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Inside Pinarello (gallery)

James Spender
12 Jan 2018

How a farmer’s son, a backhand deal and an unwavering belief took a small-time steel builder to the forefront of pro cycling

‘I try to ride on the top tube like Froome. I can do it, but it’s not easy. Everything about it is better though.

‘When he first did it last year they said he decided on the day, but I know that he was practising and in the wind-tunnel long before, working out the most aerodynamic positions. But still, when I see him ride like this, I am afraid.’

For a man claiming to be apprehensive of speed on two wheels, Fausto Pinarello’s entrance is a curious one.

On my arrival at Pinarello’s HQ – a building with the character of an invading chrome-glass spaceship in the midst of an industrial estate – I have been ushered through a moodily lit foyer into a cavernous, blindingly white hangar.

There, over the zizzing of air-tools and the beeping of forklifts, a human-shaped blur rushes into view to the unmistakable whine of an electric motor. He’s riding a Segway.

‘It does 21kmh,’ says Fausto, in reference to that most inevitable of questions. ‘This is my second one. The first I killed in three years.

‘I did 5,000km around the factory on it – now imagine if I had to walk. Sometimes I even commute in on this. I live very nearby. But this place really is my house.’

That dad built

You’ll get pretty far down the list of Italian bicycle archetypes before you find one that Pinarello – both man and company – doesn’t embody.

Only there is a twist. Yes, founder Giovanni ‘Nani’ Pinarello was a moderately successful racer, the eighth of 12 brothers from working-class farming stock who learnt the rudiments of building steel frames at the age of 15.

But from there his pathway to success came through unusual means, and he founded his company in even stranger circumstances.

A promising junior, Nani failed to make a mark in the pro peloton until 1951, when he came dead last in the Giro d’Italia.

At the time, as with the Tour’s lanterne rouge, winning the maglia nera was considered a huge honour. So it was that Nani Pinarello became a household name – all the more so when the race’s organisers put paid to the black jersey the following year, claiming tactics were getting out of hand.

Riders were hiding in barns, deliberately puncturing their tyres and riding on despite horrendous injuries just for the chance to finish at the back.

Inevitably, though, Nani’s ‘fame’ was short-lived and the following year he was asked by his team, Bottechia, to step down in exchange for 100,000 lire.

A talented rider named Pasqualino Fornara had just been released by Bottechia’s arch-rival, Bianchi, and the team wanted him to ride the 1952 Giro in Nani’s place.

Heartbreaking as it must have been, the 29-year-old resolved to use the money to open a bike shop in his home town of Treviso, in which the company still resides, and in 1953 Cicli Pinarello was born.

‘By the 1970s and 80s my father was selling 30,000 bicycles a year,’ says Fausto. ‘But the big breakthrough moment for us was the Columbus SLX Montello bike. It cost one million lire, which in 1985 was a good month’s wages.’

In a shrewd move, Pinarello sponsored Indian-American Alexi Grewal in the 1984 Olympic Road Race, and Grewal obliged by pedalling a Montello to an exciting victory, narrowly beating Canadian Steve Bauer.

The replica and commemorative models all but sold themselves, and overnight Pinarello became one of the most prized marques in Italy.

He who dares

That might sound like a stroke of luck, but Pinarello has always sought to make its own.

While Pinarello senior had built steel frames as a teenager for local brand Paglianti, these were largely city bikes, so recognising his own shortcomings as a race bike telaista he employed others to make his products.

What he did know, however, was the value of good marketing, and he recognised the pro peloton as the best vehicle for achieving it.

Within seven years Pinarello was sponsoring its first pro team, Mainetti, and in 1961 it had its first high-profile win at the inaugural ‘junior’ Tour de France, the Tour de l’Avenir (with Italian amateur Guido De Rosso).

Two Tour stages followed in 1967 with Marino Basso, then a 1975 Giro win by Fausto Bertoglio, but it was the Vuelta/Giro double in 1981 by Giovanni Battaglin that kicked off more than three decades of astounding dominance.

‘I’ll show you the bike,’ says Fausto, leading the way past great racks of Dogma frames and hundreds of forks to beneath the factory’s mezzanine level.

