If ever there’s been an iconic brand gracing the workshops of pro teams, bike mechanics and passionate riders around the world, it’s Silca.
Like so many other cycling fanatics, I used an orange Silca track pump for decades, hauling it to races and events around the American Midwest, denting and scratching the painted steel barrel, wearing out the hose, replacing a series of chucks.
For those inside the tight little Silca clan, it became a symbol of your passion for cycling, like the little tin boxed Velox sew-up repair kit sitting in your cycling toolbox or the elegant Campagnolo T-wrench you kept long after you reluctantly adopted other running gear.
Silca began in 1917 when Felice Sacchi, an Italian aircraft engineer, overcame a frustrating limitation in the air pumps commonly used then. Pneumatic pumps of the day used a stack of leather washers clamped together with a nut and screw. It worked, but it pumped air out both ends of the steel cylinder, requiring two check valves for inlet and outlet.
Distraught over the limitations of these clunky, heavy and breakage-prone pumps, Sacchi had a brainstorm. He replaced the stack of leather washers with a steam-formed leather cup that self-pressurised on the downstroke, but collapsed and allowed air to flow around it on the pump handle’s upstroke.
“So in one of those beautiful moments in history,” explains current CEO and lifelong Silca fanatic Josh Poertner, “he made a pump that was cheaper but that would also pump to higher pressures. It was more foolproof, because the check valve was always the point of failure and you only needed one instead of two.
“There was only one piece of leather instead of three or four, so there was no need to disassemble it to adjust it; it was self-compensating. So he patented it, and changed the world in lots of ways.”
Not only did the Silca design revolutionise pneumatic pumps, its basic principles reverberated out into all sorts of products needing simple reliable pressure pumps. Even the American Coleman camp stove and lanterns of the 1960s incorporated Sacchi’s brilliant innovation in their designs, Poertner says.
In the pneumatic inflation market, Silca pumps rapidly dominated the world. Before tubeless car tyres, every home garage had a pump, often endowed with ornate faux-Baroque feet and other filigree, to top off the air pressure. And the cycling world instantly saw the new design’s advantages, bringing Silca Pista pumps into every bike shop and racing mechanic’s garage.
Growing exponentially in sturdy, industrial Milan, Silca soon owned 95 per cent of the Italian pump market, and dominated European sales. From floor pumps, Silca grew to make tools, pedal wrenches, headset tools, frame pumps and other bicycling-specific designs.
World War II interrupted Silca production, but the company rebounded after hostilities ended. By now Felipe’s grandson, Claudio, held a prominent position in the successful, growing company. Silca were churning out a thousand pumps a day.
They were first to identify the United States as a key market, and by 1980 they held more than 50 per cent of the global marketshare. Innovation drove rapid growth, as Silca saw the potential to use the first modern plastic, Bakelite, to replace some of the heavier metal components of their frame pumps.
Ardent backers of bike racing, the company worked closely with nearly every top team of the era. And there in many team shots of the time was the face of Silca, Claudio Sacchi.
“I’ve seen photos of Claudio with Anquetil, Claudio with Gimondi, Claudio with Merckx,” explains Poertner. “Just amazing photos.”
The company was even part of a cult cycling cinematic moment as Dave Stoller, the Italiophile hero of the classic 1979 movie Breaking Away, lost both the 100-mile race and his dreams of cycling’s nobility when the black-jerseyed villains of Team Cinzano jibbed his front wheel with a Silca Impero frame pump.
Dave never sang another aria as he rode his red Masi through the same forests I’ve spent countless hours riding. Pity.
But just as innovation and change had propelled the company into a global leadership position, ominous winds brought Silca crashing to earth by the 1990s.
Cheaper Asian products made inroads into the cycling market, a fact that changed the fortunes of every legendary Italian cycling marque. Desperate to compete, Silca tried to adapt by substituting cheaper, plastic components that too-often failed or broke outright.
