Fine craftsmanship is hard to find these days. Mass production and the stack-it-high-sell-it-cheap mentality is prolific everywhere in manufacturing from electronics to clothing. So when you come across a company that has gone back to basics to create products that are built to last, it’s refreshing. The new Silca is one of these companies.
Many cyclists of a certain age will already be familiar with the name Silca. It conjures up images of solid, brightly coloured, steel-barreled track pumps that were the pump to have back in the good old days. Local bike shops would usually have one tucked away in the corner, battered and bruised with the paint chipping off, used daily and abused by many at the weekend’s racing.
Hanging on little red cards in the shop would be replacement parts, gauges, handles, and chucks. The Italian made pumps were renowned by many as the workhorse, reliable and no frills tool.
Even today you’ll see team mechanics using the pumps when they head to hot, dry climates such as Qatar. The dry and dusty conditions easily and quickly damage rubber washes, O-rings and plungers. Silca pumps, with their traditional leather plungers, aren’t prone to such problems.
With the rise of Asian manufacturing and new brands offering the latest technological advantages, Silca slowly became a brand that you remembered but rarely saw. Brands like Specialized, Topeak — with their JoeBlow line — and eventually Lezyne stole Silca’s thunder. Lighterweight items that promised better and quicker pumping actions were where people looked when purchasing a track pump.
Silca’s history dates back to 1917 when it was founded by Felice Sacchi. The Italian company had been run by the same family for three generations, until last year when the latest CEO of Silca, Claudio Sacchi, had to make the tough discussion to sell the company.
Claudio had been diagnosed with cancer. With his children focused on their own passions and businesses there was no one in the family who was willing to take up the mantel. With Claudio’s industry knowledge and networks he started contacting people within the cycling industry to see if there was a keen party who’d be interested in buying and continuing the brand.
Claudio’s first priority was the fact that he wanted to take care of his family; secondly though was the fact that he didn’t want the brand to just pass into the history books when he passed away.
This is where Josh Poertner comes in. Josh was then the technical director at Zipp, having been with the company since 1999. He knew Claudio well — Silca was one of the suppliers of small parts to Zipp for their disc wheels. Claudio let Josh know of his intentions with the company, Josh offered to ask around the industry and see if he could help find a buyer.
This is where the seed was planted, and eventually Josh decided to leave his job at Zipp and plow his hard-earned cash into buying Silca and returning it to its roots.
It was only seven days after the contract was signed and the business handed over to Josh that Claudio passed away.
In a quiet street in Indianapolis sits a stereotypical US-style brick building. In its previous life it was a general store for the surrounding area — now it’s Silca’s design and assembly facility.
No sign hangs above the door, but peering through the window you can’t help your eyes being drawn to Josh and his design team’s first product, the all new Silca SuperPista Ultimate Floor Pump. The matt metal and rosewood finished product is more akin to a classic watch or a designer pair of sunglasses that you may see advertised in the pages of GQ than a track pump. It looks heavy and solid even sitting neatly on the floor.
Josh has stated that he has kept the mentality he had garnered over the years at Zipp and is now implementing it at Silca. The “it’s not what you want, but what problem needs solving” attitude is the driving ethos behind the all new Silca. This has resulted in Josh creating a pump that almost looks over-engineered, and with a price tag that most will baulk at.
Josh has a self-proclaimed fascination with kitchen knives. His appreciation with items such as the sought after Kramer handmade knifes — which are in that much of a demand that you have to enter a lottery to even have the chance to buy one — has been part of the fuel to the fire with his new project. If there were people out there that could accept and admire the work that went into producing a kitchen knife that could cost up to a staggering $15,000, then surely people could appreciate the craftsmanship, design and quality of a pump that cost $450.
Most pumps nowadays are produced by one of two main manufactures, Beto or Giyo. These two manufactures have what in essence is a pick and mix catalogue of parts. Brands are able to choose what pieces fit the price bracket they are aiming at and order the pumps how they want them. Josh knew this would not be the route to take for producing a pump that had the same aesthetics and build quality as the Kramer knives he admired.
