Silca owner Josh Poertner takes us from his first Silca moment to the new SuperPista
Established 99 years ago in wartime Italy, Silca has plenty of cycling lore to its name and while American owner Josh Poertner is continuing to pen that history from the brand's new home in Indianapolis, he first came across the Silca marque like the generations of cyclists before him – in his local bike shop.
"I was working in a shop in St Paul, Minneapolis, and the owner, Dan Casebeer, was an ex pro; a real hero of ours and a great guy," enthuses Josh. "He would only carry Silca pumps. I said, 'Dan, I need a floor pump but these Silca SuperPistas are three times the cost of other pumps!' He told me what he'd tell the customers: 'There's two types of pumps: there's this one and there's crap. Just buy this one – you'll never regret it, it'll last you the rest of your career.' So I bought it and it's true; the thing travelled the world with me.
That was 1990, Josh a young cycling addict without any idea that he'd one day take over the Italian brand and re-launch it as the industry's finest pump and tool company. Back then, that venerable SuperPista pump – black with a hot pink logo – was just a crucial tool for the aspiring racer.
"It's performed flawlessly; it's just sort of old reliable for us. I still use it and my kids use it today to pump up the tyres on their bikes. It's one of those life lessons that took a long time to learn; I didn't quite see the value of it when I first bought it. Over time, especially my years of working in bike shops and seeing the regularity with which pumps are killed in them, you really grow to respect the tool that just always works."
A Personal Connection
A decade after buying that first Silca pump, and following a sojourn in Europe as a pro bike rider, Josh was back home in Minneapolis, putting his engineering expertise to use for Zipp. It was while there, through the brand's purchase of Silca disc valve adapters, that he first got to know Silca owner Claudio Sacchi.
"At my first trade show back in 2000, I got to seek out Claudio and learned he was the third-generation owner of the company started by his grandfather. He used to have these amazing picture books of him as a kid with Gimondi and Merckx… you'd flip thorough it and be like, 'Oh my God, they worked with everybody!' There was a streak there where they basically had almost every team in Europe."
Despite Silca owners' fervent love of their pumps, the proliferation of the cost-orientated, mass produced pump meant that by 2013 the company was in dire straights. Claudio Sacchi's health was failing and with no-one to take over the business, he searched for a buyer.
"I think that most people probably had the same initial reaction I had, which was, 'Gosh, a pump company? In this day and age?' It's just such a crowded space. Getting off the phone with him that first time, I was definitely thinking, 'Wow, you'd be insane to buy that company!'"
Despite those feelings, the idea began to percolate in Josh's analytical mind. "That really was the beginning of it for me; connecting those dots. During my time at Zipp, our number one and number three customer service issues were disc adaptors and valve extension frustration. They leak, they crack. People just hate both of those products because they're never just plug and play like it feels they should be.
"So I certainly went though a period of laying in bed thinking, 'Well why doesn't somebody just make a better one that works?' I think we put those price blinders on ourselves and say it's got to cost $5 or nobody's going to buy it. But there's that element of thinking, 'Yeah, it only costs that, but it doesn't work. Wouldn't you pay a little bit more if it actually worked?' It just makes sense.
"From a pump perspective, I lived through it at Zipp. When we built the new Zipp building we put in a big workshop for the employees. It was amazing to watch; every couple of months, new pumps would have to come in because you'd kill the old ones. So you think, 'My God, it's not like they're dirt cheap! It's $110 to $120 pump and it lasts two months? It's not being used that much!'
"We really had an experience with our wind tunnel pumps. We'd bought the most expensive shiny, silver polished aluminium pumps we could find and thought that at $1,000 an hour, one missed wind tunnel round will pay for all of this stuff. On our next trip, I kid you not, by the end of the first day we had broken both of the pumps! The aluminium threads in the chuck stripped. It was 40 inflations, screwing on and screwing off, it's not that much, but it was clearly enough to do the damage. Literally, the end of that first day, we're driving around San Diego looking for bike shops and we end up buying old Silca brass bell-shaped chucks, getting scissors out and hose clamping!
"The other data point out there was one of the things that we'd learned though the development of the first carbon wheels at Roubaix – the gauge inaccuracy of traditional pumps is very high. To get the cost where people want the cost to be, the gauges are typically plus or minus five per cent accuracy when they're new and because they're mechanical, they're subject to fatigue, so the more you use them, the less accurate they become.
"There was a 12psi difference across three team pumps at the target pressure of about 70psi. So depending on what your baseline pump was and which one you were using later, you could be a bar high or a bar low and on cobbles, that's catastrophic."
Taking On The Mantle
"Those pieces slowly fell into place over a couple of weeks and solidified in my mind as a real opportunity. The more I began to think through and sketch out all of the things that could be done, which quite honestly really does start out as a frustration list of things somebody needs to solve, eventually I felt strongly that we could make a real business out of not just one or two of these projects but out of putting all of them together and then taking pumps and tools up a level.
"We would be creating a new market within a very old and established market. Because of where the market is today, a place entirely based on cost and price, reversing that and taking it in another direction, and bringing technology and craftsmanship and quality back in can only be done with increasing cost and for sure that was a big risk."
Risk or not, the prestige and quality of the brand was a tempting proposition and Poertner went ahead, leaving Zipp to transplant Silca from Italy to Indianapolis and dive into the new company's opportunities and uncertainties.