Europe’s adoption of the Euro crippled the lower-wage economies of southern countries like Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy.
Silca’s fate, already weakened by business and product problems, appeared to be sealed when Claudio developed a highly aggressive cancer in 2012. Neither of his children wanted the business, and no buyer stepped forward.
“He tried to sell it for a year, and [Claudio] was on the verge of bankruptcy,” Poertner explains. Silca 1.0 was lost.
The roots of Silca 2.0, however, had been laid unknowingly in the shadow of the trees lining the Arenberg pavé in 2007. Poertner was there, on a typically cold and wet day, with a team of engineers and designers from Zipp Speed Weaponry.
Their goal: to test the company’s new carbon fibre Zipp 303 wheels under race conditions for superstar rider Fabian Cancellara and his team-mates before the upcoming Paris-Roubaix.
“We were doing these road tests for Roubaix with Cancellara and Nicki Sørensen and a bunch of other phenomenal athletes from CSC and Garmin. And we couldn’t make sense of our data.
“Generally, the lower the [tyre] pressure, the faster you go over cobbles at a given wattage because you’re absorbing the bumps and not bouncing over them,” he explains. “We called it ‘flying closer to the sun’, because the lower the pressure, the closer you came to catastrophic wheel failure.”
Trouble was, the team would set up tyres for Cancellara and he would fly over the cobbles on one run. But when they set up a bike similarly for another rider at a pressure optimised for their weight and wattage, instead of duplicating the results, the carbon wheel often imploded, or the rider would complain the wheel and tire were overly harsh. The experts at Zipp were beyond mystified.
After days of frustration, Poertner and his team finally checked the accuracy of the valves on the pumps they had been using. And between two high-quality Asian pumps, they discovered a 12psi difference in pressure while the gauges showed identical readings.
“Looking back, we felt like total idiots,” he says sheepishly today. “But this was in 2007 and we didn’t know as much and we just took for granted that the pump was accurate.
“A lot of people on that team came from auto racing and really knew tyre pressure, and how wrong were we! We had to completely start over, redo everything.”
Starting with precision Ashcroft gauges, the Zipp team built its ultra-precision bleeder gauge, nicknaming the handmade beast The Truth. “We still have it,” Poertner says, “It’s a cobbled together, nasty-looking thing.
“But we pumped the tyres up and then bled them down to accurate pressures with The Truth. And the year Fabian won his Roubaix , I honestly believe that turned out to be a huge technical advantage.
“No one had ever used carbon wheels at Roubaix before, and we showed him it was a risk worth taking.” [Both George Hincapie and Magnus Backstedt used carbon wheels in 2008. It did not end well – Ed.]
Back home at Zipp’s global headquarters in Indianapolis, home of the eponymous 500 race and one of the world’s motorsports hubs, Poertner realised how important the team’s discovery had been.
“We solved the problem and kept it a huge secret because it was such an advantage. We hid [The Truth] in all our trucks so no one could see what we were doing,” he recalls.
But Zipp’s core competency is making ever-faster aero wheelsets, not dealing with the intricacies of inflation and its impact on shock absorption, rider comfort and tyre compliance.
Poertner, who had become friends with Claudio over his years first as a Euro-based road racer and then as part of the Zipp service course team, began to see an opportunity. Why not accept a last-gasp offer from Claudio to buy Silca and make it the world’s premier pump manufacturer once again, using quality and accuracy as selling points?
A flurry of emails and transatlantic calls, consultations with his colleagues and mentors at Zipp, discussions with his wife and a number of sleepless nights later, Poertner found himself on a plane to Italy where he signed the ownership papers just seven days before Claudio died. Suddenly, a mechanical engineer from Indiana owned one of the cycling world’s most recognised and legendary brands.
“It was very stressful. We signed the papers in September 2013 when [Claudio] was dying. On the long plane ride back I’m thinking I’m going to quit my job, take a second mortgage on my house. This is real,” he explains.
