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  • 09.03.16

    The Gabba

    The professional's foul-weather friend. In Italy with rainwear gurus Castelli

    Words
    Andy McGrath
    Photographs
    Joel Hewitt

Edging out Christmas shopping, a long overdue visit to the dentist or the annual agony of a tax return, riding in the rain holds its own in the league table of procrastination. You can’t keep taking rest days when it drizzles, especially if you live in northern Europe: that could mean a fortnight off the bike. 

Personally, I have always found myself at opposite ends of the preparation spectrum when the skies open. There’s the unexpected horror of a blissful summer’s day suddenly turning into a rainy squall, leaving me soaked to the skin in short-sleeve jersey and shorts, grimly trying to generate enough heat to reach shelter.

Awareness of the approaching precipitation is almost as bad. Knowledge can be a dangerous thing, especially with the existence of weather apps that possess the memory of Deep Blue and can note the exact location, time and size of the next cloud dump. So I don enough layers and waterproofs to keep a deep-sea fisherman toasty. No rain is getting in, but no heat is getting out either.

So, at any significant intensity on the ride, I become marinated in my own juices. Uphill, it’s a sweat chamber; down dale, I shiver and shake.

To top it all off, I always seem to end up looking like a prat: historically, it’s difficult not to. In past decades, the only options seemed to be day-glo, cagoule-type fare that made the hardened rider resemble a raver whose colours had run. In short, I’m a flapping, puffing, perspiration-soaked, blancmange-hued bloke wetly squeaking up a hill. Not fast, not fashionable, not fun. It’s almost enough to make me sack off riding in winter altogether.

Remarkably, professional riders have endured similar experiences – and they don’t have the luxury option of a day off. As bike technology progressed, rainwear seemed to stand relatively still – until recently. You could plot a 260-kilometre route on obscure back roads or order a coffee via your cycling computer at the next café (I might have made that one up), but you’d still get soaking wet or boiling hot if it rained. Aerodynamics, comfort and aesthetics all needed addressing. Step forward Castelli with their game-changing Gabba.

We visit the Castelli factory in late November – well, it’d be remiss to gab about the Gabba at the height of summer. If you’re wondering how a rainwear revolution could happen in sunny Italy, abandon all weather stereotypes ye who enter their home town, Fonzaso. The Dolomites rear up and the temperature drops as we drive through the north-eastern Italian countryside, past wood stacks and through early morning mist. Apparently, this place gets twice as much rain as London.

I was expecting something more futuristic, but the factory is a humble white building backing onto a bare vineyard with lines of blue solar roof panels. Fused eleven years ago, Sportful and Castelli share the building. One makes performance-based clothing, the other high-end racing apparel, but they both back top teams like Tinkoff-Saxo, Cannondale-Garmin and MTN-Qhubeka in 2015. A little internal competition is healthy.

We meet Castelli brand manager Steve Smith, who takes us for a morning espresso (well, this is Italy). We stroll down the main artery, which is dominated by a big glass window, looking out over a floor of 40 sewing machines and their attendant stitchers, busy working on samples for the summer 2016 line. You’ve got to look far ahead in this game. With the shop floor’s white walls, it feels like the incubator room at a hospital. We head to the office at the end of the corridor to chat with Smith and race performance director Andrea Peron.

Before we get into the Gabba, it’s important to understand how much Castelli’s fortunes had flagged before its time. Into the new millennium, the clothing company with the scorpion logo had lost its sting. It wasn’t working with any professional teams and was looking to be a “Patagonia”-type catch-all brand, far from the futuristic, racing roots Maurizio Castelli had put down in the 70s when he took over from his father, Armando. He was a tireless innovator, introducing lycra to shorts design in 1977 and colours in 1981. Maurizio was an inspirational control freak, often walking through every part of the then Milan-based company before getting to his own office in the morning with his beloved German shepherd dog, overseeing every aspect of the place. He had to check each item of clothing before it was dispatched, be it destined for a top pro team or lowly club. Castelli’s death, after suffering a heart attack while cycling up the Cipressa in 1995, was a huge blow.

