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Chairman Bill's Trip to the 1998 Milan Bike Show

The bike industry is changing so fast. Not only has the high-performance bicycle profoundly changed in the last 20 years, the industry that makes and markets the bicycles we buy and ride has changed as well. Perhaps even more. The turmoil in the very big business of bicycle trade shows represents in microcosm those changes that continue to roil the cycle trade. Perhaps a little history (with my usual digressions) is in order at this point.

Bicycle trade shows are put together by an individual or organization with the intent of bringing manufacturers and distributors together with their customers. A large hall is rented by the organizer who then sells space on the floor to those businesses that want to exhibit their goods. Sometimes a fee is charged to businesses that want to visit the hall, sometimes it's free. Some trade shows allow both the trade and the public to visit the halls. In Europe, both the public and the trade attend the bicycle shows. In the U.S., visitation is strictly limited to those in the bicycle industry. The American show organizers desperately want to allow the public in because an entrance fee can be charged. For a variety of shorted-sighted reasons, the American cycle industry has vetoed any attempt to have public days at the shows. Still, American show organizers drool when they see hundreds of thousands of paying customers visiting the Euro shows. These huge public tickets grosses will help explain the events that follow.

Prior to 1980, the bicycle trade show calendar was very stable. In the United States, the New York show, held in January, was the big event. The Chicago Area Bike Dealers Association (CABDA) held a small but well-respected show, and a small Southern California show was held in varying venues and dates. These filled the U.S. calendar. I must add that the importing, manufacturing, and distribution of bicycles prior to 1980 was very oligopolistic. The tough, brutal competition we're used to seeing today just didn't exist. Money was made and few rocked the boat.

In Europe there were two very large shows. One in Cologne, Germany (called IFMA), and one in Milan, Italy (called EICMA). They alternated, odd years in Milan, even years in Cologne. The Cologne show was held in late September, and the Milan show in November. I always preferred the timing of the Milan show. The cycling season was over, and I could take my time visiting factories after the show without worrying about the press of business back home. In addition to Milan and Cologne, there were also the regional shows of Paris and Harrogate. Cologne and Milan were both huge. For years, the motorcycle and bicycle industries were integrated in the same show. The Cologne show was always bigger, bringing almost the entire industry under one roof, with the exception of the small artisan businesses of Italy that found the cost of exhibiting far away too great. Showing every other year suited them very well.

Up until 1990, this situation prevailed in Europe. In the U.S., things had already changed, with the new Interbike show in September. Interbike drove the traditional January shows out of business by giving distributors and manufacturers a better pre-season window to take orders, and place them with their factories. Forecasting became easier as the distributors lessened the risks of inaccurate ordering and their consequent costs. Dumping excess unwanted stock because of not having what the customer wants in the short selling season is expensive. In point of fact, this planning burden was merely shifted. Instead of the distributors forecasting the market and taking the risk, the bike shops are now forced to make pre-season commitments and forced to guess their needs. Someone has to decide in advance what is needed. With the shortened life span of modern cycling products, the danger of a bad decision is much greater. For now, the burden is on the shops.

I'll explain the market change involved here. For years, a professional bike was built with the same parts: a Campagnolo Super Record group, Fiamme rims, Regina chain and freewheel. These parts could stay in a warehouse for years and not lose value because the same parts were made year after year with little change. Now things are very different. I have a set of 1997 Chorus Ergopower levers in my warehouse as this is written. One year old. No takers. Obsolete. Back to the European shows....

In 1990, the European show calendar had it's first change. A new show (Intercycle) in Friedrichshafen, Germany, was started for high-end mountain bikes. It was held every year and was an immediate hit, targeting the most exciting, fastest changing and growing segment of the market. Cologne, feeling that it had to defend itself, responded by putting on a show every year. This then deeply imperiled Milan's show, so the Milan show went yearly. And, to make things still more difficult, they moved it to September. Now Interbike, IFMA, EICMA, and Intercycle were all in the same month. I was sitting next to the president of a large Italian company when the management of the Milan show announced its policy change. I thought he was going to lose his dinner. He was visibly distressed. His firm always has a huge booth with lots of heavy demonstration machinery. The thought of the expense and work of shipping this all over Europe to see the same number of customers as when there was only one Euro show a year almost made him cry.

