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From Mantova with love

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Sunday 11th May, state highway 122, two kilometres from Favara, Sicily, 4:28pm
The brat in the ditch, a kid no more than eight years old, is fascinated. He has just learned that in his country there is a city called Milan. It is also the first time he has seen the Giro peloton passing by the rough farmhouse where he lives. The motorbikes, the curious Gucci tricycles opening the course, the shining and sibilant bicycles, the racers bending over the handlebars with their futuristic helmets, the clothes, the colours, the jerseys – in a few seconds of an otherwise boring Sunday spring afternoon, he has discovered the magic of cycling. Its image will take the name of a remote city gifted with mythical resonances. Milan: the sound of light wheels, the colour of tight, bright maillots.
Not very far from there, under the shade of a prickly pear cactus, Claudio Mantovani smiles with the naïve look of somebody still able to marvel at the world at 65. He is tall and as slim as stick. Two days ago, he was very close to Milan, in the small burg of Castel d’Ario situated between Verona and Mantova, preparing his luggage for the Giro. Two suitcases, just how his brother used to do it: one for his own clothes, toiletries and a couple of books, the other containing cycling jerseys for last-minute errands. “I took a special pink jersey for Danilo di Luca,” Mantovani explains. “He ordered it for the prologue – the team time trial at Palermo. There’s also something for Paolo Savoldelli. And I saw that David Arroyo from Caisse d’Epargne broke his collar bone when he fell while training on Thursday, so I am taking clothes for his replacement, Mathieu Perget…”
Friday 9th May, Castel d’Ario, 3pm
Mantovani is the owner of Moa Sport which manufactures Nalini’s clothes. One of the few firms that still produces tailor-made clothing, the labels of its garments do not have sizes but names – Di Luca, Oscar Freire, Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador, Andreas Klöden, Mark Cavendish. “That’s why we survive in these times when the Asians do everything at a tenth of the price,” says Mantovani while he closes his suitcases, places them in the trunk of his Audi A6 and passes the keys to his son, who will drive him to Verona airport for a flight to Palermo. “That is why, and because of the love we have for cycling.”
Castel d’Ario (population 6,000) has three claims to fame: its risotto alla pilota, being the birthplace of Italian motor racing champion Tazio Nuvolari and the Nalini maillots. The firm’s logo was initially a cartoon fallow deer before animal protection groups succeeded in banning it, whereupon it was replaced by a triangle motif which has appeared on the jerseys of the major champions for three decades. It has been the brand of Gianni Bugno, Laurent Fignon, Jan Ullrich and Miguel Indurain’s five Tour de France wins. Its history is buried in huge cardboard boxes orderly stacked in two warehouses located next to a wheat field. It is the history of the champions who Mantovani dressed without a brand on their chest at the beginning of the ’70s, the history of the finest wool, silk, polyester, ever-sophisticated synthetic fibres that are very light, that absorb sweat without getting wet, that come out of the washing machine almost dry. But most of all, it is the history of two lives.
Those two lives, two passions, symbolically join on a huge shelf of a warehouse. On the top, among the remains of textiles and looms from decades ago, is a pile of red and wrinkled scrap metal which takes pride of place. The cheerful tone of Claudio Mantovani darkens in a subtle manner. “That,” he says, “that is what remains of the light aircraft where my brother died…”
And he promptly tells the story.
His brother Vincenzo was an amateur track specialist when he won a silver medal as part of the Italian pursuit team at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. He was 22. His short professional career spanned 1966 to ’69, during which he participated in the 1968 Giro as part of the Germanox-Wega team. Vincenzo never won a race (his best result was third in Naples at the final stage of the Giro) and he didn’t make much money, but at least he knew how to make friends.
Vincenzo, the Dane Ole Ritter and Belgium’s Guido Reybrouck were inseparable on the six-day circuits, enduring the hardships of the track races together. “And in his last year as a professional,” Claudio says, “he started to wear his own clothes in the velodromes, made by the women of the village. The team would pay him per hour but the travelling expenses to Rome, for example, were more than the money he was making. To compensate for this, he would take a big bag full of jerseys, culottes and gloves to sell. Reybrouck loved it and ordered some so he could sell them in Belgium. Ritter, who was the most famous pistard because he had broken the hour world record, took some to Denmark. That is how everything started.”
