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Joshua Poertner on Rebuilding SILCA

Photos supplied by @silca_veloWords by @peteskilebowski

Joshua Poertner loves to get hate mail. “We print them out and hang them on a board,” he tells The Pedaler, calling in over Skype from his Indianapolis office. “I’m always so proud when we get hate mail. I tell the guys all the time, 'We're doing things that are so different that people will take time out of their day to write a bunch of nasty, hateful stuff and send it to us. My God, that's amazing. I mean, that's passion, right?'”

For this ex-technical director of Zipp wheels, receiving passionate missives for his efforts to resuscitate the Italian family-owned pump manufacturer SILCA, just means he’s finding his people. “If you've read Seth Godin’s The Tribe, he would say that it’s better to have 100 people who are obsessed with you than 10,000 people who've heard your name before. And that says it all. Those 100 people mean everything to us.”

Which means building deservedly expensive stuff that lasts. “The world does not need another brand at the same price point making the same stuff in a different colour. We do not,” he says, whacking his office desk for emphasis, and then apologising because here’s the thing - Joshua is an incredibly nice guy. “Think of every dream product that you’ve just had to have; desirable things that you researched endlessly on the internet, or through catalogues. Now tell me, those things, where are they now? They’re in a landfill somewhere, that’s where they are. Every single one of those things is in the landfill because nothing is built to last,” he continues. “And that sucks.”

Joshua's Daughter helping during the first week of the company

The first week of the new company: A few computers, notebooks and some support from Joshua's daughter.

In 2011, Claudio, the grandson of the founder of SILCA got the news that so many of us fear: “They found out that he had cancer. It was quite advanced,” recalls Joshua. “I had known Claudio for 20 years from my Zipp days. We’d always used his disc adapters for our wheels. And so by the time I talked to him in 2013, he told me, ‘Hey, the company is on the edge of bankruptcy, and I have terminal cancer. They've given me three to six months to live.’”

Suffering under the onslaught of cheap Chinese-made pumps and the inflationary pressures that came with a move from the lira to the euro in the late ‘90s, SILCA was slowly squeezed out of profitability; aggravating the situation with some ill-timed missteps along the way. “To compete and to try to get the pricing low, they started to use more plastic. But they did it externally. So you've got this shiny crap from China that nevertheless looks like solid aluminium, with all the plastic hidden away on the inside. SILCA, trying to keep the longevity, started putting plastic parts on the outside, which of course, just made them look cheap, yet ironically they couldn’t cut enough cost to make them price competitive. And so you had the worst of both worlds: The product was cheap, and it looked cheap. It was much more prone to breaking, and it still wasn't cost-competitive with these other Chinese-made products.”

Everything was better in cycling’s past. At least, that’s what we have come to believe. And in an industry that delights in old, in tradition and the heroic image of the torch-wielding artisan brazing one handmade bicycle frame at a time, opinions, no matter how inaccurate, die hard. “We forget that Italy, as even Dario Pegoretti says, was the cheap, off-shore labour platform for Europe for many, many years,” explains Joshua. “A lot of the great Italian builders weren't necessarily building better bikes than the British; they were just building equivalent bikes much, much cheaper, which gave them exporting power. And a lot of this was driven by the currency. If you remember, the lira was 2,000 lira to the dollar in the '90s, and you could go to Italy and buy a Coca-Cola for 500 lira, right? That's a 25 cent can of Coke. And when the European Union took on the euro currency, and they adopted that in Italy, they had 200% inflation over a year and a half, two-year period. I remember making a lot of product for Campagnolo at the time. And during my time travelling back and forth to see them, it was amazing to see a can of Coke go from 500 lira to 1 euro - a 400% increase.”

Things went from bad to worse for SILCA, exacerbated by Claudio’s inability to work as his illness took hold. “By the time I talked to him in 2013, he’d been trying to find a buyer for the company for the previous six or eight months. I know he had approached all the big brands, and they had the same reaction that I had when I first heard which was, ‘My God, who wants to get into pumps and accessories?’ It's all coming up out of the same two factories in China; it's all kind of the same stuff, the pricing is terrible, I mean, it's a terrible business to be in quite frankly.”Joshua with Steve and Andy Hampsten

Joshua with Steve and Andy Hampsten.

Despite the apparent difficulties, Joshua’s thoughts kept returning to the idea of rebooting SILCA. Perhaps, with the market going one way, there was an opportunity to go against the trend, and rediscover the quality for which the brand was once known? “After getting off the phone with Claudio, I’d lay in bed thinking, "Well, why can't anybody make valve extenders that work? Why can't anybody make an adaptor for a disc wheel that stays on the valve, that you don't have to hold?” he laughs. “I loved Claudio. He was just such a great guy, and I wanted to help him out. I was also at a point in my career where I was looking to do something new and different. Zipp was incredible. We had an amazing ride building and growing the brand. I took over the management of the company and the technology once we sold it to SRAM in 2007, all of which was exciting for a time. But I started to think, ‘I'm not getting younger.’ It was then that I realised I had one more left in me. Because at some point in your life, it becomes too much to start again.”

