Giovanni ‘Nani’ Pinarello came from a large family, actually a huge family – he is one of 12 brothers. Nani was a racer, a successful amateur with so many victories under his belt that he could take that huge leap of faith and become a professional.
Nani wasn’t destined for great things in the pro peloton but, let’s be fair, he was good enough to be in it. He participated in the Giro d‘Italia and famously received the maglia nera, given to the last placed finisher. This jersey is no longer awarded but between its inception in 1947 and its final outing – when Nani won it in 1951 – its importance in the eyes of the tifosi was almost equal to the maglia rosa, a mark of respect perhaps for the suffering and tenacity of anyone who battles every day with no chance of tasting the spoils of victory.
Nani’s framed ‘black jersey’ can still be seen on the wall of the Pinarello shop in the heart of Treviso, an important reminder of the origin of what is now a global bike brand. Last place at a Grand Tour these days is no mean feat. Getting around France, Italy or Spain, just inside the time limits, is one hell of an achievement, so credit where credit is due. He has the t-shirt, so to speak.
However, in 1952 Nani’s sponsor made him an offer that was too good to refuse. It is rumoured that he was given in the region of 100,000 Lire (around €50 in today’s money, but around 6 months’ average salary in 1952) to terminate his contract and give up his place in the Bottecchia team in that year’s Giro: a difficult decision for a young man to make, but in hindsight the correct one.
The lump sum helped fund the beginning of the Pinarello empire. The shop that Nani subsequently opened in Treviso was the first proper bike shop in town yet Nani, unlike many of his competitors at the time, was not a telaista, although he’d had some experience of workshops, working for Paglianti as a boy. Now he needed help. Pinarello surrounded himself with skilled workers and contractors who knew how to build racing frames and bikes.
This young, entrepreneurial Pinarello realised very early on of the potential benefit of association with teams and, of course, star riders, and so helped support local amateurs who were struggling financially. As the brand grew the professional peloton was next on his hit list. In 1960, only eight years after he started out, Giovanni Pinarello sponsored his first professional team. As luck – or some would say fate – would have it, in 1961 Guido de Rosso won the Tour de l’Avenir riding a Pinarello bicycle. Treviso’s finest had officially arrived on the international stage.
Nani’s brand must have stirred something in my subconscious many years ago. I spotted one of his frames in Tony Butterworth’s lightweight emporium on Catchbar Lane, situated adjacent to Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium. I often used to stop off there on a Sunday afternoon on my way back home after a day’s riding in the Peak District and inadvertently steam up Tony’s windows looking at the exotica on display.
Butterworth’s was, and still is as far as I know, a converted terrace of old houses that housed some of the best cycling kit you could lay your eyes on. I would ride over there on my day off and spend what in honesty must have been hours upstairs in his frame room, fondling these beautiful creations that hung from the ceiling on dozens of vinyl-coated hooks: Raleigh, Vitus, Mercier, Carlton.
But, wonderful as they were, it was the Italian frames that always stood out. A note scribbled in marker pen on the wall of the landing read; “Welcome to the time tunnel – abandon hope all who enter”, or words to that effect, and I would often be politely reminded by Tony, Max or one of his band of helpers how long I had been up there…
It was in this room that I spotted my first Pinarello, a Treviso made from Columbus SL, in pale mint green, with chrome forks and three-quarter rear triangle. It leapt out at me, love at first sight, and it was in my parent’s garage being built less than a week later. I cherished that bike: the way the pearlescent paint sparkled and all that chrome glinted in the sun, it stood out from my cycling companions’ run of the mill machinery wherever it went – a little bit of Italy travelling through the Derbyshire hills. Although I did not know it at the time, that bike would be one of many that I would own that all shared the same ethos – “Adrenalina Italiana”.
Thirty years later we enter Pinarello’s new HQ containing their offices and factory in Treviso (and the name on the top tube of my mint green frame all those years ago). Zooming around the facility is a well-groomed Fausto Pinarello on a Segway PT – one of those infuriating two-wheeled gizmos that look like something out of Woody Allen’s Sleepers. He racks up thousands of kilometres a year on the thing, and nearly flattens us in the passing, although he assures us he is in total control.
