Ghisallo Wooden Rims
I gesticulate haphazardly at the scrap of paper in my hand. The woman behind the desk of the Italian cycling museum by the Madonna del Ghisallo responds in broken English. Apparently, Cerchi Ghisallo is just down the street. I am not sure that I am getting it all but she seems to be saying that we need to go to the auto-mechanic just down the way. There they will ask for the guy who will take us to the historic heart of Italian cycling where wooden tubular rims (among other cool bits of bike kit) are still made by craft woodsmiths.
We are a bit skeptical but we do find the mechanic’s shop. The woman there goes to the cafe next door to find someone who can explain to us in English that she needs to get someone to translate for us (yes, it was all a bit complicated). So we sit and have coffee and chocolata …which although it looks familiar on paper is actually a cup of melted Swiss chocolate. I am not kidding you. Awesome, I love Italy. …And we sit.
While waiting we discuss the very concept of wooden rims. It is hard to explain why they still matter. The frames we ride are carbon hung with all manner of machined aluminum finery. We can be accused of an obsession with weight and performance. But you see, cycling has it’s roots in history. The races are still fought hard and won or lost on the same roads that were raced before the great wars. The bike itself, although a modern marvel, is still pieced together by the hands of a craft-mechanic. In this case, we are to learn, Giovanni has personally built rims that went on to win Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders and the Giro d’Italia itself. To have a little piece of that in my life, on my bike, is very appealing. It matters because for me, it connects a past that I honour to a future I believe in.
Eventually, a fellow who turns out to be the nephew of Giovanni (78 year old rim builder and holder of the isis-light of Italian cycling passion) shows up to give us a tour. Hey, we just thought we were going to look at some rims but now we are being guided through the entire manufacturing process. The shop, and Giovanni for that matter, are an amazing mix of Italian tradition and modern efficiency. Rims exactly the same as the ones that were winning races in the 50′s are stacked beside modern designer wooden bikes. The gluing press was made by Giovanni’s grandfather but the finishing work is done on a brand new computer-controlled CNC machine. And Giovanni has a hand in every product, every step of the way.
During our tour the true bike fanatics among us were separated from the “normal” cyclists. While others rode on, a few of us just couldn’t help but hang around. Personally, I was smitten. I have no idea how long we were there. A few of us bought rims, were gifted some historic memorabilia and drank more coffee. Honestly …handmade wooden rims …Giovanni who has been working in the shop since he was 8 years old …Now this is cycling in Italy.