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Blow by blow: inside Silca

In-depth
4 Oct 2018
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Words Stu Bowers Photography Rob Milton

Josh Poertner’s lunch is getting cold. The president of pump manufacturer Silca is too busy telling the story of how he came to own a brand that began life in Milan in 1917 and which now resides in a small, square building on the outskirts of downtown Indianapolis, USA, just across the street from the cafe in which we’re sitting.

‘So here’s the thing,’ he says. ‘You know Zipp wheels, right? The company used to be based about a mile from here, and when I was technical director there, the weird thing was that I never really got to meet people from around the industry, because we did almost everything ourselves.

‘But one thing we did need were those little disc wheel adapters – they were the only pump connectors that would work with our disc wheels – and we bought them from Silca. That’s how I struck up my relationship with Claudio.’

Poertner is referring to Claudio Sacchi, grandson of Silca’s founder, Felice Sacchi.

‘Claudio had called me and told me he had pancreatic cancer and only had months to live. He’d been sick for a while and the business was sliding into bankruptcy.

‘He was desperate to find somebody to buy his company, and at first I thought, “Who’s going to want it?”

But I was ready to move on from Zipp after 15 years with them – ready for a change – and I’d always wanted to have my own company and do something that was mine.

‘Silca had been in trouble for years. Italy didn’t become the centre of bicycle manufacturing because it was excessively skilled or capitalised – it was the low-cost labour platform of Europe.

‘The lira made for very favourable exchange rates for all the other markets, and we forget that the death of a lot of Italian brands is tied to the coming of the Euro.

‘Italy saw 150-200% inflation in a one-year period. This happened everywhere – wages couldn’t keep up with inflation and it was a mess.

‘Right about the same time, low-cost Chinese imports started becoming available, so it was a perfect storm and caused the Italian bike market to collapse.

‘Cutting costs to survive meant the Silca products of the 2000s were nowhere near the quality of the Silca products of the 1970s, 80s and 90s – those on which the company had built its reputation.

‘Luckily for me, because of the currency issues there was almost zero export, so its reputation was never damaged globally.

‘I assumed that I could buy the equipment, the materials, the knowledge and simply go back to making the great products from the 90s.

‘But what I found when I got there was there was really nothing left. Practically everything had been sold to cover debts. There was no inventory, no tooling… just debt.

‘And just seven days after we signed the papers in 2015, Claudio passed away. It was a difficult time.’

Back to basics

Silca was once the most renowned name in bicycle pumps, making expensive, high-quality products that lasted a lifetime.

Poertner was a fan of the Italian brand and relished the chance to start reproducing the pumps he had used himself, but it was not going to be as simple as relocating the business and turning the machines back on.

‘I didn’t really buy a company in the end, I just acquired a trademark,’ he says. ‘A piece of paper was all I came home with so I had to start again from scratch.

‘But looking back now, while that was incredibly tough it was also a great thing, as it kind of unshackled us from the past, and we could really take an objective look at where to take the brand.

‘Silca’s products used a lot of small lathe-turned parts, something I had experience in, which was a big advantage in getting things started.

I knew I could get drawings together and products made quickly here in Indianapolis, where I had good contacts. Making spare parts for existing pumps was a way to get some cashflow going, but obviously we needed to make a pump, to really start to grow the business.

‘I figured Zipp still needed to buy those disc wheel pump adapters from somebody, so I could still make those and use some of that income to bankroll the pump development.

‘I wanted the pump to retain those components that set Silca apart in its prime so I went again to Italy to try to make friends with some of the past vendors, especially with the leather gasket vendor.

‘It’s a crucial part of the Silca pump so I needed to get them on board and get us back in the leather gasket business.

‘When you use a leather gasket it actually creates a better seal with age. When you use a rubber seal, if there are even microscopic surface imperfections, air will be able to bypass, but when you use leather it can mate into any tiny imperfections. It’s super-efficient.’