Fausto swears his unusual method of getting around the huge floor space is the most effective way to save time and also points out several bikes dotted around the place (and if I am not mistaken the odd scooter) for the staff to use.
Fausto is even keener to explain about Pinarello’s approach to manufacturing and also cites the current relationships with Movistar and Sky as very beneficial. He tells us that of course the Italians know a lot about bike design and professional team sponsorship, but they do not know everything and can learn from others, which I find rather refreshing. Luckily, for everyone’s safety, he parks the Segway and heads out for a lunchtime ride.
Pinarello’s presence in the professional peloton has gone from strength to strength with legendary riders inextricably linked with the brand. Battaglin, Delgado, Chioccioli, Indurain, Cipollini, Olano, Jimenez, Zülle, Riis, Baldato, Ullrich, Petacchi, Valverde, Pereiro, Cavendish, Wiggins – the list goes on…
All these riders have achieved great things aboard a Pinarello bike which leads us to understand that Pinarello, whilst undeniably able to produce competitive and innovative products, understand the benefit of marketing too. No point making some of the best frames in the world if nobody knows about you.
Pinarello’s headquarters have the feel of a highly organised machine that takes the job of promoting the brand name very seriously, reaching and selling their wares to a new, rapidly expanding market of cyclists at every level. What was, historically, a low-volume, high-end manufacturer, catering purely for the racing market, now produces a huge range of machines.
Unsurprisingly, for a man approaching his mid-nineties, these days Nani has taken a back seat and handed things over to Fausto and his daughter Carla. His second son Andrea was also very influential in helping build the Pinarello empire but he died tragically in 2011, suffering a heart attack at the age of 40 after finishing the first stage of the Giro del Friuli. Fausto, also an accomplished rider, has however carried on unabated with the rest of his team, helping develop new ideas and forging strong links with their two first division teams, Movistar and, of course Sky, that both assist with vital feedback to influence product development.
The 91-year-old Nani can still be seen pottering around the streets of Treviso where he is something of a local celebrity and can often be found hanging out at the shop, happy to oblige when visitors from all over the world come to pay homage to his legendary bikes and ask for a photo. When we stop by to say hello to Carla, Nani turns up right on cue – obviously enjoying being the centre of attention – and bollocks a passing scooter rider for buzzing by too close to us and compliments Taz on her bel telaio (‘nice frame’). Plenty of life in the old dog yet then.
Back at HQ on the outskirts of Treviso, we are greeted by Luciano Fusar Poli, who joined Pinarello in 2003 as their commercial manager. A former pro rider himself who enjoyed most success on the track, Luciano makes us welcome and accompanies us around the facility. Initially we meet in reception before starting our tour with a visit to a large display area that is partially populated with examples of Pinarello’s current 2013 range with notable models, such as the ‘Holy grail’ influenced Graal TT bike, that has been used to great effect recently with an Olympic gold medal under its belt already.
And of course, the display area would be incomplete without a replica of the current Sky Dogma. Other models lower down the range are also set out, together with some urban lifestyle bikes, including a collaboration with Italian-based fashion clothing company Diesel, that underlines Pinarello’s intention to be a brand that reaches further than the racing aficionado.
In recent times the methods of high-end bicycle manufacture for most Italian companies has inevitably changed. There has been a slow exodus of manufacturing from Italy’s home soil to other areas of Europe to keep costs under control, but this commercially astute approach has its detractors.
Some believe that an Italian bike should be made in Italy and to some extent I agree, but Pinarello has chosen to manufacture much (read, almost all) of its product in the Far East in recent years. Luciano is keen to defend this position and points out that Italy is still the home of innovation in bike design, but does not necessarily have the best manufacturing options available.
Likewise he points out that Pinarello believe that the best material for making carbon fibre frames originates from Toray in Japan, and it seems aircraft manufacturer Boeing would concur, seeing as they too allegedly use the same carbon fibre provider for some of their projects. Many of us like the idea of Italian manufacture but Pinarello have chosen to combine Italian design with Japanese materials and Far East manufacture on their top-end frames.
