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Dispatch from Italy: Our Trip to the Granfondo Pinarello – Part I

Background

Giovanni Pinarello raced bikes professionally in the 1940′s, and like all pros he fulfilled a lifelong dream when he took part in his first Giro d’Italia. Italy isn’t unlike America, though, in that dreams aren’t always what they seem: 3 weeks after the start Giovanni found himself finishing the race in the maglia nero -- the black jersey worn by the rider in dead last. The lanterne rouge of the modern-day Tour de France is by comparison something of a footnote, one of the million bits of microscopic data that give us wonderful conversation and laughter in the place of silence on the dreadfully hot rides of mid-summer (after all, when 20% of the Tour riders don’t make it all the way to Paris, what’s to criticize about someone who actually finishes?). The maglia nero in Giovanni’s era was a completely different matter -- you actually wore a black jersey so the tifosi could pick you out as you rode by, making you an easy target for those who would throw sandwiches and spray vinegar at the stragglers of the peloton. Was it dark humor on the part of the Giro organizers? Was it truly intended to be a sign of shame? We’re not exactly sure, but what we do know is that in the following year Giovanni’s team paid him to not ride the Giro, presumably in an effort to prevent a repeat performance.

With unexpected time on his hands and extra money in his pocket, Giovanni set into motion the birth of one of cycling’s greatest companies. He purchased the bulk of a city block of real estate situated alongside the central piazza in his small hometown Treviso, and then opened Cicli Pinarello for business. The rest, of course, is history. Pinarello methodically climbed to the top of the Italian framebuilding hierarchy, and the list of pros who found greatness riding their bikes is epic: Cipollini, Indurain, Riis, Zabel, Ullrich, and Petacchi top the list. Pinarello gained a reputation for mastering new tubing technology before other builders even considered experimenting with it -- Dyna Lite and Excell steel, SC61.10a and V107 aluminum, and AK61 magnesium and 46HM3K carbon fiber are some of the cutting edge raw materials used by Pinarello in recent times to manufacture bikes with an exquisite knack for overwhelming their owners’ most optimistic expectations.

Given the global prestige of the Pinarello brand and the very simple fact that each time we take delivery on one of their frames we unbox something with equal parts artistic inspiration and technical merit, I was deeply flattered when they invited me to take part in their 9th annual Granfondo. While I’d like to think it was because of the Competitive Cyclist passion for Pinarello, the invitation was no doubt a byproduct of the fact that we’re their largest dealer in the US -- a distinction we’ve worked very hard to earn over the years.

What’s a Granfondo? It’s the sort of organized ride we’ve all taken part in -- the one-day, warp-speed ‘non-competitive’ event akin to the Ride for the Roses or Hotter than Hell in the US, or the legendary cyclesportif ride La Marmotte in the French Alps. Thousands of cyclists show up not to compete against a peloton at large, but rather to take themselves to task over courses that are by tradition terribly challenging both in terms of their terrain and length. Granfondo is so popular in Italy, in fact, that they have a year-long series, most of which are sponsored by the titans of the Italian bike industry. Granfondo Campagnolo, for example, is one of the few events whose turnout exceeds Pinarello’s.

The Granfondo Pinarello actually comprises three events in one, each of which presents its own level of difficulty. The true Granfondo is the hardest event of the three, taking in 6400 feet of climbing over a 100 mile course. The Mediofondo is 75 miles in length, and it detoured around the final 11km of the Casere Budui climb, plus it skipped the climb of Monte Tomba altogether -- meaning you got a mere 2500 feet of climbing. The third event is perhaps the most brilliant in concept, a 45km ride known as the Granfondo Gourmet. It’s a dead flat ride with three stops each of which serves up food specific to Treviso and the Veneto area -- white and yellow polenta, pure honey and honey-related foods, grilled poultry, plus local cheese and wine all ensured that no one on the Gourmet ride would risk bonking.

Arrival

US Airways has a daily non-stop flight from Philidelphia to Venice, so you can avoid a connection from Paris or Frankfurt to Venice, or (worse) having to make the 3-hour drive from Milan. Despite US Air’s now-legendary reputation for misrouting and/or losing baggage altogether (I placed equal importance on packing my Northwaves in my carry-on luggage as I did in remembering my passport), we landed in Venice almost an hour early and I was reunited with my belongings without incident.