"The first thing we did after buying the company was make a better disc adaptor," laughs Josh. "The second thing was to make a better valve extender. Those two products today really do amazingly well for us. The response has been great in that it's shown I wasn't the only one!"
The Ultimate Floor Pump
While these refined essentials remain important, Silca was, after all, known for its pumps and Josh's fascination with technology fuelled the desire to create the ultimate version of the floor pump.
"I think in a lot of ways, from doing the research we really came to idolise that 1970s Silca. That really seemed to be a period where they really were making the best pump in the world and in tremendous quantities, but really doing it with a cost-no-object mindset. Every single piece was custom drawn, custom cast. That period in their design was really about as perfect as it could be for the technology available to them at that time.
"I wanted to capture the design and the style and the craftsmanship of the 70s Silca – and of course, doing that the way we intended, here in the states, there's just no way we're going to be cost competitive. I couldn't make the same pump that my competitor makes today in China for twice the price, it's just not possible! That in a lot of ways is freeing; to think, 'OK competing on cost is not an option, so we need to make this thing just beyond anything that anyone else has ever imagined.' So it really became a technological development experiment.
"My mindset on was that if we start out on day one and make the best possible thing with the best possible materials and the best possible technology, that sets a heck of a benchmark for us to try and make the next price point down, or the the next one below that. I would much rather define the ultimate chuck and the ultimate hose and the ultimate handle and then attack that from the perspective of trying to get those costs down than to start with a $100 floor pump and a year later look back and say 'OK, here are all the warranties we've had, let's fix what's breaking and improve where it's failing.'
"I think as any engineer will tell you, doing it the way we did it is easy because you can define those materials and processes and solve problems with money! If I need something that's stronger, I just buy better materials. Look at the what we use on the pump – the 17-4 stainless steel is one of the most expensive and honestly we chose it because one it's magnetic, and two it's beautiful.
"One of my life-achieving moments was when Chris King, the man, walked into our booth at Interbike when we launched the pump. He picked it up and then he looked at me and said, 'It's 17-4!' Only Chris King would know his stainless by looking at it. I like to joke that we were like high-school girls. He looked at me and said, 'That's my favourite stainless,' and I looked at him and said, 'That's my favourite stainless too!' It was ridiculous!
"To go into stainless is going to triple the cost of the part and the finest stainless is going to quadruple the price of the part, so we might as well just go that step further, right? It's like the wood in the handle, I mean we didn't go to the most exotic wood there was, but of the commonly available woods that were environmentally responsible, rosewood was by far the nicest, most beautiful, most pleasing to touch of all of those woods.
"In the handle making process, we learned about knife making and ergonomics and how it was made. I love to cook and I think the kitchen knife has always been one of those game-changing items; a really high quality knife completely changes the experience of cooking.
"I think a lot of that was our attempt to make sure there were some outward signs of the detail and development on the inside. We're the only pump that is 100 per cent metal other than the seals and the gaskets. Our pump is entirely either metal, wood, leather or elastomer. There's not a single plastic component in the pump. But the problem is that in the modern era of shiny silver, beautiful pumps is that they all look like all-metal pumps because you can't see all the plastic that's on the inside! But of course it's the stuff on the inside that breaks and lets you down.
"Don't get me wrong, there's a point at which that curve bends and now you're just paying for fashion or whatever, but there's this real discernible improvement in quality and functionality up to some level and I think for us, I wanted to be sure that that was also visible. I didn't want it to look like the shiny silver pump that's plastic on the inside; it needed to look like its own thing."
The result of that cost-no-object design experiment was the Super Pista Ultimate, a fusion of stainless steel beauty and industry-leading gauge accuracy that caused something of a stir upon its launch in 2014 and has gone on to become the choice of the most discerning riders – as well as a favourite canvas for custom painters.
Value And Price
Despite its undisputed performance and quality – not to mention the pleasure of just using the SuperPista Ultimate – the pump caused some consternation when it came to price, a criticism Silca is well used to as a company.
"Honestly, that's one of the hardest things we deal with every day. We were at an event last year and a guy wearing high-end sunglasses was having a fit about the price of the pump and I thought, 'My God, those are $450 sunglasses that are 28g of injection moulded polycarbonate!'
"Our struggle is that having the mentality to really appreciate what we're trying to do with the pump only really comes from living through and disposing of a lot of other stuff first. I've had a lot of people say things about how 'overpriced' we are but we also get a lot of comments from people who say things like, 'I've never regretted spending big on a high-quality tool.' I think unfortunately for a lot of us, myself included, that's a lesson that's a really hard one to learn; the true cost of low cost when it comes to tools.
"We talk a lot about value relative to price. Great value doesn't necessarily mean low cost. A $450 Super Pista Ultimate that functions flawlessly for 25 years and has you covered under warranty for 25 years – that represents a heck of a value."
Despite belief in that value, Silca isn't deaf to the clamour of brand aficionados who are just waiting for a more accessible price point – those prayers have now been answered with the new SuperPista floor pump.
"[The SuperPista] will bring certain elements of the Ultimate's technologies down to a price point that a lot more people can afford. For that pump you'll be able to look and see the direct lineage of the SuperPista and how we've stepped away from this material for another material that's less expensive but still pretty darn good. You can really see the progression.
"It's all about – 'how do you make the second best pump in the world!?'"
The new SuperPista pump is due to arrive at Saddleback at the start of June while the original SuperPista Ultimate is in stock now.
Photos: Silca / Brad Quartuccio