As we all know, the United States of America is going to hell in a handbasket. The dollar is down, inflation is rampant. The Arabs refuse to sell us their oil at our prices. Ralph Nader says synthetic fuels are a delusion and nuclear energy is worse. Scientists have confirmed that the sun is shrinking while the polar ice caps are advancing, and this month musk oxen were sighted on the outskirts of Duluth and Buffalo, presaging another wretched winter.
But even in the worst of times there is some sunshine. Anyone caring to bask in what is left of it should spend a day at his local bicycle shop: while the economy ain't what it used to be, in the bike shops of America the cash register bells are ringing.
Some time ago a researcher at Duke University named Vance Tucker compared the efficiency of a wild variety of moving objects, both living and man-made. When a bicycle was later compared to all the objects Tucker had studied, it proved by far the most efficient: three times more so than a horse, five times more than a car, 10 times more than a sea gull or a dog or a jet plane and nearly 100 times more than a blowfly or a bumblebee. To put it in simple terms that largely explain why bicycles are selling so well today, on the power derived from one bowl of oatmeal costing 7¬¨¬®¬¨¢ a man can pedal three miles to the supermarket and return with enough oatmeal to feed a family of four for a week. Over the past decade the annual sales of cars and bicycles in the U.S. have averaged almost dead even at about 10 million. While the price of everything from cabbages to condominiums has gone through the roof in the same span, the cost of the bicycle has risen less than 35%, and although no one in the business believes it will ever replace the automobile, the bike has become a money-saving second vehicle.
A good, durable 10-speed bicycle can be had for less than $150 today, but many people are willing to spend a lot more. In mobile man, there is an ineradicable longing to own the very best, whether it is needed or not. Today an incurable car buff may find happiness in an American Corvette; still he hungers for an Italian Ferrari that offers little more and costs three times as much. As it is with car buffs, so it is with the cycling elite, except for one difference: among autoists, it is the manufacturer's name—Rolls, Ferrari, Lancia, Lamborghini—that symbolizes excellence. To cyclists, the "marque" is but one part of the equation. The name on a bike may simply be that of a framebuilder who has nothing to do with the manufacture or even selection of the rest of the pieces. One might cherish a bike whose frame was made in England and is equipped with a French seat, Japanese derailleurs, Italian handlebars, Swiss brakes and Czech tires. A good bicycle is the sum of quality parts made here, there and God knows where else.
February 18, 1980
In that regard, the most famous, the most respected and in fact the most revered name in cycledom is Campagnolo. The most succinct way for a cyclist to boast about his machine is to say simply, "It's 100% Campagnolo," by which he means it is equipped with every kind of part the firm puts out. It would be, otherwise, a somewhat curious claim, considering that in its 45 years the International Campagnolo Company of Vicenza, Italy has never made 100% of any bicycle. Campagnolo of Vicenza makes bicycle seat posts but not seats, headsets but not handlebars or stems. The company makes brakes and front and rear derailleurs, pedals, hubs and bottom brackets, chain-wheel sets and fork tips, but not forks, chains, rims, spokes or tires. Nor does it make frame tubing, and the frame is the heart of any bike. Despite this lifelong specialization in bits and pieces, Campagnolo's reputation for quality transcends that of any marque. In America a cyclist is apt to describe an excellent piece of sporting equipment as "Campy." A sporting Frenchman appraising a beautiful woman will say, "Elle est tout Campagnolo," signifying that she is well equipped in every way that counts.
About 75% of the bicycle parts manufactured by Campagnolo are sold abroad—19% of the total production in France, 8% in the U.S., and about 6% in Japan, a nation with 230 bicycle component companies. Of those more than 100, including the well-known Shimano, and Araya, have been in business much longer than Campagnolo and, taken together, produce a heap more parts. The Japanese have a far bigger share of the world market, but none of their brand names is known as far and wide as Campagnolo, which even equips about 50 bikes a year in little Malta and Andorra. Because Campagnolo manufactures only about a quarter of a million derailleur sets annually and sells scarcely more than 100,000 component groups of parts around the world, and because there are reportedly more than 90 million cycles loose in the U.S. today, it figures that a cyclist on the bikeways of America has about as much chance of meeting a rival who is 100% Campy as he has of being run down by a Rolls-Royce driven by the Queen Mother.
In three boom years—1972-74—bicycle sales in the U.S. averaged 14.4 million, a sudden burst in popularity dealers can explain easily today, although at the time it took them by surprise. While the oil embargo of 1973 certainly helped business, the bike boom actually started a year earlier, a consequence of the antipollution movement and the fitness kick that swept the land. Then in 1975 the boom became, as suddenly, a bust. Wholesalers moved barely half the number of machines they had shipped in each of the preceding three years.
Commenting recently on this period, Thad Mark, manager of Mack's Cycle shop in South Miami, said, "In the years prior to the boom, bicycles weren't used much by adults. Then all of a sudden the bike was more than a play-type thing. It became part of the national health program. There was a madness about it. Every Tom, Dick and Harry got into the action. In the last gas crisis a lot of people bought bikes with worthy intentions and shortly thereafter parked them in their garages forever."