Claudio was a year younger than his brother. He was a great goalkeeper who signed with Milan at the age of 19 and went on to play with half-a-dozen Italian teams before ending his career prematurely in 1974. His penultimate season was his best as he remained unbeaten for a record 14 consecutive games to lead Seria B side Cesena to promotion. “But at the beginning of the following season I injured my knee,” Claudio recalls. “At that time the surgical techniques were still a bit primitive – they removed some cartilage and it left me with a permanent limp. So I put away my boots and I joined my brother in the workshop.”
When Claudio arrived at Moa Sport, Roberto was already there. “Gas Gas”, as everybody calls him, is a joyful soul who tirelessly runs errands all over the factory on his folding green Atala bicycle. All day back and forth, from warehouse to warehouse, from the offices to the tailoring workshop, from there to silk screen printing or to the storehouses, those that contain the current clothing ranges and the others where the historic jerseys are kept.
Roberto knows the workshops like nobody else and remembers every last detail. He started as a truck driver with Moa. He travelled with Claudio, taking deliveries all over Italy, and a unique friendship was thus forged by two very different personalities during never-ending chats in the cabin. “Gas Gas” is the root of Nalini, the link to a past that Claudio does not want to forget.
Moa Sport is situated in the Po Valley, the heart of Italy’s post-war economic miracle, and like all the family businesses there it practices a paternalistic kind of capitalism. 1 photographer Tim Kölln would probably like to become one of the Lumière brothers for a few seconds to capture with the same ingenuity and fascination Nalini’s female tailors arriving on their bikes at the entrance to the workshop. Or maybe he would prefer to be one of Rossellini’s cameramen in order to lovingly and respectfully film the dozens of women on their way out at noon to the sound of the siren, hastily pedalling home to cook the family lunch. Almost all of the workforce lives no more than a five-minute ride away. Middle-aged women have worked in the workshops for more than 20 years and their daughters also work for Claudio. Paolo Pizzamiglio, who is Mantovani’s number two, explains: “We take great care with the jobs and the people. We never dismiss anybody. For example, when we automated the cut section, we used the workers who were using scissors to enlarge other sections, like photo-mechanics or designing. And in any case, we still cut the pieces by hand for the professional teams.”
According to Paolo’s accounts, 99 per cent of Moa Sport’s 385 employees are women, and only four are non EU-citizens. Another 115 people work from home finishing off parts and small details. But initially, it is the absence of human manpower from the workshops that astonishes. In one room, a white thread multiplies in each of the dozens of looms in endless square meters of fabric. The looms, submerged in the neat and hygienic atmosphere of an operating theatre, are tireless spiders knitting day and night. Next to them, in capsules, robots weave socks, their synchronised needles basting and sewing the toes and the heels, finishing off the cuts to avoid them from fraying and combining the colours according to the programmed design. But the most important things are the polyester rolls, reams of immaculate white synthetic tissue that are cut into one-metre remnants before being divided into the seven pieces that make a jersey – the back, two frontal parts, two sleeves, neck and back pockets.
The measures are obeyed to the millimetre, and that is Marta’s responsibility. Marta, whose quick, dexterous hands are responsible for the cuts, does not reveal her age, but says that she has been working at Moa for 23 years. In her mind, Nalini is memorably associated with Mario Cipollini’s unbeatable physique and Miguel Indurain’s calming smile. There are also two works of art imprinted on her consciousness: the complete body suit emblazoned with all the muscles of the body worn by Cipollini in the 2001 Giro prologue, and Indurain’s gold outfit woven in 1995 for the Spaniard’s failed hour record attempt in Bogota. “But my favorite design,” Marta says, “was one from Amore e Vita. Those fluorescent colours…” Next to her, Patrizia nods. Patrizia, the longest-serving staff member who has spent 31 of her 50 years in the cutting section, started off with a pair of scissors and now puts the elements in place for the computer to assemble the piece. “My daughter worked here with me for four years,” she says. “I like how our clothes suit Di Luca and Savoldelli…”
If the cut is not good, Lisa will be angry, and she is not someone you want to mess with. Lisa updates a secret book worth a small fortune as it contains the exact waist, arm and hip measurements of hundreds of racers from the past two decades. “I go to the team training camps between October and December and I measure all of them. Since they are usually very concerned about their appearance, they ask for the clothes to be tighter or looser according to their personal liking,” she explains. “They are especially careful with the tan lines – they do not want to show them. They all are happy with Nalini – Erik Zabel, Savoldelli, Cipollini…” Lisa, who has been at Moa for 16 years, keeps pictures of Caisse d’Épargne’s Oscar Pereiro and Iván Gutiérrez for inspiration. “The cyclists were thinner in the past – they looked like poor peasants, starving. Now you can tell that they go to the gym, they muscle up. Cipollini is the most thorough, the most attentive to all the details.”