The Pinarello factory is still located in Treviso, about 30-40km north of Venice. It’s equidistant between the mountains and the sea, and on the brief drive there I got my initial taste of the gorgeous landscape of the Veneto region. At first it seemed faintly familiar -- a pseudo-California-like place, as though God took the finest acre of Palo Alto or maybe Rancho Santa Fe and spread it thickly across the fields and hills and on to the horizon. The green and sparkling gold of the agrarian terrain dominated the view despite all of the other things there to see: The Dolomites erupted in the distance and served as a steady reminder of what kind of hell nature can dish out upon a cyclist. The steeples of centuries-old churches lent the scene the seriousness of both history and sanctity. And the villas and farmhouses in the foreground were universally built with stucco walls and terra cotta roofs not too unlike the million dollar ‘Tuscan Estate Homes’ you see in affluent neighborhoods back in the States.

But California this was not. There were no gated cul-de-sacs. You weren’t within spitting distance of a Costco, an interstate, or an insanely expensive golf club. These structures were mostly solitary, with thick cornfields and orchards separating neighbors far beyond shouting distance. They had wooden shutters on them that actually function, and chimneys attached to stoves that likely provide a meaningful source of warmth. The off-white stucco walls were oftentimes stained yellow or tobacco juice brown -- an effect, no doubt, of their age and the fact that they serve as a workplace for their owners, not just a residence. We were indisputably in the working-class countryside, and in Italy confirmation of this comes in the form of what passes for wealth in America -- hillside vineyards, a certain style of architecture, space to breathe, and the enormity of mountains lording over the scene.

We made a transition from rural to urban right as we passed the Treviso city limits. An industrial area led to a commercial one, and we took a right as instructed at a Ducati dealership. Behind that building was the Pinarello factory. Upon exiting the car, the noise was cacophonous. Alongside the factory was an enormous pit where some serious construction was occurring. We were later told that Pinarello is building a brand new state-of-the-art factory next door to their current building, and based on the size of the lot the building is doubtlessly designed to be double the size of the current (already-impressive) facility.

Upon entering the factory, my companions and I were greeted warmly by various members of the Pinarello family and their emissaries. It was here that we were introduced to one of the marvels of modern-day Italian culture -- the Espresso vending machine. Over the course of my week in Italy I learned that espresso (or, as the Italians call it ‘café’) is what Italians drink pretty much exclusively when it comes to coffee. And, as Jules says in the movie ‘Pulp Fiction’, this is ‘serious gourmet shit’. You don’t slug it, you savor it. It doesn’t matter where you are in Italy -- factory, gas station, hotel, restaurant -- you’re always within 100 feet of a heartbreakingly fine cup of espresso.

We were nicely dosed up with caffeine as we took a walk through the factory. To our right were various offices and a soft goods/bike componentry warehouse. To our left was manufacturing, and upon walking that direction I was confronted by stacks beyond stacks of F4:13 carbon fiber frames on racks awaiting paint. Given the epic response we’ve seen so far in the US to the F4:13 -- and given our struggle in filling our customers’ orders for these frames due to demand overwhelming supply -- part of me wished I was wearing a trenchcoat the size of a UPS truck. But based on what I saw, it was clear that Pinarello was confronting the problem head-on: All production, it seemed, was devoted to the F4:13. In the room where the rear carbon stays are bonded to the main triangle of all frames, the only frames I saw were F4:13′s. In the area where pre-paint finish work is done, three workers were buffing the daylights out of nothing but F4:13′s, and behind them were piles more. In the paint booth and in the bike assembly area, with only isolated exceptions I saw nothing but F4:13′s. Clearly, the intense demand was a global phenomenon.

As interesting as the spectacle of the F4:13 was, the fact of the matter is that we’ve already had a good number of them pass through Competitive Cyclist. I was less keen on studying what I already knew, and rather I began scanning the floor and frame racks for signs of the future. I circled back around to the bike assembly area when I caught a glimpse of an unusual orange frameset being built up. The bike assembly area took up quite a decent piece of real estate -- something that surprised me since the US importer, Gita Sporting Goods, brings in Pinarellos as framesets only, not as complete bikes. What I learned was that the US market is the only market to which Pinarello doesn’t ship out complete bikes. All other countries, apparently, bring in full (and fully assembled) bikes.

I approached the luminous orange frameset with some caution. To see it closely I had to cross the line from a central area where frames and boxes were stacked to a place where people were actually working. Our mechanics at home don’t like spectators breathing down their neck, and I’ve always assumed this is a universal trait amongst the breed. Nevertheless, the frame was clearly a new model and I felt an unrelenting professional compunction to see it. If the mechanic was to curse me out, I decided, it was sure to be less biting since I wouldn’t understand him anyway.

