Pirelli: The circle of life

After a break of almost 60 years, Pirelli is once again making high-end bicycle tyres in a renovated factory in Bollate, near their headquarters in Milan. Rouleur went to find out more

This article was made in association with Pirelli

Viewed from above, Milan is a succession of concentric polygons nestled inside one another. Spread out like a spider’s web and connected by a circular road network, the arteries leading from the historic centre to the outskirts not only allow movement through space, they also enable a journey through time.

The old inner ring roads that circle the city have been engulfed by concrete and, much like the growth rings we see in tree trunks, they represent the memory of the city’s original dimensions and their changes over time. Occasionally, between the circle drawn by one ring road and the next, fragments of an industrial past emerge as fossilised relics. Understanding the topography of the metropolis means understanding its history and its social, cultural, industrial, and economic development.

To understand Milan, its pulsating life, and its continuous expansion driven by the need to distance industry from residential areas, you need to observe with patience. Milan is a living organism in its own right, and its vitality depends not on its history, but on its ability to continually renew itself. This most modern Italian city is perhaps the only one in the country that has a good relationship with such overlap of architectural styles and knows how to honour the past while also constantly transforming, expanding, and reimagining itself.

I find myself in Bollate, north of the city, outside the newly renovated Pirelli plant, where they have now been producing bicycle tyres for just over a year. Previously, this factory made car tyres, and perhaps the change is a sign of the times. This is the only bicycle tyre manufacturing facility in Italy, and it’s a large, modern complex covering 60,000 square metres, of which approximately 34,000 are covered.

I don’t know what image you have of a tyre factory, but before visiting this one, my idea was quite different. I’d imagined it would be gloomy, heavy and sombre, as black as the rubber it produces. Instead, I’m surrounded by vibrant colours, the air is clean, the interiors are bright and spacious, and the employees I see are all smiling and kind. This is my second time here, and what strikes me most is the atmosphere as soon as I pass through the entrance. In contrast to the chaos of the city’s periphery that surrounds it, where industrial zones and residential buildings blend and blur, the Pirelli complex is a different world, and I unexpectedly find myself in an oasis of order and organisation.

Pietro Pagani, CEO of Pirelli Industrie Pneumatici Italia and director of the Bollate factory at the time of my visit, welcomes me at the gate. As we walk towards the production area and the offices where we will conduct our interviews, we cross a meticulously maintained lawn that borders the west side of the factory.

“Not only have the production areas been completely redesigned,” Pagani tells me, “but we’ve also redone all the external areas, in a broader and more comprehensive idea of renewal.”

The first time I was here, this preliminary walk to reach the offices and the production area, passing by the cafeteria and zigzagging among tall trees, had seemed like a useful prelude to understanding the efforts made to reimagine the factory as a place for people rather than one for tyres.

In Italian, the word periferia (periphery) is derived from late Latin and refers to the most marginal parts, the opposite of the centre of a physical space or a city. But more than just signifying a geographical location, or a piece of our urban fabric, it’s a cultural reference, too, often with derogatory connotations, synonymous with squalor and desolation. Sitting here, however, as I wait to start my interviews, looking out through the large windows at the manicured grounds, I see squirrels chasing each other. I think about what lies outside and how the peripheries of Milan have continuously shifted outwards. Entire parts of the city have lost their original productive and industrial function and, while reimagining their identity, they have had to redefine their role within the expanding metropolis.

“This factory was built almost 60 years ago,” says Pagani. Since the late 1970s, following the increasingly relentless process of urban expansion and corporate delocalisation, Pirelli’s historic Bicocca headquarters, now the company’s corporate campus, underwent its first radical changes. Pirelli chose to relocate its production areas, and this decision had a profound impact on both the neighbourhood and the city of Milan. These were the years of Italy’s economic boom, and the country was becoming rapidly more motorised, demanding short supply chains.

In 1963, Pirelli built the Bollate factory on the outskirts of Milan to produce car parts. Around the same time, there were strong debates about the conversion of the post-industrial areas in the Bicocca neighbourhood, and in 1985, Pirelli independently launched an international competition to plan for the urban redevelopment of the site, all 300,000 square metres of it, to reconnect the old factory with the surrounding urban fabric.

The Bollate factory was operating at full capacity during this time, transitioning to the production of car tyres and phasing out the manufacture of components. “Compared to the production of automobile tyres, bike tyres have some very specific requirements,” explains Pagani. “The overall production methods are similar, but the fineness of the materials and the use of compounds with very thin thicknesses and minimal tolerances require great precision.”

Recalling the early experiments in bicycle tyre production, which only took place three years ago, Pagani recounts an anecdote about getting feedback from workers who were more accustomed to working with car tyres. “During the development phase in 2020, our specialists emphasised how difficult it was to feel the components.”

Producing a bicycle tyre has its challenges then, but Pirelli’s experience and know- how in the automotive and motorcycle fields have only accelerated the development of excellent bicycle products. Matteo Barbieri, head of the Cycling Division at Pirelli at the time of my visit, points out the intrinsic characteristics of bicycle tyres and the expectations of the customer, which differ from their other products.

“In the world of cars, changing tyres is almost always seen as an unavoidable inconvenience and expense, one which periodically repeats itself. On the other hand, to the owner of a high-performance bicycle, changing tyres is an upgrade, capable of providing significant advantages in terms of performance, safety, and comfort.”

