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Campagnolo: Part One

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Photographs: Taz Darling

It’s December in England and it’s cold. My house refurbishment, or should I say rebuild, has taken more money, time and energy, both emotional and physical, than I thought possible. And we’re still not living in it. After being let down, I have no option but to tackle the job myself. Confidence plays a large part in undertaking a project of such magnitude, but as the months have gone by mine has grown, and I am finally prepared to give it a go.
The turning point for me was when I realised that I would not have trusted any of the tradesmen previously involved with my heating to work on one of my bikes, so why on Earth would I trust them to work on my house? Time is against me, as it always seem to be, but if I dig deep I reckon I can still beat my self-imposed deadline. Then I get “the call”.
Guy [1’s Editor]: How’s the house coming along?
Me: Not bad. I’m currently wrestling with a 22-metre section of copper tube and a pipe-bender.
Guy: What are you doing next week?
Me: Er, I have a few more days off to get my bathroom functioning before Christmas. Why?
Guy: Do you want to come to Campag? We’ve got an interview lined up with Valentino.
Me: [Silence…]
Now it is time to take stock. Visiting Campagnolo is something I have dreamt about for nearly 30 years. Why now? My silence is short-lived; I am sure my partner will understand that I have to go, so I say “yes”.
To put this in perspective, 1 has been trying to get a visit to Campagnolo for as long as the magazine has been running. The company has always been against the idea of letting journalists and photographers into its works, and the thought of actually speaking to a member of the Campagnolo family has been little more than a fantasy. But in a new age of Glasnost, Campagnolo has opened the doors to us. And we can take pictures…
In the days leading up to our visit to one of, or perhaps even the most revered name in cycling folklore, I’d started to panic a little. The opportunity to meet cycling legend Valentino Campagnolo became almost overpowering (although not quite as overpowering as my ongoing DIY project.) Perhaps the secrecy and intrigue behind the scenes at Campagnolo was getting the better of me, and anyway, what do you say to a man like Valentino? Do I start by writing a list of subjects? How many questions will I get to ask? What will he be like? What will the factory be like? Do they actually make anything there anymore? Will it be everything I hoped it would be, or would I return heartbroken and disappointed?
A week later I’m in Vicenza, a town that has had an affect on me ever since I started cycling. Seeing the name on one of the many road signs is enough to heighten my eager anticipation. Despite the butterflies rehearsing a complex aerobatic display in my stomach, I had slept well, which may have in part been thanks to the prosecco and the meal I had eaten the night before at our hotel near the Stadio Romeo Menti, home of Vicenza’s local football team, the Biancorossi.
Industrial complexes all over the world adorn the sides of many busy main roads, but for me the Via della Chimica is an address is like no other, rivalled only by Viale Brianza in Cambiago, the home of Colnago. Like the other anonymous and uninviting buildings on the Via della Chimica, Campagnolo’s home gives little away from the outside. If it wasn’t for the ten-metre-high classic script in deep blue letters mounted atop the main building, you would probably pass by without giving it another thought.
I don’t know what I expected, to be honest, or how I thought I would feel the very moment the iconic logo came into view, but to finally see it in front of me brought a mixed sensation of elation and a little sadness.
Anticipation is, for me, half the appeal of anything worthwhile, be it the delivery of a bespoke bike frame or a long-term project coming to fruition. I was reminded of the day my custom-painted Colnago C40 turned up from Cambiago after an eight-month wait. Just like then, the twisted pleasure of waiting was now over. Some say you should never meet your heroes, sporting or otherwise, to avoid disappointment, and maybe they are right.
I cannot deny an element of trepidation as we stop at security to collect our passes. Inside the lobby, we are confronted with an unexpected aesthetic: it is almost as if we have exited a time machine and found ourselves back in the late ’70s. As I said, I was not really sure what to expect, but the presentation of the entrance area with its beautiful dark woodwork is juxtaposed by some current advertising campaigns and displays of 11-speed gruppos in Perspex cabinets, much like the ones seen at recent bike expos.
Everything is spotlessly clean but feels preserved in pristine condition from another era. When these premises were built they were undoubtedly created with no expense spared, and back then were state-of-the-art. Today they still ooze class. This in itself is probably why the first impression is so remarkable, as many modern offices look like temporary affairs quickly knocked up out of cheap materials with suspended ceilings and plasterboard walls that are definitely not destined for the long haul. Campagnolo’s offices perhaps give us a clue to its entire approach.
We are shown into a room dominated by a large table (in more dark wood) surrounded by chairs. A wooden relief carving of Tullio Campagnolo, the company’s founder, hangs on one wall illuminated by rays of wintry sunlight cutting through open venetian blinds. 
