Italy’s Unique Cycling Manufacturers

Cycling is popular in many places but few nations claim a trade surplus when it comes cycling goods. Sure there is China’s mass-production but Italy seems unique with a range of premium brands.

In fact you could go for a ride with 100% Italian products. From your helmet to your shoes and a bike with a frame complete with every component. Can any other country match this? Probably… but only just.

Why is this so? Well it seems Italy has a thriving number of small and medium sized firms that rely heavily on blending the personal touch of family ownership with modern machinery and big investment in research and development.

Belgium is the most cyclesport crazy country. But can you name a Belgian cycling brand? Well done if you got the likes of Merckx, Ridley or Sapim, the spoke manufacturer. But there are not many more and besides, “made in Belgium” doesn’t promise too much, unless you’re in the market for beer.

By contrast Italy has so many brands, probably an A-Z but certainly from ACI Alpina spokes to Vittoria tyres (Zéfal is French). Interestingly it’s across all the sectors, from frames to fashion, wheels to components. In fact you could go for a ride with only Italian gear, from your bike to every item of clothing.

What’s behind this success?
The University of Rome’s Roberto Cafferata has looked into the factors explaining the success of Italy’s small and medium sized firms. Surveying the past literature Cafferata offers a summary of the traditional reasons:

i) owner entrepreneur’s personal skills;
ii) constant renewal of manufacturing processes;
iii) efficiency either in promoting product innovation or in imitating technological leaders: this is the reason why Italian entrepreneurs were able to implement both cost-based and quality-based strategies;
iv) ability in relating organizational models (such as franchising, networks and outsourcing) to specific production and distribution needs

But these explanations are dated, Cafferata references works from the 1970s, 80s and early 90s. So he’s tried to survey things in the last few years and having surveyed hundreds of small and medium firms, his data say “83% of the whole sample attaches the greatest importance to the manufacturing process” meaning investment in plant. His report also suggests the more international the firm, the more the spend on Research and Development. But he doesn’t explore the causality, does more R&D lead to more competitive products or are these international companies just the firms that try to explore things? In his conclusion, Cafferata says price remains fundamental but companies can only offer competitive products thanks to high quality manufacturing, design and R&D. I think we can see this with cycling gear. Italian cycling has a rich heritage which is exploited by some brands but it’s rarely the selling point. The likes of Campagnolo, Colnago or Selle Italia have supplied champions of the past but promote modern products.

Other reasons
Many are family-owned businesses with owners who are passionate about the sport and able to fund their business themselves and therefore free to pursue whatever avenues they wish. A lot of the bike business is as much about fashion as it is tech and one obvious export for Italy is the fashion sector with its big brands, cycling has been able to mimic the trends.

Another reason is cost and price. For years Italy simply devalued its currency. Repeated politico-economic crises saw the lira devalued time after time in the 1980s and 1990s, a quick trick to make exports more competitive, although often at the expense of Italians with wages or salaries. Since Italy joined the Euro in 1999 this option has stopped.

The Sidi factory in Maser, Italy

Made in Italy
Of course defining what is Italian is hard. A Colnago frame made in Cambiago is obviously Italian although what about a Pinarello with Toray carbon from Japan? Or Campagnolo which produces a lot of its parts these days in two factories in Romania. Or a Bianchi that is made in Asia and owned by a Swedish company? It’s time for that well-used phrase from Il Gattopardo, by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa where Tancredi says “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change” meaning this time that for these companies to continue to survive they have to move some operations to cheaper bases or risk finding themselves permanently undercut by rivals with Asian assembly lines?

It’s reminiscent of the fashion industry where the “Made in Italy” label is valuable but gamed by the manufacturers because it means clothing or leather goods to be substantially made in Italy. But it allows a leather handbag to be assembled from Turkish hides by workers in Serbia before being finished in Italy. And in recent years even the biggest brands have been caught subcontracting work to Chinese workers… employed in sweatshops within Italy itself, see the Schiavi del Lusso (“The Slaves of Luxury”) documentary produced by Italian TV. This is less of an issue for Italian cycle manufacturing but it demonstrates the lengths some firms go to. Rest assured the Giro’s maglia rosa is from a factory in Bergamo.

