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Dave Silva: A Californian in Italy

From Issue 80 • Interview: Brad Roe; Images: Courtesy, Dave Silva

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So, you were a runner and after an injury a doctor suggested cycling? 

Yes, I had knee injuries from playing football and it affected my trail-running abilities, so my doctor said if you don’t want surgery then do something low impact like cycling to build up the supporting muscles around your knees. That led me to buying a Motobécane 10-speed from a shop in El Cerrito. I had no idea about anything bikes or cycling, but that was my start. Instead of running East Bay trails I started to cycle the hills behind Berkeley and Oakland.

Tell us about learning the “cycling code.” What did you think was cool about the sport, your Team DFL days, and then how you progressed into working at a shop? 

I think my interest in all things technical and mechanical led me to my first bike shop job as a mechanic-in-training at VeloCity, which was one of two shops owned by Holland Jones —he was an early importer of euro frames, including Jack Taylor bikes. There was so much mystery surrounding all the hand-built stuff. I had two great friends who helped me land the job––Matt Harvey, who later became the product designer for Bianchi USA and currently owner and designer for Enduro bearings, and Grant Handley, who was a junior national track champion and has a wealth of European cycling knowledge. Both schooled me in all things cycling.

Another early mentor was Dave Guettler, who ran the Vespa/Bianchi shop at the time on Van Ness and Turk in San Francisco. Dave opened a chain of shops in the Bay Area and later moved to Portland to open River City Bicycles, where he is still in the industry today. Dave helped us with organizing training rides, nutrition and custom tweaks, and turned us onto awesome musicians like Paco de Lucia when we were playing and listening mostly to punk rock. His winter roller races in the shop with a pair of these super-loud Cinelli rollers side by side, hooked up to a large dual-hand clock, still gets me excited thinking about that crew. We were mostly geek misfits and the cycling community seemed to embrace all-comers—probably the first time other than music and rock climbing where it felt like I had some passion and direction in my life.

And DFL? 

I was an early training and racing member of Team DFL, a loose band of cycling enthusiasts poking fun at uptight roadies. At the time, I had switched over to mountain biking and somehow we managed a few training rides in the Marin Headlands or on Mount Tam a few times a week. We would load up our vehicles and drive all over creation Friday night, getting in late, to wake up and race early the next morning. None of us made much money and I’m not sure how we pulled it all off—always camping of course, mostly illegally, which helped to defray costs.

Matt and another close friend, Owen Grady, who was on the junior national road team with Bob Roll, LeMond and Hampsten, coached by Mike Neel—an early euro pioneer and connected to Peter Rich, who owned Velo Sport shop in Berkeley at the time and supported Mike, local racers and frame builders. Matt and Owen were both working at Bianchi USA and got me in the door. I actually don’t remember doing what, maybe warehouse grunt. I eventually worked my way up to warranty manager, which led to going overseas to proactively manage and train factories in all quality-control things. Looking at so many broken frames made me realize the strengths and weaknesses of various tubeset-and-lug combos and realizing we could do a much better job if we could train and innovate at the factory level.

Laurent Fignon at Alta Badia, Giro d’Italia 1992.
Silva at his Berkeley, California, bike shop in 1991.
Silva, Gary Boff (local shop legend) and Professor Earl Cotter.
Silva (left) at Anaheim Trade show with Bruce Gordon (center).
Reparto Corse team frames.
Early mix of DFL Bay Area riders and Truckee riders.
1992 Reparto Corse team (minus Felice Gimondi and Enrico Maggioni) with the Bianchi Actiontec Paris–Roubaix bike.

That led to me working with Bill (now Beth) Horner in an assistant product manager position focusing on upping our spec, street cred and market perception as it pertained to Bianchi being a producer of not only road bikes, which is how we were viewed, but also of solid mountain bikes. That led to work on helping Beth realize her vision for the Project 7, 700c mob, which was ahead of its time. Bruce Gordon had designed a “Rock & Road” bike around what I recall was a 35 or 40c Finnish Nokian Hakkapelitta tire with aggressive tread and lots of volume. I got to work with the factory to crank out prototypes, build them up and go on big Tahoe rides every weekend until we got to a point of satisfaction between handling, weight (Tange Prestige tubeset at the time), clearances for mud, etcetera. The marketing story wrote itself and its technical points are still used today.

