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Viva Italia: Inside Wilier

Peter Stuart
25 May 2016

Wilier may have moved most of its production to China, but the brand’s soul is still very much in Italy, as Cyclist discovers.

‘In Italy, everyone is a big dog,’ says Wilier’s international sales manager, Claudio Salomoni, discussing the Italian bike industry as we drive to the company’s headquarters in the Veneto region of northern Italy. ‘Everyone is so strong; everyone is the best. Last year we fought each other so hard over where to hold our bike show that we ended up holding two shows on the same day, one in Padova and another in Verona.’

Hard-headedness is probably the one thing that hasn’t changed in an industry where virtually everything else has. As we drive, Salomoni points to empty warehouses, reminiscing, ‘That’s where we used to get our tubing… that was once a frame factory.’ Nothing is as it was. The country with the greatest heritage in cycling can no longer rely purely on the prestige of its marques, and even the most traditional of Italian bike builders have had to modernise to survive.

Changing pace

‘In 1995 we made 1,000 frames per year. Now our number is 30,000,’ says Andrea Gastaldello, co-owner of Wilier. As a result, Wilier’s headquarters is used less as a factory and more as a centre for assembly, design and prototype development. As with most of the high-end Italian brands – such as Pinarello, De Rosa and Colnago – frame production largely takes place in Asian factories.

The increased competition and cost of mass-producing carbon frames has driven many smaller bike businesses out of the market. ‘The Italian industry in the last 15 years has changed from a theatre of many actors to a theatre with few actors,’ Gastaldello says. ‘There were once many small companies making steel parts and frames. Now with carbon there are four or five big players in Italy with the necessary reach and production capacity.’

For some, outsourcing carbon production to the Far East is at odds with the perception of home-grown artisan frames, detracting from each brand’s unique appeal. Yet, in reality, the opposite is true – the carbon revolution has put power back into the hands of the manufacturer. Gastaldello says, ‘With steel, the production was here in Italy but you did not have the possibility to personalise the frame. We had to get tubes from suppliers, Columbus or Dedacciai, and we couldn’t make many changes from the basic material. 

‘With carbon the production is not here but it is our own product, it is a special product made by us and supplied for us, only for us, and people can recognise the Wilier frames from other brands’ frames. With steel frames it is not possible to do this.’

So the rooms that once housed welders now play host to CFD modelling computers and product testing. But Wilier’s story is more than just a transition from steel to carbon.

It’s all history

One thing hasn’t changed over the century of Wilier’s existence: it remains a family business, only with different families. First it was the Dal Molin family, today it’s the Gastaldello brothers, and in between Wilier has had a complex and turbulent history.

Pietro Dal Molin founded Wilier in 1906, crafting steel bikes on the banks of the river Brenta at a time when a newly mobile public demanded transport. The name Wilier is an acronym derived from an Italian phrase meaning ‘Long live Italy, liberated and redeemed’. Business boomed, but it couldn’t last indefinitely. Gastaldello says, ‘After the two World Wars the company was very big, with more than 300 employees, but it struggled with the economic crisis of the 1950s and the arrival of motorbikes.’

Wilier came to an end in the post-war period, but in its place Wilier Triestina was born. It produced high-quality steel frames distinguished by their deep red copper tint, which became a trademark. A couple of the old bikes are kept in the Wilier museum at the company’s headquarters, and they are indeed things of beauty – the deep red hue is offset by the gleaming chrome down tube shifters and impeccable white decals. It’s clear that even in a period of stunning bike design, Wilier’s frames stood out.

The golden (or rather copper) age didn’t last long, though, as the craze for motorbikes and scooters continued unabated. ‘The company had many financial problems and decided to cease activity,’ says Gastaldello. ‘It was split into parts that were sold off separately, but they sold the brand name to my grandfather in 1969.’

Initially, Wilier’s new incarnation made frames for local shops, but it began to gather momentum around the time the Gastaldello brothers – Michele, Andrea and Enrico – joined forces with their father Lino. ‘Together with my father we started to develop the business in 1989,’ Gastaldello says. ‘Until then the business was only developed in this region, but then we started to develop all over Italy, then Europe and then step by step we started to sell our products all over the world. Today we are represented in five continents.’

Over the years the brand has struck up associations with various pro riders, including 1998 Tour de France winner Marco Pantani. He became close friends with Lino Gastaldello, who was a prominent figure in the pro cycling scene. Pantani’s aluminium bike still sits in the Wilier showroom, and Gastaldello pulls it enthusiastically from the showroom wall. ‘We were the first brand in Europe to use Easton aluminium tubes, which helped us achieve very light weights,’ he says. 

