Cycling Manufacture and COVID-19 : the Productive state of Northern Italy

Cycling Manufacture and COVID-19 : the Productive state of Northern Italy

Cicli Barco Workshop, Above Photo Credit : Alison McGregor

Last week reports of Pro Teams pulling out of Races left many fans disappointed. Then cases of cancelled races started to fill our social media feeds. News reports trickled in regarding the state of cycling and the wider economic implications caused by this fast spreading Virus. In Australia we've each begun to understand the effects of the coronavirus differently. For some of us the rapid increase of infected people alerted us to our mass vulnerability. For others it was the sudden disappearance of toilet paper. For the amateur cyclist it took news of cancelled race events within the UCI Calendar to relay the seriousness of the situation.

There are since stories of travellers who've necessarily forfeited or postponed trips they'd planned a year in advance due to the scare of a virus. For the Cycling Industry, there were other considerations. From what we were hearing, it was conceivable that Italian workshops could face closures. And so I began to ask questions.

We are in a unique position to ask. Why? Owning a boutique bike shop in Sydney called Chainsmith, our perspective from Australia may seem unimportant. But over the years we've established, with our Italian Cycling brand partners, friendships with owners and staff alike. Being particularly involved in the niche area of custom road bikes we rely on frame building partners and manufacturing insights to understand how life is lived during this Italian state of flux.

made in italy bicycle

Made in Italy, Cicli Barco. Photo Credit : Alison McGregor 

Its important for us to know the predicament from the source, as opposed to potentially sensational news. But with David Piacenti as our retail buyer immersed in every detail of the market, we hit our Italian friends directly with questions. After days of uncertainty around not only the virus itself, but the effects it will have on the economy and the industry of Italy, we asked some longer serving members of the Cycling Industry what conditions were really like.

david piacenti with cicli barco

David Piacenti at the Cicli Barco Workshop with Gianluca and Alberto Barco Photo : Alison McGregor

We have spoken with representatives including component manufacturers Deda Elementi (within the Lombardy Zone), Ursus (Vicenza), smaller craftsmen such as Andrea Sega of Alpitude Components (Rovereto), Frame Builders of DeAnima (Trentino), and Zullo and Chesini (Verona). It seems they have their individual stories to tell, but their circumstance are shared. So far, the state of Italy's cycling industry need not be considered with despair.

"All factories can continue working without any change as well as the goods can be shipped without problems."

Firstly, the Lombardy travel restrictions have been ramped up as restrictions are apparently "enforced" till early April. We were provided the communications sent to the Italian public by Decree. And as it was read, we understood that people are not threatened against their will. This is in opposition to headlines that currently blare across the globe such as "Millions in Northern Italy under Lockdown over Coronavirus Fears." They are cautioning movement within the region, and to venture only for necessity (for food or supplies). They're requested to keep a distance between each other, and only go outside for necessities. As for business, it's true many local cultural and sporting events are cancelled, and retailers, sporting facilities are closed.

Osvaldo, owner of Chesini Bikes in Verona writes to us, "It appears all factories can continue working without any change as well as the goods can be shipped without problems. People can move outside these provinces for a few precise reasons only and they must be able to demonstrate said reasons."

For industries in the hotzone, like Deda Elementi, work also continues as normal.

bicycle manufacture david piacenti retail buyer

David Piacenti with Frame Builders Epoca Photo : Alison McGregor

For Deda Elementi, preparation has been key. Being an approximate 15km from an original lockdown area they'd already devised their plan for continued work. We received notice from Gianluca at Deda, stating "Local government could ask us to stop the activities if the red zone will be extended to our area. For this reason most employees have been given the possibility to work from their homes. Smart working enables Deda staff to continue their daily tasks and to keep the business running as usual." Considering so many events have been cancelled, it seems work is the binding factor for the people, and its the work ethic that businesses such as Deda continue to hold on to.

For those situated on the border or just out from Lombardy, the situation is similar. One of the stranger stories we heard is that some cafe's are permitted to remain open if they each remain at a 1 meter distance from other staff and customers.

"Cafe's are permitted to remain open if they each remain at a 1 meter distance from other staff."

Osvaldo at Chesini speaks of uncertainty in relation to the regulations affecting peoples movements or of their capacity to work however, at the moment, things go on as normal within his business. "The potential cancellation of the Italian races will impact the Italian cycling industry for sure. But the most important factor is the concern and the fear, a consequence not only from the possible disease but overall to the stopping of a lot of industrial, commercial and touristic activities."

Osvaldo spoke of driving to Milan and back before the current lockdown. Traffic was similarly quiet as the mid August holiday period and shops and cafes were mostly empty. Osvaldo predicted, "it is very likely the "red zones" (around the city of Lodi and Padova, where all activities apart from food stores and drugstores are completely closed and all citizens are in quarantine) are expanded."

Osvaldo predicted correctly. The Lombardy lockout is now in play.

chesini and david piacenti

David Piacenti with Osvaldi at Chesini, Verona Photo : Alison McGregor

The Chesini workshop and retail space still function, but they are acutely aware of the downturn of tourists. While Italy's cycling manufacturers appear to work, Osvaldo speaks of other Companies reliant on Chinese production, "Undoubtedly there are problems for those companies that import components from China. But the imminent economic downturn appears to be the most important factor which is causing a sharp slowdown in the cycling industry and/or in the demand for new bicycles."

The issue for the Italians is not in production, but the local hit to their economy. If there is no money earned from tourism, retail, hospitality, events, then there is potentially no money for people to buy bikes or an interest to buy.