The acquisition agreement was for the brand name only. No tooling, no intellectual property because, he says, “there was none.” A former Category 1 racer in the US who made the leap to racing in Europe, Poertner had the cycling skills and contacts to know how to revive a legendary brand. But he had no factory, no marketing or sales team, no assembly workers or R&D department.
More seriously, he faced the challenge of rebuilding an Italian legend into a 21st century company that could both capitalise on Silca’s cycling street cred while creating a product line aimed at the discriminating modern cyclist.
“We could take apart pumps and see how they worked, but did we know how to manufacture them? And one of the things that had hurt Claudio was he had to support existing Silca product and keep up the ethos of the Forever Pump.
“So we had to face the fact that the product Silca made in the late 2000s weren’t good products anymore, but we had to try to take care of those customers, too.”
The first six months, Josh worked out of his house, sourcing leather gaskets and other parts from original vendors and working on engineering more modern designs. After occupying his living room, then his garage as business grew, he leased a 5,000-square foot building to house Silca and its growing employee base.
Manufacturing was outsourced to specialised vendors around Indianapolis, a move that might draw objections from Silca traditionalists complaining that their familiar floor pumps are no longer manufactured by gnarled hands in a thousand-year-old, stone-floored workshop.
Poertner knew better, however. He had long argued with Claudio that the only way Silca could compete against the onslaught of cheaper Asian-made pumps was to return to the high-quality manufacturing standards and complete reparability that had made it the world’s finest pump. So he re-engineered the Pista and Impero pumps to 21st century technical standards, regardless of the cost.
The idea worked. Riding the rising tide of modern handcrafted bicycle frames and other artisanal products, Silca became a popular boutique brand and its pumps became objects of desire.
Working with modern vendors from the aerospace and motorcycle industries, Silca produced a pump ten times more accurate than the best Asian-made products at a time when the modern science of how tyre inflation dramatically influences road adhesion, rider comfort and overall speed, was trickling down to the cycling masses.
In a world where a two psi difference in tyre pressure can produce as much compliance as a £200 carbon fibre seatpost, the value of a Silca pump became apparent to budget-minded cyclists and pros alike.
As demand for the pumps and component products like the HIRO Chuck rose, Silca embraced events like the North American Handmade Bicycle Show (NAHBS), where the elegantly functional pumps perfectly meshed with the emerging handmade bicycle culture.
Needing a centrepiece product to showcase the aesthetic value of Silca pumps, Poertner cold-called Dario Pegoretti and asked if he’d be willing to custom-paint a few pump tubes as part of a limited edition. After a six-minute conversation, Pegoretti enthusiastically embraced the project and began producing a signature line of hand-painted pumps for Silca.
Sold on a first-come-first-served basis, the pricey pumps routinely sell out in minutes. Now Silca has alliances with dozens of framebuilders including Richard Sachs, allowing modern riders to not only order a bike of their dreams, but to have a frame or floor pump custom-painted to match it perfectly.
Today, Poertner explains, Silca is as much about enhancing the cycling experience as it is about manufacturing exceptional products. Their elegantly machined hex key set reduces the risk of stripping delicate aluminum and titanium hex bolt heads because the keys fit precisely.
Using Silca keys, Poertner argues, makes wrenching on your bike more pleasant and satisfying, ensuring that the rider will do his or her own maintenance more regularly.
It’s the same for proper inflation, he adds. It enhances the cycling experience at a cost far below what a new frame or more compliant handlebars and seatpost would provide. Everything Silca does, he explains, aims to make cycling more enjoyable.
“That’s the mindset we don’t ever want to forget,” stresses Poertner. “The cycling market will always ebb and flow with its appreciation of value. But we need to stay the course and stay true to what Silca has always been.”
Words by David McCarty.
This article originally appeared in issue 64 of Rouleur magazine.
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