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Castelli insider: How's it made?

Stu Bowers
15 Dec 2016

A brand new product is created before our very eyes at the Castelli HQ in Italy

‘Sometimes, a new fabric will lead us to a new idea,’ says Steve Smith, brand manager for Italian clothing company Castelli. ‘The designers will take the lead on the process and a lot of cool stuff can come about in this way. But sometimes we like to start with a problem and then go in search of the best way to solve it.’

It’s February, and Cyclist is here in Fonzaso, northern Italy, at Castelli HQ, because we are keen to understand the motivation, inspiration and processes required to create a new product. We’re fortunate to be here to witness the final moments of the birth of a new type of winter bibshort, the Omloop, which has been gestating
for almost two years.

‘Soren Jensen [Castelli’s global marketing manager] had seen pro rider Jeremy Hunt as far back as 2009 cutting down his kneewarmers to cover only as far as the kneecap, but not go over it,’ Smith adds. ‘Maybe he was far ahead of his time, but back then people thought, “What on earth is he doing?”’

Andrea Peron, former pro and now race performance director at Castelli, interjects, ‘We see what’s happening around the peloton, but also from our background and experience, as we are cyclists too. Shorts have always been the same. In the Classics and early season races like Paris-Nice the riders want to keep the lower part of the large quad muscles warm. Standard shorts leave this part exposed so it gets cold. The problem with a three-quarter knicker or even a kneewarmer is it’s not much different to riding with a full bibtight in terms of the amount of material that bulks up behind the knee, plus also there is friction over the knee cap too, which bothers many riders when it comes to racing.’ 

Smith again takes up the development story: ‘It’s similar to what happened with the Gabba. It’s not like we had a focus group to decide on this. We take the nugget from the pro riders, but then how do you take that nugget to fruition? With this product there would clearly need to be a lot of testing, so it quickly went into prototyping to get real world riding miles, rather than just playing with ideas on a sketchpad. I don’t know how many rounds we’ve done – I would say a lot – to be truly happy with the shape and fabrics. With the first iterations we came back from just a one-hour ride and were like, “No, this is awful.”’ 

Smith produces a bunch of the early prototypes to demonstrate his point. ‘We wanted it to cover just up to the break of the knee but not have it too long in the back, so that it would bunch up and irritate, but we found there was such a fine line.  A centimetre either way, it would either be not enough to make a difference or too much fabric that was starting to bunch up and get in the way. Plus we wanted fabrics that wouldn’t cut into the back of the knee but would feel soft and offer warmth. It’s designed for cold conditions, after all.

‘There is a danger with products like this that you think only the pros are going to be interested in it; in fact originally we were going to call it the OHV Pro [after the Omloop Het-Volk race, now Het Niewsblad] and the expectation was this would very much be a piece just for the pros to race in. But we thought that about the Gabba too, and while in its first year we only sold, I think, 278 pieces worldwide, in its second year it just went crazy.’

Smith shows me how initially the fabrics he, Peron and other Castelli employees tested throughout the previous autumn were too soft and the raw cut edges had a tendency to roll back. Other iterations were too rigid, too tight and didn’t breathe. Finding the right fabric took months, and was exacerbated by the complexity of the shape of the garment. ‘It was unexpectedly difficult to get that shape just right,’ Smith says.

Action stations

Just as Smith hands Cyclist the design that was eventually passed, his phone rings. ‘Pronto… perfetto… ciao… they are making the finishing touches to Omloop for the Cannondale team right now.’ This is what we’re here to witness so we hurry to the office of Castelli developer Sonia Vignati, who it seems has more than just a little influence. Having been at Castelli since 1994 she’s been around the industry a long time, and Smith clearly respects her unparalleled knowledge of fabrics.

‘I was about to go out for a lunchtime ride recently,’ Smith recounts as we walk along the corridors. ‘I dropped by Sonia’s office just to ask if she had anything she needed me to ride and she was like, “Yeah wait, the Omloop just came in and I need you to ride in these today.” I was like, “Sonia, it’s 7°C outside!” But I headed out and I was kind of expecting to take one for the team on my lower body, but the sensation completely surprised me. It was way warmer than a standard short. Covering up that extra part seemed to make an incredible difference to
the amount of warmth.’ 

We enter the room where Sonia and her team are assembled, studying Gabrielli, another employee, who is modelling the Team Cannondale version of the shorts already. Paris-Nice is imminent and Castelli wants this short available for the team. Today is D-Day, and this, the final sign-off of Castelli’s newest product, is just about to happen.

A crucial style question needs to be resolved, a decision that Smith is keen for Cyclist to get involved in.
The lower part of one side of the short is all green (Cannondale’s team colour) while the other side finishes with a black band. Smith turns to me and asks, ‘Which do you think looks best?’ 

I prefer the black, and say so. The team seems to take my opinion as final, which makes me feel both proud and slightly unnerved (what if no one likes it?), but Vignati is keen to add a further detail. She produces a thin strip of green fabric and pins it in place, so we can immediately see its effect. It’s a nice touch, I think, but before I can share my viewpoint Sonia has moved on to discuss placing a logo, ‘Omloop’, on the outside edge as well, which she marks in a fabric crayon.

It’s all very hands on, and just moments later the shorts are being whisked back to the sewing room to have the green side detached, while the designers quickly add Vignati’s requested extra details to the sublimation print design. This comes off the printer and the ink is barely dry before a seamstress in the next room is reattaching
this new version.

This whole process is remarkably rapid. The time between decision and creation has been a matter of minutes, and it gives an insight into how fast ideas can be turned into products when a deadline is looming. Rather than being tweaked on a screen or sketchpad, this product has completely changed before our very eyes. A cup of coffee later and Gabrielli is back, wearing the new shorts. So what do we all think? 

It’s a unanimous thumbs up, and the final version of the Omloop short has come to be. Piles of protoypes, mountains of material, and thousands of kilometres of testing have amounted to this, and I feel gratified that Cyclist’s two penneth worth has counted for something. 

So next time you’re pulling on your bibshorts, spare a thought for the countless hours of assessment, revamps and remakes, arguments, material changes, and last-minute colour debates that means you can cycle in comfort and style. And if you happen to like the look of the Omloop short, then, well… you’re welcome.

Rider verdict

Team Cannondale-Drapac's Matti Breschel on the Omloop shorts: 

‘The first thing that’s noticeable is the material is such high quality. They’re really comfortable. I was riding them on some of the really cold stages at Paris-Nice, even when it was snowing, and they’re a great alternative to kneewarmers. I always find kneewarmers scratch at your hamstrings and can irritate behind your knee. For sure this is much better, while still keeping the muscles above the knee protected. They’ll be perfect for those races in February and March, and lots of other riders have been taking notice of these shorts.’

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