A BADGER, A CANNIBAL, A PIRATE AND GIUSEPPE BIGOLIN
It’s a plot line from Hollywood’s golden age, a best picture Oscar hopeful: a young boy—born in Italy in 1940, his early years spent in the darkness of World War II, whose first taste of chocolate came in 1945 handed to him by an American GI on a passing tank—becomes a successful industrialist and a friend to the rich and famous. To this day, that young boy, Giuseppe Bigolin, considers his brush with a U.S. serviceman his first big break in life.
Ben Edwards / James Startt
"Can you imagine the great chance for someone like me? Because, in places like Poland, it was the Russians coming and they lived for 40 years in a very difficult situation. I consider that my first chance and I always have to say, ‘Thank you, America,’" he says.
It was an opportunity Bigolin would make the most of. After working as a chemical engineer and having a stint at his brother’s saddle brand, Selle Royal, Bigolin took control of Selle Italia in 1967 as a gift from his brother. The firm was on the edge of bankruptcy. He had a single employee and the two of them worked day and night, with ancient machinery, to make 40 leather saddles a day.
Today, Selle Italia is thriving and responsible for some of the greatest advancements in saddle design. From the Turbo to the Flite, from gel inserts to carbon, Bigolin transformed Selle Italia from artisan manufacturing to industrial production and helped bring the entire saddle industry into the modern age.
Bigolin is a charming man, a storyteller any dinner party would benefit from, and he lights up when talking about his company and the innovations it pioneered. But one subject enlivens him even more. Through Selle Italia, through technical sponsorship of riders with such a personal product, Bigolin found himself in the company of the greatest cyclists from the last 50 years. Much more than just a supplier, he became a friend and, in some cases, like family to these riders. He still enjoys a very close relationship with many to this day.
The first major rider Selle Italia supported was Bernard Hinault, the Badger, and as with the rest of his business Bigolin was hands on. "My competitor, Selle San Marco, was producing the Concor saddle and they were convinced that Hinault was loving the Concor—but, also, always riders love some money. I made an important offer."
But Bigolin instinctively knew riders wanted more than just a paycheck; they wanted personalization, their own identity, and Bigolin delivered it. "On the saddle nose I put ‘Bernard Hinault’—his name with his logo. I remember, after the Giro di Lombardia in Milano, I was at his hotel with a photographer at 8 a.m. I ask him, I say ‘Bernard, come down!’ and we made our first ad in BiciSport with Bernard Hinault and the seat on his bike."
In a pattern that would repeat itself with rider after rider, Bigolin and Hinault became close friends. "Once, during the Tour de France, on the day before Alpe d’Huez. I was visiting the team and Bernard says, ‘Stay with me, we can have lunch together.’ All the team was sitting at one table and, at another small table, it was just me and Bernard! It was self-service, so he takes some tuna fish. When he comes back to the table [La Vie Claire team director Cyrille] Guimard says, ‘You are crazy, Bernard! That is all you are eating? Tomorrow is Alpe d’Huez!’ Bernard says, ‘Cyrille, tranquillo! Tomorrow I will make the step, not you.’ The next day, he won."
While the race careers of Hinault and Eddy Merckx, the Cannibal, overlapped by only a few years, Bigolin couldn’t help but ask Hinault who he thought was better. "Bernard, I say, ‘I have a question for you. How do you compare to Eddy Merckx?’ ‘It’s impossible, Bernard says, Eddy has retired and now I am still racing, but listen, when I decided to finish ahead of Eddy, I did.’"
Bigolin grew up as a passionate cyclist and fan of racing and he grew up having these types of debates. Thanks to his chosen activities, he was eventually able to have these debates with the actual legends involved.
"When the big competition was Bartoli and Coppi, it was a big discussion! Later, with my industry, my activities, I was many times with Eddy Merckx and Felice Gimondi. So many evenings we have dinner together and Felice says, ‘Eddy, you were strong in football, in boxing! Why did you come to cycling to stop my career!’ Eddy says, ‘What can I do?!’ I was with Eddy last week, we are often together as friends. I have met so many racers in this long 50 years."
But no rider meant more or had a closer relationship with Bigolin than Marco Pantani, Il Pirata. In fact, the pirate brand was Bigolin’s idea. "We were joking, ‘You are a seaman—Il Pirata—why not?’ We patented the trademark ‘Il Pirata’ officially, then two months later I give Marco the papers and say, ‘It’s your brand, you can license or sell whatever you want.’"
Bigolin’s influence went far beyond business with the mercurial Italian climber, influencing his decision to tackle the Tour-Giro double in 1998 and become the last man to accomplish victories in both races in the same year. "Marco Pantani has been for me like a son. So many times we were together after the races to eat dinner. So many stories. I remember when he won the Giro in ’98. I asked Marco, ‘What do you think for the rest of the season?’ and he says, ‘I will relax. Bianchi asked me to ride the Tour and I said no.’ I said, ‘Marco, why not? You won the Giro, why not the Tour?’ He looked me in the eye for three seconds and he decided."
Sadly, Bigolin’s influence on Pantani had its limits. "The day when he was stopped in the ’99 Giro d’Italia, it was not doping, it was for health. His blood [hematocrit] was not 50, it was 52. My son was there, he called me and said, ‘Papa, it’s a disaster, Marco is out of the race!’
"I waited two hours then called him. I said, ‘Marco, listen to me, this is your father who is telling you this. Don’t protest this to anybody. Wait two weeks; after two weeks we will go to Lausanne and the UCI, we’ll check your levels again, for health, and you come back to race. I told Marco, listen to me, listen please! He didn’t and you know the story. He was like a boy, honest, but someone suggests to him it’s not correct. He starts saying, ‘It’s not my blood, you changed the blood….’ All the rest, unfortunately, everyone knows. It’s a pity."
Watch our interview with Giuseppe Bigolin and go inside Selle Italia.
Some have alleged the test was rigged by Italian mafia bosses to ensure Pantani did not win the 1999 Giro, but it was the beginning of the end for Il Pirata. Despite some moments of brilliance in the 2000 Tour he was never again the same racer. One can only imagine how different the end of Pantani’s career, and perhaps life, would have been if he heeded his "father’s" advice.
Now in his late 70s, Giuseppe Bigolin shows no sign of slowing down. Selle Italia continues to innovate, recently launching a comprehensive program to match riders with the right saddle. The new SP01 allows each side of the saddle to move independently under the rider, a system called Suspension Link Movement. Clearly, Giuseppe Bigolin is not done with Selle Italia—but it’s a family affair. His son Carlo designed the SP01 and his son Riccardo is the company’s vice president, but they should have the old man around for quite some time.
"I put the saddles on my bike and I ride, thinking about where I am sitting and what to do to make it better," he said. "Fortunately, the word ‘retire’ I don’t know it."