That said, the raw Dogma stock that fills large sections of the factory shows that Pinarello still want to keep a tight rein on quality control and do much of the finishing in-house. One section of the warehouse is also equipped with workbenches and stands, which is where many of the high-end builds are carried out.
Pinarello have always had the knack for knowing how to ‘dress to impress’, and although some would say their frames are a bit over the top – their “My Little Pony” sparkle paint being a case in point – there is no doubt that when you clock a Dogma out on the road in the sunshine, be it in the foothills of the Dolomites or half way up Snake Pass (yes the sun does occasionally shine there), it all makes some sort of sense…
In the finishing department, row upon row of Dogma frames and forks are being given their paint finishes and graphics. The process of covering those dull carbon frames with their lustrous, attention-grabbing finishes takes several weeks of painting and stencilling. Booths off to the side of the factory are home to members of the creative team and there are several workers running cad programs playing with new ideas.
Pinarello have invested heavily in FEM [finite element method] frame design and swapped the brazing torch for the computer. A key member of Pinarello’s staff is Elvio Borghetto who is persuaded to leave his desk and come to see us. He is one of the original frame builders at Pinarello; in fact he may be the only person still there who knows one end of a brazing torch from the other, a man who cut his teeth with steel tubes from Columbus and, in later years, Dedacciai.
He takes us across to the far corner of the building (on foot as we are now on Rouleur’s time, not Fausto’s) and heads for an old steel cupboard. He has to move Fausto’s abandoned Segway out of the way before he can open the doors, but what we see when he opens them fills me with joy.
There must be 80 Campagnolo Record square taper axle chainset boxes in front of us, each one crudely labelled with brown packing tape panels and marker pen. Before us are all the names of the Pinarello sponsored teams of the past. Elvio reaches for one of the boxes and, after much badgering by me, picks Banesto 1999 (one of my favourite pro teams) and lifts the lid.
Inside is a geometry chart for each individual rider with notes and amendments scribbled on the drawings. Every box contains more of the same: details of Zülle’s top tube and seat angle; notes about Fondriest’s saddle height; Ballerini’s reach – it’s all here.
I feel very privileged to have seen these artefacts of a bygone era. Frames during this period were lugged steel or welded aluminium so could be finely adjusted to a rider’s personal geometry, but with the advent of carbon fibre and a mould process that costs thousands of Euros per frame size, the days of custom geometry for the average pro are long gone. That said, Fausto points out that with something like 16 sizes of Dogma moulds currently in use, most riders can be accommodated.
Elvio also digs out some long cardboard tubes that contain some larger technical drawings. He produces one large sheet and as he unfurls it we realise that it is the data and outline of Indurain’s hour record Espada bike. Amazing. Luciano is now well aware of my obsession with old team bikes and I already know that they have a collection, I just don’t know where or what treasures it holds.
As we look up we see a large mezzanine that contains box after box of clothing and other Pinarello merchandise, but it is what is behind the boxes that really interests me.
As we climb the metal stairs we can see a bike rack some 30 metres long that is packed with ex-team bikes – not quite in chronological order but an invaluable record and timeline of Pinarello’s past. Nani’s old 1951 Bottecchia Giro bike is here, and in good company. Giovanni Battaglin’s bike, ridden in the Giro, is striking with its bright red paint, simple old-style Pinarello graphics and Campagnolo Super Record groupset with triple chainrings. As we walk alongside the rack, the bikes hanging here stimulate memories of a wonderful era in cycling history.
Year on year, bicycles improved in design and aesthetics, and looking at the elegant machinery here you cannot fail to appreciate these beautiful bikes. Luciano points out that the bikes are deliberately left in the condition they were last used: the patina of use adds to the appeal. The dirt from Paris-Roubaix still clings to Juan Antonio Flecha’s custom Dogma Magnesium with cantilever brakes; Pedro Delgado’s Montello still has the dust from that year’s Tour de France.
Each bike can tell a story in its own right and it is interesting to see how prototypes and custom frames were very much on Pinarello’s agenda all through their years of team sponsorship. Clearly the feedback that Pinarello gained from the riders and mechanics over the years was as beneficial as the exposure they got in the media.