Poertner’s enthusiasm and work ethic have undoubtedly been fundamental to rebuilding Silca as a premium pump and accessory brand, and the size of the company has swelled exponentially in the years since he took it on.

He recounts how buying a forklift was a watershed moment for him and the company.

‘All of a sudden it was like, shit, we’re a real company. We own a forklift!

‘There was a time when we definitely couldn’t afford a forklift and shipping companies would charge an extra $75 if they had to unload pallets for us, so we went out and bought some long 4x2s so that when pallets came in we would slide the 4x2s underneath and get all the guys from the office to come out and lift the pallets off the trucks that way.

‘Now when I look back I think, wow, $75 was such a big deal that we would risk getting crushed to death! So getting a forklift was definitely a pivotal moment.’

Steeped in history

After a pause to finally eat, Poertner leads us back across the street to the Silca facility, where he heads to the showroom and grabs an ancient-looking floor pump from a display.

‘This is my own pump,’ he says proudly. ‘I bought it in 1989.’ He puts it down and picks up another pump: ‘This guy is my favourite. He is old, most likely from the early 1950s. I got it on eBay. It still works too.

‘This one is the Pista,’ he adds, pointing out another antique pump. ‘It was launched in 1962 when Fausto Coppi’s mechanics wanted a slimmer pump that would fit under the seats of the team car.’

Historically, Silca can lay claim to being the first company to ever put a gauge on a pump, and it was also the first with plastic handles, and then, with a degree of irony, the first to move away from plastic, back to wooden handles.

Poertner reaches for the pump he designed as the pinnacle of Silca’s current range – the SuperPista Ultimate, which oozes extravagance.

‘We take a lot of shit for our Ultimate from people saying no one will ever spend $400 on a pump. But actually they do, all the time. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t still be in business,’ he says.

‘When you pick it up and feel it, it’s completely different. Suddenly you appreciate why it costs more. It’s not a $50 pump that we’re trying to sell for a lot more money.

‘It’s like when people pick up a really expensive bike, and say, “Oh wow.” The pump has that effect.’

Poertner’s approach is to make products as good as they can be, and they cost what they cost. It’s refreshing in these cost-cutting times, and an ethos that he recalls he was told not to be afraid of by Rapha’s chief executive, Simon Mottram, during a ride together in Tokyo.

‘He told me you just have to “embrace the hate”, and he was right. In the modern world a lot of stuff has become almost disposable by design.

‘No one would want to buy a phone that was built to last 20 years. But it’s different with our products. We put a 25-year warranty on our floor pump and that’s still valid for a pro mechanic using it day in, day out.

‘We can replace any part if it fails.’

All hands to the pumps

The shop floor is a hive of activity and I can’t help but grin as we pass the forklift. Boxes containing hundreds of tiny parts are everywhere.

Some are colourful, like tubs of sweets, others more industrial looking. In the air hangs that unmistakable tang of oily milling machines, which occasionally whir into life as we walk past.

Silca doesn’t manufacture production-ready components in-house. Poertner explains much of what actually goes on is prototyping and, as he puts it, ‘making the stuff you need to make the stuff you need, like tooling, fixtures, work-holding and so on’.

Much of the work appears to be managing a dizzying inventory of tiny parts from numerous sources.

For example, to create an Ultimate pump requires 72 sub-components from 24 different suppliers. ‘Just wanting to use a coloured o-ring means dealing with a separate company to the one that supplies the black ones,’ Poertner says.

‘It’s never straightforward.’

As we wander the facility, at various workstations employees are diligently assembling all manner of tiny parts that will eventually go into pumps. ‘Everything is about adapting to whatever needs to be made.

No two days are the same,’ Poertner says. ‘These guys assemble everything right here. Every single part goes through lots of processes.

‘Take the wooden handles, for instance,’ he says, dragging a box of them out from under a workstation.