Ludovico, the king of photo-mechanics, has been combining primary colours for 15 years to create the infinite shades required by the designers. The designs arrive with the seven pieces drawn up, coloured with their logos, their advertisements, their text, and are printed on immense paper sheets which are the key to the printing process. A plate is placed on a cold metal surface over which Silvana, drawing on 31 years of experience, will carefully place the seven pieces before applying the heat machine with another plate to transfer the colour from the paper to the fabric. If only the cyclists who wear these garments knew the effort that went into creating them. “I don’t have a clue about cycling”, Silvana says, “but of course I am moved when I see somebody with the Nalini logo on TV. My father, though, he does understand – he follows everything.”
Only two stages remain before the jersey can leave the factory. The first is the tailoring itself, which is the domain of Rosa and the princesses of the Rimoldi machines, the women who use pedals not to sprint or climb mountain, but to join the garment together with strong Gütermann threads. The zippers run from neck to waist and the Velcro is fixed to the back pockets next to the kidneys so the cyclist’s hand can always find his rice cake, banana or energy bar, even in the dark. The product finally reaches Roberta, who has been folding and bagging Moa garments for 28 years. Roberta also takes care of the professionals’ wardrobe, a small part of the production of jerseys, shorts, socks, gloves, sweatshirts, tracksuits, hair bands and sneakers that Moa manufactures under different brands, mainly for the Asian market that demands Italian quality and design.
“Our main brands are Nalini – which is used by Caisse d’Epargne, LPR and several others, and Moa worn by Barloworld and Française des Jeux. But we also manufacture for other companies, like Agu, Rabobank and Adidas,” says Claudio Mantovani, while showing the shiny combinations of tight latex that British Olympians Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins will wear in a couple of months in the Beijing velodrome. “And we also make garments for Astana and some other teams. They send us a fax or an e-mail with the design they want and the day after they have it done. We also serve amateurs, clubs and groups of friends. We can make designs for a production of five jerseys or a million.” But only those of the top professionals are put into bags and labeled with their name and surname by Roberta, who is not at all familiar with the names of the racers, although she says she will never forget the time when Indurain came to visit.
When Claudio travels to races, or visits his directors and cycling friends in their hotels, he is always accompanied by his entourage. He takes the female bosses of his factory workshops to the Las Vegas Interbike fair, using the occasion to rent a plane and see the Grand Canyon. He has also taken employees to the Place de la Concorde for the last stage of the Tour de France and to the Fortis hotel in Bogota to personally deliver Indurain’s special jersey. Monica Cestari, fondly addressed by her friends as “principessa”, dominates the scene. Not yet 45, she has spent all of her adult life in Nalini and is united to the company by blood.
Vincenzo, Nalini’s founder, was an enterprising and unsatisfied man. Once he had made a success of the clothing factory, his curiosity lead him to aviation, and a company in South Africa sold him the patent to manufacture light aircraft which were very practical for businessmen in the region. He was already preparing premises in Castel d’Ario for his aviation business when he returned from a flight over the Mantova region on the afternoon of 21st October 1989. An employee friend of his asked to go with him on another flight. The light aircraft crashed in a field near his company’s premises. Both of them died. The employee was Monica’s fiancé.
“And the company was left completely in my hands,” says Claudio as he points to his brother’s house next to the factory. “When he died, Vincenzo had given the company an impulse. He had decided to put the Nalini logo on the clothes he manufactured. We used the insignia for the first time in the 1989 Giro for Cyrille Guimard and Laurent Fignon’s Super U team. One day Guimard told me, ‘You have to make Banesto’s garments – they have a cyclist called Indurain who is going to be the greatest in history.’ He had just won his first Tour. We left Paris by car and we would stop at gas stations to phone José Miguel Echavarri. I remember there were no cell phones in those days. We met him at the end of 1991 and from there we started our adventure with Banesto. And we got on very well with Francesco Moser, and we made his clothes when he broke the hour record in Stuttgart in 1988. My brother Vincenzo helped Bugno to get into the Château d’Ax team.”
In the warehouses, Roberto, who knows everything, finds old wool jerseys from Panasonic and other unlikely teams, including some of the stretch nylon from Claudio Chiappucci’s Carrera squad, including the fake jean shorts. It’s the stuff dreams are made of.
Some metres away, across the patio, the thermal power station that supplies hot water to the factory works non-stop, fed by old rags and other leftovers…

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