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In the name of the father: Valentino Campagnolo profile

As head of one of cycling’s most revered brands, Valentino Campagnolo grants Cyclist a rare audience at the company’s base in Vicenza

Enzo Ferrari once remarked, ‘I am convinced that when a man tells a woman he loves her, he only means that he desires her, and that the only total love in this world is that of a father for his son.’

While one made his business from cars and the other from bikes, there are striking similarities between Messrs Enzo Ferrari and Tullio Campagnolo.

Their companies don’t just have customers, they have tifosi, whose love extends beyond ownership and into the fanatical, filling books, galleries and museums with carefully curated paraphernalia and misty-eyed stories.

Enzo once quipped that he’d ‘married the 12-cylinder engine’, while Tullio told a journalist from La Gazetta that ‘Cycling is hard and no one likes the struggle, but anything in life
is possible… just think, work and understand what you need.’

These philosphies led Enzo to create the world’s most desirable cars and Tullio some of cycling’s most coveted components. In time, one would even go on to supply the other’s business.

In passing, both men left the illustrious marques they founded to their sons.

Enzo to Piero, the enigmatic, illegitimate child of his mistress, Lina Lardi, and Tullio to Valentino, an equally mysterious figure for whom Cyclist is now apprehensively waiting.

The legacy

Valentino slips into the large boardroom via a side door, like an elder statesman stepping up to the rostrum.

Dressed in a crisply pressed, pin-striped Ralph Lauren shirt, equally crisp chinos and polished patent shoes, he is the epitome of Italian refinement, understated but with the subtle finesse afforded by sunny climes and well-lined pockets.

His frame undoubtedly helps too. Approaching his 68th year, ‘Mr Campagnolo’ as his employees reverentially refer to him, is remarkably trim, only showing his age in the heaviness of his eyes and the speed of his movements.

Like a snooker referee trying not to disturb the balls, Valentino pads gently to a leather chair positioned beneath a carved picture of his late father.

One gets the impression the composition of the scene, though not consciously contrived, is far from coincidence.

Even in death Tullio still seems present, and within minutes of our introduction the subject turns to the company founder.

‘My father was born with the bicycles… that was his passion,’ begins Valentino, with a meter so slow it’s not entirely clear what is a pause and what is a stop.

‘He was a racer first, and because of this he always designed his equipment with the racer in mind. He made beautiful products. Reliable. Efficient. Used by many, many champions.’

Indeed, Tullio enjoyed a decent career as a cyclist himself – albeit an amateur one – capped by winning the Astico-Brenta one-day race in 1928 (although it is often misreported he won the Giro di Lombardia and Milan-San Remo).

However, it’s as a component manufacturer that Tullio really triumphed. A list of Campagnolo-equipped winners reads like a hall of fame: Bartali, Coppi, Anquetil, Gimondi, Merckx, Hinault, LeMond, Roche, Indurain, Ullrich, Pantani, Nibali.

And they’re just the bigger names. In fact, 41 of the 74 Tours contested with gears have been won using Campagnolo components.

Gino Bartali’s Tour win – and Campagnolo’s first – came in 1948, a year before Valentino was born, and he says he has never known a life without the duality of Campagnolo the family and Campagnolo the brand.

‘My father would take me to the races from a very young age, to meet the racers, the champions. A lot of them came to our house.

‘The very first memory I have is of Fausto Coppi arriving at my father’s house, and staying with us for two nights. I was playing with some toy cars and I remember looking up and seeing this man.

‘I was shocked even though I was too young to really understand what this man was.

‘I knew his name and his reputation, but as a young boy I could not know what he meant to people. Growing up I had the chance to know a lot of important racers.’

Father’s footsteps

Valentino’s early life might sound idyllic to any cycling-obsessed kid, yet by his own admission it wasn’t necessarily the easiest fit.

Tullio was a big fish in a growing pond, having revolutionised cycling with the invention of the quick-release hub in 1930, the Cambio Corsa rod actuated derailleur in 1940, and by popularising the sprung parallelogram rear derailleur in 1953, the Gran Sport, which has formed the basis of virtually every mechanical rear derailleur since.

Tullio employed his first worker in 1940 and within a decade had a workforce of 123.

‘My father was dedicated to professional cycling, both in industrial terms and personally. He was president of a local club called Veloce Club Vicenza [which he raced for as an amateur] and was very active helping the juniors.

‘He would take me to meetings and I would meet his friends of the same age as him – which I didn’t mention. When I was born my father was 50 years old.

‘This meant there was a sizeable difference between me and him not just in years, but in life. He went through the First and Second World Wars, with all the negativity that brought, whereas I was untouched by those crazy events.’

Valentino says this with wide, almost harried eyes, and while he doesn’t care to elaborate – it’s becoming increasingly clear here is a man who tells you less what you want to know and more what he wants you to know – the inference is that life under Tullio was not always easy.

He refers to his father’s approach as ‘egocentric’, and explains that as a young man he was more taken with another arm of the Campagnolo business, which while profitable was not where his father’s heart lay.

He will not say it, but by lingering on certain words and contorting his face in certain expressions, there is the pretext of trying to please and being disappointed.

