“Cal-zo-LIE-oh” means shoemaker… in Italian.
Finding Made in Italy
Best get it out right now: I’m a sucker for Made in Italy. Perhaps it’s only a label, but to me, it means something else, something romantic, enduring and valuable. Unfortunately, Made in Italy refers more to a nostalgic ideal than an economic reality. In the bicycle industry, it often masks products made in Asia and then painted and assembled in Italy. Legally speaking, the label can be applied if no more than 55% of a bike’s wholesale price comes from outside of the country (which leaves lots of wiggle room… actually, more like a samba). Sometimes the tri-colored flag is emblazoned on products cunningly tagged Italian Design or Italian Adrenalin or something else that obscures the fact that it wasn’t really made in Italy.
However, the other edge of the sword is that Italian manufacturing is not a guarantee of quality, no matter how much sentimentality is attached. Just because these Mediterraneans speak a savory language and gave the world pizza doesn’t mean that everything they make is superior (though most of them would disagree). However, the diligent can still find real and pure Made in Italy where tradition, pride and family-bonds translate into quality. One such company is Gaerne.
This cushy pad just down the road from the Gaerne factory was designed by Palladio.
The Sporting Footwear Hive
Gaerne is located not too far from Treviso, which isn’t too far from Venice. The area is much more rural than industrial. It’s marked with sleepy towns, farms and a villa from Palladio. On the drive to the factory, in addition to passing numerous cyclists, I see the Sidi, Alpinestars, Diadora and Northwave factories. Initially it strikes me as odd that all of these players would congregate in this quiet little corner of Italy. But that’s exactly it: all of the spawnings, divorces and parasitic business happenings create what the town of Montebelluna proudly claims is the Sporting Footwear Capital of the World (or something close to this pithy epitaph) – even Nike has a presence in this hive. And so it goes with the story of Gaerne.
The next series of photos shows an abridged version of The Making of PezShoes. First step, assemble the 82 pieces…
Ernesto Gazzola and his wife were both employed as shoemakers in the industry and decided to break out on their own in 1962 – the company’s name is culled from the first 2 letters of his last name and the 4 from his first name. Their early efforts were focused on traditional, leather hiking boots. In one of those typically serendipitous moments, Ernesto’s son asked for a pair of motorcycle boots and by 1977 Gaerne would be transformed into an internationally recognized business with strong ties to racing.
Their press kit claims 30 World Titles in the past 30 years from a bunch of motorcyclists that I’ve never heard of, but whaddayou expect from someone who powers a 2 wheeler with his own muscles? Today motorcycle boots make up 55% of Gaerne’s production, with cycling shoes claiming 35% (which means about 80,000 pairs a year) and hiking boots getting the rest.
… then sew together the left, right and front inner pieces and the 3 outer ones.
The tongue, with it’s padding and liner, gets attached.
Names I Know
The next page in the press kit describes Gaerne’s cycling roots being planted in the 80’s and contains a bunch of juicy names (that I recognize) like Kelly, Chiappucci, Roche and Pantani. Their current roster of sponsored athletes includes Cadel Evans, Charly Wegelius and Bert Grabsch. Though having a nice list of famous riders is impressive, it’s never been a very persuasive Buying Motivator (or BM) for me.
While it’s good to know that products have been used under extreme conditions, it should be remembered that 1) there will always be another company with more impressive sponsorships and 2) riders usually have very little choice in the stuff they use. The one notable exception to my BM theory is shoes. Most professional cyclists negotiate their own shoe deals and they don’t burn through shoes like components or other apparel, often the same pair lasts a whole season.
The inner layer with its heel grip (in red) meets the outer material. They get assembled with a liner and then the heel cup is double stitched on.
Ernesto Gazzola’s daughter Marta is my Made in Italy Sherpa for the day. My mother would describe Marta as bubbly and as I approach middle age, I find myself using her words more than I ever imagined. Marta explains that she graduated in accounting, but since she is the family chatterbox, they pushed her into marketing and public relations.
Despite my speaking Italian, it takes me a few minutes to adjust to her dialect. The people of the Veneto region speak as if the inside of their mouths are puckered up; a whistling, lemon sucking-ish pronunciation (which I mean in the best of senses, listen to Bruseghin interviews for a sampling). Marta says that it’s rare meeting an American that’s bothered to learn Italian. In a rash moment of honesty, I admit that I did it to pick up babes. Marta seems like a good sport and laughs off this faux pas (which unfortunately won’t be my last).
Straps and all the other bits are sewn on.
Before walking through the factory, Marta shows me a rack displaying all of the shoes in their catalog. She points out a number of features, some seem quite useful and others less so. For example, Gaerne calls their carbon fiber sole (which looks to me like most everyone else’s) EPS or Efficient Pedaling System.
A question that’s been on my mind for awhile just seems to blurt itself out, “why do all bike companies feel the need to trademark every little product feature with some stupid acronym?” Now this gaffe seems to hurt Marta’s pride, the sparkling smile is dulled for a moment and then she calmly explains that distributors and retailers constantly ask for product differentiators to be called out. While Marta admits that some marketing is disreputable, she asks, “do you have any better solutions?” No, unfortunately I don’t ( …well, actually I do, but I’d better keep my mouth shut).
The lovely Lucia has been making shoes at Gaerne for 31 years. Little wonder that her movements are so quick and exact.