Only a small segment of the automotive world has the same perception, a group that marketers would call ‘prestige’. We’re talking about high-end tyres for cars like Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin and Bentley, where Pirelli has a very high market share. Barbieri worked in this area for a long time before moving to his current role.

“I have been with Pirelli for 18 years,” he says, “and there are many points of contact and analogies between the two worlds of prestige cars and cycling. The driver of a high-performance car is usually an enthusiast, they know almost everything about their vehicle, and they want the best tyres, perhaps something derived from competition, to achieve the best performance. This same passion and attention can also be found in cycling, where any amateur can use the same product as a WorldTour rider. In the world of tyres, that’s pretty unique.

“The segmentation of bicycle products is very extensive. Pirelli has about three hundred items in its range. The choice of a bike tyre is based on many parameters: the type of bike, the terrain, the rims, and the type of performance required from the tyre. Even aesthetic considerations, like colour matching, are important.”

When it comes to development, Pirelli tyres are designed and tested by a research and development department that works across the automotive, motorcycle, and bicycle lines.

“Our research and development centre in Milan is less than a quarter of an hour from this factory,” explains Pagani. “The Bollate plant now represents a kind of model factory, a small jewel capable of producing top-quality bicycle products under the direct supervision of Milan’s research centres."

“Innovation is in Pirelli’s DNA, as is a racing attitude,” says Barbieri. “We recently celebrated 110 years of competing in motorsports and are currently involved as suppliers in Formula 1, the World Rally Championship, the World Superbike Championship and more than 350 other motorsport competitions worldwide.

“From a sporting perspective, the technical capability to produce high-performance tyres is one of our main strengths, and it’s a great way to communicate with our potential customers,” he continues. “The same is true in the bicycle world, where Pirelli’s presence with WorldTour teams and in major MTB championships confirms the product’s high performance, which can then be mounted on your own bike at home. This is an absolutely strategic and not marginal business.

“For Pirelli, the bicycle has great historical and symbolic value. It was bicycle tyres that Pirelli first produced when the company was founded at the end of the 19th century. Transforming the Bollate factory into a production centre for bike tyres wasn’t just a commercial or logistical choice, it was a decision to embrace a new industrial phase and establish a new type of dialogue with our consumers. The Bollate project allows us not only to produce technologically advanced tyres but also to add value to the area through initiatives aimed at making both the factory and the surrounding area more modern and sustainable.”

Talking about a factory means talking about processes, products, companies, technological innovation and people. Pirelli has always demonstrated great attention to communication, culture and relationships, not just with its customers but with its workers and the local community, too. Pirelli is not just any brand; it is one of those brands that has managed to create a strong emotional connection with its stakeholders over time.

The brand’s storytelling, the products offered in the market, and the content created and shared through various platforms must serve this function. Every action, including the restoration of the Bollate factory, aims to strengthen the brand’s personality, making it recognisable and relevant to the consumer. It also creates an image of innovation, sustainability, and a connection with the local community that can keep pace with the modernity and expectations of new generations. It balances past, present and future, taking the best of each.

“To be a ‘Pirellian’, what we call a long-time Pirelli employee,” says Pagani, “is almost a kind of feeling or sensation. Pirelli is a multinational company with over 30,000 employees worldwide, and the value of human relationships and connections is taken very seriously. The restructuring of the Bollate factory not only testifies to the desire for technological excellence in the bicycle tyre sector but also to the strong relationship between Pirelli, the city of Milan, the surrounding area and the workers.

“This project has a very important technical component because all the environments have been completely redesigned and modernised, and all the machinery used for bicycle tyre production is unique, built to Pirelli’s specifications and designs, all with European certifications.

“In addition to this, an enormous effort has been made to take care of our people. On average, the workers at this site have almost all been with Pirelli for about 25 years, and some have been with the company for 30 or even 35 years.”

“These people have worked for Pirelli their entire lives,” adds Barbieri, “and between 2020 and 2021, during the factory’s restructuring and renovation period (which coincided with the pandemic), they embarked on a significant change in terms of their professional lives.

“These workers have been brought to work on products and in a work environment completely different from the past, with different materials and technologies. About 240 people have been retrained. It was a very ambitious project in which the human component and the sense of belonging, the attachment to Pirelli’s values, were crucial.”

Alberto Destro, a factory worker responsible for developing formulas and vulcanisation processes in the tyre department, says: “Until we started producing bicycle tyres, I don’t think anyone, except for a few colleagues here at the Bollate plant, knew about my passion for cycling and my past as an amateur rider.

“I ride about 18,000 kilometres a year and come to work on my bike every day. I’m also a DS for U.S. Pessano, a local youth team, and I coach the kids in the beginners’ category. I joined Pirelli in 1995, and after many years of working on automobile tyres, the transition to bicycle tyre production excited me. In a sense, I feel that my two selves, the rider and the worker, have come together.”

It is difficult to imagine that for a product as unsexy and perhaps unattractive as a bicycle tyre, so many different perspectives can be imagined that go beyond performance, comfort, and technological quality. But leaving Bollate, I’m left thinking about social interaction, the local community and relationships between people.

Every brand must now be able to add a cultural and value dimension to its technical and commercial aspects, one that elevates it above the competition. In Pirelli, this is something they have known how to do very well since their very beginning, in what is now the centre of Milan, way back in 1872.

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