House of Campagnolo
From issue 4 • Words by Jered Gruber with images from Michael Crook
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With the story told of the seed planted on a snowy mountain in November that eventually grew into one of the most revered names in the history of cycling, we directed our attention to the man before us: Valentino Campagnolo, the son of Tullio, and the head of Campagnolo for the last 28 years. His story is not a glamorous one of world domination. It’s not a tale of something as simple as passionate invention. It’s a story of struggle, hard times, and a tenacious desire to right a once sinking ship … with a healthy dose of innovation.
What was it like growing up with cycling all around you? Do you have any particular memories of cycling as a small child? When I was a kid I remember that I was just a kid. Nothing less, nothing more. As every kid in the world, I focused on what was good for a kid. [Smiles] Play. Play again. Continue to play.
I remember now, in this moment, I don’t know how old I was, eight, ten, (please don’t ask me a precise year), but I remember that my father brought me to some building that still stands in Vicenza. It was a kind of school for racers, bicycle racers. It is a big building in which now there is a university full of classrooms and so on. At that time, I think that a very small part of that building was given to a school for cycling, where they taught the young people about cycling. Better stated, they taught them how to race, how to compete. I remember a day when a photographer for the local newspaper or something took some pictures. Some more famous professional racers had been invited, and I remember more of what happened through pictures that I had seen later. All the racers were standing with their bikes like they do at the start of a motorbike race or a Formula1 race, when the drivers stand in the same way. I was requested to stand among them at the front with my road bike. I don’t remember now what I did, but I remember just a little bit through the pictures that I have. I think this was one of the first times where I did something in the cycling world.
Another time I remember, I was still young, very young, less than ten years old. Some famous racers were staying with us, including Fausto Coppi. I remember him. I remember the lady that was with him (the famed Dama Bianca, Giulia Occhini). I remember that there were other famous racers as well, including Charly Gaul. The house where I was living, and where my mother still lives, is a big one, so my father liked to invite these people while they were staying in Vicenza. It was in these circumstances that I made my first approaches into the cycling world.
As I got older (please don’t ask me how old, because I couldn’t tell you) I started to go to some of the races with my father whenever a race like the Giro d’Italia was in the area. These were further steps, closer toward cycling.
Did you always understand that you were going to be a part of this company? Did you think that you might end up doing something else? No. Unfortunately, I did not have the choice to decide my own future as everyone else. I always envied other people in this business that decided to do this, because they love it. I didn’t have a choice. It’s not that I don’t love what I do, it’s that there was no space for anything different.
I can say that I would have liked the chance or the possibility to have done something else—at least to try, to at least understand whether I might have been better at something else, or not. I never got that chance. I don’t know if it’s the chance or the choice. They are not the same; the concept is quite different, much different.
So you were directed to this position. How old were you when you started to work in the company? I started to work in the company when I was 22 years old. I started to work in a way that my father would allow me to do certain things, but not others. My father was rigid enough to keep many of the responsibilities for himself. In that regard, I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t have any experience. When it was just me, I had to learn it all myself.
You cannot go somewhere and pay for experience. You cannot get a box, and inside there’s experience. There aren’t pills that you can take to gain experience. You need to do it yourself, step by step. Of course, my father understood the concept, but he desired an approach more like this: ‘You stay with me, and behind me, you will see what I do, then you will understand, and by understanding, you will learn.’ That was his idea.
It can’t function though, because experience is the sum of both the right and the wrong things that you do. It’s not possible to do only right things. Better said, the wrong things give you the chance to understand at least where you’ve gone awry, if you think about how you got to that point. My father didn’t have this concept.
I tried many times to ask, ‘Please, allow me to make some mistakes.’ But it never happened. I respect his idea and understand that it was his generosity and a love for me that wouldn’t allow him to let me make mistakes or solve problems. In doing that though, I didn’t learn how to succeed and how to avoid future mistakes. You have to feel it on your own skin; only then could I guide myself and the company. When my father died, that’s when I began to collect a lot of experiences and some very bitter lessons. This is what happened.
My father was, aside from being the president of the company, the sales director and head of R&D. Yes, he had people working for him, but he was the man not only controlling, but physically doing some jobs. When my father died, the company had a lot of people, but some of those people were lacking in experience. Myself? I had no experience at all. There were very, very sad moments that followed after that. Very tough moments.
Put in another way, I started to ride a sort of bike when I took over. You wouldn’t go out and climb steep hills without the right training, would you? You know that even if you are not well trained, you can still climb the small hills that you see outside of the window [pointing outside to the beautiful hills outside of Vicenza]. You might need to take a breath at the top, but yes, you can do it. Instead of those small hills though, I had to climb the high mountains [pointing to the looming colossus of Monte Grappa], professional mountains, industrial mountains. It was a task not of this world.