As I’m trying to note and photograph Lucia’s swift dexterity, Marta casually asks me which other companies in the area I am meeting. Before I realize the implications, I answer once again with more sincerity than necessary, “none, I’m not the type that could suffer more than one Italian shoe factory tour at a time.” Because the implications of meeting others are: that I’m a pump-n-dump Casanova Cycling Journalist (or CCJ) and/or my “reporting” is contingent on their advertising budget (very commonplace in Italy) and I’m trolling the Sporting Footwear Capital of the World for the highest bidder – though considering the tough economic times, this might have been a good idea, (sorry Pez). Yet, sometimes honesty does pay off and sometimes goodwill is worth more than revenue because Marta’s sparkling smile returns. So I serve up the ham n’ cheese segue and ask her if I’ve chosen the right shoe factory and she says, “oh yes, very much so.”
Marta smiles while Ernesto Gazzola inspects Lucia’s finished uppers.
Side Bar: A Quickie Review
“We feel that Gaerne shoes are some of the most comfortable on the market. If people just try them on, they’ll see,” pitches Marta. Indeed, the top-o-the-line Carbon (g)MYST shoes are quite comfy. And I have to admit that the Safety Lock Strap System, a row of locking teeth under each strap, does work as advertised. It allows for a precise fit with audible clicks and makes the Velcro last longer. My first impression is that these shoes are like those 70’s Mercedes sedans that were wonderfully, even naively, over-engineered. The (g)MYST’s are substantial. They are firmly stitched, often double stitched and reinforced with fairings, liners and other solid bits with technical names I can’t recall. The buckle is a well designed, aluminum thing with smooth edges. The carbon sole is beefy and stiff.
If the (g)MYST is good enough for Cadel…
The downside is that all of this quality yields a relatively heavy shoe at 700 grams for the pair (size 42). While not exactly porky, they do weigh about 50g more than my current shoes with nylon soles. My other complaint is stylistic – and admittedly a personal taste issue. Though probably easier to clean, the super glossy upper material feels too plastic-y which belies its high class. I would have preferred a supple, leather finish. Ok, here’s another highly personal gripe: the shoe features three subtly different shades of white for the uppers, Velcro straps and the other solid bits. However, my issue is easily resolved by: keeping them in constant, speed blurred motion or wearing them a few months or by purchasing the gray, silver or black models (or the Cadel’s for those with a penchant for kangaroos).
Some acronym’d features actually do work, like these locking teeth under the Velcro straps.
While it’s good and fine to talk about Review-ish Functionality, shoes are relatively subjective equipment. Like saddles, they either work for you or they don’t. If they don’t, there are plenty of other shapes and styles out there that might (not to mention custom). I happen to be blessed with commonly shaped, unfussy feet, so the Gaerne’s work for me.
Furthermore, I find that most bike products can be classified as Good Ones that you forget are there, Bad Ones that make their presence felt (either through defect or poor fit) and the rare, Miracle Ones that change the way you think and ride.
For me, the (g)MYST’s are Good Ones. I haven’t noticed them at all since I first put them on. Their weight is obviously more disturbing in theory than practice and the trade off should be greater longevity. The Carbon’s sell for $399 and a nylon sole version retails for $325. Gaerne’s entry level shoe (also Made in Italy) goes for $169. While one expects to pay more for things made outside of Asia, these prices place the Gaerne’s on the “reasonable” side of the Italian made offerings.
The (g)MYSTS’s are solid and sport a touch of the Tricolore.
Verdict: A “Good One” classification plus the right price and Made in Italy gets you a noteworthy product.
Gaerne has 3 different forms specially shaped for the European, American and Japanese markets. Here are the custom forms of their sponsored riders.
The PezShoe uppers are now in Ado Turchetto’s experienced hands (over 50 years as a shoemaker).
Most cyclists spend an exorbitant amount of time considering which stuff to buy. Rightly so, when spending hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. It has been said that the Thinking Consumer should know what they are buying, where it was made and the social and environmental costs of it. While that’s a pretty cumbersome responsibility (and it isn’t my aim to convert us all into vegans growing beans with our own feces for fertilizer), being informed isn’t a bad thing.
I propose that we aspire to be Somewhat-Thinking Consumers and part of the responsibility lies (no pun intended) with more informed journalism. In addition to the production, all of Gaerne’s materials are sourced from Italian manufacturers. Marta says, “to make a great cake, you need great ingredients and a great chef.”
A mix of machines and artisan handiwork gets the uppers around the forms and glued onto the soles. Bonus points are awarded to Ado’s homemade tools.
[Note: It is not my aim to denigrate Asian manufacturing. Despite a bad rap, I assume that many factories have decent working environments because it’s usually in their own best interests. However, I am ignorant as to which ones do or don’t. In the mean time, we’ll just pencil Gaerne on the list of the PezApproved Guys and work from there.]
The carbon soles are attached.
In Ernesto Gazzola’s office, a framed photograph hangs on the wall of his family together with a group of employees that has worked at least 25 years at Gaerne – there are currently 12, while six more of the 25+ club have already retired. The Gazzola’s are justifiably proud of this record.
Later, I realize that only women called orlatrice sew the uppers and only men or calzolaio form them into shoes. Marta explains that this has always been their Tradition, “women are better suited to precision and detail… while men to strength.” It’s also obvious that her parents were a skilled orlatrice-calzolaio duo. From an American perspective, where the future burns brighter than the past, Gaerne’s approach is pleasantly anachronistic. But that’s probably my point: if one doesn’t hold on to certain ideals, however romantic or antiquated, then cold economic rationalization will force that business offshore. Therein lies the difference between Italian Design and Made in Italy. Real, honest Made in Italy is a value judgment, and Gaerne has chosen to conserve its traditions to ensure quality.
The final shoes with PEZ ‘Riders’ icon.
I like to offer a special Grazie to Marta, Ernesto, Lucia, Ado and the rest of the Gaerne team.
Corey Sar Fox is an American living in Northern Italy. Alarming Fact no.6: Fox already knows the winner of this year’s Giro, but out of fairness to the other riders will only reveal the name after the race.