Made in Italy: A tour of the Gipiemme factory
There’s no doubt that a simple ‘Made in Italy’ label has considerable currency in the world of cycling. Campagnolo, Colnago, Pinarello, SMS Santini and many more brands besides use their Italian heritage as a key selling point. And it works – for many people, Italian-made will always be the ultimate when it comes to cycling equipment and apparel.
But the reality of today’s global economy is that many of these brands simply aren’t fully produced in Italy anymore. Design, and possibly final assembly might be done in Italy for some of these companies, but the fabrication and construction is very often farmed out to other countries where labour is cheaper; anywhere from Taiwan to Croatia. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Of course there are still a few companies that can claim to being 100% Italian, with their products designed, manufactured and assembled on home soil. Gipiemme is one of these. They may not be the largest name in the cycling industry but as CyclingTips roving reporter Dave Everett found out during a recent factory visit while in Italy, Gipiemme has a long history; indeed the company is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
Veneto is a region of Italy that’s renowned for its cycling culture and industry — many of the big brands hail from or are based close to Veneto. One reason might be that Veneto is the ultimate testing ground for products — the mountains of the Dolomites surround the region and many brands here can quite easily use this to their advantage. Braking surfaces can be tested to their limits, tyres pushed to slipping point and groupsets tested on notoriously steep climbs.
In amongst the Dolomites sits the Gipiemme headquarters; an old and what I’d originally assumed to be abandoned building in the small and picturesque Italian village of Loria. I’d only found the premises by chance.
Small industrial estates scatter the area, units tucked behind housing and fields. On the odd occasion you’ll come across a factory or old building that has a famous cycling brand adorned on the front gate.
The small dusty-looking building that I spotted tucked down a backroad was a huge contrast to the gleaming modern factory of Wilier that I’d visited earlier in the day. I had turned up by chance, expecting to see the remnants of a classic Italian company; I’d not planned the visit, just been intrigued at the sign on the gate and the look of the place.
You can imagine the excitement this self-confessed cycling geek felt when he noticed the front door ajar and the sound of machinery coming from inside. The place was alive and still producing, the old sign and rusty door adding to the authentic feel of the place.
I stuck my head around the door to get someone’s attention and after a quick chat with Alice Bernardi — the daughter of the family that now runs the company — I had managed to line-up a time to get a good look around and learn about the history of the brand.
Even though the company specialises in wheel manufacturing now it’s not always been that way. As a company that started life in Milan back in 1964 as a machine shop they’ve produced pretty much every type of component that a bike would need. From pedals (including clipless in the late 80s) to fork dropouts through to complete groupsets, for road, mountain bike and track.
From 1964 until 1989 Gipiemme grew by producing iconic pieces of equipment and sponsoring some of the biggest names in cycling. Numerous world champions have been kitted out on their equipment, with many big names from the 70s and 80s opting not for Campag or Shimano groupsets but the Gipiemme Chrono Special groupo.
A youthful looking Gilberto Simoni started his career on the Jolly Componibili-Cage squad in 1994, which then became Aki-Gipiemme in 1995, wearing the famous fluoro yellow kit with red-and white checks.
In the late 80s the company was acquired by saddle manufacture Iscaselle, running under the name Iscaselle-Gipiemme. Before long the Iscaselle brand was dropped and Gipiemme returned as a singular brand name, though the company still produced saddles as well as wheels. By the mid to late 90s the company had decided to focus wholly on producing wheels and saddles, with the exception of a small few key items that were still easy to produce without too much development.
A history of innovation
Innovation is one area that Gipiemme seems to have a strong footing in. Products such as the Tecno M930 wheelset screamed innovation. This wheelset was well ahead of its time in looks and in construction. It originally saw the light of day in 1989 and really took strides in the market between 1992 and 1995.
The wheelset was, by today’s standards, pretty heavy at 2kg, though it was marketed as lightweight back then. It was constructed from both carbon and 6000 series alloy and the five-bladed design of tubular spokes gave a stiff and futuristic looking ride.
With its ceramic braking surface and anodised tubular spokes the wheels looked like nothing else on the market — the development team at Gipiemme had really thought outside of the box with this product. According to Alice the wheels used technology that NASA was using at the same time. If they were to be developed and produced today the cost would be astronomical, costing many thousands of euros — much more expensive even than producing a extremely high-end carbon set.
The Tecno M930 wheelset has since gained a cult following, trading hands on eBay for hefty prices at times.
The Lefty hub for Cannondale’s single-sided fork of the same name was also a product that the engineers helped to bring to life and market.
More recent developments include the 650b wheels. With development input from Tufo tyres, Gipiemme were the first to bring these to market more than three years ago.
Fast forward to the present day and Gipiemme is now more focused on wheels than ever. Saddle manufacturing has been disbanded, though there is a great display in the factory showing the company’s saddle history with many of the interesting and slightly crazy models on show.