Over on the SILCA blog, Joshua tells the fascinating story of Zipp’s road to Roubaix, which chronicles the challenges of building a carbon wheel that would not only survive the cobbles but deliver a step-change in performance to the riders at Slipstream and CSC who had signed up to test the wheels. When Zipp realised that three separate track pumps had a variability of 12psi when inflating to 70, Joshua and his team decided to build a gauge using a multitude of parts, one of which was an old SILCA disc adaptor. “We realised that a lot of our carbon wheel and tyre problem was a pump inflation problem,” he explains. “I’ve attended Olympics, multiple world championships, multiple Tours de France, and all with this thousand dollar, ultra-exotic pressure gauge in a little briefcase that we would very quietly and secretly use for Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin. And we were doing all sorts of other stuff too. We were secretly putting guys on clinchers because we knew that the rolling resistance advantage was there and playing with latex inner tubes and various types of rim tapes.”

And suddenly, everything fell into place. “It took me, I think, a couple of weeks to realise that in some ways, I’d already been on this path; it felt like a natural progression to take on SILCA. So I flew to Italy, signed the deal with Claudio to buy the trademark, and flew home as the new owner.”

Boxes over-running the entryway to our house: "We had 2 employees working in the house and quite literally just ran out of space for people and product!"

Boxes over-running the entryway to our house: "We had 2 employees working in the house and quite literally just ran out of space for people and product!"

But back home, the reality of the work needed to revive the brand was close to overwhelming. “The first year the company was just such a whirlwind of 20-hour long days. I'd started the company in my living room, just a laptop and the trademark - that was it,” he recalls, sounding wistful at the memory of those early days. “Everything had to be created from zero, and it was incredibly exciting. I look back at it now with such fond memories. It was so simple. And, yeah, whatever happens, adrenaline gets you through that first year, right?”

Working from his kitchen table in the curious position of starting from scratch, but with the knowledge that thousands of customers already owned what were now his company’s products, Joshua decided to look to the past for inspiration, and revenue. “The very first thing I did was reverse engineer a load of the spare parts for the old pumps because we knew that there were hundreds of thousands of SILCA products made over the past 100 years, all potentially in need of rebuilding. I was very fortunate that I had contacts at some of the original vendors, like the leather cups - that's the same vendor SILCA had used since 1947. The leather cups used in the pumps of today come from that same vendor made on the same tooling that they've always been made.”

Acutely aware of the existence of so many almost antique SILCA pumps still in use around the world, Joshua hit upon the idea of making every newly machined and improved part retro-compatible with the same model from any time in the company’s history. As he notes with some pride, today that means, "You can buy spare parts for your 1960s Pista track pump that will make it significantly better than when it was new.”

It’s fair to say that planned obsolescence, so ingrained into our behaviour that we don’t even blink when we have to upgrade our phones every two years, is not part of the SILCA strategy. “We require that all the new pumps use these certain technologies to act, to drive the product line forward so that those parts can make your old pumps work better,” he says. Peter Sagan with a Silca Pump

Peter Sagan with the pump Team Bora gave him for his birthday, painted to match his jersey.

Noting the brand’s new incarnation of the original Pista pump, Joshua cites the use of Igus linear bearings from Germany, famously used in FOX’s Float series forks, and Porsche’s shift linkage systems. “It's the most amazing plane bearing technology in the world today. And we made the new Pista pump, everything in that, from the piston rod to top cap to the piston itself with these Igus linear bearings. And they're all done in such a way that you can pull the guts out of a brand new Pista pump, put them in a 1962 Pista pump, and not only will it be compatible, but it will work better than it ever could have done when it was first made.”

But backwards-compatibility is just the start. “One of the things that the most common failure in a modern pump is the check valve, which is the thing that keeps the air from going the wrong way in the system,” he explains, pen in hand, air-sketching the inner workings of the product. “In most pumps, they're buried between parts that have been pressed together because that's the cheapest way to make them. That valve is generally made from plastic or rubber, and it fails because every time you pump to a high pressure, the compressed air gets hot. After a certain amount of heat cycling, that little valve will fail and the pump doesn't pump anymore. But our pumps use a check valve made from brass supplied from the same company SILCA has used since the '40s. It's hidden behind a bolt with an O-ring on it so that you can replace it, clean it, and actually maintain the pump,” he explains, clearly affronted that anyone could have the audacity to sell an unrepairable item that will so obviously fail.

Which brings things neatly back to the reason behind all that hate mail - price. “With almost every product we make, there's a point at which one of us kind of has a moment of like, ‘Do we really think people are gonna buy this thing?’ And you have to believe that the answer is yes. But you don't know that. When we made our HX One Hex Kit, there was a real moment of reflection. I think it's beautiful; it's amazing, and they are tools we want to use. The feedback from the mechanics was great. But there is that doubt, ‘Are people gonna pay this much money?’”

Not that he’s one to shy away from explaining the price to the customer. “We were at our first trade show just a couple of weeks after we launched the Ultimate pump,” he recalls. “People would roll in with these attitudes of, ‘Show me this $400 pump.’ And of course, they're just ready to shred us. But then you pick it up, all four kilos of it, and hand it to them, their eyes get big, and they're like, ‘Oh, wow, this is not what I thought it was gonna be’. They thought we were buying some crappy pump, glitzing it up, and selling them at four times the price,” he says. “Obviously, that's just completely not us.”

And if you’re not interested in buying a lifetime pump, Joshua gets that too. “We’re not making a product for everyone. A million companies are trying to do that. If you think what we're doing is stupid and crazy and pointless, then you're not our customer, and I am cool with that. In fact, part of our reaction when people complained about the price of the first pump - which is astoundingly good value for the quality and its great, great grandchildren outlasting longevity - was to start our artist series. So today in the office. we're boxing and shipping some pumps that Dario Pegoretti has handprinted in limited numbers, and they’re three times the price of the Ultimate…”