The risk, it turned out, was worth it. The mechanic turned out to be quite gracious, and he kindly leaned a bit out of the way as he worked so I could take in all the details of the frame. It said ‘Paris’ on the seat tube, but it was nothing like the aluminum Paris framesets we’ve had in stock for nearly a year. It was a full carbon frame with the same tight weave as the F4:13, but the tubing shared the Paris’ scalloped edges that come from the hydroforming process. Clearly, the mold of this new carbon frame features the same reinforced zones seen on the Paris aluminum, giving it the same key added points of extra strength. Given its carbon construction, though, it presumably gives Pinarello the ability to make the Paris Carbon lighter and likely more gentle on rough roads than the aluminum Paris. The orange paint, called Orange Fluo, had the same intensity florescence as the golf balls I preferred when I was 12 years old. It was a color that commanded attention with none of the subtlety of the frame’s beautifully nuanced tubeset. In fact, I later spied a Yellow Fluo Dogma FP as well. For better or worse, it appears that we’re facing a dayglo revival in 2006.

One unintended consequence of my sneak peek at the Paris Carbon was my first viewing of the 2006 Campagnolo wheel line. Rumors have brewed for awhile that Campy was planning on revamping their wheels. Based on the set of 2006 Eurus wheels I saw, I wouldn’t characterize it as a face lift or anything else that might suggest a generational shift in technology. Rather, it’s a significant refinement of what were already quite nice wheels. The Eurus I saw were silver and they featured a much more dramatically bladed set of spokes than what you get in the 2005 version-- all-but identical to what you get in the new-for-2005 Fulcrum Racing 1 wheelset. They’re flattened for aerodynamics in the style of the Mavic Ksyrium SL, but unlike the SL the spokes taper in width. They’re widest at the rim (where aerodynamics is at a premium), but they narrow as they approach the hub (to save weight and perhaps prevent turbulence in a crosswind.) From my quick viewing, their single-most significant difference from the Racing 1 is that they maintain their G3 spoking pattern, which means the rear wheel spokes are grouped in sets of 3 at the rim in order to maximize resistance to torsional windup under serious torque. Their skewers have a new look, too. They’re shorter and stubbier, with a more futuristic appeal than what we’ve seen from Campy in the skewer department for the last 20 years.

As I looped through the rest of the factory, the eye candy was everywhere. I saw a rack of Montello track frames decaled with the artwork of the Spanish national track team. At a retail price of $8,000 a piece, I knew that they had a collective value that exceeded my first house (and my second one too, I think…) by a long shot. Not far away was their frame testing machine -- a device to which you could attach a frame by any combination of the seat tube, bottom bracket, headtube, fork dropouts, and rear dropouts, and then exert ungodly forces on it in order to test the strength of the frame. When I walked by they had a 2006 Galileo locked in place, and they repeatedly drove the fork backward to simulate the type of impact force you get when you slam into a railroad track or a raised manhole cover. They were pushing the fork back so far that you could fit a credit card in the gap between the headtube and the crown race. By the time I came across the machine, the frame was on something like its 1200th cycle. The technician manning the machine was more than happy to show off the various ways in which he could torture a frame. There was one where all points were fixed and they wrenched the daylights out of the bottom bracket shell up and down to mimic what must’ve been 100 years of Petacchi sprint workouts compressed into the span of about 2 minutes. Even more incredible was the test where they simultaneously shoved both sets of dropouts (fork and rear) towards the bottom bracket shell, effectively compressing the extremities of the frame inward. I’m not sure what exactly he was trying to impress me more with -- how cool the machine was, or how resilient their frames were -- but it was tough to not walk away a good bit less skeptical about the long-term durability of featherlight aluminum.

With my tour of the factory complete, it was time to depart for the hotel. Like any good guest, I brought a couple of small gifts for my hosts, and my goal was to hand them off before I left. My main two contacts within Pinarello over the years have been Fausto Pinarello and Luciano Fusar Poli. I brought gifts that seemed to make sense -- a Competitive Cyclist jersey, and an artsy-yet-minimalistic Elvis Presley T-shirt. The jersey seemed like a no-brainer, and I intended the Elvis tee to be a kitschy symbol of the south (just like Faulkner considered Memphis an extension of Mississippi, we consider it part of Arkansas). But it was stupendously busy within the factory -- pallets of Gatorade were being unloaded, other guests were coming and going, and as much as possible a decent amount of normal business was occurring. It was frenetic, noisy, and everyone there was dressed in trademark Italian fashion: casual, yet excruciatingly manicured. I was quickly convinced that an Elvis tee -- even though it was minimalistic, even though it was black -- would be so passé in their eyes that in their semi-perfect English they might’ve had difficulty in faking the perfunctory gratitude for such a gift. I made an instant decision: The best guests are ones who don’t make their hosts uncomfortable. I left the jerseys and tees in my bag. We left for the hotel.