This year the bike business is booming again. Sales will surely exceed 10 million, and it is more than a temporary upswing for several reasons. Whatever the availability of gas in the future, the price will not go down. In addition, business is likely to prosper steadily because retailers and makers, mindful of the erratic past, are today enthusiastic but also realistic. For a sample of freewheeling enthusiasm tempered by reality, one has only to listen to 66-year-old Keith Kingbay, the activities manager of the Schwinn Bicycle Company in Chicago. Although Schwinn is not the largest U.S. producer, it is the most prominent, well known for quality machines over a broad price range—from Collegiates costing little more than $100 to the Deluxe Touring Paramount equipped with Campagnolo parts at better than $1,000.
Although Kingbay has cycled all his life, he rarely lets his zeal get totally out of hand. For example, he has only bicycled coast to coast twice, and in only 33 other countries, and because of lesser diversions did not get around to pedaling across the Andes until he was 60. "People who get on a bike and never do anything else," he says, "have got to be out of their minds. Today you can pedal all through the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, but pretty soon you have seen all the spruce trees you could want." Two years ago in Afghanistan, of all places, he got the sort of comeuppance a promoter needs now and again to keep on an even keel. While the 64-year-old Kingbay was praising the durability of his 12-year-old Schwinn to a repairman in the dusty hills north of Kabul, a 12-year-old kid pedaled up on a 65-year-old bicycle.
In his promotional talks extolling cycling, Kingbay sometimes resorts to candor that verges on treason. "After all," he has been heard to say in public, "a bicycle is nothing more than six pieces of gas pipe and two barrel hoops with garden hose wrapped around them." On a 100-mile group tour through the Everglades, when a portly customer inquired about the expensive Campagnolo-equipped Paramount, Kingbay replied, "When it comes to saving weight, you'll do better taking 10 pounds off yourself instead of buying a light bicycle that costs a lot."
The difference between a good bicycle and the very best, Kingbay maintains, is relatively inconsequential for most people. "A lot of it is for the bloody birds. For most people riding a bike, if you put the tires and rims and Campagnolo gear from our Paramount on our cheaper Le Tour, they wouldn't know the difference. A big part about having a better bike is snob appeal."
Although he sometimes thus debunks his own sport, Kingbay is himself a professed snob. "One day while I am cycling out by my daughter's place and stop for a light," he relates, "a sparkling tan Ferrari pulls up alongside, and the driver looks at my bike and says, 'You've got Campagnolo brakes and everything.' I answered, 'When you've got it, man, you flaunt it,' and he shouts back, 'Right on!' as he drives away."
In Italy there is a saying: a North Italian can easily destroy any machine made by man if given half a day, and can vastly improve it if given time. In the way North Italians drive the quality automobiles they produce for the rest of the world, there is proof of the former; of the latter there is the excellence of the Campagnolo bike parts made in Vicenza—only another fillip of testimony about a region that has spawned artisans of all kinds. Seventy-eight-year-old Tullio Campagnolo, founder of the business, was born a country boy, as his name suggests. He was blessed with a tinkerer's brain and a patrician taste for elegance and excellence. He now lives in a 357-year-old late-Renaissance villa that has five times as many bedrooms as bathrooms, but he has never lost his common sense or let himself be trammeled by tradition. In his big office at the Campagnolo bike plant, where one might expect ornate furnishings, he works at a huge, felt-covered desk that looks like an outsize billiard table with the sides knocked off. On the wall behind the desk are two reproductions of paintings of the old American West by Frederic Remington. (Northern Italy, of course, never produced a painter worth a hoot.)
Tullio Campagnolo's start in the parts business was motivated largely by self-preservation. As a teen-ager in the '20s he was a footballer, motorcyclist and bicycle road racer. On the road he was particularly strong in the mountains, seemingly more able to cope with the ups and downs and the pangs of oxygen deficiency than his peers. In early November of 1927, while he was leading 50 rivals in a 100-mile race through the Dolomites, snow began to fall heavily. Although Campagnolo was wearing only a short-sleeved shirt, he carried on and still held a two-minute lead at the peak altitude of 3,500 feet. Shortly after starting the descent, through 10 inches of snow, he suffered a puncture. While he was trying to get the frozen nuts and lock washers off his wheel to change the tire, several dozen cyclists passed him.
The quick and easy release system for wheels that he invented as a consequence of that cold defeat was the first of 182 patents he has gotten for mechanical innovation, design and metallurgical processes, many of them important not only to bicycles but also to motorcycles, cars, helicopters, rockets and outer-space modules. That first quick-release invention proved almost from the outset to be more influential in bicycling than he had intended. Although derailleur systems enabling cyclists to shift gears without coming to a halt had been commercially successful for years, it was not until the late '30s that the best professional riders were allowed to use them in the epic road race, the Tour de France. Professional riders customarily had a sprocket gear of one diameter on one side of their rear wheel and one of a different dimension on the other. They shifted gears by dismounting and turning the rear wheel around, a Neanderthal procedure greatly speeded up by the Campagnolo quick-release system.