The carbon arm of the business doesn’t just focus on wheels — it makes products for many sports including body armour for Motorbike riders, soccer boot soles and even downhill and cross county ski items. The development of the carbon construction area in the business has been expanded over the years.
Inside the factory
The plant itself was clearly made up of several clearly defined work areas, from the top secret carbon area that I wasn’t allowed to photograph in one corner, to the neat detailing area in the other. Between these was an assortment of other work benches, machines and materials.
One zone of the building is dedicated to the company’s cheaper-end wheelsets that sell under the Cercchi Nisi name. This brand was acquired in the early 2000s, and kept separate in an attempt to keep high-end race wheels separate from mass market hoops.
Huge tubes of aluminium fill the place, stacked high in places. These were all ready and waiting to be rolled by huge machines and then welded into rims. New prototype rim shapes or rims with interesting looking braking surfaces were at different work stations. Some were clearly prototypes as they differed from tube to tube.
Machines the size of Fiat 500s ready to help with drilling exact nipple placements or lace wheels sat caged off. All the machines looked like they’d served many years service, decorated in old team stickers and the odd “artistic” Italian calendar.
In the carbon department two men busied themselves laying carbon by hand in to moulds with a huge steel mechanism hung above the station. From what I could gather it looked like a machine for compressing the carbon layers. From the sheer size of it I could only guess that the amount of pressure needed for this job was way beyond that of what I’d seen when I once visited the Mad Fiber factory in Seattle.
In the corner was a large freezer containing carbon rolls, all preserved at -18 degrees Celsius to keep the carbon fibre from degrading. According to Alice, roughly 12 pairs of carbon wheels are produced a day on average.
One item that isn’t produced by Gipiemme for the company’s wheel builds is spokes. These are bought in from Sapim in Belgium. The CX6 version is used throughout the top-end wheels; for the mountain bike line they prefer to use Sapim Lazer spokes. One noticeable thing was the fact they paired these spokes with Alpina nipples. Clearly the testing department had done their homework to see what worked best together for their wheels.
In one area of the factory sat a few rarely used pieces of machinery. These were bought from what used to be one of Italy’s shining component brands, ITM. ITM were taken over about five years ago by an Asian company. Manufacturing was stopped in their factory just a few kilometres up the road from Gipiemme and moved to Asia. The guys in the Gipiemme factory commented that it was a sad loss to the area. They use the old ITM machinery to produce the odd bar or stem, usually on demand from customers with special requirements.
Snapshot of the company
Only 15 people work for the Gipiemme, including office staff and the guys and girls producing the products. With a small crew, development for new or prototype products can easily be handled — there are no piles of forms to fill out and no huge hierarchy of bosses and managers to negotiate with before development can begin. If an idea seems worthy of developing or even trying out it can take as little as a month from idea to a finished product, depending on how much work they already have on or how in demand the product might be.
To test these products they have the National Military Cycling Team, which covers them for testing of road, mountain bike and cyclocross products. Gipiemme also sponsors local riders and distributors are free to support teams in their countries of sale. Even though the last major team the company sponsored was the Andalucia ProContinental team back in 2012 the company has a strong database of riders that can help with feedback and real world testing.
Not having a pro team on the wheels is not seen as a hindrance by the company — sponsorship is seen as good for publicity but for smaller teams they don’t often care for the product they are given. A company the size of Gipiemme giving product away to lower level pro teams can result in product going AWOL — teams have been known to sell product on and conveniently forget to help with the feedback on such an item.
Supporting local riders the company know that it’s not about advertisement but more about a close working relationship. With direct feedback from these riders and local teams, plus a keen eye on market developments and trends either at trade shows or in the pits at the bigger races, it’s easy for them to adapt to a change in market preference.
One item that has gained a huge amount of press coverage is the unique wooden wheel set the company made for the world’s biggest international bike show, Eurobike in Germany. Originally a show piece for their stand the item gained so much interest that Gipiemme started producing it in a limited run.
Given the company doesn’t have a wood-working department, the product was built in conjunction with a local company that had the skills and tools for the job. The four-ply disc and crazy four-spoked wheels have been snapped up by the hipster kid brigade. Braking isn’t advised on the wheels; because of this they are usually used as back wheels where it’s easy to get away without a brake on a fixed bike.
From my first impression of the Gipiemme factory as an old abandoned building, to my delight at discovering a fully functioning true ‘Made in Italy’ factory inside, this visit was a highlight of my short trip to the Dolomites.
The company looks as though it has no intention of moving the manufacturing to the Far East which I find refreshing. Gipiemme is a medium-sized, true-to-its-roots company with a real Italian family feel. Visiting the factory was a breath of fresh yet nostalgic air.
Simply seeing an item labelled “Made in Italy” and not just designed or assembled in Italy gave me a good feeling. The experience, expertise, care and love for the work that I came across in that dusty old building was something I’d not expected in this day and age of machines churning out perfect cycling equipment.