Indianapolis is renowned for its large industrial background; many businesses in the city are famed within the US and further afield for their precise and skilled engineering staff. Factories such as the anodisers that headset manufacture Chris King uses, and many high-end race car parts suppliers are based in the area. With this amount of tech know-how in a small area Josh had a ready made catalogue of expertise to contact and work alongside to help get the pump from the drawing board to the shop floor.
The day before visiting Silca I’d had the pleasure of seeing behind the carbon curtain at Zipp Wheels (story coming soon). Their high tech facility over the other side of Indianapolis is a buzzing factory with many staff busying themselves, machines that looked futuristic and slick offices. It’s a world away from Silca’s HQ.
When I visited, the staff of Silca amounted to Josh and four other guys, all hard at work and all chipping in to get the pumps built and out the door.
The assembly room had very little machinery in it — a few milling machines sat against the walls, the main area though was covered in tables with small tubs filled with everything that was needed to build the pumps. A multitude of items were being screwed and bolted into place, washers were being oiled and when finally assembled each item was being tested and retested, making sure that they worked to 100% perfection.
The process didn’t look quick but I got the impression that this wasn’t a concern for Josh. Every aspect of the pump looks to have been designed to fulfill the initial criteria that Josh set out when taking over the Silca brand.
Each piece, no matter how small, seems to have been thoroughly thought out, from the hose that is more commonly used as brake line in race cars, to the lab-quality pressure gauge. Even the design of the classical-looking rosewood handle has had a ton of design research plowed in to it. Josh looked towards the knife industry again and took inspiration from Japanese knife handles.
Magnetic docks for the chuck suck the hose into line when storing; no need to pinch the hose into a clip to keep it safe while in storage. Even the base has been shaped and weighed so that standing on it in cleated cycling shoes is stable and easy.
At first, items like the hose being a race car brake cable seem overthought, but when Josh explains that most hoses expand when under pressure it becomes a little clearer why they have gone down this route. This pump, like the Silca pumps of old, should be an item that you keep your entire life. The 25-year warranty on the item makes this quite clear.
Each item used in the making of the pumps also has some sort of back story. Instead of rubber O-rings and washers that deform when they heat up under pressure, Josh has stuck with leather from an Italian supplier that makes high quality briefcases. This company, along with the company that supplies the brass inner valve assembly, has been supplying Silca since 1946 when Silca reopened and continued producing pumps after the Second World War.
Challenges obviously cropped up when designing such an item but these challenges have clearly pushed and excited the guys at Silca. One such problem was the fact that finding a supplier who could produce the main barrel was close to impossible. Milling tubes to the length and the precision that Silca wanted needed milling machines of huge length. Eventually Josh found a supplier who could produce the barrel they were after.
One other major difficulty they needed to overcome was that race car hoses, due to being able to withstand 12,000psi, aren’t the most flexible. Not ideal when pumping up tyres. To get around this Josh and his design team came up with the idea of having both ends of the hose able to rotate. This allows the hose to move in all directions that are needed when pumping up a set of tyres.
The SuperPista Ultimate Floor pump is the flagship item at the new Silca. The time that Josh and his associates have had since leaving Zipp has been funneled into producing what they feel is not just a great tool but the finest bike pump ever made. They’ve had a bit of time now to expand their product line — they still offer replacements for the old original models and there’s also CO2 inflators and track chucks. All have as much passion poured into them as the SuperPista Ultimate.
The Ultimate is the item that has got the attention though and it won best in show at Interbike — not a bad prize to take home on its first outing.
Whether there are enough people out there that are able and willing to spend $450 on a pump is yet to be seen. But when there are already cyclists out there who are happy to part with $10,000+ for a new bike or hundreds of dollars for new shorts or even $10 on a great tasting luxury coffee, I think the guys at Silca will have little worry.