Tullio was a bike racer, an engineer and a gregarious, outgoing and externally confident character, almost larger-than-life. His son Valentino, the man we are here to meet, is none of these things, and he’s prepared to admit it. He is now the head of what his father left when he passed away in February 1983.
Valentino arrives, and his entrance in itself is rather unusual. We half expected him to walk through the same door that we had, so we were caught a little off guard when a pair of double doors opened suddenly and he entered from a side room and warmly welcomed us to Campagnolo. Finally, perhaps realising that if you do not talk your voice will not be heard, Campagnolo has opened its doors a bit wider to let the world look in.
Valentino takes his place at the head of the table and introduces himself. He is softly spoken and talks in a slow, deliberate manner which imparts an additional sense of gravitas to the proceedings. When he turns to the matter of our visit, I worry that he will not be particularly happy when we tell him we have no scripted questions. He asked us for specific topics to discuss but I try to explain that we are not here to judge or dissect his company and their practices.
I point out that we can find anything out we need to know about Campagnolo components elsewhere and indeed already know much of what we need to. I am much more interested in him as a person and how things are done here. I have come to Vicenza not really in search of answers to specific questions but of revelation about what makes him tick and how life looks through Campagnolo’s eyes, as a man and as a company.

*       *
He begins by asking, “So, what do you want to know?”
Your memories of your father’s business and how you came to start working in it.
“Your question sounds very broad.”
We only have one day. We want to know more about you: what motivates you. Obviously, your father was creating a product, but you come from a very different background. We are interested in Campagnolo the family, the company.
“OK, I will try to do my best, although I have to admit it is much easier for me to dedicate my efforts when there is a specific issue – I am not used to speaking openly. I have on occasion spoken in front of more people, but with one specific topic. This was easier. But anyhow, I hope not to deliver to you wrong expectations.”
It has taken me 25 years to get here, so I’m happy.
“To help explain, I need to do a kind of bicycle race, invent the roads and the obstacles and so on. So, I am a different kind of man from my father. He was a racer, I wasn’t. He was an inventor, I haven’t that capacity. My father built up the company, I didn’t. My father was someone not only very open but more than wiling to interface with journalists and racers. I am much more reserved. I have an important chance because I have the same name.
“I was requested to manage a famous name in the bicycle business. When my father was still alive and I had finished my studies, I entered the company. My father was not only the head of the company, but an inventor, director, PR marketing man. He was the kind of person who was very eclectic… The job was not so easy in many respects. Sometimes the relationship between father and son is not so good, but in my case it was easy.
Walking through the door of the company on the first day – it was very complex. My father thought it was good for his son to get experience behind him, watching what was going on, listening to what was happening. This was the difficulty. I am more than convinced that the experience for everyone has to come from direct experiences. So when my father died, I guess – and I am more than convinced – that I had some kind of experience but only a little. This was difficult.”
“Another kind of difficulty was that Campagnolo was collecting victories in terms of racing, in terms of the commercial and in financial results, but when a company is collecting so many victories in so many different areas, there are risks around the corner that someone should start to sleep for a while. I think that Campagnolo wasn’t able to express itself to the market with a kind of innovative approach, in terms of product, in terms also of how to understand the market, how to react, how to forsee its future.
“There were also some other difficulties. As I said my father was not only an inventor but director of the company. We were winning in many areas, but with a structure in terms of people and tools – technical tools, manufacturing tools – that were ageing. Sad to say, obsolete. Off-road racers were starting around this time. Mountain bikes were taking off in California. But in Europe, we were not watching carefully, especially Italy. We thought, this is competitive racing and this is what people enjoy.
“A hurricane was coming into the cycling world. In the mid-’80s, mountain biking was becoming very important. In no more than three-and-a-half years, the road bike business decreased dramatically. In Italy, road racing bikes were around 30 per cent of the market, but that percentage fell to less than five per cent. I remember those times very well. There was a cocktail of blood and pain. It was necessary to build up a new Campagnolo company.
“We were rushing in terms of innovations. It was like climbing a very steep hill on a bicycle – Mortirolo or Alpe d’Huez – without any training. When you do a big effort without training, you have acid in your legs, in your arms, and also in your brain. I tried to do my best. I made mistakes – a lot of mistakes. I hope the mistakes I made – of which I am conscious – I did with total dedication.
“I tried to keep a very tight approach to what I thought was the key issue for a bicycle enthusiast: the products. I was like a racer on the line for the very first time. When a pro racer arrives at 25 or 30 years, he understands the tricks of the trade. I did not have that. So little by little, I tried to catch the peloton which was going very well. Maybe I was lucky; I had the chance to have with me some good people from the past – people who worked with my father – yet this peloton shrank year after year.

“But the brand name was there – the awareness was good. Based on that, in the early ’90s, I tried step by step to catch the others. To develop bicycle componentry requires not only patience and skills, but experiences – not only good experiences, but bad ones. We tried to put more desires rather than needs and consequently started to collect more new ideas rather than modifying an old approach.
