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After successfully following the waitress’s hand drawn instructions we arrive at MOA Sport’s Castel d’Ario premises. As soon as we walk into reception owner Claudio Mantovani greets us and quickly summons for espresso in tiny plastic cups.
Claudio’s older brother Vincenzo Mantovani – silver medalist in the team pursuit at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics – started selling the jerseys and shorts made for him by the women in his village to fellow racers. Amongst the first professionals to wear a Mantovani jersey was Ole Ritter and in 1971 Vincenzo started Moa Sport.
Since then the company, better known today as Nalini (their main in-house brand), has garbed professional and amateur riders the world over. Claudio – who was also a top-level sportsman, playing in goal for AC Milan – now runs the company (Vincenzo sadly died in a plane crash).
Aside from the Mantovani brothers and cycling jerseys, the other famous products of this town 20 miles south of Verona are motor racer Tazio Nuvolari and a dish called risotto alla pilota.
Paolo Pizzamiglio, General Manager, begins our tour showing us Mr. Mantovani’s office, which “is never used”. Claudio, now in his seventies, spends all his time managing the production, walking around speaking with his employees (and also driving to races to present riders with the latest jerseys).
“It’s my passion to join the teams at the races and deliver the kit.”
Moa’s palmares is impressive: ten Tours de France, seven Giri d’Italia, four Vuelta, four World and three Olympic Champions. They’ve had to prepare a good number of leader’s jerseys for the finest in the peloton over the years. Not only producing the yellow, green, polka dot and rainbow striped jerseys but also matching bibs, gloves and skinsuits. Cycling pros require specialist outfits, and this company has been creating costumes for the road racing circus as long as anyone. The authenticity of Moa is easy to see. Paolo explains:
“So many people are offering goods now, people want the brand with history and tradition. We do not have to invent a history. We also provide a good service to the teams,”
Paolo suggests about 50% of the 2012 Pro Tour are wearing Moa or Nalini kit. Their intimacy with the sport makes a big difference. “Our relationship with pro tour riders is good. The sponsors and managers like us because we can create the kit they want and their riders are happy… And it’s been that way since Moa began. Claudio’s priority is that the rider and team are happy with their clothing. We can create the perfect jersey but, if you don’t win the race… well it’s different.”
We walk through offices adorned with galleries of framed jerseys. Two very special Colnagos sit on stands, one branded “Ernesto” which used to belong to Vincenzo. An early Colombia-Highroad jersey with a signed picture of Cavendish celebrating at the line sits above the stairs. There’s even a framed picture of ex French president Sarkosy holding a FDJ jersey from the 2008 season. Vladimir Karpets has also made it into this hall of fame. As does Cristian Moreni, 2004 Italian champion, who is now a salesman and product tester for the company. In 2010 MOA Sports/ Nalini did the triple, with Basso, Conatdor and Nibali all riding their jerseys to victory at the Grand Tours of Italy, france and Spain.
Nalini was originally the name of the microfibre pad Moa developed to supersede leather chamois. This became an important innovation for the backsides of cyclists worldwide. From bib shorts to base layers and socks to skinsuits, almost everyone has worn a jersey by the Italian firm. Paolo notes that November and December are very busy months for them as in early January squads require delivery of kit for the entire racing season. Pro riders also have their own tailor made patterns and even designs.The Moa garment technologists travel to training camps with standard size sets to do fitting sessions where the pros discuss what they want.
“They may want sleeves ½ cm longer, a half size bigger so it’s not too tight… a lower collar. But the problem is sometimes during the season riders change maybe half a size anyway. But also, the pro riders give us a lot of feedback.”
Design and development is key and the knowledge of their technologists, acquired from riders and their own experience, is essential to translate what’s on the design sheet to physical needs of the rider.
Italy is still the biggest overall region for Moa, making up 20% of their sales. The biggest growing trend is the ‘private label’ or custom clothing sector. Moa can produce a minimum 11 piece order to almost any kit design.
“Before we were mostly concerned with professionals, but now the amateur riders, small teams want customization.”
I ask about the Cipollini muscle suit, perhaps the most infamous of all customised race kits.
“Was that his idea?”
“Oh definitely. It was really his idea. He came here and said: ‘Don’t let Cannondale know, I will pay for everything. And he made sure we put the sponsor logos on. It was so successful, Cannondale put it in their range.”
We see the house where Vincenzo started it all, still on site (as is one of the neighbours’ houses) amongst all the factory buildings before we enter the mill. Nalini create their polyester in-house and buy Lycra and other fabrics in from external mills, such as MITI, up the road in Bergamo.