‘They need to be tightened onto the shaft and then they sit for two weeks at least, then get re-checked as the wood will change shape a lot over time.

‘We have to allow for that before we do a final tighten. Other components need to be sealed, or Loctite-treated, and everything is pressure tested.

‘That’s always the greatest challenge, to have everything completely airtight.’

One employee is painstakingly coating the surfaces of the moving parts of a Hiro chuck pump connector with what looks like silicone grease.

‘That’s Krytox,’ Poertner says. ‘It’s about $180 per ounce. It was developed for NASA.

‘It’s an amazing product that only has one known solvent, Freon, and so you could lubricate something with Krytox and then leave it soaking in acetone or diesel or whatever and pull it out and it would be completely unaffected.

‘It’s like a permanent lubrication. It’s used by the gallon in rocket engines and the race car guys use a tonne of it. The cost is prohibitive, but we like it because it’s like magic grease.’

As we come towards the end of our tour, Poertner spots a large cardboard box full of thousands of tiny brass components seemingly discarded on a pallet in the corner of the factory.

‘Ah, you see that?’ he says with a smile. ‘We still buy the brass check-valve pins for the pumps from the same vendor in Italy that Silca has used since 1947.

‘But that box is a funny story. It’s part of a bunch of old inventory I had to buy back from them that they made years ago but had never been paid for.

‘It’s parts we won’t use, but we had to buy them just to get back on good terms. Not only did we have to pay for stock we didn’t want or need, we also had to pay to ship a 50kg box from Italy. I can’t bring myself to get rid of it.’

That story speaks volumes about the way Poertner has gone about resurrecting the Silca brand, blending hard-nosed business sense with a soft-hearted enthusiasm for a brand he’s loved since his youth.

Today, Silca creates modern technical products in the USA that still beat with the heart of a century-old company from Milan. It’s just a shame that Claudio never lived to see it.

  

Poertner's pump

The boss of Silca explains why high price can mean good value

‘In the bike shop where I worked in the late 1980s, we had a Colnago Master with Campagnolo Record and Delta brakes for $2,700,’ says Josh Poertner as he holds up a Silca pump he bought as a youth.

‘This pump was sold on the same shop floor for $90. That was a heck of a lot of money for a pump back then, but the owner of the shop said to me, “Josh, there are two kinds of pump: there’s this one, and there’s crap.”

‘And really, when you look at it, he was right. There are no other 30-year-old pumps on eBay. 

‘That says a lot. I bought this pump in 1989, and in nearly 30 years I’ve probably spent $10 replacing the gasket. That’s all.

‘Many Silca pumps from the 1960s and 70s are still in use. But here’s the thing: today people are happy to spend $15,000 on the same Colnago Master, but they still want a track pump for less than $90.

‘Inflation has not quite caught up for pumps,’ he laughs. ‘Pun intended.’

 

Pumped up and ready to go

Silca’s floor pumps combine form with function, and classic style with modern technology

 

Pista | £130

Originally requested by Fausto Coppi’s mechanics, who wanted a flatter pump design to slide under the team car seats.

Those features remain today; the gauge sits in line with the base, plus the compact handle (almost an exact replica of the original) keeps the hose neatly stored flat.

Steel construction means it’s tough, too.

 

Superpista | £200

Silca launched the SuperPista during the 1989 Giro d’Italia. A larger, more ergonomic wooden handle and 50mm longer shaft improved pumping efficiency so tyres could be inflated faster – both features that remain at the heart of this modern classic.

The new SuperPista also benefits from a larger base and a precision gauge.

 

Superpista ultimate | £370

When only the best will do, the SuperPista Ultimate is as indulgent as it is functional.

Its unrivalled construction uses a super-heavy zinc base, laboratory-accurate pressure gauge, rosewood handle, leather gasket and stainless steel braided hose plus Silca’s own Hiro chuck connector. Pumps don’t get grander than this.