“We started with the first Ergopower shifters and it was our first big challenge. I think that the product wasn’t that bad for that time, containing some ideas that we desire to keep very strongly today, allowing the user not to have one lever, but to have two dedicated levers, up and down. I guess that the combination for everyone in my position is to have a clear understanding of the importance the relationship that the person has with his own bike, which is a very special relationship.
“I guess that it is very different to how a skier feels about his skis, or someone to their tennis racket. I don’t know why, but I have a feeling that on the bicycle, you can suffer a lot – yes, you can suffer when you play a tennis match, but on the bicycle you really suffer. I don’t think there are other sports where a normal trained person can climb mountains and feel great. Someone well trained, when he climbs a mountain, feels like a god. This is the magic of cycling. I think someone at the head of Campagnolo has to understand this – it’s the most important point. If he understands this, then he has a chance to have professional people to help in other areas.
“The competition is not just on the product. The competition is on ideas. It is everywhere. I am not the kind of person that likes to be under the spotlight. I prefer to work hard, when it is needed I am more than willing, as I am doing with you now, I have no problem with that and I have no problem to say that in the past I made mistakes.
“Now the Campagnolo group is different from those hard times. I believe the world is changing drastically. But I think those epic times were tougher than today. There are some decisions you must make alone, but you feel there are people around you, helping. It is important to me to remember that my father was helped, but more alone than I was. I am not a racer, not because I don’t like it, just because I am in the company early and in the evening I return home at 8.30pm, every day.
“So I would like to have more time to dedicate to riding a bike, but my job is something else. I remember, just to make a comparison, when an important customer was coming to Vicenza to visit us, my father would take them to a good restaurant, to have a long lunch; hors d’oeuvres, first course, main course, maybe some cheese, maybe cake, then – being Italian – espresso. Now it is easy for me to miss out lunchtime.”
How do you think your father would have got though the difficult times?
“I think that my father, I am guessing, he had a precise manner, a step-by-step approach. Consequently, today things happen but we needed to suggest this is my thinking, my approach. We have a plan of products that we would like to develop. We have a schedule of priorities. We cannot act today based on what we did yesterday. We are following a kind of schedule for fine-tuning activity. I think that the importance is to continue to have the same understanding as a racer. Today there is a race, and then tomorrow, and then again the next day.”
Do you think your slightly less focused approach to the business helped Campagnolo through the lean times? The company, certainly in road racing terms, is back to being the leading player. Did Campagnolo have to adopt this more open approach to survive?
“It was like a school. Normally, you go to elementary school, then secondary, then university. I needed to jump some steps, and that was the difficulty. I collected a lot of experiences from that, but we needed to use those experiences to limit the mistakes. I am no different from anyone. Only in hindsight can I see if my best was helpful or created problems for the company.”
During the times you describe, I was already working in the trade. The products I had to sell were not new. And to see all the competitors overtaking, then you saw the confidence start to come back with the introduction of Ergopower. Do you still believe that now, as then, the quality and reliability are the things people look for, and get, in Campagnolo?

“Cycling is for everybody, but who are Campagnolo users? They might be wealthy lawyers and managers, but there is a legion of normal people, not wealthy, who make tremendous sacrifices to buy their heart’s desire. Those people are by far the majority. We have to give them the chance to benefit from our products, in performance and function. It is difficult today, because the products are more complicated.
“It is a very basic concept that we keep inside the company today. Not because it is different from our competitors, but out of respect for the confidence, the trust, and the money that they gave us. This is the Campagnolo approach: serviceability. I learnt early on that servicing Campagnolo was part of the job, and maybe that has become more difficult over the years. We try to make sure our customers get repaired quickly, but improving that element of Campagnolo’s business would be high on my list of priorities.
“I suffer when I hear that things are not going smoothly in terms of servicing. I am more than conscious of that. When I was last in London at the Bike Show, I had some meetings with people and they had complaints. I returned to the company and spoke to people. But everybody wants an easy life. Those who run production want to know exactly how many units we will sell next September, which is impossible.
“I hope that we can keep at the level where we can manage the desire or the expectation from the market. It is our satisfaction to see appreciation of our product. Campagnolo continues to be innovative while keeping in the original direction. I don’t want us to be a good copy or bad copy of someone else – not at all. I think that the recipe that my father mixed up is a good one, also for the future.
“We don’t like to eat every day the same menu. You can have lobster every day, you can get fed up. When the customer enters the Campagnolo restaurant, he knows exactly what he wants; waiters have to be polite.”
It’s not just about the food. Every part of the chain contributes to that experience, from the manufacturer to the distributor to the dealer, pulling together to make the end experience of the buyer a good one.
