so he developed a locking mechanism that he added to the strap.
By the 1990s and the launch of the Genius, Sidi were leading the way in design and fit. They managed to exploit the mountain bike shoe market too, as their Dominator was hands-down the market leader in the off-road obsessed decade. But when it came to professional sport it was rider sponsorship that invariably endorsed product and Sidi, it seemed, had little trouble getting those all-important star riders to pedal their wares.
“Miguel Indurain got a big offer from Nike; 1 billion Lire. But he liked his Sidi shoes and refused to change. We’ve worked with many riders in the past: Lance Armstrong for instance, who had problems with his metatarsals, and his coach rang and we said he should come see us – it was about 20 years ago, at the beginning of his career. He had to have surgery on his feet previously, so I offered to make custom shoes for him, as I was sure he would require no further surgery with my shoes. After winning his third Tour, I saw him at Milan-Sanremo, and he said he was willing to come back for free because he was having problems with his Nikes. Sidi has many riders but the amount we pay our sponsored riders is probably not as much as a big company like Specialized. Some riders came here yesterday who we sponsor and told us they had been offered more by another company. I said they should go, take the money, but within two years they will come back to Sidi. Even for nothing! I have always had good relationships with all the riders.”
The ‘90s saw some pretty radical changes to the shoe market, most notably the abandonment of shoelaces in the designs. The burgeoning clipless pedal market brought with it a few new kids to the block, like French makers Look and Time. But, unlike many of the shoemakers, Sidi embraced the new clipless technology in a unique way, and developed the rotor strap that allowed the rider to tighten his shoes on the fly. Dino has a very accepting way of discussing the competition. He has no fear of looking at and adopting new technologies, but also sees it for what it usually is: fashion. And when you consider how quickly shoe designs change, it’s not really surprising that Dino’s main focus in technology comes down to comfort, fit and ergonomics.
“We were the first company to make cycling shoes in an industrial way. Others outsourced their production, but we kept tight control. We patented the rotor buckle in 1988, but now the patent has expired, and many others use this method. Of course, the new system with the wire is more aerodynamic and you have to consider these details when working for racers these days. But, as far as I am concerned, Velcro and the rotor buckle is the best closure system. I also hate these custom insoles that many companies offer. When you try them on in the shop, they feel comfortable, but you lose power on the road in competition.”
He has less time to spend at the races these days, and when most of his workers retire in their sixties, what is it that drives him to carry on working well past retirement age?
“Now, I don’t need to work, but I still wake up at 5.30 and can be in the office at 6.30. I sleep little, but I am always thinking about the business. If you are lucky enough to have good health, you can overcome all the problems you face. My passion is sport. It sounds immodest if I say this, but I always was a winner. I started playing tennis when I was 50 and I was the same with that as I was with cycling. Lately I enjoy the work less than before. There is not the same loyalty today from young people, they simply copy what you do: there is no respect. I have always worked with enthusiasm and I have no regrets. The only regret I have is that I never studied a language, or history, or geography. The other thing that I like, and that I enjoy, is making love… I am not so interested in travelling now. So now I conduct a very simple life. Now it is not so easy to work, and not so easy to make love… but I do better than most!”
Luckily Dino Signori doesn’t take himself (or anyone) that seriously, although the things that matter, really matter to him. Loyalty is something that Signori keeps referring back to again and again, be it from riders he’s known and worked with, or workers who have passed through the Sidi factory. Perhaps this influences his refreshing approach to the global slowdown.
“We don’t have unions here. Of course right now we’re facing the financial crisis, so I got all the workers together and told them to work slower, to concentrate on the quality. You can’t impose ideas on the workers – we will try things and hopefully they will work. I make suggestions on the production line, and they will let me know if it’s better or worse. The workers receive this much better. Many times the feedback I get from the workers is positive. Involve the workers and you will get better results. And we talk about sport, women, politics, whatever… It is like a family.
“I started, not from zero, but from below zero: I just had a bicycle. Nothing else. I had to look after my family, I had a sister who got married, and I had to pay for her wedding, so I had to work for that, but I have always made money. I don’t like to spend much; I don’t have a speedboat or anything like that. But I still think of myself as a shoemaker rather than a businessman. For example before attending this meeting I was helping a rider who was having problems with his shoes, so I tried to help – because I will always be a calzolaio.
“Some people tell me, ‘well if you want to go out with that woman, you have to buy her dinner’, but I always say they should pay for me, I’m a good catch! People who do not know me might think I am a bit strange, but my life is really simple. I am loyal to everyone. Many people, who started working here at 15, were still here when they retired at 60. And, although it’s more than 25 years since I worked with my hands, I try to pass on my mentality and way of thinking to the people who now lead the production – that way I am one of the workers still.”
You don’t have to spend long with him to get the distinct impression that Dino Signori doesn’t want to complicate anything in his life, including his social life. He’s a direct, straight-talking, uncomplicated man and in some respects that is charming and disarming in equal measure. Dino Signori is simply a very likeable man. With the recent Italian elections favouring nobody other than the comedian Beppe Grillo, I don’t think I’d be alone in thinking that Dino Signori should have a crack at the senato himself. His shoe business is so well regarded that riders often buy his shoes in preference to a team sponsorship deal; the lasts that sit on shelves in the factory are a veritable who’s who of cycling fame and fortune, and for this alone Sidi’s reputation is unquestionably here to stay.
Rouleur assistant editor Andy McGrath and filmmaker-photographer Benedict Campbell join Jack Thur