In the land of caffé latte, pasta, and panini, the locals are passionate about almost everything. Whether it’s cannelloni, costate, or chianti, Italians know what they like. And they like to savor it.
This is the atmosphere in which Italy has built its passion for ciclismo and the burgeoning industry that supports and develops it. Unlike the rest of the world, where the bicycle business follows the mainstream norm of corporate mergers and acquisitions, Italy has retained an almost cottage-industry quality, with its unique bicycle builders, specialist parts manufacturers, apparel companies, and associated brands clustered in handfuls in small villages and towns throughout the countryside of northern Italy.
Italian cycling has its mega-companies, of course, like Campagnolo, but the Italian bicycle industry derives its character from the small frame shops and craftsmen that have evolved from the sport’s early roots in the late 19th century.
This does not mean that the industrialists of Italian cycling have been slow to modernize their factories and technology. In fact, at the start of the 21st century, ciclismo italiano continues to lead the world in many aspects of design, fabrication, and innovation.
Despite their idiosyncrasies, Italian companies have truly grasped their position in the global economy, and many have benefited from their strong economic role within the European Community. And it is not unrelated that Italian racers and teams are among the best in the world—particularly in road cycling.
Indeed, more than any other country in the world, Italy is a land steeped in the romanticism of cycling. Although the bicycle evolved as a means of transportation in other places—the Germany of Karl von Drais, the Scotland of Kirkpatrick Macmillan, the France of Pierre Michaux, and the England of James Starley—it is Italy that can claim the first image of a chain-driven, two-wheeled machine. The bicycle-like drawing came from the pen of Leonardo da Vinci, who, besides being the quintessential Renaissance painter and sculptor, was an engineer and inventor. Five hundred years later, Italian engineers are still on the cusp of bicycle design, while the bicicletta is experiencing a new renaissance, largely driven by the success of Italy’s competitive racing scene.
Ever since the first Italian road race, Milan–Turin, in 1876, the sport of ciclismo has enjoyed a turbulent but glorious history. In Italy, cycling has always been an inextricable part of day-to-day affairs. It is not a coincidence that journalists who cover cycling are among the highest-paid writers in Italy . . . and also the most elegantly dressed. And ever since the sport’s romantic origins—when top-hatted socialites watched riders dressed as jockeys racing on velocipedes in a Milan park—they’ve never been at a loss for a story.
In the 1920s, Italy’s first winner of the Tour de France, Ottavio Bottecchia, raced for a French team and was seen as a turncoat by the Italian fascist party, and supporters of the party were believed to be responsible for the champion’s unexplained death on a training ride when at the height of his fame.
In the 1930s, the country’s second Tour winner, Gino Bartali—known as Gino the Pious—was revered for his religious devotion. And when a younger rival, Fausto Coppi, came along, the opposing sets of supporters split the country. Commenting on the situation, Italian author Curzio Malparte wrote, “Bartali has metaphysical powers, a man protected by the saints. But Coppi has no one in the heavens to look after him.”
In postwar Italy, Bartali became an icon for the emerging Christian Democratic party, whose leader, a friend of the cyclist, asked Bartali to win a stage of the 1948 Tour de France, to lift the country’s morale. The cyclist was so inspired that he won the whole Tour. At the same time, Coppi scandalized the religious faction by having a well-publicized extramarital affair with a mysterious “Lady in White.” But when Coppi died from a lung infection at age 40, after catching malaria on a trip to Africa, the country was thrown into deep mourning.
Coppi’s renown was developed on many fronts. Besides being a media personality and a war hero, he was a phenomenally successful racer: His career included multiple victories in the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, and one-day classics; world championships on road and track; and even a world hour record. He was also a pioneer in the use of sports medicine and bicycle technology. The end result was that Coppi popularized his sport more than any other cyclist in Italian history.
Almost 50 years after his death, Coppi’s charisma is still an inextricable part of cycling’s popularity in the peninsula. Road racing remains the event of the common man. An excursion to watch the Giro d’Italia is an “occasion” that often calls for dressing in one’s smartest clothes and making a day of it—complete with a lavish, multi-course picnic—in the countryside.
The three-week, 4000-kilometer Giro takes place in the dramatically changeable weather of May and June, and as a result, many legends have emerged about racers battling the elements in the event. One of the all-time epics came in 1959, when eventual winner Charly Gaul, a gifted climber from Luxembourg, overcame a snowstorm on Monte Bondone to take the leader’s maglia rosa (pink jersey). A decade later, Belgian phenomenon Eddy Merckx achieved similar fame when he emerged from a blizzard on the Tre Cime di Lavaredo mountain in the Dolomites to clinch the first of his five Giro victories. Then, in 1988, the hero was an American, Andy Hampsten, who mastered freezing rain and snow over the unpaved Passo di Gavia to take over the race leadership.
Of course, Italy is built for racing—and riding—a bicycle. The pace in the countryside is slow. The vistas of vineyards, olive groves, and hilltop towns are incomparable. And the quiet, winding, rolling roads seem to take the cyclist to every beautiful spot in the land.
The challenging terrain and racing infrastructure give the Italian cycling industry a superb test bed for its products, and with tremendous competition between companies within each product category, only those firms with the highest quality are able to survive. That’s why small manufacturers, with their particular mystique, can ride alongside much larger corporations, and why they are able to co-exist.
Indeed, the Italian bicycle industry remains a unique blend of brilliant technology and homespun artisanship. Just as the romanticism of the sport lives on, so the industry retains its commitment to art and innovation. And if the label on a new bicycle, component, or piece of apparel says “Made in Italy,” you can almost smell the aroma of the espresso, taste the wine, and feel the vibrant air of riding those Tuscan roads. Leonardo would have been proud.