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Gallery: the greatest Wilier bikes in history

In-depth
31 Oct 2019
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Words James Spender Photography Mike Massaro

‘As far as online descriptions go, Rossano Veneto might just have one of the most mundane of anywhere: ‘Is a town in the province of Vicenza, Vento, Italy. SR245 goes through it.’

True enough, Strade Regionali number 245 does indeed run through the middle of Rossano, helping to connect the town to its bigger brother to the north, Bassano del Grappa. But what the entry misses is the surprising number of highly successful companies this 8,000-strong community hosts.

Lauded motorsport wheel maker OZ Racing was founded here in 1971, as was saddle maker Selle San Marco in 1935. However, Rossano Veneto’s most celebrated son must surely be Wilier Triestina, established 1906. Or perhaps that should be ‘stepson’.

‘Our grandfather bought the Wilier name in 1969,’ says Andrea Gastaldello, who runs the company with brothers Enrico and Michele. ‘Before then Wilier was located in Bassano, founded by Pietro Dal Molin in 1906. But in 1969, my grandfather moved it here, to Rossano, and we have been here ever since, now into our third generation.’

The fortunes of Wilier have waxed and waned over the years, but its 113-year heritage makes it one of the elder statesmen of cycling, only eclipsed by Bianchi (1885), Peugeot (1886), Raleigh (1887) and Schwinn (1895).

Here, Andrea Gastaldello talks us through some of the pivotal bicycles from Wilier’s past.

Fiorenzo Magni Giro d’Italia, 1948

‘This is the oldest bike we have,’ says Gastaldello. ‘It was one of the first Ramato-coloured bikes (the traditional colour of Wilier), although the colour has faded through time and weather. A private owner had the bike in his home and 10 years ago we bought it from him for €5,000, which is probably a lot more than it cost when it was made in the 1940s. But it is a very important part of our history, having been ridden by Fiorenzo Magni when he won the Giro d’Italia in 1948.’

Seventy years on, Magni is still one of Wilier’s most celebrated riders. Despite being unlucky enough to race in the era of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, hence his nickname of ‘The Third Man’, the Tuscan would add two more Giro titles to his palmarès in 1951 and 1955, plus three back-to-back Tour of Flanders titles, hence his other nickname, ‘The Lion of Flanders’.

Magni is also the subject of one of cycling’s most iconic images, a photo of him riding hunched over and steely-eyed while biting down on an inner tube attached to his stem in order to help him balance, having crashed and broken his collarbone on Stage 12 of the 1956 Giro. The Lion lived up to his billing and rode the next 10 stages broken-boned, somehow finishing second overall.

‘We had our own team from 1946 to 1951, and Magni rode for us for three of them, winning the Giro in 1948, then Flanders in 1949 and 1950. Unfortunately we had to close the team in 1952. Money had become a problem as Italians increasingly turned to motos and scooters for transport.’

It’s interesting to note that in response to this industry-wide problem, Magni helped bring the first non-cycling related sponsor, Nivea, into the sport in 1954 to secure funding for his cash-strapped Ganna-Ursus team.

Pantani TT bike, 2002

‘A big step forward for us was sponsoring Mercatone Uno, which was a team built around Marco Pantani for the 1997 season,’ says Gastaldello. ‘It was not an easy decision for us. At the start Pantani had a very good time with Carrera [Carrera Jeans-Vagabond, 1992-1996] but in 1995 he had a terrible crash involving a car at Milano-Torino and broke his leg in two places. No one was sure if he would ever race competitively again. We had to trust that he would come back a champion.

‘The team was hit by bad luck from the beginning. Marco hit a black cat that ran into the road in the 1997 Giro and had to retire, which was frustrating as he was competitive. But he came back in a good way for the Tour de France and had a good season.

‘But at the end of 1997 we lost sponsorship to Bianchi, a much larger company than us that offered more money to sponsor the team. We were already providing 70 bikes a year plus extra money.

‘The opportunity came back to sponsor Mercatone Uno in 2002, and this is a time-trial bike we made for Marco. The bars are custom from 3T, the frame is Easton tubing, the wheels are branded “Eolic” by Selle Italia, but really that’s just stickers on another company’s wheels. Although Mercatone was traditionally yellow, we had to make the bike and jerseys blue for the Tour because of course the leader rides in yellow.

‘Sadly by 2002 Pantani already had problems with drugs so was not competitive in the races. We spent only one season with the team then we had to stop. Strangely, Mercatone – a big chain in Italy, like the Italian Ikea – went bankrupt only a few months ago.’

