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Elastic Interface : Factory visit

James Spender
26 Aug 2015

A factory in Italy has been quietly turning out arguably the greatest cycling innovation. The product? The seat pad in your bib shorts.

Unless you follow Italian football you’ve probably never heard of San Vendemiano. With a population of 10,000, this town has little to put it on the map save for the fact that one of Italy’s favourite sons, centre forward Alessandro Del Piero, grew up here in the shadow of the Dolomites. Yet this isn’t San Vendemiano’s sole contribution to sport or the world at large. True, Del Piero may have won 91 caps for Italy, but look a little closer and San Vendemiano boasts an even bigger sporting leviathan: Elastic Interface.

You might not be familiar with Elastic Interface, but if you look inside your bibshorts you’ll find its invention: the soft, stretchy, anatomically shaped chamois or seat pad. And with 1.8 million sold last year alone, there’s a fair chance the seat pad in your shorts will have been made by the company from San Vendemiano. Now that you’re sitting comfortably, let’s begin…

Stitches in time

Elastic Interface was founded in 2001 by Marino De Marchi and Stefano Coccia. For those with an eye for fine Italian cycling apparel, De Marchi will be a familiar name, and indeed there is a close link between the companies.

‘Stefano and I are cousins, and our grandfather was Emilio De Marchi, who founded De Marchi clothing the year after the Second World War ended,’ says Marino De Marchi, a tall, tanned man with a lithe cyclist’s physique. ‘We both worked for De Marchi until the end of the 90s – I was focused on production, Stefano was general manager – but the clothing market was flat on innovation. We decided there was a big space – a wide blue ocean in front of us – when it came to cyclist comfort.

‘My cousin, Mauro – Stefano’s brother – is still in charge of De Marchi clothing, and we share our offices here in San Vendemiano, but in 2000 Stefano and I left to set up CyTech [the company that created and owns the Elastic Interface brand]. Our main focus was that the pad is the heart of the cycling short, yet we felt the seat pads on offer then were at odds with the direction shorts had gone. The shorts were made of Lycra, but the fleece pads sewn into them were totally stiff. Many pros were even riding with no seat pad at all.’

De Marchi and Coccia’s solution was to develop a seat pad that could stretch as the rider pedalled, while offering ‘protection, but without the Pampers effect, shall we say’. 

Those first-generation seat pads were developed with Tony Maier, the owner of Assos, which can count itself as the first manufacturer, in 2001, to have produced cycling shorts with seat pads that stretch in all directions. Yet the concept, according to company legend, dates back much further.

‘In the old days seat pads were called chamois and were made of deerskin,’ says De Marchi. ‘My grandfather would travel to Austria in a van to select the finest deerskin for the chamois. When Stefano was old enough he would travel with him, and sleep on the skins on the way home. One day when he woke up it occurred to him how uncomfortable the skins were to sleep on, and that’s when the idea of creating a softer, more comfortably chamois took root.’

Partnering up

Like most businesses in the cycling industry, Elastic Interface develops its products in-house but uses external suppliers and sub-contractors to source materials and produce the finished product, which it then sells to other manufacturers to stitch into their shorts. Italian textile company Miti supplies the fabrics, while the foams, and in some instances gels, used to give the pads cushioning come from an undisclosed source. 

‘The fabrics from Miti are sent to our supplier who laminates the material to the foam. It comes back here in these giant rolls and they start the cutting process,’ says De Marchi, as he opens the door to the shop floor of the Ulma factory that is contracted to produce Elastic Interface pads.

The factory is owned and run by Francisco Ullise Martin and his sons, and it attributes 90% of its work to orders from Elastic Interface. Next to De Marchi, Ullise Martin cuts a diminutive figure, and not one you might immediately associate with cycling, so it’s curious to think he’s been almost entirely responsible for Elastic Interface’s output for the last 15 years, and might very well have overseen the making of the pad you
sit on when you go riding.

‘Here we make up to 5,000 pads a day in the summer months,’ says Ullise Martin. ‘In the catalogue we have at least 50 styles of pads, but we are already up to manufacturing code 1,400. Think of the codes as a style, which means every time we make a unique pad – a different shape, colour, foam density – there is a new code. That’s a lot of different pads we have had to think about over the years!’

De Marchi explains that along with the ‘stock’ catalogue, Elastic Interface makes custom pads for its wide variety of clients, which includes Rapha, Specialized and Gore plus, of course, Assos.