Without the help of any machine fancier than a drill press, Campagnolo first made his quick releases by hand in a back room of his father's combination hardware store and metal shop. He did not officially go into the parts business until 1933, when he started selling his handmade wares to cycling rivals rather than giving them away. Several years later he designed a derailleur that was, if not demonstrably better than those produced in France, certainly well made. There is an oft-duplicated photograph, taken in 1938, of Gino Bartali, the celebrated Italian mountain cyclist, pedaling up a 20% slope against an Alpine background en route to his first victory in the Tour de France. In the picture Bartali seems to be in utter misery, down to his last ounce of grit. He is bent over, as if suffering from a sudden attack of stomach gas; his right arm is extended and angled down and back as if he were patting his bike on the rump to urge it on. Actually, the great mountain man was not in much grief. He was simply reaching back along his seat stay as far as possible, trying to manipulate the goldang lever of one of Tullio Campagnolo's primitive gear-shifting devices. Nowadays, of course, a rider shifting Campagnolo derailleurs simply twitches levers mounted within easy reach of the down tube.
With early believers like the great Bartali, in the '30s and through World War II Campagnolo's little bike business surged ahead at a snail's pace. He did not hire his first fulltime employee until 1940. Aptly described, the Campagnolo Company today is a very prosperous cottage industry of massive proportions, one of those extremely rare concerns that knew how to grow and make a handsome buck without compromising the high quality of its products.
Campagnolo markets bicycle components in three major categories. Its highest-priced line is called "Super Record," the intermediate line, "Nuovo Record" or "Record," the cheapest line, "Gran Sport." According to the last count, in the 50-odd items made by Campagnolo there are 1,128 different parts, and of that great number, all but a very few bolts, springs and ball bearings are fabricated in its own plants under its own quality-control inspectors.
Seventy-five miles southwest of Vicenza in the big artisan city of Bologna there is a Campagnolo plant where 380 workers produce components for a variety of land, air and space machines. While Bologna's contribution is considerable, 70% of Campagnolo's total action still derives from the bike components manufactured by 850 employees in three plants in Vicenza and sold in 80 nations the world around. At one end of one plant, thundering presses stamp the crude shapes of parts out of sheet and bar stock. At the far end of another plant, amid the flatulent splat of pneumatic burnishers and screwdrivers, finished components come out. From the initial thunder to the last squeak, quality is the prime concern. Even the imported ball bearings, purchased in the main from the world's foremost maker, SKF of Sweden, stand inspection at Campagnolo. Any SKF bearing that does not measure within a half micron (plus or minus half a thousandth of a millimeter) is rejected. Lowering his voice and casting his eyes down as if ashamed of his company's performance, Luciano Giacomelli, Campagnolo's export sales director, says, "We have found it difficult to achieve quantity while maintaining quality."
Campagnolo quality comes at a fancy price. A Super Record brake set retails at $130, which is about as much as some folks want to spend for a whole bicycle. A pair of Super Record road pedals costs $125; a pair of Record pedals, $57. The Super Record and Record pedals look the same and are made to the same fine tolerances. So what is the difference? By paying $68 more for Super Records, the cyclist gets titanium pedal axles that are 60 grams (about two ounces) lighter than those on the Record set.
There are those—notably jobbers handling other brands—who say Campagnolo has a bloated reputation. However bloated, it is not one that will be deflated easily. In its catalog, Bikecology, a California mail-order concern that stocks parts of every price range, has this to say: "Over the years our customers have never stopped asking whether Campy really deserves its incredible reputation. Actually, the more experience one gets with bike parts the more one becomes convinced the reputation is correct. There is just so much intelligent design and fine workmanship and material in every part that it's hard to find fault with anything made by Campy." Touting a Japanese seat post that costs half as much as a Campagnolo, the Bikecology catalog says, "Our biggest seller.... Replica of Campy Record." To tempt buyers with a little snob appeal, the catalog makes this pitch about a Japanese headset that costs a third as much as a Campagnolo: "Our No. 1 best seller restyled with name engraved on bearing covers like Campy.... Can't distinguish from Campy at 2-foot distance." Plugging a medium-priced brake set, the catalog says, "Virtually identical to Campy in appearance, geometry and performance."
Such flattery in a mail-order catalog may seem overblown, but the truth of it is borne out by able cyclists who spend most of their practical lives gasping for air. Eight of the last 10 winners of the Tour de France have been 100% Campy. At the 1976 Olympics, more than 80% of the road and track cyclists from 51 countries were Campy-equipped. At the 1978 World Cycling Championships in Germany, in the 17 events for men and women, for professionals and amateurs and Iron Curtain amateurs, 16 of the winners were 100% Campy. It might have been a clean sweep except that a Japanese named Koichi Nakano, using Campy parts, lost the professional sprint to a colleague named Yoshikaza Sugata, who was using parts made in their own country. The success of Campagnolo is best explained by a remark once made by Casey Stengel: "The only way you get to be first is by winning."
Campagnolo produces more than 20,000 high-price Super Record groups a year, far exceeding what the hard, competitive world of cycling—winners and losers—could ever want. Obviously, a great many of its finest items are being bought by people who do not need the very best, but want it nonetheless.