In 2003, the Cremonese family acquired Castelli. Having made a big success of underwear-turned-skiwear brand, Manifatture Val Cismon, they fused the ailing Castelli with Sportful.

Having joined a few years earlier, former Nike Europe employee Steve Smith was one of the men tasked with helping to restore Castelli’s lustre. The Portlander had fallen for the exotic Italian brand as a teenager and remembers saving three weeks of salary working in a warehouse to buy his first jersey – a Castelli Renault-Elf number, Greg LeMond’s team.

“I was that kid who spent all day, every day, out in the summer on my bike and loved it. For graduation to high school, after years of begging my parents, I got an actual road bike – 10-speed, we called ‘em back then,” he says.

Touches of Italianate cycling culture were already creeping into Smith’s life. A Basso Bikes importer did a deal with the young man’s racing club, so he bought several frames at $280 a pop. “I had Campagnolo Super Record components; every box said “Campagnolo, Vicenza, Italy” – and now I live in the province of Vicenza. In fact, my house is on the same street as the guy that runs Basso Bikes. What are the chances of that? It was fate back then and I didn’t realise it.”

Smith jumped at the chance to revive the sleeping giant. “It was quite a mess at the time, suffering from years of neglect. The products were completely mis-positioned,” he recalls.

According to the American, Castelli were listening too much to cost-cutting sales reps and missing a simple ingredient: cyclists. “If you have nobody that rides, you wouldn’t even realise what you need to do. You look at the design and sample on your fit model, then you go to the market with it. But you don’t get proper product when you do that,” Smith says.

Now the place is crawling with cyclists, like Andrea Peron, a pro for 14 years, product manager Stefano Giraldi (pro for eight and former adversary of Mario Cipollini) and global marketing communications executive Søren Jensen. Don’t think they’re slowing down either: Smith and Peron were part of a group that cycled from the Eurobike industry show back to Castelli, a 470-kilometre leg-loosener last year.

“There’ll be times when we ride a prototype at lunch, do the feedback, make up another one and ride it in the evening,” Smith says. The American comes across as a ball of energy: as we talk, he subconsciously turns a yellow tape measure over in his hand.

Smith also polled key people in the organisation – employees, retailers, distributors – about what Castelli meant to them. The overwhelming response was that they still saw it as a race brand.

In 2006, they decided they had to return to the ProTour. “There were teams that wouldn’t even take our call,” Smith says. He is grateful to Mauro Gianetti for giving them a chance to back Spanish-registered team Saunier Duval. They introduced the first aerodynamic racing jersey in 2007, but few figures outside the sport noticed. Even within the team, David Millar was the only rider to regularly wear the garment as other riders didn’t believe that it made a difference. Convention is a difficult nut to crack.

The next sea change came on Bastille Day 2008. Smith remembers sitting anxiously outside a café, waiting for his sandwich. Riccardo Riccò’s Tour stage brace had just been followed by a positive test for EPO. His phone rang; it was Gerard Vroomen with a brave new project. Were Castelli interested in backing his fledgling Cervélo TestTeam?

It was a risk that paid off handsomely. The departing Saunier Duval hadn’t been focused on the spring Classics, whereas Cervélo wanted to impress from the off to gain wild card entries for the Tour and Giro.

What’s more, this team was straining at the leash of innovation. They had Castelli’s jerseys, aerodynamic Cervélo bicycles and Zipp carbon wheels. “Add up everybody's savings, they could have been as much as 25 Watts faster than everyone else, which is pretty remarkable,” Smith says. (The average normalised power for a professional cyclist on a 160km stage is around 275W.)

In using a professional team as a test bed for their products, Castelli was at the head of the curve too. The time was ripe for their rainwear revolution.

(page 1 of 4)

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