Pinarello Bikes: an interview with Fausto Pinarello
"I like beautiful bicycles, I think everyone does." In conversation with the man behind Cicli Pinarello, first published in Rouleur issue 107
Sitting comfortably on a stylish stool by the front desk at Pinarello’s headquarters in Villorba, just outside Treviso, it’s tempting to think that someone could do an article just about the reception areas at Italian cycling companies. I’m picturing a photographic essay, conveying the sensation of that first visit. After all, they say the first five minutes of a new relationship with a place or a person stay with you forever. These spaces, at home and at work, tell us a lot about who we are – and who we would like to be.
Of all the Italian bicycle brands, Pinarello is the one known worldwide for its capacity to innovate. They tell their story differently from other manufacturers, too, looking to the future while the competition often focuses on tradition and heritage rather than cutting-edge technology and avant-garde design. The credit for this clear vision goes to Fausto Pinarello, an enterprising and courageous second-generation entrepreneur.
The space where we await his arrival is comfortable, modern, full of life. People hurry past us, returning from lunch. The colours of the furnishings are decisive and bold, and above us there’s a huge plasma screen. There is no dead space in this room, no testimonials from the past, no signed jerseys or dusty old bikes on display, no posters of bygone riders on the wall. The receptionist tells us that Fausto will be with us shortly, and through a window we see him approaching, from the adjacent Pinarello flagship store, on a Segway.
Read: 2022 Giro d'Italia Preview
“I don’t like walking,” he tells us as we shake hands. Fausto is an affable, enthusiastic man. He seems to be very attentive to detail, to life’s twists of fate. And he loves to tell stories: we had already talked for more than an hour on a video call, at which point he invited us to visit. We pass through a door and into the painting and assembly department, because that’s where his personal office is – in the production area, rather than, as you’d expect, on the other side of the building, where the administrative, commercial, design and marketing offices are all located.
Why here in the production area, Fausto?
This is where it all started, this is where I feel good.
When did you start?
In June 1979, at the age of 17. After three years of high school, I told my father that I didn’t want to study any more. My mum was not happy at all, she was really angry with me actually, but my dad didn’t mind too much, maybe because he’d suddenly found himself with an extra pair of hands in the workshop. He assigned me to the paint shop, but I couldn’t say my job was painting frames, I did a little bit of everything, whatever he told me to do. At 17, you don’t really understand how the world works, you just do what you’re told. I didn’t really know what job I was supposed to be doing, I just got on with it. You can’t say that you’re a real worker until you’ve got lots of experience and you can work independently, by which I mean, until the most experienced people around you finish teaching you everything they know. You’re an apprentice, you need to learn before you can do. Even as a factory worker, if you want to be good at it, you must learn. I had three older colleagues, three teachers.
Were you hooked right away?
I realised that this would be my job and my life in August 1981, just before I left for my compulsory military service. Giovanni Battaglin had just won the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España in the same season, something that only Eddy Merckx had previously managed. It was an extraordinary achievement and he did it on a Pinarello. Seeing that the objects we were producing weren’t simply bicycles, but actually the bike of a champion who you see winning races on television, something special clicked for me. That bike, which we built and painted with care, was the bike that won. That’s how passion is born, because you feel like you’re a part of it, like your work contributed in some way to that success.
When I finished military service, I went back to work with my dad, but without any particular enthusiasm. And then in 1985, there was the cycling World Championships in Montello. That was the turning point.
There was a great atmosphere around Treviso for the races, but internally there was also a lot of excitement because we’d just moved to a new factory. I realised the time had come to get serious and make a commitment. I wanted to carry on my father, Giovanni’s work and there was a mortgage to pay, which in some way I think also stimulated us to do more and do it better. I have to thank my dad for that, because that mortgage was a reminder to never let my guard down. And I have to thank him for starting me out in the paint shop, because if I hadn’t perhaps we wouldn’t have our own paint shop – we’re one of the few bike brands anywhere in the world which still has one.
What are the advantages of doing that in-house?
I like beautiful bicycles, I think everyone does. Having our own paint shop allows us to do any kind of colour whenever we want, and we can think about the bike as an aesthetic project as well as a technical one. When we’re about to win a stage race, we can do a special paint job and have it delivered to the rider the following day.
[At this point, Fausto proudly shows us the iridescent pink paintwork that his employees are preparing for frames inspired by the Giro d’Italia.]
What does it mean for a rider to ride a “special” bike?
Riders like it when you take good care of them, make them feel important, loved. A special paint scheme is something that always helps us foster relationships, it brings you closer to the rider. Some of the best relationships I have with both riders and sporting directors began with a special paint job.