Many of my favourite riders have ridden Pinarellos during their careers and although Indurain had several of his old machines here – and is their most successful rider in terms of Grand Tour wins (so far) – I think I got more out of seeing some of the more unusual bikes, including Andrea Collinelli’s ‘Superman’ position track bike, another approach to modern rider position that was to fall foul of the UCI rule book and tape measure.
Jan Ullrich’s striking pink and white Telekom livery Paris is here too, a jump forward in Pinarello’s history as oversize aluminium took over from the more traditional steel tubing used previously; Valverde’s special all-white 2006 UCI ProTour Paris Carbon, another reminder of a moment in time where a noticeable shift occurred, and carbon fibre really took over as the material of choice for the majority of high performance machines.
This is more than a collection of old bikes. It is almost a step-by-step evolution of the bike since the ’50s and hopefully, one day, this collection will be more readily accessible to the public.
Luciano told us that he was working towards exhibiting the bikes but could not confirm how far he had got with these plans. He is, after all, a very busy man who travels the world spreading the gospel according to Pinarello.
“What’s with the bendy forks then?” A question often asked and a feature of modern Pinarellos that divides opinion in the cycling community. The Onda (Italian for wave) fork design has been around for a few years now and has filtered down to pretty much every bike in their current range, with one or two exceptions. The remit; to provide a more complex path for vibration to follow before it reaches the rider…
Some would say it is ‘just for effect’ and ‘serves no purpose’; others would claim that there is no engineering principle used today that we have not seen before. What is fair to say is that Hetchins were probably the first to use the distinctive curly design to tackle road shock back in the mid 1930s however, back then it was very difficult to validate such claims.
Today’s designers have the luxury of computer modelling that can reveal the effects of the slightest change in profile, cross section or material application without fabricating a thing. Simulated loads can be applied mathematically and the results seen immediately. What is clear is that today’s frame designer has tools at his or her disposal that their predecessors couldn’t even dream of.
Carbon fibre use has blurred the boundaries and challenged what is possible. Onda is Pinarello’s way of trying to reduce road buzz, vibration and ultimately rider fatigue whilst maintaining strength and rigidity. As for asymmetric frame design? Well that’s another can of worms completely.
In the increasingly anodyne market of modern carbon bike design, Pinarello added an interesting twist when they introduced the Onda concept for their forks and seat stays in 2002, a decision that polarises opinion to this day. A Marmite aesthetic, if you will, but something that others have tried to copy, some less subtly than others.
Pinarello’s recent adoption of asymmetric design, to counteract the forces a frame experiences under load, again polarises opinion, but the truth is that Pinarello are trying out their full skill set to sell more bikes in these super competitive times – not just in the creation of bikes that are fun and rewarding to own and to ride, but also in the stimulation of demand for their products.
That is not to say that Pinarello can do no wrong. Their foray into their own MOST bottom bracket system a few years ago wasn’t a great move (and one that they backtracked on pretty sharp) and the longevity of the AK61 Magnesium tubing, developed in collaboration with Dedacciai for the first generation Dogmas was also a bit of a lottery, but their pursuit of improvement is relentless.
Giovanni Pinarello started something special over 60 years ago – maybe by good luck, maybe by good judgement, but one thing is for sure: his family business goes from strength to strength.
Pinarello have enjoyed relationships with racing teams pretty much since day one, and enjoyed the rewards that winning major races brings. Grand Tours, Classics and Olympic medals have all been won on Pinarellos.
They are one of relatively few Italian brands that have managed to remain in business and stave off the onslaught of massive competition from all directions, but they’ve had to adapt their methods to achieve this. They have thousands of loyal customers but equally, many detractors that question their methods.
Yes, they make their bikes outside of Italy; yes, their bikes cost more than many of their rivals’ products and yes, some of their models are now available in Halfords –
the latter fact a very recent move that has been met with derision by certain sectors of the industry and cycling community, but a clear indication of how much the performance road bike market is changing and how Pinarello are following suit.
The guys from Treviso are gearing up for the future but are well aware of the importance of their past. Whatever happens I am pretty sure that Fausto will do what he can to make sure every bike that passes through Pinarello’s doors will still have its share of Adrenalina Italiana.