Manifattura Valcismon’s design studios and part of the company’s manufacturing facilities are based in the quiet village of Fonzaso, nestled in the shadows of the iconic and stunning Monte Grappa climb. The area’s a cycling playground and the commute to work is something that the staff at Castelli and Sportful treasure.
The fact that both brands sit under this parent company isn’t a secret. If you’ve had the opportunity to pass by the factory or visit the on-site shop it’s something that’s easily spotted, with both logos proudly on display at the entrance. There’s also the logo of a third, relatively new clothing brand: Karpos.
If you were eagled-eyed throughout the 2014 season you might have spotted the Tinkoff-Saxo riders wearing Karpos kit while off the bike. Karpos is a mountaineering and skiing line but the items are equally at home keeping Contador and his teammates warm while not decked out in lycra.
Manifattura Valcismon acquired Castelli back in the late 1990s, rescuing the company in a period that nearly spelled the end for the Italian brand. Originally, Castelli hailed from Milan. When it fell on hard times it was picked up and given a fresh breath of life by Manifattura Valcismon.
Sportful, on the other hand, had long been a strong brand within Italy, not just in cycling but in many sports from football to crosscountry skiing. They’d seen success with many high profile teams throughout their existence — MOG-Bianchi, Alfa Lum, Ceramiche Ariostea and the all-conquering Mapei were all kitted out in Sportful at one point or another.
For a company that owns two brands that are in essence going after the same market you’d expect a slight amount of cloak and dagger, one-upmanship and inter-brand rivalry within the offices. From what I could tell there was none of this — it seemed more like a brotherly relationship. A brotherly relationship, mind you, that still has a little bit of “wanting to be the best child” feel about it, while still looking out for one another.
I’ve been lucky enough to know a few of the people that work for Castelli and Sportful. Looking at how they interact with and treat one another (whether that’s out on the bike or at some trade show) it’s clear that they both want the best for each other’s brand. There’s a friendly rivalry and banter, but each brand knows its place in the market and each seems to help the another out when they can and when it’s needed.
The factory sits alone on a long stretch of road just outside the town, surrounded by a few houses and backed by green vineyards. Without the signboards declaring who occupies the space at the entrance it has no unique distinguishing features that would let you know what is going on inside.
The day I turned up only a few small Italian cars sat in the factory car park, for reasons that will soon become clear.
The inside of the factory is exactly what you’d expect from an Italian design house. Clean and classy though still proudly showing the history of the brands with numerous jerseys, trophies and memorabilia hanging in the hallways. The smell of coffee was ever-present. Always a good sign.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit a few cycling brand offices and factories this year (Zipp, Silca, Gipiemme, Luck and Chain Reaction) and the guys here take the prize for the swishest-looking office spaces I’ve seen. There has clearly been significant thought put in to what the architecture can offer the workers while they are at work. Meeting rooms have been designed to transform into large showrooms at a slide of a wall and everything from the door hinges to the work stations are simple and fresh-looking.
Light seemed to pour in from every angle — the white walls bounced sun around the building, lighting almost every room in natural daylight.
A huge glass wall — dubbed “the aquarium” — shoots down the main corridor, looking into the main sewing room. Here well-used sewing machines sit atop workstations covered with a multitude of fabrics.
Along the back wall sit rolls of material and reels of thread, waiting to be used. This sewing room has a completely different feel compared to the offices. There is a slight hangover from years past — there are no modern computers or large industrial machines, instead the skilled workers hunch over their machines, bringing new designs to life.
It’s clear straight away that the space is not the main manufacturing area; it’s far too small. It’s here that special, one-off pieces are produced. Pro riders might need matching shorts to go with a race leader’s jersey or a latest prototype might need to be made up. It’s the place where wild ideas are brought into the real world.
A quick walk across the hall and I’m in the adjacent room where the printing of the custom kits is taken care of. On any given day the three specialist printing machines can be seen spewing out template after template of custom team designs. The machines fill the room, constantly running back and forth churning out enormous reels of paper.
From here the sheets are taken into a larger room where huge industrial-looking presses sit. These are used to transfer the printed sheets on to material that will eventually become cycling kit.
