Campagnolo has always been different. From the moment Tullio Campagnolo was driven to invent the quick-release after a frozen-stiff wing-nut foiled a wheel change and robbed him of victory while riding over the Croce d'Aune, the most iconic name in cycling has gone about doing things their own way, leaving others to follow.
Eighty years later, and Tullio's legacy is one of invention, modernisation and artistry. And it's continued by his son, Valentino. They remain at the forefront of the cycling industry, and when they're not first to market with a new development, more often than not they're first to perfect it. Then, once it's right, it stays that way rather than fluctuating with trends. Just because something's new, after all, doesn't necessarily make it better. Others are free to do what they will, and Campagnolo continues on its own way regardless.
One example of this is particularly illustrative. It's an obvious one: the massive factory I'm standing in. It's still in Italy, and still full of well-paid workers, when everyone else made a beeline to the Far East long ago in search of cheaper labour and looser regulation. When the cold winds of modern industry's cut-throat financial reality finally swept a chill down the Via della Chimica, and it became clear that out-sourcing was no longer a contemporary evil that the venerable old company could resist from its stronghold on the fringes of Vicenza, it didn't pack up and move lock, stock and two smoking barrels to Asia, like so many other famous “Italian” marques who now have about as much a connection with the Bel Paese as Riccardo Riccò has to the Corinthian spirit. Not for Campy, the gargantuan homogeny of the Chinese production line. No, they instead decided to open a new facility in Pitești, Romania, somewhere that's still in Europe and more or less the same distance from HQ as London.
That move tells you a lot about the company. It keeps manufacture of smaller, cheaper parts close enough to home so that monitoring is easy. A clever marketing spin could convince you that it supports European jobs, and guarantees that the quality is higher. But you also get the impression that Romania was chosen, as much as anything, because there was a healthy dose of good, old-fashioned Italian suspicion involved.
The internet is awash with unlicensed copies of components, wheels and frames from the Far East these days, often manufactured in the same facilities as the real stuff, when the official work day is done. And the bike industry is full of tales of industrial espionage and spying – not hard to believe when you remember that, in the case of frames at least, they're all made by a handful of Original Equipment Manufacturers. Better to keep a close eye on things. Fidarsi è bene, non fidarsi è meglio, as the saying goes – to trust is good, to not trust is better.
The chary view of outsiders has thawed somewhat in recent years, and now some lucky journalists are allowed inside on occasion, clutching credentials and feeling not unlike Charlie Bucket with his Golden Ticket outside of Wonka's gates.
This part of Veneto isn't as colourful as the great chocolate factory, but there is an element of inventiveness in the air as we stroll through the facility, our senses somewhat overwhelmed by the smells and sounds of industry, the metronomic thumping of great machines stamping out metal pieces, and the smells of oils and glues and the sight of a myriad interesting and incomprehensible processes. If someone jumped out with a handful of Everlasting Gobstoppers or Cavity-Filling Caramels – "No more dentists!" – it wouldn't be all that surprising.
That a trip to a factory could engender a warm, fuzzy feeling speaks volumes about the modern condition, but it is nice to be reassured every once in a while that humans – omnipotent masters of the computer and overlords of all that is automated – can actually still make things with their hands and some tools, without having to Google it or watch a YouTube instructional video.
The peculiar array of different techniques at work in Campagnolo's headquarters is a testament to the company's eight decades at the forefront of engineering. High-tech shares the floor with quintessentially 20th century heavy machinery – and they're often at work on the same product. Lasers, space age materials and computer modelling are combined with hand-made tools, steel castings and human interaction in harmonious juxtaposition. It would do them a disservice to paint a picture of it being in any way antiquated – they just haven't thrown out the baby with the bath water. The tried and true is kept and used alongside bleeding edge science, much of it unique to the Italians and off-limits for photos. It brings to mind the words of Winston Churchill: "Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse."
Tucked away in a warren of testing cubicles and curious contraptions, we find Franco Rigolon hard at work. His job involves making just one thing, and it's not something he can make very quickly. Franco is a wheel-builder, the sole person in charge – the only one with the know-how – of one of the company's most enduring products: the Ghibli wheel.
After Valentino Campagnolo took over following the death of his father in 1983, the Ghibli was one of his first great successes. In a time where almost every wheel was made the same way it had been since before the company's beginning, Campagnolo put a team of engineers to work on coming up with some new ideas.
From there came the concept of using fibres rather than spokes to create the tension and maintain structure. This was lighter, stronger, resistant to temperature changes and allowed more aerodynamic shapes.