There were few 700c-specific components available, and that was a challenge. Our president at the time cleared us to make a lighter tire for the P7 in Taiwan. I was so connected to riding Marin dirt and got to ride on any number of tires as part of my job. I felt I had good sensitivity at the time as to what block shapes and tread patterns were working; and I literally drew out on the plane ride over to Taiwan with Beth a tire design that Cheng Shin made for us, which was significantly lighter than the Hakkapelitta tire. Beth helped run all the final mold tweaks down and we expanded the tire design to a few different sizes to create on a small scale a tire program for our reps to sell as well.

How did you decide to move to Italy and work for Bianchi? 

I got laid off in an alleged cost-cutting move, at the same time as factories, shops and distributors wrote letters to the president noting the increase in quality. The Italians also noticed apparently and Bianchi had just agreed to carve out the race department. Reparto Corse, with its own budget separated from the commercial factory, which then made primarily department-store bikes. The capo of RC was Enrico Maggioni, who grew up surrounded by Bianchi bikes, as his father worked in the factory. Enrico offered me the R&D position and to pay my way to Italy—not a hard offer to pass up.

Our mandate was to integrate man and machine to operate as one whole machine as light, aerodynamic and efficiently as possible. We supported two professional teams: Gatorade, featuring grand tour rider Gianni Bugno, and MG-GB, with Mario Cipollini, Franco Vona, Franco Chioccioli and Johan Museeuw. Our role in supporting them was to innovate to help them win and take what we learned from race day and rider feedback and work that into evolving the commercial line from a technology top-trickle-down perspective. Oh, and win the Tour!

I have not looked at my cycling archive for maybe 20-plus years, and in digging through that stuff I realized we did a pretty good job in terms of fulfilling our mandate. Specialized had a sign on the skunk works door: “Innovate or Die.” That was a pretty big motivator, as they had recently arrived in the pro peloton, as had Trek and Cannondale, and we needed to break out of the status quo; and thanks to the board and the Agnelli family, they gave us the freedom and funding, with Enrico driving the agenda and green-lighting design projects.

Evgeni Berzin aboard the Ti 6/4alu frame at the 1995 Giro d’Italia.

During my four years on the Continent we had some incredible victories and other successes that translated to increased sales and brand prestige, but we came up short in the Tour-win department. Unfortunately for Bugno, there was this guy Miguel from Spain who was unstoppable at the time—though Bugno’s Giro win partially made up for it in the grand tour category.

What are your three most vivid memories of living and working in Italy? 

1) The incredible team Enrico had assembled, including all our partners who went out of their way to help me integrate into the Italian cycling community. They were the best people you would ever want to be involved with, including Fulvio Acquati, who was on the Bianchi commercial side during my time at RC and who later worked with all the pro teams with Deda Elementi. He tragically passed last year. 2) Listening to Felice Gimondi tell stories in his Bergamasca accent that Enrico always had to translate for me, even though by that time I spoke Italian well. 3) Awesome pass rides—roads like that just don’t exist here.

Can you look back and tell us about the designs and projects you are most proud of? Project 7, top-pull front derailleurs, tire designs, MTB product spec on the Bianchi USA side. Reparto Corse—revamping the road geometry and factoryfloor layout, Paris–Roubaix suspension, Gianni Bugno’s aluminum chrono frame, Evgeni Berzin’s titanium 6/4 chrono bike, the 110th Anniversary bike, Ti Mega tube frame and production line—thank you, Gary Helfrich!

How does it feel to look back on all of this, and what is your relationship with cycling, bikes and Italy today? I have not really thought about that until now so my thoughts are still evolving. It feels like there was a lot more freedom then to explore your vision freely and execute, then reassess the pros and cons, most of which you already knew, but you still had to build and ride prototypes as proof of concept in the pro peloton. Design envelopes are still being pushed, and there are so many more options and tools now for designers and riders. I am riding again at least more consistently and really enjoying that time on the bike. The downside is I pretty much choke on highend-bike prices that only bankers and doctors can afford, which saddens me. One of the early joys that got me hooked on cycling was that you could purchase an intro Bianchi steel frame with Campy NR for $650, and even on my bikemessenger wages the bar to racing for the average kid was reachable—keeping race wheels glued up with Seta sew-ups was another story!

From issue 80, get your copy here.