I’m told to be careful — this room can be dangerous if you’re a bumbling fool. Large stickers warn not to touch certain parts of the machines when in action. The work of lining the pre-cut material on to the printed sheets is a job for someone who has an eye for detail and a mind that doesn’t wander easily. Millimetre accuracy is needed to keep designs looking sharp and in place.
From the printing room I’m taken into a room that looks like a rainbow has been captured and packed away. Rolls of material fill the room in every conceivable colour. Shelf after shelf of interesting and probably highly expensive material sit waiting to be cut and used.
Backing on to this is the warehouse. My eyes bulged at the sight of all the clothing being picked and packed, ready to be shipped. Large banners hang from the balconies and walls reminding you, if you’d somehow forgotten, which brands of clothing are made here (see image below).
Throughout the tour everyone looks happy and keen, some more stressed than others, but all look engrossed in their work. Young designers mingle with guys who have clearly been working in the industry for decades.
Even though the area they are based in couldn’t be any more Italian, the whole place has a real multinational feel to it. Passionate staff from America, Scotland, Denmark and a whole raft of other countries all work and ride together. And ride they do.
Lunch rides here are what many people can only dream of. And this is why only a handful of cars sit in the parking lot.
Minutes from the factory you’re hitting climbs and roads that are regally used in the Giro d’Italia. It’s clear that many of the staff ride, with small groups shooting off in different directions to soak up the miles and the Italian sun, all fuelled by the strong coffee that they all seem to be downing on a regular basis.
These rides are used to test prototypes before they are handed over to the pros to test further. It’s ground that many brands spend big bucks on to head to for a few days of intense testing; for the guys at Manifattura Valcismon it’s just commuting country.
Technology, knowledge and data from wind-tunnel and real-world testing are not kept to just one of Castelli or Sportful. This sort of shared knowledge and expertise is obviously a great benefit to both brands. Plus keeping this sort of stuff secret from one another must be impossible — stops for coffee and lunch are filled with staff trading ideas and chatting about the latest race news.
Both brands sponsor pro cycling teams and both work with teams with a strong identity. Garmin-Sharp has a long and well-established history with Castelli, and now MTN-Qhubeka dons the famous scorpion logo. Chatting with Soren Jensen, global marketing communications and man of many jobs at Castelli, it seems that the partnership with the African squad has been a great success.
The riders and staff have dived head-first into helping with kit development. Several of the team riders even popped by the office two weeks prior to my visit to help with a promotional campaign of securing more bikes for the Qhubeka foundation.
Over in the Sportful camp they have a sponsorship agreement with Tinkoff-Saxo. Oleg Tinkov’s team has used Sportful kit for a number of years now and have just signed on for another two years. This is something that Steve Smith, Sportful’s brand manager, is proud to point out. And why not? After all, Bjarne Riis, ex-owner and now manager of the team is a man renowned for paying particular interest to and getting the best from any of the team’s equipment suppliers.
Stories from Riis’ racing days hammer this point home. From being his own mechanic, to replacing team issue bar tape with his own choice due to the team issue bar tape soaking up too much sweat and water, Riis had and has a real eye for detail.
Development from both camps is something that has had knock-on effects within the cycling clothing world. Consider the now highly visible Gabba jersey that not only Castelli-sponsored riders use, or Sportful’s heavily photographed and talked-about bidon vest that was used at the Tour de France this year. Both ideas were solutions to problems that riders of their sponsored squads brought to the brands.
When I asked both Steve and Soren if they were working on anything new or exciting the slight tilt of the head and sly smile said it all. The two of them clearly spend a lot of time thinking outside the box and talking with their athletes. The two, both slim and athletic, are sporty people — Soren had been a pro for the Topsport-Vlaanderen team and also worked at Mavic before jumping ship to Castelli. Steve has a strong background in product development and was one of the main men at Nike Europe but when offered the chance to resurrect Castelli jumped at the chance.
The passion is evident from both. Their offices are littered with cycling-related artefacts and both lead the charge out the door come lunch time. It’s a nice, reassuring sign that the two brands are run by guys who live, eat and breath cycling.
With the factory tour over and my questions answered it was time for me to check out the local area. Should I tackle the Monte Grappa from the hard side or the really hard side?