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Sidi shoes: the art and soul

Stu Bowers
24 May 2016

For over three decades Sidi has provided shoes for some of cycling's greatest champions. Cyclist head to Italy to discover the company.

Now in his eighties, Dino Signori is no longer officially in charge at Sidi. ‘Rosella is the real boss these days,’ he says, with a gesture towards his daughter and heir, who is currently translating his Italian into English for my benefit. However, there’s a hint of a wink when he says it that tells me he’s still very much the one in command. 

He certainly looks a picture of health despite his advanced years, and there’s an unmistakable gravitas about him that suggests he’s not ready to retire to his easy chair just yet. I’m told he is still the first to arrive every morning and often the one locking up at night, even working on Saturdays during busy times. 

There are few moments when Signori’s hands are still. His gesticulations – a raised arm, a clenched fist, or his palms open in front of me as if to show the wear and tear from a life of manual work – testify to the passion he still has for his job, despite being 15 years north of retirement age. Rosella struggles at times to keep up, as her father recalls how he was just nine years old when he first began working in a shoe factory and how he has rarely worked a standard 40-hour week in his life, sometimes working 24 hours non-stop. 

if you do your work with passion it is not so bad. If you work just for money it will be a bad life for you

He claims he’s worked for 71 years, but calculates that his hours would add up to the equivalent of 128 years of graft. Not that he’s complaining – he considers himself fortunate to love his work and also to have been gifted the good health that has allowed him to work for so many years. ‘You must first do work and then leisure comes after,’ he says. ‘But if you do your work with passion it is not so bad. If you work just for money it will be a bad life for you.’

First steps

When I first arrived at Sidi’s shoe-making factory in Maser, in the shadow of the Dolomites in northern Italy, I’d been surprised how modern the building was, with its vast curvaceous roof and glass facade. For a brand so steeped in history, I’d expected something more akin to ‘Geppetto’s workshop’ – all wood, dust and leather – than the clinical feel of an F1 facility. But as I would discover, the inner workings are an intriguing combination of the old and new.

A simple union of the first two letters of Signori’s first and last name is where Sidi gets its name, and it began life in 1960 after Signori learned his trade by making ski boots and trekking shoes from a stable behind his house. 

As a dedicated racing cyclist in his youth, he would wake every morning at 3am and ride 120km before work in the factory. ‘On Sundays I would compete and occasionally win too. I could have perhaps turned professional but at that time athletes were not paid very well and I had other ideas. I wanted to have my own business.’ 

It was in fact a niggling knee problem that sparked the new direction for his shoemaking. ‘I’ve always been able to come up with good ideas,’ Signori says, and it was the idea to make an adjustable shoe plate fixing system on his first cycling shoe, the Titanium, that put Sidi shoes on the map in 1973. Where previously the shoe plate was simply nailed directly to the sole, leaving the user with no room to fine-tune once in place, Signori’s design used threaded inserts and bolts to allow the plate to be repositioned and adjusted with ease. The idea would soon catch on and it paved the way for the modern style of adjustable cleats used by all shoe brands.

‘With ski boots you just need machines to make them – you don’t need to have so many skills. But to make technical cycling shoes you need to first be a shoemaker,’ he says. Of course, good employees were also essential for Signori to get his business off the ground, and he impresses upon me how he always had good workers, many of whom started at the business as young as 15 and stayed until they retired. 

His reminiscences cause him to become more animated. ‘This is not a job you do with a computer,’ he says. ‘You do it with your hands [he again offers me his palms] and for that you need to start early and learn your trade.’ 

It clearly bothers Signori that the modern workforce does not necessarily follow his work ethic, as he tells me how good staff like those he grew up with are hard to find these days. 

‘After I saw those people retire, I could not replace them. The younger guys have a very different mentality,’ he says. He admits he struggles to adjust to working with new generations. Rosella interjects with the notion her father is a little stuck in his ways, but he is quick to defend himself. 

‘My theory has always been to do things the best way, but today that is not as easy. My workers and family might say I am negative, but I would say I am realistic. I never want to lose. To win you have to be passionate and apply yourself with full commitment. When I lose or make mistakes I am very upset with myself, so the key is to make as few errors as possible, and to learn from the few you do make.’

There are around 70 employees at Sidi’s HQ in Maser, half of whom work on the shop floor, where all of the top-end shoes are still made. Close by, Sidi also has a laboratory with another 30 employees who do research and development for the new top-end products, but the biggest sector of the workforce is in the company’s factory in Romania, which employs around 240.

This is something else that vexes Signori. ‘It’s a shame I had to move the factory outside Italy to Romania. It was not, as everyone likes to think, to save costs – it is simply that people who live around here in Italy do not want to do this kind of work. It saddens me. In the past you could find people to stitch the uppers, but these skilled workers are not available here any more. You have to go outside to find them. You can check my bills and invoices if you like. I will show you that often it is actually more expensive to make the products in Romania, with the additional shipping costs and so on. I would rather have another 150 employees and build the factory next to us here. We have the land. We just don’t have the people willing to do the job.’

A look from his daughter tells Signori that it might be time to move on. He looks at me and says, ‘Rosella is the diplomatic one. I am the straight talker.’ 

Hands on approach

On the factory floor workers sit at sewing machines or feed giant contraptions with parts of shoes or motorcycle boots – Sidi’s other product focus. The room hums with the competing noises of the air cleaning ducts (used to mollify the aroma of glue), the machines and conveyor belts. 

At one workstation a woman, Marta, stitches the bright pink uppers for a pair of custom shoes for pro racer Nacer Bouhanni of Team Cofidis. Around the room, hundreds of bright blue shoes are in various stages of production. These, it turns out, are a new limited-edition Chris Froome version of Sidi’s top-end Wire Carbon Vernice. 

Rosella points out one machine that wouldn’t look out of place in a Terminator movie. Its job is to wrap the upper around the last using a complex combination of mechanised arms, and it can get through 1,500 shoes per day. Despite the impressive automation, it still requires human hands to finish many tasks, and every stage along the way is checked by an experienced pair of eyes. 

A shoe’s last – the solid core that the upper is stretched around – is the crux of the process in terms of how that shoe will eventually fit. For the top pros, Sidi will make bespoke lasts, and in one corner of the room is a shelving unit with hundreds of coloured plastic feet that is a shrine to the greats of cycling. Despite a thorough search, I can’t find a last bearing Froome’s name. ‘He just has a standard last,’ says Rosella. ‘The same as the shoes you can buy in stores.’

Perhaps he’s just too polite to demand a special last, or it could be that he just has a very standard foot shape. Either way, it won’t be long before a pair of blue Sidis, maybe even from the ones we’ve seen going round us today, will be racing their way around France. I can’t help wondering if Froome will tempt fate this year and ask for a few extra yellow pairs.

sidisport.com

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