When I started out, I was always “Giovanni’s son,” and I was also younger than a lot of the riders I met. Then, for a time we were a similar age, with similar dreams and desires, the same ambition to succeed. Now I’m older, some of them could be my kids. Eighty per cent of the managers and sporting directors who work within the teams today are ex-riders I know, and maybe I painted their bikes with special colours back when they were racing.
How important are those human relationships for you?
They’re fundamental. We don’t make bikes for the teams, we make them with the teams. When a manager tells me that they want to innovate and conduct research to develop new products for their athletes, it’s music to my ears. At that point, the results, the successes and inevitably also the failures, are all shared. Creating a team with someone is always the best approach. If you share the effort to innovate and to grow, everything becomes a lot simpler.What was it like to work with your dad?
I wouldn’t say I ever worked with my dad, never side by side, I mean. I worked for him. I was in the factory, where they filed and cleaned the frames, where the finishing, chrome plating, painting was done. My dad was in the shop in town in Treviso. We still have it today, it’s eight kilometres from here. We’d meet at lunchtime, but at work we were never together. My teachers were his oldest workers in the paint shop, they taught me the secrets of the business. Then by the end of the 1980s, 30 years after they’d started, it was time for them to retire and others took their place. I had to take responsibility for moving forward and choosing my own road. Back then there were no more than 20 people working here, today we have around 75. At that time, it was little more than a shop, and running it was a lot different to running the company that we are today.
At this point, we move from the production area and head to the research and development department, which is full of young technicians, engineers, and product managers, all hard at work. It is still striking that wherever we go, there’s an almost total absence of relics from the past. The offices are modern, well organised, bright. And you can feel Fausto’s hand in it all.
And after your experience in the painting department?
At a certain point, my dad asked me to personally look after the sponsorship deals. Internationally, the big break came in 1991 with José Miguel Echavarri and his Banesto team. We had supplied them until 1989, when they were Reynolds, and we won the Vuelta and the Tour de France together with Pedro Delgado. Then when Banesto came on as the main sponsor they had a big project in mind and being a Spanish bank, they wanted a Spanish bike manufacturer, so they went with Razesa. That collaboration only lasted a couple of years though.
In the meantime we won the 1991 Giro d’Italia with Del Tongo and Franco Chioccioli. Unfortunately, the next year that team joined with MG-Technogym and chose to ride Bianchi bicycles, so we found ourselves without a professional team. At the same time, Razesa closed down and as a result, Echavarri got back in touch with me that August. I believe the most important events of my life always happen in August, which is also when my birthday falls. How did it go?
I always say that you need a bit of luck in life, and also good friendships. On the one hand, they’d left us stranded on the side of the road a few years back, but on the other, they were opening this great opportunity with Banesto. That was the first contract with a major team that I looked after. They’d already won the ’91 Tour with Miguel Indurain, and in ’92 he did it again and added the Giro. Then Miguel wanted to attempt the Hour record in 1994, so we began working on that bike a year in advance. With a rider like Indurain, everything is easy: you just have to go along with his plans and help him as much as possible.
Sometime before that, I’d been contacted by Marco Giachi, an aerodynamics engineer from Lamborghini, who wrote me a letter to ask if we wanted to test our bikes in a wind tunnel. I didn’t really know what to expect, but we went to a lab in Milan. I think that was the first time anyone had seriously discussed aerodynamics and carbon fibre monocoques. For someone like me who is fascinated by everything new, it was really interesting. At that time the other Italian brands were mainly focused on the bike’s weight, but after that meeting, I knew that aerodynamics and composite materials were the future. We didn’t know exactly how important those tests would prove to be in producing Miguel’s bike, but we ended up with a revolutionary design, something that had never been seen before.
That bike became known as the Espada. It was computer-designed in collaboration with an engineer from Bugatti. Along with understanding design, aerodynamics and carbon, Bugatti also helped me to understand what it meant to create a real luxury brand. Once we produced the frame, all that was left was for Miguel to try it. We took it to Pamplona on August 15 so he could test it at the Tafalla velodrome. After a couple of days there, we took it back to Treviso to make the final adjustments. Then on September 2, Indurain set a new Hour record: 53.04 kilometres.
What did that bike mean for Pinarello?
The Espada looked like anything but a bicycle. But inside that revolutionary shape, there was the desire to change, to move towards the new, to think in a more modern way. It’s my nature to like change; I like new things, clothes, shoes, cars, I’m attracted to modern design. It could be that I’m a bit spoiled, but mostly I think it has to do with ideas, with a certain way of looking to the future. I always like to look forward, not backward.
The advent of carbon was radical for the construction of bikes. Early frames had been welded with lugs, then TIG welded, but to arrive at a material like carbon was totally unknown territory for bike manufacturers.
With that experience, designing a bike based on data collected from a wind tunnel, and the achievement of the Hour record in ’94, everything changed. Something happened that shaped the company we have become. Thanks to a manager like José Miguel Echavarri and a champion like Miguel Indurain, we gained a huge amount of international attention that we otherwise wouldn’t have had. Four Tours de France, the Giro d'Italia, the Hour Record, the time-trial World Championship. The global visibility was enormous.