The costs of attending and exhibiting at a trade show for most small firms is staggering. A little 10 foot by 10 foot booth, the smallest possible costs about $1,400.00 just to rent the space. Then there is the cost of the fixtures, transportation, hotels, meals for the company staff to man the booth. You begin to understand why cities want trade shows so badly. It's very big money. Some of the hidden costs can be astonishing. A few years ago, Torelli had a 20 x 20 island on the show floor. A special trade show exhibit moving company moved our bikes and booth fixtures from Camarillo, California to Las Vegas and back for about $900. This company brought our goods to the back door of the Las Vegas Convention Center. The convention center gives a monopoly concession to a company to handle labor in the show hall, and all exhibitors are compelled to use this service. This firm charged Torelli over $1,000 to fork-lift our goods from the back door of the convention center to our site in the middle of the hall. Multiply this times thousands of exhibitors around the world trying to show their goods and you will see why the whole bike industry is so distressed by the show proliferation. Even the head of the Milan show acknowledges that there are too many shows, and that the pre-1990 system was ideal. But he says that each show must defend its business. At some point, there will be some attrition. I hope soon.

In years past, I looked forward to the Milan show more than any other cycling event of the year. The show was huge, with endless halls of new, innovative, and interesting products. The brilliant Italians would save their product introductions for the show, knowing that the electricity that the show generated would help send their products into the marketplace. The cycling and motorcycle companies would have large, extravagant booths. More than one company had a complete restaurant in the booth for the use of customers of the exhibitors.

There was another form of stability to the Milan show. Most of the exhibitors had been displaying at the Milan show for years. Their locations were the same every year. I could walk to Ambrosio's old location right now. When walking into one of the large halls, on the left was always the huge Olmo booth. Bianchi used to be owed by the Piaggio group, along with Vespa. Their combined site used up a large percentage of one giant hall. In addition to these large affairs, there were the hundreds of little booths manned (personned? Careful, Bill) by little Italian companies. This is what I loved. Clever, brilliant people making beautiful, innovative parts, accessories and clothing. I could prowl the aisles for days. I think I spent five days in 1989 at the Milan show. I was in Heaven.

A few years ago, both Cologne and Milan separated the motorcycle and bicycle industries into separate halls. This was a godsend. In the show areas where the clothing makers display, one would walk past miles of Pakistani leather jacket and pants merchants to find the few cycle clothing makers. I was glad to save a few miles of walking.

My wife, Carol, and I went to the Milan show three years ago. It was all in a new hall. We felt like people that go back to an old neighborhood and find everything changed. The new, yearly schedule had already made it's effects visible. There were fewer exhibitors, and their booths were smaller.

To the present.

Earlier this year, Carol and I decided to attend one of the European shows. Which one? The Intercycle show, with its emphasis on mountain bikes, was easily eliminated. But Milan or Cologne? I talked to Mondonico, seeking his advice. He thought Milan was the place to go. The Italians still have the style as well as the technology. I would be better able to get a sense of cycling trends there. Knowing Mondonico to be very objective about these things and not just pushing the home-town show, I took his suggestion to heart and booked a couple of tickets to Milan.

Waiting for us at the Milan airport when we arrived was Antonio Mondonico, who was kind enough to pick us up and deliver us to our hotel. I think the kind, genial countenance of Antonio Mondonico is about the nicest thing that can greet one after traveling for almost 20 hours. His son, Mauro didn't come along. He drives the race directors in pro races sponsored by La Gazetta dello Sport. The race director is the man sticking out of the roof of the car behind the race winner at the end of the race. Mauro is often the man behind he wheel. He has a wealth of interesting stories about his adventures behind the wheel in the pro races. I have been trying to get him to write them down for me to share on our web site, but so far he has been too modest to do this. I'll keep pestering him. By the way, Mauro is the finest driver I have ever ridden with. I don't ever remember feeling so safe or secure as when he is piloting a car at speed on the Italian Autostrada (toll highway).

The next morning we went to the show hall. This time, in still a different location in the Milan fair showgrounds. These showgrounds take up multiple city blocks and are filled with large exhibition halls. While the bike show was going on, there was also the baby goods show and the leather goods show on the same showgrounds. By the way, these shows are the reason why a tourist can show up in a large city in the off-tourist season in Europe and be absolutely unable to find a hotel room. The Cologne show fills every hotel room. More than once I have had to get a room in Bonn and take the train in (this is now our preferred way of visiting the Cologne show. If you ever plan to visit IFMA, I recommend it. The entrance ticket to the show hall includes a free train fare, about a 15 minute ride, from Bonn to Cologne. The rooms are half the price, and the restaurants and hotels actually care if you live or die). Once, I had to stay in Bergamo in order to visit the Milan show.