Does any situation stand out to you as a mistake you’ve learned from? For sure, I made mistakes. I made many mistakes. Not only did I make mistakes, I received some very bitter lessons while making mistakes. On top of that, while pulling in all of those experiences, the bicycle world in general was changing quickly and suddenly. It was the time when mountain biking was growing extremely fast. It went from zero to 60% of the total bicycle market in two and a half years in the middle of the eighties. Our company was not only unprepared for the huge changes, we weren’t prepared with the products. Within the company, it was really hell, and I’m not overemphasizing these points either. No, no, not at all. If anything, I don’t think I’m portraying it accurately enough. Things were worse than what I am describing to you now.
The company was winning nearly every race around the world, so the thing that happened that should never happen, happened: we fell asleep. When you continue to win, you start to sleep and relax on your victories. You don’t consider your competitors, and you don’t invest in other things. This is what happened to the company.
As I said, in terms of product technology, organization, people, and strategies, this huge chance meant that in two and a half years, the general bicycle business radically changed. It was a kind of hurricane on our company, and I didn’t have the experience or the people, and I hadn’t the product or the technology to deal with it. I remember this period more than well. [Valentino pauses for a long moment and looks out the window] I remember it more than well.
How did you battle back? I started to go left, but left wasn’t functioning; I started to go right, and that wasn’t working either. Finally, we decided to forget everything else and return to our roots—the beginning, what we knew we were capable of doing. At the beginning, we made simple products for road bikes. We decided to concentrate all our efforts on what we were good at, instead of trying to develop products for mountain bikes or trying to develop new products that weren’t doing well.
We decided to stick with a few things, and with those few things keep rolling slowly, but keep the company rolling. I mentioned earlier that the mountain bike market went from zero to 60%, while the road bicycle market went down from probably 25-30% to 5%, depending on the company. We needed to react under severe conditions. The market was blown out for us, but step-by-step we did our best to save the company and ourselves, and to do the best that we could. This is what we did.
The company endured and the innovations began anew. How do the developments come? How did the company as we know it today evolve? It’s very simple. We tried to understand what the pro racers needed—and that was really basic. They need simple, reliable products. I remember when Shimano and we came out with integrated shifting controls. At the beginning, the pro racers didn’t like the new controls at all. Not one bit. They were used to light, simple shifting levers. Then Shimano came out with a new development—shifting levers with the index system. We were behind at this point, so we needed to develop something new, quickly. We understood that some people liked the index shifting system, but we wanted to maintain our knowledge of the friction system. We came out with a product that performed well enough, but it was very complicated. It was the Syncro shifter. It allowed the racer to decide whether to use the index or friction model on the same device, just by switching a lever.
It was an interesting idea, but a complex product and a kind of complexity that the market didn’t appreciate. It was too complex. The next step from Shimano came by way of their first STI shifters. Again, the company wasn’t prepared at all, but we understood the importance and potential of the system because you didn’t have to move your hands away from the bars.
We worked quickly to develop the first series of Ergopower levers. They functioned well, but we realized they could function better if everything along the shifting line was fine-tuned: cables, casing, sprockets, everything—not just the shifters.
It was a kind of learning-by-doing activity, but for someone who was in primary school, these were concepts for people who were in the university.
I think the most important issue, for every person on earth, is to learn by doing. It’s much better to learn by doing than to just learn about something from afar. For a racer, there are tears, pain, and suffering when he is not well trained, but he is forced to continue to push on the pedals as he watches the peloton leave him behind. I had to apply myself and give my best effort constantly. And in time, like the racer gaining fitness, the company began to improve step by step, and eventually, the gap that formed on that climb long ago began to close slowly. It was very difficult.
What was the development lag in electronic? What transpired? What was it like to create? We started to think about electronic shifting very early. We did not have the necessary knowledge within the company, so we sought it outside the company. I remember the first person that started to work with us on electronic shifting was a professor who taught at a famous school here in Vicenza. He was the very first professor to teach electronics in Vicenza.
We didn’t have the chance to work with someone in the Silicon Valley, or MIT, or institutions like that, because we don’t have anything like that here. So, we started at the very first step, then we began to hire other people to assist in the project. But if you do not hire the right people, winners, you’re not going to go very far. That was another problem we struggled with.
Aside from those problems, we faced growing competition and a desire to be innovative on our own and not take cues by just watching someone else. The development of electronic shifting was hurt by the quality of the people we had at the beginning and the priorities that the company gave itself. In the meantime, we desired to develop the first nine-speed transmission, because at that time, they were still racing with an eight-speed transmission.
I remember when we gave the first nine-speed transmission to a few racers at the Tour de France. I don’t remember exactly, but I think that Bjarne Riis was among the very first of them. It was the year he won the Tour de France (1996).
After that, we focused on developing a ten-speed transmission, and in the meantime, we continued to develop the electronic group. When ten-speed was developed and perfected, we decided that we should give priority to an eleven-speed mechanical transmission over the electronic one. So we pursued the eleven-speed group.