‘In the 1960s Campagnolo was also involved in the automotive industry. This was not my father’s passion, but as a boy and a young man you can imagine the appeal of a company that supplied Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Alfa, Lancia, BMW, Abarth. We worked with NASA – there were Campagnolo parts in space!

‘I started working in the automotive side of the business in Bologna. I was living in a fantastic world.’

Despite being the CEO of one of cycling’s most respected companies, it’s this early part of Valentino’s life that seems to have brought him a huge amount of joy.

Leading us out of the boardroom to a floodlit corner of the hallway, Valentino gestures towards a navy-blue painted Campagnolo wooden bicycle cart used to deliver components in the early days. It would undoubtedly set any Campagnolo fan’s heart a-flutter, yet it’s not this piece of history that brings a smile to Valentino’s face.

Rather, it’s a small, framed certificate hanging next to it.

‘I was working on the magnesium wheel production for cars. We developed a low-pressure casting process that meant we could make them thinner, lighter and faster than anyone else.

‘We were invited to present a paper to the International Magnesium Association. My father did not speak English, so he told me, “You will present the paper.”

‘I was 25 years old, and in a huge conference with distinguished engineers from around the world. When I presented that paper my legs were like jelly. But I did my job, and they presented me with this certificate. The plate it is cut from is magnesium!’

That wouldn’t be the only baptism of fire for the young Valentino.

Mountain peaks and troughs

‘After five or six years I began trying to understand the cycling side of the business. Then, when I was 33, my father died suddenly, so I had to take over,’ says Valentino.

‘I am not scared to say I wasn’t ready. It was 1983 and we were making beautiful products, but we were not so up-to-date with our methods and tools.

‘Then in 1984, from California, came the beginnings of this wave: mountain bikes.’

Valentino believes that within two years the road bike share of the European market fell from 35% to 4%. His company, though full of what he consistently refers to as ‘the knowledge’, faced difficult times.

It was slow to react, labour costs were rising and a leviathan was emerging from the Far East.

‘There was intense competition from Japan, the mountain bike boom and all these new demands from the market. It was a new world. I was definitely worried about collapse. There was pressure in every respect.

‘What to do, how to do it? The person on whom I could count in terms of product development was my father – the technical director, the technician, the chairman.

‘There were others, but those people were used to executing his direction and ideas. And I am not an inventor. How can you ask somebody to run if they have never even walked?’

Yet Valentino is modest to a fault. He says he ‘tried very carefully not to make revolutions’ as he attempted to steady the ship, but from an external perspective his management heralded a new dawn.

The mountain bike market proved a tough nut to crack, so instead Valentino withdrew the company from the dogfight and set it to work on what it knew best.

‘There was no special recipe to managing the company. I just tried to understand the rules and the tools that were in line with our heritage. I tried to respect how Campagnolo developed its role in the bike market.’

To that end, the company refocused its entire efforts on the high-end road market. At first it might be considered to have been ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, more often matching its Japanese counterpart as opposed to bettering it, but by the late 1990s it was showing a revitalised spirit, epitomised by Marco Pantani’s Giro-Tour double in 1998, as ridden on a Campagnolo Record groupset and Campagnolo Shamal wheels.

‘In my time we have worked on developing the chain and cassette [Campagnolo introduced the first 10-speed drivetrain in 2000 and the first 11-speed in 2008, four years before Shimano], the first aero road wheel – the Shamal – and the first factory-assembled aero wheels.

‘We produced the first tenso-structure wheel, the lenticular disc wheel, the first wheel with no spokes. We moved into lighter products having perceived what was in the automotive field, and began to make many parts in carbon fibre.

‘But please, I do not want to say I did this, because it was my colleagues. My job was to make sure they had the resources so they could innovate.’

Keepers of the keys

The Campagnolo mantle has been both blessing and curse for Valentino. He speaks openly of the joy he feels knowing that people are using his products, but is all too aware that while the present is rosy, the future is still unknown.

‘There is another side to this business, which has a different taste, which makes me anxious, because I feel responsibility to carry on the business, but it is not easy.

‘Our competitors are very clever. Labour costs are rising. The reaction time in European production is maybe not so fast. Because of all this, we must be careful to do things in line with the length of our legs.’

As it stands, Campagnolo is making big strides into the future. It’s been a fully paid-up member of the electronic brigade for a number of years, and this year joined the disc brake army, despite Valentino once remarking, ‘I’d rather drink pinot grigio from California than have disc brakes on my road bikes.’

And in all this, Campagnolo has somehow managed to preserve a mystique that holds its fans in rapture. As Valentino puts it so eloquently, ‘We maintain the flavour but with a modern recipe.’ But what is the secret to the sauce?

‘I have three children – two daughters and a son. I hope that my son can continue the business, and my daughters wish to be involved too.

‘But I say to them the owner of the company is important, but more important is to respect everyone that works here, and consider your stay here a time to be able to help those people.

‘Everybody here is a custodian of this company, from the doorman who greets everyone with a smile, to the technicians, to the management.

‘The future is very bright? No. We have a future, but it depends on all of us whether that future is good or not. We must engage ourselves totally.’

With 34 years in charge and counting, Valentino is doing just that.

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