Where do the ideas for new bikes come from?
When we work on a new series of bikes, we always start with the time-trial model first because that experience of the Hour record taught us to keep aerodynamics and data at the centre of everything we do.
From ’94 on, we moved away from round tubing to a more aerodynamic profile. Even back when the frames were still made from metals, we didn’t just “crush” them for the sake of aesthetics, research and data have always guided our decisions. For us, development has always been driven by performance. The round tubes were fine and can still be okay for some artisan frame builders, but for Pinarello, and for those who buy our bikes, something more is needed. Expectations are always high, our typical customer is looking for something modern and innovative.
What does it mean to innovate?
Innovation is in our DNA. If you want to innovate, you must also accept that sometimes along the way, it can feel like a step back from the starting product, so it takes courage. For example, I immediately embraced the idea of carbon monocoque. I’d researched and researched and realised that for the type of high-performance bike I wanted to make, a carbon monocoque was the ideal technology. We embraced the idea of it when the technology was still in its infancy and being developed for industrial use; we were among the first in cycling.
We reimagined the Espada onto the road, producing the Parigina, which Bjarne Riis famously flung through the air at the ’97 Tour de France! There were three Pariginas in the race; the other two were ridden by Abraham Olano and Jan Ullrich, who finished that day’s time-trial in first and second place. There was nothing wrong with the monocoque bike, it was Riis’s legs that didn’t work that day...
The era of those futuristic bicycles ended shortly after. That same year, the UCI decided to change the regulations and as a result, that kind of shape could no longer be used in competition. They wanted to make it all about the athlete’s ability, rather than the advantages that a bicycle can bring, and in a sense that’s right. But in a way, those futuristic bikes still inform how we build frames today. Now the UCI requires manufacturers to make all bikes used in competition available to the public, keeping a link between the world of R&D and that of sport, which is good, especially for amateurs. Without that rule, bikes would quickly become something very far from reality.
Then came Team Sky.
We started working with them in 2008. It all started with a sponsorship of the British junior team, which had a number of future stars like Mark Cavendish and Geraint Thomas, in short, the athletes of that generation. In the British set-up, there were kids from all kinds of disciplines, some even from BMX, which is unthinkable for us in Italy. Here, if you race on the road, you started out on the road.
To fulfil the contract, we had to buy BMX bikes and customise them with our branding before supplying them to the federation. Sky became a sponsor of British Cycling at that time, and we had already had some experience working with Dave Brailsford, who was in charge of the track programme, and they put him in charge of creating their professional team for 2010. This was all in the build up to the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Sky had won the television rights for the Giro and the Tour and a lot of focus was being given to cycling.
Did Dave Brailsford like your bikes?
Apart from our aerodynamic effectiveness, our bikes represented the philosophy of marginal gains that Brailsford had put at the centre of his project. That year we had made a Prince frame that had all internal cable routing, which was an absolute novelty at the time. Aside from giving an aerodynamic advantage, it also exemplified the team’s ideas of continuous improvement and innovation in a way that was easy to understand.
I showed him a 3D computer drawing of our latest projects, the Dogma 60.1 road bike and the Graal time-trial frame. We had just filed the patent for the asymmetrical frame, which was something totally new. I told him that those could be the Team Sky bikes and I offered him our total commitment to develop new products together. And I also offered him money, as is always the case in these situations. That happened at the end of 2008. We talked about it again in the spring and then on August 15th 2009 – always August, it’s my lucky month – he called to tell me they had chosen our bikes for Team Sky. I was on holiday at the beach when I got the call, but I returned to the office the next day and got straight to work. Our great adventure with Sky had begun.
What won it for you?
With Dave Brailsford, dialogue with his collaborators is essential. They have to be a part of our development projects. He trained as an industrial designer and technician, so the fact that we had presented him with a project based on innovation, rather than just Italian tradition and craftsmanship, was decisive.
What has changed in supplying a team over the years?
Firstly, it’s the amount of riders there are now. Ineos Grenadiers will have 31 riders next season for us to supply, and different types of bikes are needed for different races. They’ll have a special bike for Roubaix, climbers need a super light bike, there are the sprinters, the bikes for the Grand Tours, bikes with and without disc brakes. And then there are the time-trial bikes. Once upon a time, there was one bike and it was good for everything, but today you need a huge amount of equipment.
On top of all that, we need to think about track bikes or even cyclo-cross bikes for some of the riders. The financial commitment is big, in terms of both supply and R&D. So Ineos is the only WorldTour team we have, we couldn’t supply another in the same way. We already have a full schedule preparing bikes for the next four years. We’re not a small artisanal company any more.