“I am not personally in contact with many dealers, and this bothers me a lot. For the benefit of my colleagues and the company, not because I have special power. It is important for me to be able to speak to the dealers. They know what is going on much more than we do. This is one of my major problems, finding the time. Meeting with dealers is like going to school – always I am learning.”
*       *
Valentino is clearly a businessman with integrity and a sense of responsibility to the family name. He is continuing the hard work of his father and the employees of Campagnolo, not to mention the fans and consumers of his products past, present and, most importantly of all, future. It should be noted at this point that the most unexpected element of our visit was the almost complete lack of referral to heritage and previous racing glory.
The ubiquitous display cabinets, trophy hauls and memorabilia that you find in nearly every other sporting goods manufacturer’s offices are missing, to the extent that all reference to the past appears to have been deliberately removed. Sure there are odd little references, but they are almost token gestures. This, then, appears to be a company that is certainly not comfortable resting on its laurels.
Despite industry murmurings and the churning of rumour mills, Campagnolo’s collective eyes are firmly fixed on the future. Yes, they are proud of their heritage but they want to be known for cutting edge technology, quality and reliability. Their new customers are as important as their old.  Valentino is very conscious of his father’s achievements, and indeed his own, but takes a very serious view on where he must now take his business. It becomes clear during our conversation that he and his colleagues, while not unaware of their rival’s activities and rise in popularity, do not fixate on their achievements or codes of practice. Campagnolo does things Campagnolo’s way…
Our conversation touches on the mindset, not just of Campagnolo, but perhaps on the real motivation behind many Italian companies. Each individual business fully understands the need to be profitable and competitive; all industry must follow this path for obvious reasons. But without emotional commitment, it will not happen within the walls of Campagnolo’s headquarters. You get the impression that despite the lack of obvious, and some would argue, vulgar chest beating adorning the walls as a reminder of the company’s history, everyone who works at Campagnolo clearly understands its heritage and the importance of seeking out ever better solutions to challenges.
I do not need to remind anyone of what I call the dark times in the early ’90s when Campagnolo’s products started to look a little dated and suffered from weakness in their design, if not the quality of material. Likewise, I do not need to elaborate on the clumsy attempts at tapping into the mountain bike market, which sadly were doomed to failure right from the start. But those days look firmly behind them now. Valentino gives much away in the tone of his voice as he describes the difficulties he faced at this time in the company’s history.
Campagnolo senior had died only a few years earlier leaving an impossible hole to fill, and perhaps as a result he gets quite emotional as he talks about his father, clearly conveying the unsolicited pressures he inherited from the enormous burden. Valentino would have to compose himself and make a plan. The road market was generally in dramatic decline, particularly in their home market, as the mountain bike craze gained momentum, leaving a shell-shocked Campagnolo in its wake. Changes in strategy take time and energy; the results are rarely quick to show themselves.
Recently, significant investment in technology, composite materials, product design and even electronic derailleur systems (nearly ready for the market after ten years in development) have at least put Campagnolo back in the frame. Quality, reliability and high performance are all words that Valentino utters regularly during our time together. He holds the same values as his father and also emphasises his desire to keep manufacturing in Europe and, perhaps even more importantly to him, in Italy wherever possible. He clearly understands the implications of resisting the call of the Far East and takes his responsibility to his employees seriously.
Tullio’s son is doing the best he can to negotiate difficult waters. Faced with an awkward set of circumstances, the global market is changing and Valentino has had to hold on to the handrail of an emotional and economic rollercoaster tighter than most. A stubborn refusal to just up sticks and ship everything overseas lock, stock and chainring bolt holds Campagnolo back in one breath and strengthens them in another.
Campagnolo has always been about the racing cyclist, and while its components are enjoyed all over the world by riders of all abilities, the brand is inextricably linked with professional racing. Once upon a time, Campagnolo was the only choice for the discerning racing cyclist; now it is not. Perhaps their days of dominance in the professional peloton are well and truly over as mass market manufacturers, who focus more closely on economic agenda and market saturation at any cost, take their place. I am sure that this hurts the staff in Vicenza more than a little, but Campagnolo’s dogged pursuit of quality products fuelled by emotion carries on unabated, motivated by more than just turning a profit. 
I admire their commitment to the product and the user. Are they perfect? No. Could they do better? Of course. I just hope that the path Valentino has chosen is the right one for the company and economically sustainable. Moving some component assembly to Romania to at least preserve price points rather than allow them to escalate uncontrollably may help and still allow a level of control he feels he will lose if he resorted to moving production further afield.
Valentino walked in his father’s shadow for some time before being forced into the limelight at a very difficult period in component manufacturing history. He genuinely sees the bigger picture but has to tread cautiously to stay in the game. Despite this, he appears to be optimistic about Campagnolo’s survival in a very different world to the one his father knew.

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