‘You won’t necessarily see our logo on those pads, and you won’t see those pads in any other shorts – they’ve been designed exclusively for those customers. But we do sell anything from our catalogue to anyone who wants our seat pads, provided you place a minimum order of 200.’ So what if you wanted customised pads?

‘Customised pads are different. They require a minimum order of 5,000 pieces just to make the order worthwhile as we have to make special moulds and buy in different materials.’ Not a problem for the likes of Rapha and Assos, however, who apparently purchase around 80,000 and 200,000 pads per year respectively. That’s a lot of bibshorts.

Productivity level

Looking around the factory it’s interesting to note a number of similarities between the process of making seat pads and that of making carbon fibre bicycles. Roll upon roll of brightly coloured fabrics that have been laminated – that is, glued – to a variety of different density foams are stacked high to the rafters, much like the rolls of carbon prepreg sheets that you’ll find in a carbon fibre production line. 

The rolls are up to 70m long, and from each is taken a sample that is sent back to the head office, such that when it comes to quality control a batch of seat pads can be traced back to an individual roll. Only then does the roll enter into the production line, where huge presses with custom-made metal die-cutters (think pad-shaped biscuit cutters) stamp out
row upon row of different sections of material that comprise each seat pad. For smaller, more complex pieces, laser cutters are employed.

‘Our top-line Road Performance Comp pad is made up from seven pieces,’ says De Marchi. ‘For custom orders, the number of individual components can nearly double.’ 

The Ulma factory deals specifically with thermo-moulded seat pads (another factory nearby still makes the traditional hand-stitched type), so once the shapes have been cut they’re assembled strategically into moulds.

Over time the shaping of such moulds has become ever more elaborate, and today many moulds are three-dimensional, bearing striking resemblance to the kind used to create carbon components – a metal female mould machined from a solid block of billet with a matching male mould, each costing up to £3,500.

Once the pieces are in place, the moulds are put between heat presses and ‘baked’ at around 200°C, bonding the parts together in a homogenous piece. The precise timings and temperatures differ from pad to pad, and it’s getting this right that’s crucial – if a pad is in for too long or baked at too high a temperature the material will be compromised, bobbling, burning and hardening.

Executing this process is an exclusively female workforce, again a concept not unfamiliar to the cycling industry. ‘So much of this work takes accuracy and precision, and women are just so much better at that than men,’ says Ullise Martin knowingly.

Soft sells

Of course Elastic Interface is no longer alone in the world of stretchy seat pads. Although patents were filed, and continue to be, other manufacturers have found ways around them.

‘A few years ago we showed our new pads at [trade show] Eurobike,’ says De Marchi. ‘Interbike [another show] came just 20 days later, and by that time another manufacturer – who I will not name – had copies of our pads on their stand! It used to bother us, but we’d rather put our money into staying ahead than suing others.’

To that end, Elastic Interface has a long-standing relationship with the University of Padua’s sports science department, which it uses to better understand not only a rider’s anatomy, but how being comfortable affects performance on the bike. 

‘We’ve proved from studies that even if your body seems to tell you it doesn’t need protection it is actually still suffering,’ says De Marchi. ‘We’ve proved that by being more comfortable you use oxygen more efficiently so can generate more power for longer – because if you’re uncomfortable you’re continually moving about on the saddle and wasting energy. It took a while to convince the pros. They didn’t want to lose contact with the saddle no matter how much it hurt as they thought that would affect stability, but once they’d tried our pad a few times they realised the benefits. Now they are always asking for more comfort, more protection, not less.’

De Marchi admits that, as a concept, the elasticated pad is quite simple, yet its ubiquity in modern bibshorts speaks for itself, and the fact Elastic Interface is the biggest supplier in the market (around 25% share, and nearer 90% at the top end) is a clue to how well thought of these seat pads are. 

‘It’s hard to say how many races we’ve won, because we don’t sponsor any teams. The clothing manufacturers sponsor them, and in many instances we supply that manufacturer with seat pads. So all of Team Sky [Rapha] or Giant-Alpecin [Etxeondo] race and win on our pads. And there are many riders who send their bibshorts to us, or even come for fittings, who want our pads stitched into their shorts. We cannot say who, as they still have their sponsors to look after,’ De Marchi says with a wink.

With that sort of pedigree, it’s a safe bet many of us will be sitting on an Elastic Interface seat pads for many years to come.

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