Guess the country

Other nations?
Try to make a 100% made-in-country bike in another nation is possible but it’s just not as easy, nor is there the choice. Sure China mass produces but what bartape would you use, which Chinese brand of shoes would you wear? You could probably get there with Japan thanks to Shimano and its subsidiary Pro components and Pearl Izumi clothing brands and tyres from Bridgestone but you would not have the choice of so many brands. Perhaps the USA is the best alternative? Go with SRAM and its associate brands and you will find most parts but where do you get the saddle from, and would the ride be clincher-only? Certainly the choice is reduced.

It’s easy to ride a 100% Italian bike dressed head to toe in Italian clothing. Perhaps some patriots do but visit Italy on a Sunday morning and you’ll find molto Shimano. But Italy has countless cycling brands that range from fashion to the relatively heavy manufacturing of chains and steel tubing.with every component. Can any other country match this? Probably… but only just.

Why is this so? Well Italy has a thriving number of small and medium sized firms that rely heavily on blending the personal touch of family ownership with modern machinery and big investment in research and development.

71 thoughts on “Italy’s Unique Cycling Manufacturers”

  1. I’ve always wondered how much of your bike + clothing you could get right here in just the Veneto. Campagnolo has the components covered, shoes and saddles are made up by Bassano, clothing you can get just about anywhere.

  2. You could probably still manage an all British ride:

    Full Clothing: Rapha/ Vulpine or similar (no helmet)
    Frame: hand built steel, Genesis, condor etc
    Groupset: Sturmey Archer
    Wheels, Bearing parts etc: Hope
    Tyres: Dunlop
    Handlebars: Ragley

    Sundries like bar tape, cables and such I’m not sure.

    Brakes… Help anyone?

    • Is this a racing bike with Sturmey Archer gears? It’s here that each country struggles, there’s usually a limiting factor for France, Germany too. But in Italy you often have a choice of several, even with groupsets there’s Miche after Campagnolo.

      • With the right set of legs I’m sure a Sturmey Archer equipped bike could win a race!

        For the brakes I guess you could use the new hope cable-to-hydraulic actuator and use discs. We won’t have a UCI approved bike tho.

        Good call @Chris for the Brooks contact points.

        Yes to the Rapha kit, amongst many others, being made in China (as INRNG points out, most Campag stuff is from Romania). The brand is British based – don’t think I know any bike clothing manufacturers that fabricate in the UK.

        Really the best way is to head to Dumfries with a washing machine and commission Graham Obree. (Although the washing machine was probably made in Taiwan…)

      • Sadly since 2000 Sturmey Archer are no longer made in England but instead made by SunRace in Taiwan. SA hub gears were used to set many UK time trial records up until the early 1960s, in the days when close and ultra-close ratio versions of very high quality were still made.

        • Dear oh dear.
          Looks like our British-only bike has to use parts from old store-rooms or recycling centres.
          So basically we can’t make a UK exclusive bike at all, and haven’t been able to for decades. A depressing thought.

          Hope, Brooks, Fibrax and numerous steel frame-builders – what other brands are actually ‘Made in the UK’?

      • Who said it had to be a geared racing bike? you could certainly make a track bike and ditch the gears all together ;D

    • Uh, sorry to disappoint but Rapha gear may be designed in London but most of it made in China. That said my Pro gear is made in Italy and Turkey.

    • Would you also have to consider the source of frame material? Would the main tubing companies would be Reynolds (USA?), Columbus (IT) & Dedacciai (IT), Tange (JP) … who did I miss?

      • @Greg – I’ve just had a look at the Reynolds Wikipedia page – it says the company is based in Birmingham again after a management buyout. It was based in Colorado for about 15 years, but they went into administration.

        • Reynolds are a good example, as they have a production facility in Taiwan as well as in England. Reynolds 520 and Reynolds 525 are identical tubesets but the former is made in Taiwan, the latter in England. The English provenance alone adds value it would seem.

          • sorry the anon above was me. Just checked the Reynolds website and it states that 520 tubing is ‘made under license in Taiwan’. not sure if this means their is an actual Reynolds factory in Taiwan or not, perhaps they just contract the work to another tubing business.

  3. Our notion (misplaced or otherwise) of Italian heritage, heart, and soul are probably what make Italian companies such an attractive proposition to foreign potential owners, such as Bianchi and Cycle Europe AB; the notion of Far Eastern = shoddy and cheap is deeply ingrained, despite the fact that production from that corner of the world has long since proven its practical worth. Conversely, companies like Alfa Romeo and Ducati have released models which have seemingly been so unreliable as to do irreparable damage to the companies’ reputations, but to no noticable effect on sales. For the consumer, and I am very much amongst them, ‘buying Italian’ is buying cultural capital, but more often than not it’s little more than an idea. I’m a sucker for it!

