Eric Popiel is co-owner of East West Bikes in Fullerton, California, a So-Cal staple for high-end European road bikes. He is an avid rider and passionate about the sport. Originally from NYC, you would think he was born in the Italian region of Veneto. Last year, Eric was among a few shop owners that joined us on a trip to Italy to visit the Campagnolo factory in Vicenza. Once there, we practically had to peel him away from the factory floor. Here’s what Popiel had to say about that amazing tour.
When I first fell in love with road cycling, I started to hear about mythic Italian componentry that made good bikes great. I ventured to more and more shops to see the dreamy bikes that featured these parts in person…Colnago, DeRosa, Pinarello, Time, Guerciotti…
Shortly thereafter, I bought my first bike equipped with Campagnolo. I fell more and more in love with, and became educated about, Campy, but very little information existed about the company’s employees or the factory. So many manufacturers in the industry seemed to welcome people as part of their marketing efforts, while Campagnolo seemed to be building some of theirs based on this secrecy. I was lured in and always wanted more. Eventually, I went from Campy user to dealer and user. My addiction was in full swing with no remorse.
Our identity is closely associated with Campagnolo at East West Bikes. East West is a home for everything from the modern Campag 11, to the overhauls that make a 15-year-old group set still shift along. We are certainly not the biggest-volume Campagnolo shop, but we are disproportionately skewed toward it in terms of sales. We want to be that place that people think of first when it comes to anything Campagnolo.
Years of curiosity and mystery reached a flash point with one phone call. Mike McGary, the Campagnolo brand ambassador for Quality Bicycle Products, rang me up. QBP is the largest distributor of Campagnolo components and wheels for the United States and is our main supplier. We had developed an amazing relationship with Mike, and saw him as a critical ally and resource in our quest to be the area’s Campagnolo expert. I answered the phone and responded in short, strange answers, probably from shock. We were getting an invitation from Campagnolo SRL and QBP to travel to Rome to participate in a gran fondo sponsored by Campy, followed by travel to Vicenza to visit the factory! Of course we said YES!
Getting access to the Vicenza factory is as common as getting into the Wonka factory. Over the years, non-press visitors have been limited to a handful. But now, QBP was permitted to invite four shops. QBP wanted those who bleed the holy winged logo in their veins, and they assembled an amazing group.
The trip and ride was amazing, and seeing Rome and all its beauty and history was incredible. The gran fondo was a well run event, and passing under the Campagnolo start sign with Valentino Campagnolo waving us all through was just awesome. Later that night, I had an incredible opportunity to sit with Dino Cento, Campagnolo’s OEM manager, at a pub in one of the many ancient neighborhoods of Rome. Dino answered almost all of the questions I could think to ask.
I will not publish any of his answers, but I will reveal that solar-powered, wireless, 14-speed Electronic Power Shifting (“EPS”) is not coming soon. But it was the factory tour that got me on that plane, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. We arrived at the factory in Vicenza at about 11:30 a.m. in a van driven by one of Campagnolo’s employees. Almost all manufacturing for Chorus, Record, Super Record, and EPS group sets is in Vicenza, as is the manufacturing for Zonda, Eurus, Shamal, Bullet, Hyperon, and the Bora wheels. Campagnolo’s Fulcrum counterparts are built here as well.
In the lobby, we were surrounded by a small collection of bikes that served as a history lesson about the evolution of EPS and variations of ErgoPowers all the way back to the first prototypes 25 years ago! Soon, we were greeted by Dino, who ushered us upstairs and gave a presentation of Campagnolo’s recent global performance. Campagnolo’s global sales manager, Michele Cardi, then joined us for lunch and discussion.
A private luncheon was set up for us, and Michele sat at the head of the table with a huge warm smile. He asked us intelligent and wonderful questions that spurred a long and fascinating dialog about the company’s history and future, competition with the “S” brands, and preserving the innovation and quality that Campagnolo stands for. Like many meals in Italy, ours began with a delicious pasta course, followed by a main course, and capped with dessert and coffee. It was an honor to indulge in that meal served on plates that bore the famous winged logo.
Dino later returned to conduct this rare tour. We stopped at each workstation and machine that manufactures the individual parts that later get assembled into actual components and wheels. Campagnolo designs and develops molds in-house to make everything from small fasteners, rims, ErgoPower bodies, shift wafers, cogs, chainrings, spokes, etc. These parts then undergo many processes before coming together to as finished products. They’re then finally packaged carefully into the boxes that are as much a part of the tradition as the unmistakable Campagnolo logo.
It was fascinating to see Campy chains assembled. First, the individual outer and inner plates are stamped out, as are the individual rollers and pins. Other machines then assemble these various parts into the long strands from which individual chains are counted and cut. Finally, that magical lubrication is applied. Valentino is very proud of the chain process and has vowed to never let it out of the Vicenza facility. Often overlooked, chains may be among the most impressive components Campagnolo produces. Just seeing how the pins for Record 11 are hollowed is hard to adequately describe. The entire process seems to be a perfect balance of technology and equipment combined with human touch. I smiled and nodded at the chain guru and realized that his hands had touched the hundreds (maybe thousands at this point) of Campagnolo chains I’ve installed. It’s always been impressive to unravel them before, but now I’ll smile a little more each time I open one.
Next up was the product testing area. We observed a fully functioning EPS group set submerged in a tank of mud. A machine tested the effects of heavy humidity and salt on varying components, one of which was a CULT bearing that still spun very nicely. Another provided a simulation of huge rock impacts on rims. One machine even tested decals on the rims against the moisture and other circumstances that would cause them to peel. I also saw Campagnolo products being tested that are probably a few years away from release. There are some goodies on the way—that much I will tell.
Dino seemed to know everyone on the factory floor, as well as every single part of each process. He was able to grab items at varying stages of production and describe each stage of the process and tell why it was as critical as the next. He spoke with passion about each item, and as far as I was concerned, Dino was the genuine Campagnolo genius I had always hoped to meet.
The Campagnolo people I met with were somewhat uncomfortable with the general state of the factory in terms of cleanliness, but I was rather impressed. A few shavings on the ground are par for the course, but Italian pride is part of the process. The diligence of each of the artisans working that day was by far the most impressive part of the factory. These were people that were so proud and focused on their work and it showed. Five hours went by in a flash. I could have stayed there for 20.
As the final Italian light started to disappear from the sky, Dino took us into ancient Vicenza for a tour of his adopted and beloved city. His passion for that ancient city mirrored his passion for the company. He showed us intricate details of the old church and the piazzas. It was so easy to fall in love with that gorgeous city. That walking tour was magical.
That evening we had one final candid and captivating meal with Michele. We stayed late as no one wanted this glorious day to end. All of us at the table exhausted our curiosities, asked the questions we’d traveled to Italy to ask, and held onto the feeling of being on the inside. Moments like this epitomize the magic of cycling and keep me in the industry.