Old-school Italian lessons – for bike shops, Tim Dawson (2012)

Original article originally published at sundaytimes.co.uk

Bicycle shops that served as the epicenter of small bicycle-manufacturing businesses used to be scattered all over the UK – particularly in northern England. Today, Pennine Cycles and Ellis Briggs, both in Bradford, are among the very few that remain. Most of the others have vanished like the mist, some, like Bob Jackson in Leeds, continue to manufacture, but recently closed their retail operation.

Matia Bonato

Blame for this is easy to apportion. Steel has lost its appeal as the frame-material of choice for top-end bikes, and online retailers beat shops on price and choice – particularly for more esoteric components. But travel to Milan in northern Italy, and you will find a bike shop/manufacturer that has found a fascinating way to buck this trend.

Rossignoli has been at the heart of Milanese cycling since 1900, when a shop and workshop bearing that name first started serving the city. It has changed premises a few of times in the intervening years, but since shortly after the second world war, the Rossignoli sign has proudly hung in Corso Garibaldi.

Brera, the cobblestoned 18th century district bisected by the road, is an area that has much in common with London’s Covent Garden. Three decades ago, much of it was a tough, working neighbourhood – today it is a fashionable shopping district.

In either guise, Rossingnoli seems the perfect fit. The cavernous shop has a high ceiling, from which hundreds of bicycles hang, ready to be manhandled down with a long hook. Shelves lead away as far as they eye can see, packed with accessories and spare parts. Three or four brown-coated shop staff are rarely still, behind the counter dealing with the stream of customers coming and going, looking for everything from a new bike to an inner tube. Overseeing the retail operation is Giovanna Rossignoli, great grand-daughter of the company’s founder.

Callers have always been encouraged to wheel in their bikes, for a quick opinion, or a free tweak with a spanner. The real workshop, though, is in a building in the rear courtyard, there too is a bicycle rental operation and the company’s offices.

There is plenty of up-to-the-minute kit on view, but the shop exudes a timeless quality, as though little has really changed about the operation for at least half a century. A rack of Campagnolo sprockets hangs on one side of the counter, the full range of Brooks saddles is displayed on the other.

Still owned and operated by the fourth and fifth generations of the Rossignoli family that started the business, its racing bicycles were once considered among the best. They might have lacked the profile or the palmares of Pinarello or Colnago, but Rossignoli’s frames were widely spoken of in the same breadth. Times change though, says Matia Bonato, Giovanna’s son, who now takes a leadership role in the business.

“Fashions in racing frames changed dramatically, with riders increasingly using carbon fibre”, he explains. “Not only that, but even the most prestigious Italian manufacturers started having their bikes made abroad, which made it difficult to compete with them on price”.

Rossignoli’s solution was to reinvent their product line, and find bikes to build that made their most of the company’s heritage and their determination to keep manufacturing only in Italy, at Padova in the Veneto region. Their solution is a range of funky urban bikes, aimed at the new generation of city cyclists who appear to be turning Milan into a cycling city, once again.

They are, says, Bonato, flying out of the door. “There has been a real cycling renaissance in Milan. Cycling to get around used to be something for old or very poor people. Today, it is young executives who are flocking to buy our bikes – partially because they have realised that a bike is the best way to get around our beautiful city”.

Judged impressionistically, he is absolutely right. Over the past decade a cycling revolution has overtaken the city. Not only does it have its own Boris-style hire scheme, but also is getting used to lots of new cycling lanes (like London, the quality is variable). More than anything, however, the streets team with cyclists – a great many of whom are riding bikes bearing the distinctive Rossignoli badge.

September’s Milan Fashion Week saw dozens of fashionista’s taking advantage of the sunny weather by eschewing cabs to hop on the ubiquitous hire-bikes dotted around the city. And, official figures show that bicycle sales in Italy overtook the sales of cars last year for the first time since the second world war.

Who knows whether any of the old-school frame builders in the UK could copy this model. Given the enthusiasm for vintage 531 frames in the fixed-gear community, I think that they possibly could. Whether that will be enough to revive the retail/manufacturing outlets is perhaps less certain. Still, for anyone who does want to experience the magic of a traditional shop where they really can wax expertly on the difference between fillet brazing and sliver-soldered lugs, Rossignoli appears to be a reassuringly permanent fixture. Whether the city’s better-known delights interest you or not, (the magnificent Castello Forzesco is just around the corner from the shop, and Da Vinci’s Last Supper is just a ten-minute pedal away) the venerable bike maker is surely enough to justify a trip to Lombardy?

TD Oct 12

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