The expensive looms in the mill flutter at high speed. All printing onto polyester is done internally (this is one of their specialities). And of course this allows them to be very flexible. Over the whirr of the machines Paolo says:
“We have had to create jerseys in very short amount of time. I remember Jan Ullrich’s team sponsor suddenly pulled out [went bankrupt] and the Tour was starting on the Saturday. So on the Tuesday they said ‘ok, this is the final design’ – so we had 24 hrs to make the kit and have it delivered in time for the prologue. That was tough. But we did it.”
Seamless base layers and various technical patterns are swiftly created with these impressive computer controlled knitting machines. We watch high-speed needles do the final stitching operation on a pair of Nalini socks. We move to another building, the cutting department where operators are concentrating on pattern templates, checking fabric consistency and making oh-so-careful incisions.
Moa use Italian suppliers as much as possible. But it’s a complex operation with so many components – pullers, elastic, packaging, zippers, labels – all going into the construction of each garment.
“There are not many companies like us. Our philosophy is ‘stay made in Italy 100%.’ Of course for some things like gloves workmanship is required from elsewhere but we try and keep production here for as much as possible.”
“Attenzione!” says a woman in cowboy boots as she pushes past with a big trolley full of fabric. We move into the accessories department where they prepare and check the thousands of pads to be sewn into bib shorts. Then it’s into the printing plant.
The sublimation process is carried out by teams working on large scale printers. Heat pressing (think big toasters) stations where patterns are lined up with the transfers which both dye and decorate the polyester jerseys and shorts. It’s a huge production room with shelves of giant decals for kit to be printed. We see a special post-Olympics Vinokourov jesey design, a “very small production” but the kind of customisation for the pros that Moa offers to the public.
From the small teams to professional squads, the kit is cut, processed and printed in exactly the same way. There is also the more traditional industrial screen printing method which allows for printing onto a greater range of materials (not polyester).
“Allora…” We are shown a radioactive colour pink which will be applied as a rubberized print for a pair of new Rapha bibs. They are testing the colour, solution and durability, checking that it resists the elasticity of stretch fabrics. Astana, Carrera, British Cycling, Bianchi, Lampre. All very recognizable logos and brand names lie about the place on screens and on decals.
In the design room there are light boxes for checking prints and designs. Then enlarged, checked and guillotined ready for being printed onto patterns. Pictures of Cipo abound in the Moa factory, yet another one on the wall above a sparkling Roland printer.
The bell goes as we move across the yard into another big building, this time to the finishing department. They’re checking Rapha bibs, inspecting pads, clipping stray threads, labeling and sewing, adding hang tags. A pair of classic Rapha bibs hang drying by the open door as it starts to rain.
“We test and wash early batches of our production runs – especially if it’s a new style.”
Boxes of bib shorts wrapped in the pink pages of the Gazzetta dello Sport sit in the shipping department ready to be sent on to retailers, brands, teams or the Moa warehouse.
Cipollini appears again, with a picture of a more fragile-looking Nibali below. “Cipollini, he’s The King” Paolo says.
“What about Nibali?”
“nooo, you see Cipollini was a good communicator”
We move up to an important part of the site - the sewing room. A man (the only man in here aside from myself, the photographer and our tour guide) stands at a workbench in the corner filing parts:
“He is the mechanic, he maintains and makes small modifications to improve quality of the machines.”
Over sixty various sewing and finishing machines. And about 20 or so women are busying themselves with bib shorts, jerseys, rain jackets and fabrics, trims and threads. Some women stand in groups studying development sheets. Flatlock and traditional stitching is carefully tapped out on the PFAFF machines. These local ladies are concentrating, occasionally looking up to survey the scene as they switch to a new seam.
Considering that a big portion of the cycling world have their bib shorts made here, it’s impressive that Moa can produce so much with only 350 full time employees. The majority of the people here are local to Castel d’Ario. Some have worked in the factory their whole lives. Mothers, daughters, almost entire families. Working hours seem very civilised with one and a half hours legally required for lunch, giving workers enough time to cycle home or pick up kids from school to enjoy lunch with the family. The majority are women, cutting and sewing still traditionally a female occupation and so hopefully passed down to the next generation. The machinists are very skilled and to continue this trade is important for the company.
_“People talk about ‘made in Italy’ but they often don’t realize what it means. They just see a jersey. There are seven departments here so effectively I’m managing seven different businesses. A lot of stages, processes and work goes into a single pair of shorts or jersey."
We move back down a big stone staircase into the distribution warehouse. Phones are ringing and printers squeaking out orders, directing shipments all over the world from this rather unassuming industrial park over the level crossing from Castel d’Ario.