Although Wilier has no presence in the World Tour pro peloton today, it does sponsor Pippo Pozzato's Wilier-Southeast Pro-Conti team, and continues to innovate with designs and materials in its hunt for more weight savings. When the brand released its first carbon monocoque frame in 2001, it weighed only 1,200g, a landmark for the time. Ten years later, in 2011, Wilier was one of the first brands to dip below the 800g mark for a mass-production frame with its Zero.7. Those 400g saved over a 10-year period speak of a laborious process of design and refined production methods, all thanks to the work done here in Veneto.

Whittling Wilier

‘We need between 12 and 18 months to develop the products from their beginning,’ says Gastaldello. ‘We have engineers and some graphic consultants who work with us to develop our products. It’s a team job between our family and the professionals. It’s a process of discussion between us, the teams, the engineers and the supplier to see whether we are able to develop the product.’

To see the workings of Wilier in action, Gastaldello allows us the rare opportunity of sitting in on a design meeting. The brothers go over CAD designs of a new aero frame with engineer Marco, the technical expert behind all of Wilier’s recent developments. He’s a material engineer, 6ft 6in tall, and very much at the forefront of the development process: ‘In the last few years I’ve worn out two passports travelling to China to spend time at the factories there.’

Marco sits at the computer and makes tweaks to the bike’s design. One moment he’s modelling airflow over the entire bike, and the next he has zoomed-in to manipulate the curvature of the interior of the seat clamp on a micro scale. From here, prototypes will often be developed in Italy for further testing. ‘It’s important for us to keep a theatre here, and a theatre in China,’ Gastaldello says.

When Wilier needs to mock up prototypes, it calls on the services of local carbon frame builder Diego, whose factory sits inconspicuously opposite a tractor shed. Diego and his wife Romina (who are in a hot-blooded Italian shouting match when we visit) design frames for local shops as well as for their own brand, Visual. 

‘I am fighting against China but I am proud to be a link between past and present,’ Diego says. Salomoni adds, ‘There’s 25 years of knowledge here, and he can do anything.’

True to his self-image as a link between the past and the present, Diego’s factory is a charming mix of old-fashioned artisan frame making and modern production methods. A team of women weaves carbon strands and wraps sheets of carbon around the frame bonds. Once the pieces are secured in place they are put into Diego’s archaic walk-in oven. ‘A full frame needs 120°C for 90 minutes. It needs to be right, otherwise the resin will not melt if the time is too short and the carbon will deform if it is too long.’ 

When there is a carbon frame-making factory just down the road, it’s easy to ask why Wilier doesn’t keep all its production in Italy, but Diego puts things into perspective: ‘We make 1,200 aluminium frames and only 500 carbon frames per year. The process is slow,’ he stresses.

Despite outsourcing the manufacturing of its bikes to China, Wilier is keen to highlight how much control it maintains over the production process and the importance of maintaining strong relationships with its supplier. Gastaldello says, ‘We produce a shape and all this information is generated by us and developed with our Chinese supplier, then we decide together which kind of carbon fibre to use, and which kind of laminate. We spend a lot of time working with the supplier to get everything right.’

Wilier places similar importance on its relationship with component manufacturers, despite the homegrown hostilities. ‘Campagnolo is in Vicenza so we are very close,’ says Salomoni. ‘Now we have more interaction than the old days. Before, Campy was number one; now it’s all, “Excuse me, please can we do something together?” If they want to do something new, they need the frame maker to follow with something different as well.’ Such cooperation was crucial in developments such as the BB86 bottom bracket system, which Wilier claims as its own innovation.

Along with R&D, Wilier still prides itself on putting the final touches to its highest-end frames. Assembly of the Cento Uno, Cento Air and Zero.7 still takes place at the Veneto factory. ‘We have 40 people on the assembly line, more or less, and much of the painting still takes place at a local paint shop.’ 

Similar to Diego’s frame factory, the paint shop is in an industrial complex, surrounded by empty buildings, and owned by Ricardo, a veteran of the trade. It’s skilled work, he says, and the only painters trusted with decals are the most experienced of the group – all of whom are women. It’s a family business going back to before the Gastaldello’s takeover of Wilier, and that artisan heritage is clearly something Wilier still values.

Brave new Wilier

A century of heritage, it seems, serves only to bring new challenges. ‘We have always had many competitors here but now it is our competition from foreign countries that has become most important,’ Gastaldello says.  

The art of Italian frame making has certainly changed – ‘the theatre’, as Gastaldello continues to describe it, is now being acted out for a global audience, against international competitors. But as Wilier proves, heritage and technology can still come together to produce a world-
class performance.

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