My first impression was that the show was smaller still than a couple of years ago. All of the companies had reduced their per-show costs. Remember, they are using three shows to see the same number of people they used to see in one show. Sales aren't any larger, only the costs. The companies like Marchetti+Lange, Bike Machinery, and Holland Mechanics, that used to take up giant chunks of real estate to show all of their bike fabrication machinery had small, almost token booths. As we took a first, casual tour of the aisles, it was clear that there had been a real change. From being the grand, magnificent, international show it used to be, it has become an important regional show; an Italian show. Because it doesn't draw the large number of international buyers, a lot of the smaller Italian companies that always showed at the Milan show were not there.

Reduced size notwithstanding, there was still a lot there, and I learned a lot by visiting the Milan show.

The first thing was that the cycle tubing manufacturing business has become truly competitive. While the immense costs of producing component gruppos has reduced the field to only two dominant companies, the cycle tubing business has been blown wide open. For almost all time, an Italian bicycle frame was defined by the Columbus tubing used in it. An SLX, Brain, or EL-OS tubing specification often named the frame, with the builder bringing his particular refinements and skills to the process, and in so doing, creating his unique product But, it was a Bottechia SLX or a Mondonico EL-OS. At this show, frames were shown made with Columbus, Dedaccai, and Oria, with no sense that by using tubing brands other than Columbus, the frames were in any way inferior. My own feeling is that Columbus still has the edge in high-end steel. They still produce tubes with only 0.4mm wall thickness. Others get their tubing weight down by reducing the length and thickness of the butt, and drawing the tube to 0.45mm, a cheaper and easier way to reduce the weight of the tubeset. The double butting is what gives strength and reliability to the frame. I will believe others are the equal to Columbus in this particular part of the bicycle stratosphere when they too, produce these exotic tubes without compromising the design of the tube.

TIG aluminum road frames were the dominant product. I believe Ivan Gotti's Giro win on an oversize aluminum frame profoundly shocked the Italian bike industry, far more than Indurain's Tour win on a Columbus Altec aluminum frame. This was close to home. One bike factory owner told me that his business was mostly (over 80%) aluminum TIG bikes.

Around every corner at the show was a man with a shaved head, goatee, and earring. Marco Pantani has clearly moved many to copy his style. Cipollini may be an exciting rider, but I don't remember a rider that has caused as much fashion mimicry as Pantani. Those companies that had earned a Pantani endorsement had huge posters of him in their booths. The Pirate was clearly king of the show. The Lion-King was second fiddle. Sorry, Mario.

I know many companies have been trying to figure out a way around Elite's patented water bottle cage. That's the cage with the plastic buttons all of the pros use. A few Asian firms have decided to just violate the patent, but in general, the cycling world is respecting their well-earned success. A company called Sole seems to have danced around it. Colnago was using it on their bikes. It will be interesting to see if Sole gets anywhere in the market.

We had an appointment with an Italian firm the makes stationary trainers, with either fluid, magnetic, or wind load. The firm had sent samples to us in the summer for us to test and review. Carol and I tried them and found their various drag mechanisms were superb, but that the bike stands were sadly lacking. We put in a standard Campy Athena equipped bike and the bike sat in the stand at an angle. The designer had not made a big enough slot to allow the quick-release flipper to slide fully into the mount. I think CycleOps makes and excellent stand that accommodates nearly all skewers, so this wasn't an unheard-of provision. In addition, the drag regulator that screws onto the handlebar was very difficult to mount. We pronounced this product deeply flawed and not suitable for import. We met the maker at the show. The conversation we had with him shows why some manufacturers never make it into the American market.

Carol and I explained the failings of his product as diplomatically as we could by fax ahead of time. When we met him he was mystified by the fact that the bike sat in the stand at an angle. "You must have used a special or strange skewer", he said. No. I told him that I used a 1998 Athena skewer. As normal and straightforward a skewer as exists on the planet. The new Shimano skewers might be expected to be a problem, given their design, but not the Athena. After a bit of argument about how I was wrong, he then produced a special skewer that must be used with his stand. There was no mention of this at any point until that moment.