‘The’ bike turns out to be a collection, which Fausto explains has been pulled from the archives for another Pinarello-sponsored enterprise, the Granfondo Pinarello, 20 years to the good and counting.

‘Battaglin rode this on the queen climb of the 1981 Giro, the Tre Cime di Lavaredo [Stage 19], and that stage decided the race.

It is a very hard climb, so father and the mechanic decided to a make a triple chainset, which they prepared the night before by hand,’ he says, pointing at a Pinarello pantographed chainset.

Whether it was the chainset, the legs or a combination of both, Battaglin was able to drift away from rival Giuseppe Saronni in a move that would ultimately pave the way to the maglia rosa and double Grand Tour glory.

‘He did the double but we did the triple that day.’

Thirty-six years on and Pinarello’s palmarès reads more like a list of races in general than specific race victories.

Wins at Paris-Roubaix and the men’s Tour of Flanders still elude the company, but it’s more than made up for with World Championships (Diana Ziliute and Rui Costa, road race, 1998 and 2013; Wiggins and Vasil Kiryienka, time-trial, 2014 and 2015), a huge haul of Tour points jerseys from Erik Zabel around the turn of the century, two Hour records (Miguel Indurain, 1994; Wiggins 2015), and the small matter of 14 Tour de France victories.

Admittedly, a few of Indurain’s winning bicycles were actually made by Dario Pegoretti and only rebadged as Pinarellos, but Fausto meets a comment suggesting as much with a shrug and a smile. ‘This is what they all did then – custom bikes.’

Eastern promise

Fausto Pinarello started working full time at the company aged 25, in 1988, the year Pedro Delgado won Pinarello’s first Tour.

He took over the reins in the early 2000s, enjoying some the company’s most illustrious years. Again, some luck. And this time he agrees.

‘I said to my father about 10 years before he died, one of the last times he could understand me, “Hey, Papa, I think you are the luckiest guy in the world!”

‘He asks me why and tell him, “Because you have someone like me that came to work for you at 17 years old, and I take on the company and I try to make it grow.”

‘There is Ernesto [Colnago], but he wants to sell. There is De Rosa, the three brothers, but they must at this moment look to strangers to take over the business started by their father.

‘Wilier I think are just more of a commercial company anyway. Then others like Fondriest and Battaglin, they came from racing backgrounds maybe with not that much business acumen.

‘Merckx said to me once that his son Axel made more money than he ever did.

‘I am 55 now and to do this for 39 years you need passion, and luck. Good people to tell you to go this way and that way.

‘That’s why I can say I’m lucky because I always find the best people. Like in the same way you meet the love of your life. Luck.’

Some of those ‘best people’, by Fausto’s own admission, have been found in the Far East.

‘He believes Pinarello was the last big Italian outfit to leave the local workshops in favour of Taiwan in 2005, and while he does admit a soft spot for Italian-made steel, he sees no reason to look anywhere other than abroad for bikes today.

‘If I could I’d love to make steel bikes here again, but to make them like we used to 50 years ago is not possible for a company our size.

‘Small companies can do this, but they can count the frames they make per day on their fingers. So no, it wasn’t hard to move production to the Far East. They learned carbon technology from the Americans, and now they are the best.

‘People say you can’t do custom this way, but look, we have 14 sizes of Dogma, and those same people cannot say they can do monocoque construction, which for me is the best.

‘This is what I always say: I don’t care where the technology comes from for my products, I just want the best technology, and right now that comes from Taiwan.’

The bike’s the business

Today, the Pinarello facility stands as a monument to the new age of cycle manufacture.

On one side of the factory floor frames and forks delivered from Pinarello’s partner factories in the Far East are unboxed and racked up, still in their raw matt black state.

A team then scrutinises each piece, rejects anything with a flaw that can’t be polished out then passes them over to be prepped and painted.

The other half of the space is given over to the storing of components, such as groupsets and wheels, assembly of bikes for shops or events and the storage of Pinarello’s finished products.

It’s an incredibly slick operation of laboratory-level fastidiousness, and while some misty-eyed cyclists will lament this set-up, others will see it as cutting edge.

‘We have about 500 frames in production at any one time. We ship 1,500 frames per month from here [lower-end models are asssembled in factories in the Far East] and, currently, 99% of those are Dogma F10s.