    • +1 In some ways I look at it as buying an appliance vs a toy. Appliances I just want to work, I don’t care much how they look or where they come from. Toys are different, who makes them and how they work (or sometimes perhaps don’t) makes a huge difference. Motorcycles and bicycles are toys and for my money Italian ones are the best, products of people with soul and passion for what they make rather than simply profits over everything else. Asian stuff with “Made in Italy” on it is a different story and I have no use for that, same as “Designed in California”….labels designed to confuse and hide the true country of origin.

      • Well, said both JD and Larry,

        Bikes are either tools or art, old Italian/European lugged steel framed legends with Campy SR, for rides with like minded individuals is a growing past time in California and I would guess, around the world.

        Yet the new carbon fiber mass produced tools forgoing fast are also much appreciated.

        I recall the picture of Ernesto Colnago giving the pope a gold plated Colnago years ago. The face of Ernesto was priceless and to me exemplifies the passion and conviction of the Italians and to their legacy that we should be thankful for.

        I know that when I lay my head down at night my finest dreams are on italian steel. Glad I still have
        two old campy/steel italian bikes ready to go…

  4. Certainly from this side of the pond (U.S.) we romanticize about Italian cycling gear; I can’t say though Japanese components have ever entered my dreams late at night. Product heritage just oozes from so many Italian cycling companies, no other country has that cycling marketing edge.

    Not to turn this into a shifting debate, but I recently purchased the 2013 DI2 over EPS; Shimano really outclassed its competitor in the electronic category. I hope Campagnolo views this as an opportunity and necessity to re-design the current gruppo.

  5. Last paragraph of Summary is still 3rd paragraph of article I am reading on Thursday morning. Just an FYI.

    Article is good though.

  6. I think the success has also become a self fulfilling prophecy. People want Italian because it is cool to have Italian, not because the products are so much better. Also, I think the Italians are good at making products that look good, which matters a lot to many consumers, and roadies in particular. You don’t see a lot of Italian MTBs, or utility bikes.

    • MTB grew up in N Cal. Shimano was first all over that market, Campy was “off the back” quickly with was it “ralley’ groups?

      Has Shram taken that market from Shimano?

  7. This is why I love INRNG. A busy mind working to divert the reader despite a frankly dull stage which I can be glad to have entirely missed – (but which I understand to have been utterly eventless by the 50 words dedicated to its report on cyclingnews, not that it’s the best source of info).

    The success of Italy’s small manufacturing brands is sometimes compared to flexible manufacturing as a successor or alternative to Fordism (i.e. of the Model T). I don’t think it is a structure that has been as happily replicated elsewhere in the world, certainly not to the same extent. I’m pretty certain the luxury quality of garments, footwear and machine parts, which shift in relatively low volume but at high value, are instrumental in enabling small businesses and the artesanal cooperatives to thrive. Can’t see small-scale production, however optimised, rivaling the Fordist mass-market production in cheap goods, such as those typically from China, Taiwan (or Romania). I guess Italian brands’ successes (internationaly) prior to the Euro were due to offering reasonable/high quality at comparatively low costs due to the devalued currency.

    That said, China and Taiwan being the preserve of mass-market manufactures is increasingly an anachronism which will only become stronger.

  8. Campagnolo et al all had function, but also a refined finish & sense of style. Asian companies produced better value products, but the style & finish were not to western tastes. For value ranges, horrible brand names & spelling mistakes etc could be tolerated, but for mid to higher range products pure function is not enough.
    Time is moving on now, with improving industrial design in Asia (and Campagnolo dropping a bit), but ‘Euro Cool’ still rules . . just.
    Tiso Bicycle seems to be an Italian outlier: function only!

  9. “and besides, “made in Belgium” doesn’t promise too much, unless you’re in the market for beer.”

    Chocolate and waffles, too!

      • Don’t think that was the requirement (see comment about Campy production in Romania).

        You could substitute Specialized with Trek/Bontrager, with perhaps Giro for helmet. Probably lots of the small bits are mfg in Asia, but the high end Madone and (I think) wheels are made in the US. If not, go with Zipp or Reynolds.

