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The Daunting Croce D’Aune

Words/images: Jered Gruber

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A flat tire. It all began with a flat tire. It’s difficult to comprehend that the legend that is Campagnolo began out of icy frustration on the steep slopes of the Croce d’Aune far above the Bellunese towns of Fonzaso and Feltre. It was November 4th, 1924, and an in-form Tullio Campagnolo flatted out of the winning break. He went to change his tire, but found the wingnuts that fastened the wheel to the bike were completely iced over. He was powerless.

It was at this time, as he watched the break and any chance of victory ride away, that he uttered the phrase that would change the course of cycling history. “Bisogna cambiar qualcossa de drio,” cried the native of Vicenza in the dialect of his region. “Something must change in the rear!”

The spark had been lit, and in 1930 he patented his design of what we now know as the quick release. Almost 90 years after that terrible November day, we visited Tullio’s son, Valentino, in Vicenza. I confess that I’m a lover of stories, and for me that story begs for the one living person who knows it better than anyone alive, to act as the bard.

What follows are Valentino Campagnolo’s words. Let’s go back to that fateful day all those many years ago and follow it through to the birth of the great company.

Just to be precise, when he experienced these problems, I was still yet to be born, so maybe I’m not fully aware of everything. You should address God at this point, if you want to know the whole story. I was just informed of some facts throughout my life. That’s my disclaimer, as the lawyer says.

The Gran Premio della Vittoria was a race that my father had been preparing hard for. He told me that he was in quite good shape for that race. It was a desirable target for my father, and he had a conviction to perform well. Unfortunately, people plan but God decides. At that time, God decided differently. My father was in the front of a small break far ahead of the peloton. Then together with a few of them, they separated themselves from the rest of the break.

The weather conditions had been very adverse that day, that along with the small break’s efforts, meant they got quite a sizable amount of space between them and the others. The group was very far behind, and the weather continued to worsen. As they climbed the Croce d’Aune, there was snow on the road, which was itself already in terrible condition. At that point, he got a flat tire.

He had the spare tire, but he couldn’t remove the wheel. In the meantime, the others, the two, three, four others they continued their race.

In the time he spent trying to get his wheel off, the small group caught up to him. They continued their race, while my father was sitting over there on the side of the road trying to get the wheel off. He finally succeeded in getting the wheel off, and the major part of the peloton was still behind after repairing the flat, but he had already lost the race. He lost the race that he had worked so hard for, and the race that, from the beginning, he had hoped to perform well in. With all of this in mind, along with his hope to get a good result, he was very upset.

He told me that the bitter lesson he received that day started to change his thinking. “What could I have done differently? Can I come up with any solutions? Any ideas? What happened then might happen again.”

Then he started to think about a different mechanism to get the wheel off the frame, that would work in a much easier, quicker way. As this race was one of the very last races of the season, he took this frustration into the winter, and it was then that he came up with the idea of the quick release.

The quick release was developed by hand with small mechanical tools in the backside of the small shop of my grandfather where my father was working. The next spring he came out with this small piece. It was a rudimentary device, but it did the job. Other racers saw the product and asked my father if he could give them one of his new quick releases.

During the racing season, my father would work inside the shop after the shop had closed. In the late hours of the night, with fatigue from racing in his limbs, he made more of the new pieces and gave them to friends who were fellow racers.

During this time, my father saw that his product was functioning well and that there was a small demand for it. He started to think about what he would do when he got older? He couldn’t continue to race forever, because physically, you can’t do that. He could continue to work in his father’s shop, sure, but maybe there was something else. This was the starting point for everything that followed.

We returned to the climb that incited a born inventor to take up his true gift eighty six and a half years after the day he watched a hard-fought result slip away. It’s a beautiful climb, like everything in the area. The climb is fierce. It separates itself into three parts: a tough opening, followed by a much appreciated flat section through the town of Sovramonte, and it concludes with fireworks on the upper third with sections of road at 15% and higher. The lonely upper reaches would be Tullio’s undoing, and nearly 100 years on, the road bites hard. The views that open up of the southern Dolomites are a comfort on those difficult ramps, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to accurately imagine what it must have been like that day, to take on that monster, to endure that weather, to suffer so much, to climb so high, to ride so well, and then watch it all vanish in the ice of a frozen wingnut. It’s truly humbling to pass by the spot where a frustrated, angry journeyman rider saw a dream he had worked so hard for climb out of sight.