And from an economic point of view, what has changed?
Relationships with teams used to be based on convenience; they chose bikes based on the financial contribution of the sponsorship. Today, the biggest consideration is getting equipment that will put their athletes in a position to win because without victories and without planning, without growth and with only passion, you cannot go on.
How do you design a winning bike?
Bicycles are becoming more and more sophisticated and at the same time, more pared back. The fewer moving parts exposed, the better, both for aerodynamics and aesthetics, but it’s not just about that. These days we work on the bicycle and athlete as a package. When Bradley Wiggins was preparing for his Hour record, to optimise R&D time we created a 3D model of his body and developed the [Bolide] bike on the computer taking into account his shape and measurements.
The process starts with the athlete and then the ideal bike is designed. It’s the total opposite of what they used to do; in the past, they started with a frame and tried to fit the rider to it. The result of that approach is never going to be more than the best possible compromise.
When we 3D printed a titanium handlebar for Wiggins’ Hour record, that was the first for a new manufacturing process. That handlebar was the same design and production method as the bars we created for the Italian track team, who won gold in the pursuit at the Tokyo Olympics.
Is it true that you were responsible for the birth of the compact crankset?
The 34/50 compact crankset came from my desire to ride long and challenging climbs without having to use the triple crankset, which to me seemed a bit ugly to put on a nice bike like mine. I never liked the triple crankset and would have been ashamed to use it, so I asked Claudio Marra of FSA, who aside from being a great supplier is also a friend, to build a carbon crankset that was in all respects the same as the ones used by the pros, only with the possibility to fit smaller chainrings.
I wanted a more versatile crankset, suitable for a different type of consumer, someone sporty but not necessarily competitive. I paid for the mould of that first prototype and we produced it together. A few months after that experiment, Claudio came to me and told me that Tyler Hamilton, a rider from Bjarne Riis’s CSC team, who was aiming to win the 2003 Tour de France, had broken his collarbone. Before he retired from the race, they wanted to offer him my compact crankset to use for the mountain stages. I said okay, he used it, and it was a success. Hamilton didn’t win the Tour, but he stayed high in the standings and finished fourth.
Before that, no one on the street wanted to hear about anything other than a classic 39/52 crankset. But a few months later, requests for the compact began arriving from France, where the triple chainset was very much in vogue. It was a revolution. FSA paid me royalties for using it for two years, and then we settled it and they went ahead with it.
Is intuition important for your work?
Innovation is something that can come when you least expect it, and that has to do with inspiration. I like to come into the factory early in the morning and when I’m here I talk to a lot of people, the first workers who arrive at their workplace: painters, fitters, planners, designers, mechanics.
Putting all those ideas together, we come up with the right thing, sometimes unexpectedly. Innovation is the result of a thought process, a habit, a way of working. You need to experiment, start with intuition, and try to improve.
Can you give us an example?
When it first came out, our Onda fork was dismissed as if it were simply an aesthetic choice, rather than the result of research aimed at finding the exact stiffness of all the components that act on the wheel: vertical, horizontal, and torsional forces. The double wave guaranteed control on descents.
Making a bike that handles well means thinking of every kind of rider, not just the elites. If we can help you ride a bike a bit more calmly, allowing you to eat or put on your rain jacket without worrying about crashing, that innovation represents progress. A lighter bike, just taking a few grams off the previous model, is only relevant to racers. And in the end, sticking with our philosophy we have managed to satisfy even a climber like Chris Froome.
What is the character of the bicycles you produce?
In general, I think all Italian companies have something special, in terms of design. If you took all of the lettering and the colour schemes from one of our bikes and looked at them in isolation, you’d find that they were still recognisable, much more so than other brands. Our bikes are an expression of precise choices. They might not be to everyone’s taste, but the same can be said of people. Having personality means that you will never please everyone.
What does the future hold for Fausto Pinarello?
When I retire and finally have time to devote myself to training, I will definitely ride harder than I do now. And if not, I’ll use an e-bike. The e-bike is like having a holy hand, pushing you uphill. You can do things that would otherwise be impossible, that’s the attraction of it, being able to stay in the saddle longer, spending more time with your friends. The e-bike is capable of making cycling more accessible, closing the gaps made by gender, age or physical fitness.
I also bought five hectares of land nearby. My dream is to build a sports centre dedicated to cyclists. If we want to encourage children to cycle, we have to create safe spaces for them where they can ride while having fun and socialising, without riding through traffic, hoping they won’t get run over. We are fortunate to have our headquarters in one of the most beautiful places in the world to ride a bike, 40 kilometres from Venice, 30 kilometres from the Valdobbiadene and Prosecco hills, 80 or 90 kilometres from the Dolomites. Our bicycles are born in a magnificent place to ride, but beauty can be found everywhere if you ride a bike.