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There are few visits with cameras that resonate with me as deeply as the time I was in northern Italy for two separate assignments with a weekend of childhood reminiscing in between (see “Titanium in Tuscany”). There was the misfortune of a small pre-booked Audi Quattro 4×4 becoming a Ford Mondeo station wagon with bald front-wheel-drive summer tires. Old friendships were cemented while new ones created.
ON LEAVING TUSCANY, I headed north to what would be a warm welcome at Rocket Espresso just outside Milan. First though, the evening closed in and snow began settling across the road. My lack of four-wheel drive and more importantly decent tires was constantly apparent before I realized I hadn’t seen another vehicle on the motorway for what was probably a couple of hours. This was pretty disconcerting, as were the red flashing crosses above all lanes, indicating the autostrada was, yes, closed.
As I neared Milan and came off the motorway to exchange futuristic freeway catastrophe fear for good old-fashioned rural back road concerns, I turned into my destination village street and apartment car park to see a smiling Nicky Meo leaning from a first-floor window welcoming me. The crunch of fresh powder under sliding tires and seeing the glow of a warm family house made my conversation opener about moving in for a few weeks only partly a joke.
I was welcomed into a family meal with what would become for me another contender for the “nicest family in cycling” award. the Meos: Andrew, Nicky and their son Felix. Immediately bonded with Lucy, their adorable giant schnauzer under the table, I was fast revived by homemade soup and a dinner etiquette that warmed my heart after a day driving through a snowed-on Mad Max set. Conversation drifted fluidly between caffeine and cycle racing. And dogs.
There’s always time for dogs. This New Zealand bike-racing couple bought the failing Rocket Espresso brand in 2007 and arrived in both cycling’s and coffee’s heartland of northern Italy with a dream of combining two personal and Italian passions seemingly only linked at the time by a chance meeting in a town square after a ride. Caffeine became cycling fuel before becoming cycling culture in a 15-year journey that turned the pro peloton into endorsers and, in turn, consumers who gave global cycling culture a poster boy for their thimble of lifeblood before a ride.
The next morning, I awoke hours after my hosts had gone to work. My first experience of #rocketpeople was a warm, kind welcome and family dinner. My first experience of a Rocket Espresso machine was when Felix Meo, the charming and talented bike racer in this scenario, made me a thimble full of rich subtly flavored awakening with a caramelized appearance. Its smoothness bore a visual presence reminding me of the aural feeling of some old calm “blue note” horn played by one of the greats. Calm, strong, confident and reflective.
It seems pretentious to describe a cup of coffee as a cocoon of Miles Davis-playing warmth, and it surely would be if I weren’t still whacked out on drugs for flu. But this felt different from my normal mug of standard builder’s cooking tea before even words are switched on in the morning. It was a strange but welcome ritual. Not an urgency of kettle and tea-bag event. Instead, to an outsider and future coffee convert, this was strangely mesmeric. There was steam, sound and patience in the refining of this vital morning ingredient. The trickle of potent nectar collected in a subtle way with a welcome aftereffect. Not unlike one of Nintendo’s Mario power-ups.
Managing to free my rental car that sadly hadn’t morphed into an Audi Quattro overnight, I plodded through idyllic town and countryside until, pulling up outside the Rocket Espresso factory, I was asked directions window to window by about 200 grand’s worth of F430 Scuderia. Random enough perhaps, but on a wintry day, in the snow and ice? More brave or crazy even. A millionaire presumably living the dream snow or shine. I remember realizing my Defender is always about 1,000 miles away when it snows and made note: Must remember to pack the Land Rover next time.
In the Rocket entrance I met with power-up No. 2 as my hosts floated about in the background between the offices. There was cycling paraphernalia everywhere. Not least, a chunk of the WorldTour peloton’s jerseys as signed receipts for custom coffee machines received. Much has been written on the Rocket people but what was apparent to me quickly but subtly was that these weren’t people who got into cycling or coffee with the new wave, this was a proper cycling family that was also into coffee.
Veins fueled, we entered the factory floor. It was neat and tidy, ordered and happy. I watched people from on high in the loft space where Felix was roasting coffee beans in a circular-ended machine that vaguely resembled chain-link production over at Campagnolo but was admittedly a better-smelling production process. The people below carried out their respective tasks in neat production lines as one imagines ought to be how cars and bikes and computers are made but rarely are these days—by humans.
This was a very handmade set-up. From the intricate ornate pipework inside the coffee machines to the industrial-looking aesthetic of the consumer end of these objects of desire. Patches of steam were dotted around in isolated pockets of product testing. Component drawers delved into, and different stages finished in unison, in order, row by row. By hand. Looking long enough, you would be able to see your own machine clearly take shape in a way so popular in internet configuration culture but so unlikely to be possible in modern mechanized manufacture. As I often think in a visit to a factory of the famous in the cycling world, I wouldn’t be surprised if people would pay to see how their shifters or wheels, or postride coffee machines are made as a kind of cyclists’ theme-park attraction.
Walking among the rows of little, shiny-silver pets waiting for new forever homes to go to and energize, I couldn’t help but pick up on both the care taken by the assemblers and the good grace their tasks were undertaken with. It’s assumed there is a pride in one’s work if that work is on the top tier of a chosen field, but to see it commonplace there, even after my caffeine hit had worn off, seemed both unsurprising and yet still warming.
Rocket Espresso felt like a familiar cycling mothership in some ways: vast, industrial and machinelike with production-line targets and logistics like a factory ought to have; but there was a friendly familiarity and confidence among the human beings in this metallic opera of steam and hiss. That usually only happens when a place is run by good people. And these were good Rocket people.
The last year saw the Meos move on from their caffeine journey after one and a half decades refining this serum. Though their racing never stopped, once the coffee mission was accomplished the family podium chase could continue with two generations side by side. Rocket fueled.