Cento, 2006

‘Our company was started in 1906 by Mr Dal Molin in Bassano del Grappa, 10km from here,’ says Gastaldello. ‘In Bassano in the 1940s and 50s we had 150 employees, one of whom was my grandfather, Giovanni. Then the company went bankrupt – by the 1960s everyone was buying scooters – and in 1969 my grandfather, with my uncle Antonio and father Lino, decided to buy the name of the company and to start a bike shop and start making bikes again in our village.

‘My grandfather died in 1979, then in 1988 and 1990 my brothers arrived and my uncle and father decided to split up. My uncle kept the shop, my father the bike business. I started here in 1996.

‘Cento means 100, and this was the bike that celebrated our 100th anniversary, our first monocoque carbon road bike for teams and for customers. Designed in Rossano and made in China, it was a very good product.

‘This is Damiano Cunego’s Cento from the 2006 season, when he won the white jersey for young riders at the Tour de France. He also won Amstel Gold [2008] and Giro di Lombardia [2007, 2008] with us on the Lampre team we sponsored.

‘It has custom paint. Here we have symbols on the top tube to represent the guy: he has a family with a child; he was born in 1981; 1.69m tall; weight 59kg – it is always good to have your racing weight painted on your bike! Resting heart rate of 42; first place in the Giro d’Italia in 2004; he likes ice hockey.’

Ramato Columbus SL, 1983

‘You can see it on the Magni bike, but here is what the Ramato colour would have looked like when new,’ says Gastaldello. ‘Rame means copper, so Ramato is like “coppered”. This special finish was discovered in the 1940s when the company was still in Bassano. It is a chemical treatment of the chromed steel beneath it.

‘This bike would have been made here in Rossano and painted by the same external contractor we use today – we still have Ramato colours on our carbon frames.

‘This bike was not ridden by anyone famous but it is an important part of our collection because it shows the colour that became a symbol of both the racing team and the company. We still make a replica version of this bike for collectors looking for something different and beautiful.’

That replica, the Superleggera, is made in Italy (albeit by a contractor) and, like this 1983 example, sports Campagnolo parts. Yet no matter how beautiful modern Campagnolo groupsets are, they pale in comparison to the 50th Anniversary gruppo featured here, adorned with 24-carat gold inlays, titanium parts and founder Tulio Campagnolo’s signature engraved on every part. In total 15,000 were made, with the first kept by Campagnolo and the second presented to Pope John Paul II.

The frame pump is a classic Silca Impero, while the bottom bracket lug is Cinelli, from an era when Wilier’s compatriots still did a roaring trade in cast lugs, which the company would sell to other manufacturers as well as use for its own bikes.

Pantani Alpe d’Huez, 1997

Made from Easton Elite Taperwall 7005-series aluminium, some of the most advanced aluminium alloy of its day, this bike may well have been one of the lightest on the 1997 Tour de France start line. By the time Marco Pantani reached the top of Alpe d’Huez on Stage 13, it was most definitely the fastest.

‘Marco climbed Alpe d’Huez in 37 minutes and 35 seconds, which is still the record for the climb,’ says Gastaldello. ‘It was a very good time for Wilier, a big boost to our growth in international markets because everyone was watching this stage and this guy and looking at this bike. The frame weighed 1,200g and was one of the first TIG-welded frames – before us was only Cannondale.’

Pantani fans will recognise the Il Pirata cartoon on the frame and custom-embroidered on the saddle, but there are other subtle touches specific to the Italian climber.

First, an analogue indicator set in-line of the cable housing displayed gear selection using cable movement to push a needle, visible through a plastic window a bit like a pressure gauge. Second, the wheels pushed some serious boundaries.

‘For a while Selle Italia made special lightweight wheels in collaboration with a company called ACI that makes spokes and hubs, and Ambrosio, which makes rims. The spokes are very thin, 1.2mm [2mm was more common in 1997], so thin they would break under heavier riders. But for Pantani, no problem. It might seem normal now, but these wheels were under 1,500g and had 32 spokes each.’

Ramato ‘Kids bike’, c.1975

In the 1970s and 1980s, in the workshop of my grandfather’s time, they made these kind of bikes for children, or really for parents who were passionate cyclists!

‘This came to us from a collector in Switzerland, who contacted me around five years ago to say did we want to buy it, so we paid €500,’ says Gastaldello. ‘I couldn’t tell you if that is good value, but I know these bikes were expensive when they were made.

‘The wheels are 20-inch tubulars and the groupset is Campagnolo Nuovo Record. Some owner must have been very keen to give their child the lightest possible proper racing bike because the cranks and chainrings have been drilled out.

‘By this point the company had been Wilier Triestina for some years. When we were founded in 1906 by Pietro Dal Molin, this area of Italy was under Austrian Empire rule, but people of the territory like Dal Molin wanted it to be Italian, so to promote this idea they would use words with meanings only known to Italians.

