A Tour of the Vittoria Shoe Factory
How a hand-crafted cycling shoe is made
In the early winter of 1998 Carol and I became the distributor of Vittoria shoes. Marco Pantani had just completed his Giro-Tour double wearing Vittoria's super-light "Blitz" shoe. Marco Pantani's spectacular climbing (unquestionably the greatest climber since Gaul) and "Pirate" persona excited every cycling fan. The world was clamoring for Vittoria shoes, beautifully made by Celestino Vercelli and his craftsmen in his shop west of Milan.
Vercelli himself had ridden the Giro 5 times and the Tour twice as a gregario di lusso and is the subject of one of our oral history interviews.
In the spring of 2000 we visited the Vittoria factory and were stunned by how much work and care goes into the making of a Vittoria shoe. There are no robots here, just people who are doing their best to make a fine shoes. We took a series of photos that followed a shoe through all the processes that result in a Raider (top of the line for the 2000 season). We hope you find them as interesting as we did. I know it's been a few years since these photos were taken, but the methods used in hand-crafting cycling shoes hasn't changed.
The shoe starts out as bolts of raw material: Lorica, nylon mesh, etc. (above). Layers of these materials are laid on top of each other and are cut into the various parts of the upper of the shoe. The cutters look like giant cookie cutters. Material that has been cut is shown below.
Vittoria sends these cut pieces out to another location which sews them together into the upper. A Raider upper is shown above, but it's shape isn't as obvious in that photo as the bunch of Blitz uppers in the boxes below. The heel cup has been sewn in, so the back has nearly its final shape, but the front part is basically flat as a pancake.
This man is holding a last: a plastic form that the shoe will be built around. Each size has its own last. Vittoria uses the same last for all the different models of shoes. A Fly or Fun or Jet (models since discontinued) has the same internal shape as a Raider or Rock. In early 1997, Vittoria had all new lasts made that were slightly wider to accomodate Northern European and American feet.
In the first step, the insole is nailed on to the last.
The flat uppers are formed and shaped with heat and pressure before the last is inserted.
The upper now has the last inserted (you can see it above the man's left hand, inside the shoe), and the whole unit is put into a machine which folds the upper around the last, and down around the insole. The machine that does this looks like it has a dozen powerful clothespins that grip the upper and pull and stretch it around the last. The upper is glued to the insole (above and below) which was earlier nailed to the last.
View of the upper, partially folded around and glued to the insole.
The gluing process is completed by hand, above and below.
After gluing, the bottom of the shoe is run by a grinder, to make a nice smooth surface for applying the outer sole. Also at this point, the nails that orignially fastened the insole to the last are removed. Below, the shoe with the smoothed surface.
Piles of soles (these are ATB soles) await fastening to uppers.
Glue is applied to the sole.
The soles with glue are warmed for affixing to the upper. Look on the device in front of the worker: you can see a sole sitting on a platform. This platform pivots around 180°, into the area where you can see very bright light. There's a platform on that side too, with a sole that is being warmed in that "oven". For each upper he picks up, he spins around the heating device and gets a freshly warmed sole, while turning in another to heat. This series of photos was taken before high-end shoes started using carbon fiber soles.
The sole is pressed onto the upper.
After hand placement, the shoe with the newly glued sole is put into a cradle, and a hydraulic device brings down two "pushers", one which rests on the last, and one on the toe. The shoe is held under pressure here to set the glue.
The final step is to remove the last: the post coming up under the man's right hand fastens into a hole in the last; the tan object just to the right of his fingers is a soft, sticky rubber. The shoe is held against the rubber while the hydraulic device below pulls out the last.
Mrs. Vercelli (wife of Vittoria founder Celestino Vercelli) personally inspects each pair of shoes and packs them into boxes, ready to go to your bike shop.
Vittoria makes custom shoes for its sponsored racers. This process is interesting: they start with the last that is closest to the correct size, then modify it for the individual. If the last is too large in a particular place, it is shaved off. If the shoe would be too snug, a little leather is nailed on to the last to make that part of the shoe wider. See the far side of the toe of the Pantani (front) last, the near side of the toe of the Bartoli (fourth from the front) last, and the top of the toe of the second from the top. I should also note that these photos were taken before Stefano Garzelli's victory in the 2000 Giro.
Here is our merry little band: from left, Carol and Chairman Bill McGann, Mauro and Antonio Mondonico, Celestino and Mrs. Vercelli, and their son Edoardo.