          • I’ve tried for an american build on my lynskey. Alpha Q for forks, stem, handle bars and seat posts, HED rims, white industry hubs, but thats as far as I’m willing to push it.
            Group set from Japan, Tubes and tyres from germany, spokes from switzerland, saddle from italy. Close but no cigar

      • I believe that sram is 100% asian manufactured as well.

        they did do some manufacturing in germany after they bought sachs but I believe that’s all over.

    • Specialized is not a manufacturer. They test contract manufactured product, (even Merida’s) but do not own production capabilities outside of Merida’s interests. Specialized is a Merida-owned brand.

      SRAM was Sachs(??) components from waaaay back in the day. Part of becoming SRAM was moving production to Asia. Why not? They make good stuff and keep their currencies cheap relative to the West’s currencies.

      Campy does not make every part either. Spot the Tektro levers in their offerings. That is not a bad thing. Casting/stamping aluminum very precisely for levers is a skill Campy doesn’t need to master.

      I’m still looking for a Chinese drivetrain about the weight/functionality of Ultegra and maybe 9 cogs at 1/2 the price of Shimano/SRAM.

      Will people ever get nostalgic about a Giant or Merida bikes? That’s what most people are riding regardless of the stickers.

  10. I have two frames in my garage. One built up as my bike- an alloy Bottecchia Duello. The other is my old, no longer in use Bottecchia Carnielli built with Columbus SL tubing. Both are treasured, though I suspect ones far more Italian than the other.

  11. The difference between the nationalisation of brands versus the globalisation of production is a key point.

    People like to think they ride an Italian bike or drive a German car when in fact this is often a mirage. The numerous components that form these products are most often mined, designed and assembled from a large range of different countries. Consider the rubber for your tires. If natural, it will undoubtedly come from a plantation in Asia. If synthetic, it will have originated as oil, probably from under the middle east somewhere.

    This is not to say that brands aren’t valuable. They are usually the best method of signalling product quality (whether high or low).

    • Yes, the key point indeed!

      We often get confused between a Brand and its Manufacture. 2 different things entirely in this day and age. As a consumer, it always strike me as slightly strange that the brand is often the more valuable piece in the equation too!

  12. This is a fantastic article and a subject that always gets bicycle product fans talking. Thanks for writing it! A great follow-up piece to this article and addendum to your “Who Makes What” list would be “Where Does It Come From”. People buy Italian, US, etc brands for the manufacturing history, but the history often is not indicative of the present. “Designed” or “Engineered” in the US does not mean “manufactured” in the US. You can even differentiate between “built” and “made” thanks to marketers. Trek, Specialized and Cannondale are all major US bicycle suppliers. Specialized started as a design/engineering/importing company and didn’t mass produce anything themselves. Cannondale used to manufacture in the US but now only designs and engineers. Trek is the only major company who still makes something in the US, and that is a select few wheel sets and the top end Madone frame set.

  13. I have always ridden Campagnolo and I always will. I do this because it works wonderfully and looks fantastic, well it would do because its Italian and its passion. I don’t want your Japanese stuff or Chinese crap because I choose not to support those economies. Simple but true.

  14. “Italy has a thriving number of small and medium sized firms”
    I am not too sure about that. I mean there are a lot of small and medium sized often family owned firms in Italy, and that is something typically Italian, and I wonder why this is the case. But not so long ago, I saw a documentary about Italian economics and many of those companies are struggling. Their unwillingness to grow beyond a certain size leaves them in a certain dilemna. Often they are too big for their own good but too small to be competitive on a globalised market, to sum it up shortly. Being in an industry branch for luxury goods helps a bit, because usually people don’t look to closely for such objects, but even those companies are feeling the heat. Especially the clothing industry was hit hard. Luckily the cycling industry not that much, but Shimano saved Campagnolo a few times in the past because they themselves look better if it looks like they had some competitor. And the demise and sale of Bianchi also shows that not all rose coloured as your article suggests. And all this happened before the recent crisis.

  15. I wish I could believe this was a true representation of the value of the nationality of brands. For every prestigious and established Italian name there seems to be a fast growing brand from emerging cycling markets such as The US, Taiwan and even the UK, Australia and Germany. Italy may have the history but those memories will fade. Cannondale, Gore, Enve, Merida, Rapha, Bont and Canyon feel like examples of brands gaining momentum. Is it fair to say the same of Wilier, Santini, Ambrosio, De Rosa, Giordana and Guerciotti?