It was, to use an old cliché, a game changer. Named after the wind that comes from the Sahara and reaches hurricane speeds in Southern Europe, from '84 onwards, every Campagnolo-sponsored rider from Laurent Fignon to Marco Pantani, rode the Ghibli. Miguel Indurain used them to set the hour record, by which time Campagnolo had developed ceramic bearings. And 30 years after its first inception, the former Formula One driver Alex Zanardi, who lost his legs in a crash while racing in Germany, took to the race track at Brands Hatch and won gold in the Paralympic time-trial, using a pair of Ghibli wheels specially made for his handcycle. That's a stunning amount of time for a piece of equipment to stay competitive at the top level.
Affectionately known as ‘San Franco della Ghibli’ to his colleagues, the jovial, grizzled Franco is a local – a Vicentino – who came to Campagnolo a decade ago to take over Ghibli production. Although the materials have gotten more advanced and his methods have been personalised and fine-tuned over the years, he's still doing it in almost exactly the same way. The intricacies are myriad and it's immediately apparent that the tactility of Franco's work would make it impossible to mass produce by machine, even if there was huge demand for a wheel that costs more than most bikes. The Ghibli requires that special blend of exactitude and liberty that man remains unmatched at. There's an astonishing amount of accuracy involved, but getting it right means being intensely aware of each wheel's minute differences. Only a highly-skilled free hand can coax it to perfection. It's more jazz than electronica.
“I'm doing this work ten years,” says Franco, peering out over his red-rimmed glasses. “Before that I was a goldsmith.” Now he makes rings of a different kind, but this bling is probably more expensive.
“I was a modellista, I made the models. Then when the business died out, they closed the workshop. I was 50, I needed to work. I came here because I heard they were looking for someone with my skills. It's similar enough, really: it's precision work, manual, with a lot of responsibility. I couldn't have stayed at home, I have to be doing something.
“When I started, it took time. There's so many parts to it. I can't just tell you to do this and this, you need experience. It took a few months to deliver my first wheel, the one I could really say: 'This is mine, I made it from start to finish'. And now, ten years have passed.
“I've never been a fan of cycling, though. Really, I've no interest. My interest is in the manual side of the work, using my hands, creating something. I've always liked that. But of bicycles, I don't understand anything. This interests me because it's precise, you have to understand the measurements, know when not to heat something too much. I don't just push a button, start the machine and then say I've made a wheel. I need to construct it. It could drive someone else crazy. There's a thousand steps to it. And it's still impossible to make this with a machine. There's no alternative.”
It certainly looks that way. Blink and you'd miss one of the multitude of little touches that go into every Ghibli. There's fine-tuning, filing, sanding, and dozens of other details that all happen as he's building. As anyone in the know with regards to the bike industry will tell you, a lot of the “developments” being sold have more to do with cost-cutting and mass production than they do with making a better bicycle or component, but at this quality level, there's no corner to be cut that wouldn't result in a heavier, weaker or less aerodynamic wheel. Which is why Franco's still in the job.
“Sometimes,” he smiles, “I sign the inside of the wheels. And on the valve cover [a plastic adhesive patch that covers up access to the tyre valve when not in use] I used to write 'Buona fortuna'.
“In my time, I suppose I've made an average of 20 a month. So, do the math. Now I do a little less, because I'm making the new carbon road wheel [the Bora Ultra TT], but it's still a lot.”
Each Ghibli begins with a modest-looking sheet of plastic, the giant exterior decal, being laid out on an old, round workbench that has numbers in red and black inscribed around the circumference. Pre-cut strips of polyaramide fibres, each with two narrower pieces at the end, are laid out corresponding to the digits, forming a criss-cross pattern. These take the place of spokes, with the narrow bands wrapping around an aluminium structural ring that sits beneath the rim. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
The strips are painstakingly positioned – accuracy is essential – before being heated by what, for want of a better description, looks like an industrial hairdryer. We can only assume it's an awful lot hotter than what you'd find down at the hairdresser’s because, when Franco jokingly points it in the direction of another Campagnolo employee, no time is wasted in jumping out of the way. While heating the fibres, any air bubbles are carefully removed from the weave because, as the craftsman himself puts it, if there's a fuck up here then the wheel will be useless. The road and track versions of the Ghibli are built in the same way and, while there's no doubting that a capable TT rider can put some serious power into the rear wheel, the explosive potential of a track racer makes it imperative that each and every fibre on Franco's bench is properly attended to so that it is ready to withstand the rigours of its future.
“Even if a hair drops onto the inside now, you'll be able to see it when the wheel comes out of the oven,” he says, perhaps in the direction of the generously coiffured photographer leaning ever closer. “It might not make a difference to the wheel's quality, it would only be aesthetic, but anyone who pays this much is going to expect it to be perfect – which is fair enough, no?
“There are a lot of other wheels out there, I don't know how they're made. But this one – and I'm not saying it because it's my job – is among the very best. And also one of the most expensive. You know you won't find Campagnolo in the supermarket. If you want quality, you're willing to pay. If not, go elsewhere.”