Even riding in Italy would prove a current issue for tourists who know they will be impacted on their return. Currently they'd need to spend weeks in self isolation. I mentioned to Osvaldo that we may need to rethink our own business travel plans for later this year. How, I wondered, will tourists planning to travel the upper northern Dolomites choose to continue with the threat of the virus? Osvaldo responded, "There is no restriction to the cyclists to ride inside a province, they cannot ride from a lockdown province to a different province. In your case, you can ride in all provinces where the lockdown isn’t applied (Verona, Vicenza, Belluno and Rovigo)." However, avoiding the time of self isolation on return from Italy has created a massive effect in future summer tourism.

We understand that, even at this great distance from Australia, a store like ours can provide opportunity. We assist not only in Italian Company's exposure but we can provide international sales during a difficult time.

"Quite rightly people start thinking about the elephant in the room, and not buying a new bike."

For DeAnima the situation is similar. Frame builder Gianni Pegoretti is based in Trento and while thats tentatively situated North and still remains considered safe, Matt Cazzaniga is based close to Milan in what he terms the hot-ish area. "We're working, but we expect to see a big drop in work as this carries on ... quite rightly people start thinking about the elephant in the room, and not buying a new bike."

 

Matt Cassen

David Piacenti at the DeAnima Workshop with Gianni Pegoretti and Matt Cazzaniga (far left). Photo Credit : Alison McGregor

We've not yet established if Matt is now in the lockdown region, away from work. However he did have this to say, "The economy here will be hit badly, mainly the tourism and travel sectors, but also the "made in Italy" part of the global economy." He gives example of one less Gucci bag being sold. It has an effect. Many Companies use small components from China. It may be a clasp, a zip. For a bike manufacturer it may be a fork. And while many Companies likely hold stock, Matt agrees with the majority of Italians we spoke with. The effects of China's closures won't likely be known for a few months.

"I think some of the very large brands will have issues if they are ramping up production for 2021 models now, they will surely have some issues as they source it all from within China and from many suppliers." This is a concern of which I cannot comment. We personally have no information from Companies that work predominantly with Asian manufacture as ours brands are predominantly Italian made. However, it is a sentiment of concern shared by many.

Enrico from Ursus, whom I will discuss in a moment, has also suggested the issues faced by Companies using Chinese production to build their frames. "The real problem will be not today, but in 1 or 2 months when all OEM will miss China February and March production. I really hope the situation will be solved soon"

"If you want a DeAnima, we are still here!"

As for the foreseeable future? Matt from DeAnima says "you can prepare as much as you can, but the reality for us is nothing has really changed as a business and we are still working and we can get materials etc. But the bit we don't know is how this will evolve. I personally think it will get better and in a couple of months we will be out the other side. Bottom line is, if you want a DeAnima, we are still here and nothing has changed!"

The same sentiments are heard from the Zullo studio, just 15km West of Verona City, where Frame builder Tiziano continues to produce his custom bikes, and Elena communicates. We spoke a few days ago (and I am sure we speak again soon). Elena says, "It is now Saturday afternoon and Tiz is still working in the factory, he needs to finish and pack frames". Elena is unable to assist at the studio because, with the National closure of schools she's looking after her Grandchildren. "There is a very difficult situation in Italy, schools, cinema's churches ect. are closed, the supermarket brings food at home which we order on line, even the pharmacy delivers at home...I think that it will continue for some weeks and then, let's hope it will slow down."

Zullo frame Chainsmith

Zullo frames continue to be made with Tiziano Zullo at the helm Photo Credit : Alison McGregor

In Vicenza, not 50km North of Padua (in lockdown), Ursus is located. This is another Company we are proud to have associations. For 50 years Ursus has produced high quality components which has broadened into wheels and hubs, bars, stems and seat posts. Their production floor is one I always enjoy visiting. The relationship the staff have towards each other is truly special in comparison to the style of management experienced here... but this is for another article! Our communications with Enrico from Ursus remains positive. "All Italy is still working as usual." Apparently there was a request from the Government they remain distanced from busy areas, even as supermarkets and malls were open. Again the lack of people must be surreal, and it is the retail and hospitality frontline that bears the brunt.

David Piacenti and Enrico Stragliotto at URSUS

David Piacenti and Enrico Stragliotto at URSUS Photo Credit : Alison McGregor

Enrico discusses production levels. "Ursus is fully operative and offering a top level of production and services. Our employees have been instructed about the healthy and safety procedures to follow, as requested by the sanitary authorities. As far as possible, we are even running at a speedier level, delivering as much as possible and even in advance." As with all the Brands we partner with, work is going ahead as normal.

The conversations between our brands continues. We've communicated with half a dozen others who've shared experience. The sense of better times is not being buried by their loss of freedom in travel, in loss of consumerist habits, in spectatorship or community involvement. While everyone is feeling the effects of imposed separation or isolation, and the impacts on the economy is obviously a consequence they will need to deal with, no-one is resentful of the situation. Even without a timeline to show when things may change for the better, there is an obvious sense of positivity that work will take them through the difficulties and at some point they will punch through the other side.

So, with the words of locals, we understand that the Cycling Industry is not in despair. The Italians were unfortunately held in the direct international firing line. And we have had the luxury to watch and to learn. Summarised beautifully by Matt at DeAnima, "Italy has unfortunately been the break out country in Europe so has had to make decisions for good or bad and every other country can learn to copy or not copy." I would say, in respect to the conversations we've had with our partner brands over the last week, the Italians have remained stoic, determined and respectful. A few months ago it would have been unfathomable to consider a government forced to prioritise public health over its economy. I can only hope that, if the expected escalation of the virus infiltrates the Australian public, we remain as focused, positive and respectful. In the meantime it is likely that Italy's continued age old production will also be its future saviour.

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