Today’s stage of the Giro features the sharp climb of the Forcella Mostaccin near the finish. The climb gets the attention because of the race yet the small town of Maser which lies at the foot of the hill is arguably more interesting because it’s central to the sport. This town and the area around it is host to Pinarello, Sidi, Campagnolo, Selle Italia and more, while Segafredo coffee and Oakley sunglasses all have connections to this small part of Italy. More than ever they’re crucial to the Italian economy.
Sidi began trading in 1960, that’s the first building in the photo at the top and you can see its swish modern factory just above. It began making hiking boots but within a decade moved into production of cycling shoes and motorcycle boots and today the brand is equally famous in cycling and motorsport. It’s based in the small town of Maser, a place of just 5,000 people. Just a few hundred metres away from Sidi’s factory is the Gaerne factory, another big name in cycling shoes and motorcycle boots.
If this isn’t coincidence enough, both have “backwards names”:
- Sidi was founded by Dino Signori. Take the first two letters of Dino and the first two from Signori and what have you got? Di and Si. Flip them backwards: Si-di.
- Gaerne was founded by Ernesto Gazzola. Take the first four letters of Ernesto and first two of Gazzola to get Erne and Ga. Flip them backwards: Ga-erne.
Two shoe makers from the same town might sound odd given it’s such a small place but in fact several other footwear brands are in close proximity. Motorcycle and mountain bike brand Alpine Stars is on the same industrial estate as Sidi. Diadora, now owned by Geox, is 3.5km to the south of Maser. Northwave is 5km to the north-east. In fact the Veneto region is responsible for 70% of Italian sports shoes and 65% of the world’s ski boots and the Treviso province within it has the high concentration of cycling brands.
80% of Italian sunglasses come from this region too. 7km away from Maser is Montebelluna, home of Rudy Barbazza and his eponymous sunglasses company Rudy Project. It’s also where Luxottica was founded, the Italian company is the world leader in premium sunglasses and includes brands like Oakley and Rayban in its portfolio and makes the sunglasses for almost all the famous fashion names like Prada, Armani, Chanel and more while owning a string of retailers like Sunglass Hut from which to sell them all from. Brands like Benetton, Diesel, Marzotto and Stefanel come from the region. Pinarello is just a spin away – to coincide with the Giro’s visit they until their 2017 collection this evening – and Wilier Triestina and Campagnolo are not far either.
The Italian Jobs
Today the Italian economy is in a funk and this isn’t immediately obvious to people watching the Giro with its pink celebration but look closer and you can see the signs. Ads in La Gazzetta Dello Sport for Bank Mediolanum, sponsor of the blue points jersey, come with a “stability rating” to reassure depositors as the country’s banking system wobbles. Race organiser RCS is the midst of a bizarre and Byzantine financial web illustrated by today’s interview in La Repubblica with boardroom denizen Giovanni Bazzoli where masons and Catholicism intersect with corporate dealings. Meanwhile Michele Acquarone’s claims of wrongful dismissal at RCS Sport are taking years to initiate in the Italian courts, an illustration of how the country’s justice system is gummed up and millions are denied the chance of justice. Or just look how Italian cycling has dried up with only Lampre-Merida left in the World Tour. Is it even Italian? The team is half-funded by a Taiwanese bike brand and the corporate entity behind the team is CGS Cycling Team AG… of Switzerland.
Looking at more classic indicators, Italian growth for 2016 is forecast to be a meagre 1.2%, unemployment is at 12.4% and beginning to fall after hitting a record high in late 2014 and public debt is very high as the Rome government battles and negotiates with Brussels in order to meet the strictures of compliance with Europe’s single currency. If the Italian economy was a cyclist it’d be pedalling into a headwind with low blood sugar, a crisi di zuccheri.
With all these woes it’s companies like Sidi, Gaerne, Pinarello and more that keep the economy turning, the jobs onshore and the Veneto region is central to this. Italy is the eighth largest economy in the world and a large share of its wealth comes from mid-size businesses like Sidi and Gaerne and thousands of similar success stories, all family owned and often with a flair for design and marketing. A firm like Selle Italia – its new HQ is just 20km from Maser after it took over Selle San Marco recently – makes its goods in Italy and exports 90% of its output. These cycling names are replicated across many other sectors from ski wear to auto parts, leather goods to mechanical parts, fashion to food, a myriad of small to medium sized firms. 28km from Maser is Villorba where the coffee company Segafredo-Zanetti began, now a multinational and a sponsor of the Trek team and just nearby is De Longhi, maker of coffee machines. “I never imagined cycling would get me such reach in the world” purrs Massimo Zanetti, the President of Segafredo, in La Gazzetta Dello Sport today.
So far so good
These middling companies often stay this way. In America they’d be bought up and merged in the way SRAM snapped up the likes of Sachs, Sedis, Zipp and other component manufacturers to build a company capable of supplying a whole groupset: Italy is great at producing mid-size companies but struggles to convert them into big ones. Meanwhile on the ground the locals complain a lot of the factory jobs go to immigrants as the factories siphon workers in from Romania and Albania at their expense and this contributes to the rise of populist politics. Further into the mountains from today’s stage finish is Castelli which trades on its Italian heritage among other elements but has moved some work to lower cost Romania while Campagnolo’s workers went on strike over a redundancy scheme and plans to move jobs to Romania.
The Giro visits the Veneto region and the province of Treviso today with it comes the chance to briefly shine a spotlight on the Italian cycling industry and the concentration of brands that are all within a short ride of today’s stage finish. It’s not by accident, the proliferation of shoe manufacturers stems from the past production of leather goods but the concentration of famous brand names is exceptional, this is the Silicon Valley of sporting goods. The Veneto isn’t unique, there are pockets in northern Italy with similar but smaller stories like Colnago and SMS Santini in between Milan and Bergamo. All these small firms are perfect case-study examples of businesses that started in Italy’s post-war boom, that remain family-owned and rely on craftsmanship and design to export a large share of their production. As the riders approach the Forcella Mostaccin some will tighten their shoes in anticipation of the climb, and many will be reaching for their Sidis which are made just down the road.