The pair of discs, now rigid, must then be brought together on an aluminium structural band. To do this, Franco has to first prepare said band. With one disc beneath, the band is clamped into another odd-looking device (they’re everywhere) that will allow him to make sure it's perfectly circular. The clamps are tightened, first by hand, and then by socket wrench, one by one, until this skirt is perfect, applying force from the outside in much the same way as tightening a spoke on a normal wheel would apply it by pulling inward.
“When I started, I changed some of the processes. I wasn't happy with them. I'm always trying to improve it, but to arrive at the best level, you need a bit of experience. Now we're getting to my measurements. I can't go too fast, or it will be oval. And if I tighten too much here, it will be really hard over there.”
Later, when the fibres have been glued in place and the wheel has spent half a day in the oven, they'll hold it all in perfect place, but for now the braces are vital. To make sure everything's kosher, our craftsman spins a precision dial indicator around the interior, on the end of another little bit of lo-fi tech he's made just for this purpose. It whirls frantically around the ring, registering only the smallest of irregularities – we're talking of tolerances in fractions of millimetres – and then, as you would on a regular truing stand, Franco tightens and loosens at different points until he's happy. An inspection with the biggest callipers I've ever seen, and it's done. “Okay, va bene.”
A special tape is applied along the inside edge of the structural ring – Franco keeps it on a Sellotape dispenser, but it's not the stuff you've got hanging around the office – that will create an airtight seal. After that, a small crane is used to lift the second part of the wheel mould (it weighs several hundred kilos) into place. The aforementioned straps of fibres are glued into place, completing the bond before it goes into the oven, where it will be inflated by compressed air inside the cast.
“I need to make sure that the resin stays where it's supposed to, that it's not going all over the place. Because if it leaks out in the oven, it will harden and it's ‘ciao wheel, ciao mould, ciao everything’.”
The baking process is a long one, like every other. Each step is so time-consuming that if Franco were to make just one wheel at a time from start to finish, twiddling his thumbs in between processes, it would take him five days. He has several on the go at one time, so in a “here's one I made earlier” moment, once the oven door closes we move on to a fully baked wheel that's now ready for finishing.
Unlike other wheels, the Ghibli's hub is inserted after the disc is formed and tightened to exterior plates that pull the dishes out, forming the final shape. Before the rim is applied, the fibre straps that have formed a bond over the structural ring inside need to be smoothed down in a uniform fashion – a job that's done with sleight of hand, a keen eye and a bloody enormous file. If he's too shy with the shaving, the rim won't sit right; too brazen, and the fibre’s structural integrity will be compromised. Either way, the wheel's for the bin.
Franco is sanding the interior of the rim so that it will stick better once the glue's been applied. “This step isn't in the instructions. I could just follow what's written down, do it like this, this and that, but if there's an improvement I have to make it. Otherwise it'll just end up breaking my balls!”
This work is full of artifice and homemade solutions. It has to be, because such a singular product as the Ghibli is always going to throw up obstacles and questions that could only be answered by singular solutions. Which brings us to the spoon.
Franco's work bench is littered with personalised tools, wooden handles with his name on them, bits with “Ghibli” etched into them and various stock implements that have been modified in one way or another. I'm impressed by the ingenuity, but he grins dismissively and waves me over.
He's glueing the rim onto the wheel, having already mixed up his aerospace adhesive (no cameras, please). Unsurprisingly, it's sticky stuff and has a habit of getting everywhere. If he's not careful, a splatter of the gum could remain on the decal when he returns it to the oven, and all of his toil will have been for naught. And so, while spinning the wheel on a stand, Franco carefully scrapes the tiny lip where the rim meets the dish… with the handle of an old spoon, glued into the grip of what might have been a chisel. Naturally, he's notched his name into it, in cursive. Sure enough, the repurposed old spoon gets the glue right in there, scraping off the unwanted excess as it goes. One last careful wipe-down to make sure it's all spotless, and it's back into the kiln.
In the background, workers busy themselves making moulds. God only knows for what, but I imagine it's something I'll want. Campagnolo prefers physical prototypes to computer renders, and it makes them all in-house. It holds on to them, too, and even when a product goes out of production, its original casts and patterns remain in situ, so that theoretically they could restart assembly of anything they wanted tomorrow. If someone out there wants to get a petition going for a C-Record renaissance, you can put my name at the top of the list. Until then, we'll have to make do with the multitude of high-tech, low-weight marvels that they're currently cooking up. Not all of it is as idiosyncratic as Franco's little corner, but everywhere you look there's a similar cocktail of tradition, innovation and care.
Admiring the fruits of his graft, Franco offers a parting observation. “If I see a Ghibli, I know it's mine, I can't say that maybe someone else made it, so there's no excuse. If it doesn't win, there must be a problem with the cyclist – because I know that wheel is perfect!”