‘So “Wilier” is made up from the letters of the phrase W l’Italia Liberate e Redenta, which means “Long live Italy, liberated and redeemed”. “W” was a short way in Italian of writing “viva”. So the name was a kind of secret protest.

‘“Triestina” was added by Dal Molin when he started our first cycling team, again like a protest or resistance – after the Second World War the rule of Trieste [a nearby town] was disputed by Yugoslavia and Italy. Dal Molin wanted it to be Italian, so he advertised this fact with the team name. It is where our “Alabarda” headbadge symbol comes from – it is the symbol for the city of Trieste.’

Pantani K2 Karbon, 2002

‘In 2002 we took back sponsorship of Mercatone Uno, and we made this bike specifically for Marco. It was different to the ones from our normal production and the rest of the team, who rode on aluminium bikes with carbon seatstays,’ says Gastaldello.

‘We made it in collaboration with a company called C4, which made monocoque frames in Italy. It was stiff and light, but there were problems with the quality of the structure. I think we had 10 made and Marco broke three or four of them just riding – cracks would start in the head tube and the bottom bracket.

‘This cost around €2,500 to make back then, so €5,000 now. That is far too expensive to ever sell, especially when they would break after one or two years.’

Indeed, this frame has cracks beginning in the head tube, which says a lot about early exploits into carbon frames given that Pantani’s fighting weight was 57kg.

However, the K2 remains a marvel of the time, quite unlike the carbon-tubed, aluminium-lugged bikes that arrived in the mid-1980s and the ‘traditional’ looking all-carbon bikes that followed. Instead of being bonded from separate pieces, the K2 and other C4 creations were made entirely in one piece, from one frame-sized mould.

Today C4 operates in the realm of sports diving, its founder, Marco Bonfanti, having moved on from bikes to design fins and spear guns. Yet the company’s bikes remain highly collectible, from its own ‘Joker’ to early collaborations with Bianchi, both of which featured striking seat tube-less designs.

Zero.7, 2011

‘Michele Scarponi won the 2011 Giro d’Italia on this bike, but he didn’t know it at the time,’ says Gastaldello. ‘He was awarded the win later on when Alberto Contador was stripped of his title.

‘This was our first bike that weighed under 800g. It came in at 780g, which when you write in kilograms is 0.78kg, so we decided to call it the Zero.7. It has the BB386 bottom bracket and one-piece handlebars from FSA, with Scarponi’s special graphics painted on the stem and bars – his eagle.’

The Zero.7 name may have been somewhat dubiously awarded – as dubiously awarded as Contador felt his retrospective ban for clenbuterol was, with the Spaniard claiming at the time that the abnormal levels returned in his test came from contaminated beef – but nevertheless, in 2011 a frame weighing seven-hundred-and-anything grams was a big deal.

Contador’s ban also handed Scarponi the Volta a Catalunya 2011 title, and although ‘The Eagle of Filottrano’ would end up getting his own three-month suspension in 2012 after admitting he had worked with disgraced doctor Michele Ferrari, Scarponi would continue to be a fan and sponsors’ favourite, racing with Lampre before moving to Astana.

Latterly, he found himself subject to a new wave of media attention for his training rides, where the Eagle would film an uncannily Astana-coloured parrot, Frankje, flying alongside him. Tragically, it was on such a training ride that Scarponi was killed in a collision with a van driver on 22nd April 2017.

Cento Uno, 2010

‘Building on the success of the 2006 Cento, Alessandro Petacchi’s Cento Uno took him to the points jersey at the 2010 Tour, giving him a grand slam of sprint jerseys in the Grand Tours and becoming the first Italian since Franco Bitossi in 1968 to win green in France.

‘This feat was all the more impressive given ‘AleJet’ was 36 years old. Bitossi – nicknamed ‘Crazy Heart’ due to an arrhythmia that saw him occasionally pause during races – was in his prime at 28. Little wonder Wilier was happy enough to give Petacchi such an intricately finished bike for the Champs-Élysées.

‘We launched the Cento Uno in 2008, and Alessandro Ballan won the World Championships on it,’ says Gastaldello. ‘It gave credibility for the new type of integrated seatpost and the BB386 bottom bracket we developed with FSA [one of the first oversized BB standards], which was the main addition over the original Cento and meant the frame weight was only 1,150g, effectively 200g lighter than before, as the ISP means you do not need a seatpost.

‘By 2010 we had made further refinements. The frame is made in three pieces, the main triangle and then the stays, which are one continuous piece that runs from the seatstay down past the dropouts and through the chainstay.

‘The stays are very asymmetric because the flex from the right side is more than the left because of where the chain and crank is. We also made the head tube much narrower for aerodynamics. It was incredibly fast and stiff. This finish is a custom weave layer of carbon that is just aesthetic.’