‘Its success is incredible. We have two designers here and two in the UK who do our CFD – they also work for British Cycling – and they’ve helped lower the weight and make it more aerodynamic, but improving on the F8 was hard.

‘People talk about going lighter, but I say to do that safely you have to reduce the sizes of the tubes, and that would be like going back 10 years, all for the sake of 100g. We arrived at 800g, 850g and for me that is enough. I want to be able to sleep at night.’

Fausto says that in 2015 the company shipped 10,400 Dogma F8s, but this year he expects the F10 to eclipse 13,000 units.

All top-end Dogmas come through here, from the disc brake F8X to the new K10S Disk with its electronically controlled rear shock and the extra-light Dogma F10X, as ridden by Chris Froome this year.

Which begs the question, why should Froome ride a lighter bike when he already needs to add ballast to a regular F10 to hit the 6.8kg UCI weight minimum?

‘He is always looking for the lightest bike that is also the safest – that is the racer’s mindset,’ says Fausto matter-of-factly. ‘It’s a mental thing.’

Fausto’s expression is one that suggests he’s sure the logic is in there somewhere, but given the ride Team Sky have given him as he has handed out their bikes, plus millions in sponsorship, it’s a recipe that definitely works.

Victory parade

A few of Pinarello’s race-winning bikes

Tre Cime Acciaio

When all around him were riding doubles, Pinarello made Giovanni Battaglin this triple chainset steed on which to tackle the Tre Cime di Lavaredo during the 1981 Giro d’Italia.

Engineers machined the Campagnolo 53/44t Record chainset to fit a third 36t chainring, but without affecting the rider’s Q-factor (adding an extra inside ring would usually have forced the chainset outboard).

This gave Battaglin a smallest gear of 36x24 – enough to win the stage and claim the maglia rosa, which he kept until the finish two days later.

Espada Carbon

Designed by Elvio Borghetto – the same man who executed Battaglin’s triple chainset and who still works at the company – this bike helped Miguel Indurain become the first rider to break 53km when he successfully attempted the Hour record in 1994.

‘It was very sad that the UCI banned this frame shape,’ says Fausto Pinarello. ‘If the rider doesn’t have good legs then he will not win, but could Bradley have gone further in his Hour with this bike? I think it is very possible.’

Bolide HR

Based on Pinarello’s Bolide time-trial frame and created in conjunction with aerodynamicists at Jaguar, this is the bike that currently holds the Hour record at 54.526km, set in 2015 by Wiggins.

By re-engineering the fork to be tighter to the front wheel and the bars to create less low pressure behind the elbow, the bike was said to be 7.5% quicker than the road-going Bolide.

Much of the cockpit was 3D-printed in titanium, and the frame was made in true one-piece construction to optimise weight and stiffness.

Dogma F8

As pedalled by Chris Froome on the Champs-Élysées in 2015, this commemorative yellow edition of the Pinarello Dogma F8 still bears Froome’s race number and timing tracker under the saddle.

Fausto Pinarello says the company doesn’t paint these bikes in advance as it’s bad luck, however he has ridden it a few times. ‘I had to ride it from the Champs-Élysées back to the hotel.

People were like, “Wow, it’s the bike!”, but I just thought, “How can Chris maintain this position with such an amount of drop?”’

Faustian bargain

Last year Pinarello was sold to a private equity fund. So what does this mean for the company? 

In December 2016 news broke that Pinarello had sold a majority stake in the company to a private equity fund part-owned by the LVMH group, a conglomerate made up of Louis Vuitton, Moët & Chandon and Hennessy. So what does this mean for Pinarello?

‘I’ve done a deal and I’m in the minority, but I still own the company, I put my money in my company because I trust my company,’ says Fausto Pinarello.

‘Our new partners are good at marketing and distribution, and it sends a message, a profitable message. No, there will never be a Louis Vuitton Pinarello bike! It would be easier to have a Pinarello Louis Vuitton handbag.

‘So not much will change. Next year there will be a new aero frame and a new all-round frame for 2019, and we will keep working on front suspension.

‘The only thing that did change was that last Christmas, instead of everyone being given the customary prosecco, we all received Dom Perignon [also owned by LVMH]. That is good, not bad!’

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