We then went on to the handlebar mount of the drag regulator. I told him that it would be almost impossible for any woman to mount it. It took all the strength that I had to make it work. "Yes, but how many of your customers are women?", he asked. Upon being told that even if I had only one, that woman deserved to get a product that was easy for her to use, he looked at me like I was the village idiot.

We do not import his trainers.

Carol and I visited the providers of investment-cast components to framebuilders with Antonio and Mauro Mondonico. While Mondonico stays in close touch with these people, we took the opportunity to be able to look and compare all the items available under one big roof. Always the goal is to find the finest part available. Also, Mondonico is starting to produce his 70th anniversary frame, and he wanted to see if there were any new head lugs available before he fixed the final design. Nothing new there for 1999.

After two days, we were quite done with the show.

The next morning, Mauro took us to the factory that produces our Aria mini-Pump and our floor pump. We always like to spend time reviewing production and seeing how our products can be made better. We were greeted by the Brambillas, two brothers who work like demons in their small factory. One brother was covered with grease from working on the production line. All the machinery they use to fabricate their pumps, they make themselves. We were impressed by all the tests they have along the way to make sure that the pumps will work properly. There were little things. For example, the threads of the piston are coated with a special lubricating seal so that air will not leak out past the leather piston nuts. There was just enough chaos, discarded machinery, and lively enterprise and experimentation to make me really pleased that these gentlemen were making our pumps. They are machine guys. After a long tour of their shop, their kind and generous hospitality brought out wine and snacks. I love being in Italy! After business was finished, the conversation inevitably turned to the Clinton-Lewinsky matter, which both fascinates and mystifies the Italians. I won't go into what was said about that........

Then, Mauro drove us to Moa Sport clothing in Mantua. On the Autostrada we stopped for lunch. If you ever have the good fortune to be in Italy, don't turn up your nose at eating at one of those large restaurants that span the road. Italians won't eat bad food. Unlike the U.S., chain restaurant food is good in Italy.

Moa Sport is the clothing supplier to many of the top pro teams. This year they supplied, among others, Banesto, Vitalicio, RosMary, and Kelme. Mauro had noticed that the clothing that the pros wear looked a little different from the pro team clothing that you and I can buy in the bike shops. He could not tell me how it was different, it just was.

We sat down with Moa's head clothing designer, and we learned exactly why the clothing is different. You and I cannot buy clothing like Abraham Olano has. No one will make it commercially, so far; no matter what anyone tells you in his clothing sales brochure. She explained to us that they had two reasons for the different clothing design for the pros. First, it must last at least 40,000 kilometers of hard use. Pros ride a lot, and the clothing has to hold up and look good for a long time. Second, every possible effort must be made to make the rider comfortable on his unnatural perch on a hard bicycle seat. Chasing Jan Ullrich for nine hours tests the limits of human endurance. A small defect or shortcut in the manufacture of a pair of shorts can actually compromise victory. Making clothing that will meet professional requirements is expensive.

Just the way the leg grippers are sewn in is different. A complex, but more elastic zigzag stitch is used. The lycra fabric is richer and denser. A little patch of cool-max is sewn into the small of the back of the bibshort. The stitching of the chamois is different. By the way, despite all of the advertising of complex and expensive sewing patterns for chamois in shorts, Moa told us that when making a price-is-no-object short for the pros, the choice is for a molded seamless chamois. The best way to eliminate the discomfort of seams is to eliminate seams. The differences she enumerated continued. When she was done, I asked her to let me know how much it would cost to have such a short made for Torelli. I know many serious cyclists would love to have something so fine. No quotation yet.

We drove home from Mantua to the Mondonico's to have dinner. On the Autostrada, the radio blared updates about "La Signorina Monica", and "Sexgate" every fifteen minutes. We are interesting to the rest of the world. Mauro noted that there are now photoelectric speed sensors with cameras on the Autostrada. Mauro has a map of their locations. He is a true son of Italy.

During dinner, we made plans for Antonio Mondonico to come to the U.S. in November to visit the shops on the West Coast that carry his frames. We agreed that he would come out in the second week of November. You can't believe how nice it is to ride a bike that fits perfectly, and Antonio is the man to measure you for it. I speak from personal experience. (This is written November 14: Antonio has come and visited several stores in the west, and has returned to build the frames that were ordered.)

That was basically the end of our business in Italy. As always, too short, not enough time.