    That said I think Italy will always be my favourite place to be with a bike. The people, and the land are nourishment enough and then the food arrives…

    • Cannondale is an OEM reseller like so many other bike brands you mention. (Canyon, Rapha, some De Rosa, Wilier for sure)

      I believe Cannondale is owned by Dorel who owned a BUNCH of other cycling brands. Maybe Dorel got bought by someone else since then?

  16. While everyone gets all dewy eyed about Made in Italy, worth noting that to qualify for that label, you only need to have completed a small amount of the production process in Italy (Italian clothing gained a notoriety for sewing on the buttons and a label in Italy on Far East produced clothing which then had the Made in Italy tag liberally applied).
    IIRC there was an interview in Rouleur 29? with Casati who was less than complementary about Italian Bicycle production that claimed to be from Italy but in reality had a finished paint job applied.
    We in the West get very snobbish about artisan design, technology and general production from the Far East (and in many cases plain racist) but these are cultures that have long and proud history in these areas.
    In thirty years of riding I have craved objects produced all over the world because of their beauty, functionality, inventiveness but most of all because when I sit on the bike they just seem right at that moment

    • Very good point about casual racism. In my experience this dismissal of the far east seems more prevalent in the USA than the UK, which I realise is a generalisation and therefore makes me a hypocrite but there it is. Perhaps a hangover from different histories vis-a-vis colonialism, WWII and post-war industrial decline in the west. Hopefully most readers of this blog are well aware of the supremely excellent bicycles and bicycle components that have been and still are made in Japan (Suntour until 1993, Nitto, Tange, Yamaguchi, Nagasawa etc). Taiwan seems to have an excellent reputation for engineering, design, quality and process improvements. PRC seems to be more focused on working down to a cost, but this is what their clients ask them for, not an inherent characteristic. Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia seem to make good budget and mid-range product for Shimano, Schwalbe and others, I don’t have a problem with it, these are durable goods with a long-life span so carbon-footprint versus purchase frequency isn’t too bad.

  17. That CAMPAGNOLO sign in the first photograph is about as close to perfect in style as you can get! I’d have that at the entrance to my house if I could….although I’d need a much bigger house!

  18. Robert Putnam’s work on social capital points to certain regions of Italy has having the conditions necessary for a network of small to medium sized manufacturing companies to succeed. It’s not a description of Italy as a whole but certain regions, namely the middle bit: Emilia-Romagna, Umbria, Tuscany. I don’t know whether that’s reflected in the numbers of bike manufacturing companies. But Putnam’s work is highly regarded in this field (see ‘Bowling Alone’). It remains to be seen how resilient the middle-Italian model will be to the austerity economics and political paralysis that Italy (like much of Europe) is experiencing.

  19. I love my Giant race machine for its performance qualities and look (naked with white decals),
    but ‘Italian’ seems to have a grander appeal and character, as if the Italians have more style!
    A little akin to comparing a Toyota with a Masserati!

  20. Not related to the discussion at hand, but — can anyone tell me the font used in the Campagnolo sign to lead into the article? It looks a little bit like Nuetra, but not quite…

  21. I was wondering if one of the reasons why so many cycling product companies hail from Italy is not that their products are particularly good (in my experience the opposite is generally the case for everything non-edible) but that the state props-up firms that are just bumbling along. Isn’t one of the real reason why the Italian cycling sector is so diverse the same reason why the finances of Italy a mess – because companies are kept going through government backhanders when in Northern European countries they would have gone bust long ago?

    Also – the Italian emphasis on style over performance keeps the punters buying – we are almost all guilty of brand loyalty.

    Of course I am over-simplifying but these factors do not seem to be taken in to account.

  22. A small factoid to make you think about production and labor over the next decade – a friend who owns a bike factory recently returned from China and told me that, with welders there already making a higher salary than teachers, police and many others in southern European countries, Chinese firms have already started outsourcing labor in this direction!! They bought factories in Turkey, and are looking elsewhere. Soon, if not already, Italian and German companies taking advantage of skilled and semi-skilled labor in Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, etc. will be competing for those workers with Chinese companies.

  23. I think if you are looking for a quintessential Italian component maker you could look no further than TISO who makes some exquisite parts right down to derailleurs.

  24. Just for the records: the Colnago C59 is, to my knowledge, the only Colnago frame actually built in Italy while all others are sourced in the Far East (with, at most, some painting and touching up done in Italy). I have many times requested information about the country of origin of other Colnago frames but the company has, so far, failed to respond (who knows why).

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