We understood that we were learning by doing with the development of the eleven-speed transmission. It ended up being much more difficult than we had hoped. I would say, using an example of a watch, that the ten-speed mechanical transmission is a lot like a simple watch that tells you the time, that’s it. The eleven-speed group, however, is a very complex watch that tells you the day, the year, the weeks, the phase of the moon, and more. It demanded a lot of technological development—not only on the product development side, but also in terms of intensive industrial organization. With this becoming rapidly more apparent to us, we decided to focus our efforts on eleven-speed prior to developing an electronic system, and because of those choices, we released eleven-speed first.
On carbon Apart from just developing better transmissions, we were also working on other technology. We are a mechanically minded company with mechanically minded people. Our expertise has long been with aluminum, steel, and titanium, but we understood that carbon fibers might be of interest for the bicycle business. The Campagnolo company was one of the very first to be involved in carbon fiber techniques.
In this regard, we started from scratch again, because we had no expertise with carbon within the company. Now carbon fiber production accounts for 30-35% of our total working force. It is a huge part of our jobs, and we have five different techniques that we handle daily in our production.
On Fulcrum and more Then, we tried to develop a new idea that then became a reality with the birth of the Fulcrum. Many told us that we were crazy, or to use the right word, stupid, to compete with ourselves. We were convinced it was a good idea though, so we remained strong with the concept. Now, I think it is one of the main reference points within the industry.
When we reached a sizable amount of business with Fulcrum, we started to realize that perhaps we could make a move back into mountain biking with Fulcrum, but we weren’t sure. We didn’t know anything, so we started again, from scratch. Now, a few years on, and we have wheels for cross-country, enduro racing, downhill, and free ride—and the products aren’t bad at all. Then we needed to do something else; the CULT bearings are just another example. We think that they are an interesting idea. While improving the performance of the transmission has been a main target, we cannot say that we are completely satisfied—ever. Shifting today is smooth, precise, silent.
The current state of electronic Thanks to the Movistar team, we are testing our new system and are reasonably satisfied, although there are things we know we can do better. With that said, our colleagues, who are constantly in contact with Movistar and Pinarello, say that they are much more satisfied with our current product than we are. This is good though, because we like to keep our feet on the ground, to make the best product we can for ourselves but also for those who love Campagnolo.
In the meantime, we are thinking about, developing, and working on some new products that will be introduced to the market not this year, but the next. It is a complex process, but thanks to my colleagues, not only in R&D but in every part of the company, we are trying to fly the Campagnolo flag high. We constantly seek and need to improve our performance. This is something which gives us great pain, but also great pleasure; it’s what drives us. The desire and need to innovate keeps us not only alive, but feeling well—because we think that Campagnolo can continue today in the same fashion that it began: constantly innovating for those that love cycling.
Compared to the hard years gone by, this makes me feel good, because I think that we can give the cycling enthusiast something good, something interesting. We can continue to stand behind them while enjoying the basic pleasure of riding a bike or while racing and competing around the world. This is good.
Do you see the future as mechanical or electronic? Where do you see Campagnolo in the future? For sure, the mechanical drivetrain will remain—no doubt about that. But I also think that electronic is a part of the future. It’s a question of how much time it will take for the people to gain confidence in the product, and for the price to come to a reasonable level. This is an important issue. Now, electronic is a costly endeavor. It is also a question of how we will be able to bring this technology to a larger amount of cyclists. I firmly believe that both will be part of the market in the future.
I am not prepared to make a guess as to what market share the mechanical and electronic sectors will take. I have no idea. Yes, we have an idea that we’re working off of, and from there we’ll work step-by-step to increase it, but to sit here today and prognosticate on what the situation will look like in ten years, I can’t do that. I really have no idea at all.
We are not developing the electronic transmission as an exercise. It is an industrial target. It is a strategic target. I am confident that people will be pleased with the product.
Disc brakes—are they the future? We see that there are companies aiming to diversify. The UCI has allowed the use of disc brakes for cyclocross, and I think that’s a good idea. For us, I am thinking that aside from performance, it is a question of costs and a question of weight. There will be a definite weight penalty on the bicycle, but if we can decrease the weight of the bicycles, while not losing any stiffness, performance or safety, this is a good path. The development of new ideas will always be on the table here.
What does the Campagnolo name mean in 2011? Performance and quality. We love the idea that we stand behind those who love cycling. With our very Italian ideals, we don’t offer a different kind of taste—just Italian, good-quality flavor.
IN THE END And with that, the clock reared its ugly head. Signor Campagnolo was almost fifteen minutes late for another meeting. He apologized profusely; we refused his apologies. There was a firm handshake, and just like that, the man behind one of the world’s most intriguing, innovative, history-fueled companies was gone.
It’s easy to point to companies like SRAM and Shimano as the companies that will bring down the Campagnolo dynasty, but Valentino makes it extremely clear: the company has endured hard times and they might get hard again, but Campagnolo can always return to its roots, and those roots run deep. The ideals of innovation, development, and forward movement will ensure that the company, which began so many years ago, continues far into the future. And with all that hard work and focus on continued improvements, you can be sure that that distinctive Italian flavor will always be a part of every Campagnolo product.
From issue 4. SOLD OUT.