Press Camps are generally held at glamorous places around the world - or at a company’s HQ. So, when I was asked to head to Thailand for the recent launch of Vittoria’s next-generation graphene tyres, I was more than a little surprised. But, as it turns out, this is where rubber is made…
Vittoria Tyres was originally founded in Italy, in 1953, and for almost 40 years the company manufactured all its tyres there. However, in the early ‘90s, the company was financially struggling. That’s when the current owners took over the brand and moved production out to Thailand.
Since then, Vittoria has gone from strength to strength, with the brand now turning out millions of tyres each year. Their cotton tyres and racing tubulars have an abundance of history and have really defined the brand and set it apart from the rest. Lion Tyres is responsible for all of Vittoria’s production. . Back in ‘88 they were acquired by the same group of investors that would eventually come to own Vittoria, led by Rudie Champagne - the boss of Vittoria. Along with Vittoria, Lion Tyres have returned a good profit for Rudie and his co-investors. What’s even more lucrative, is that Lion Tyres only manufacture bicycle tyres and make rubber for a handful of other brands, some of which are Vittoria’s direct competition. This is nothing new in the bike industry, especially when it comes to mass-produced carbon frames and components,but they don’t simply re-badge their own tyres - they create a unique manufacture pattern (rubber, casing and compounds) for each different brand.
In Thailand, cycling press from around the world gathered in the lobby of a Bangkok hotel. It was early morning and the Italian staff from Vittoria’s head office in Brembate, Italy, were already on their third espresso! We all jumped in a heavily-branded Vittoria double decker bus and headed off to the first factory - Vittoria has several in Thailand and each is focused on one stage of tyre production.
After a few hours traveling (or shuffling) out of the madness of Bangkok’s traffic, we arrived at the first factory in Rayong. The bulk of Lion Tyres’ compounds are manufactured within this facility, which is based here because of the rubber trees growing in the region. Opening its doors in 2017, this is the newest facility in the group, and upon entry the ultra-clean environment was clearly evident. This place creates a ton of rubber, week on week. Although the manufacturing is mostly automated, to ensure a consistent product, there’s still strict quality control: white coats, clipboards, data entry and sample batches are all part of this process. Everything needs to be approved before sending the rubber off to the other facilities.
This facility also houses a few small research and development labs which can create small-scale, production-prototype rubber compounds in minutes. This means the Vittoria team in either Italy or Thailand can devise a new compound concept and receive a sample in no time. During my walk-through tour I spotted tyres being inflated on a rim to check over rolling resistance, leakage, puncture-resistance; and air leakage durability being measured consistently. Some of the larger testing equipment is left running for days, and is needed to gain vital data about Vittoria tyres.
Vittoria places a great deal of importance on their labs, however, the company also values real-world feedback. They have riders - from professional through to amateur - to test out their latest rubber. That said, the company ensures the in-house testing is as close to the real world as possible by using, for example, equipment that tests tyres braking in wet conditions. Rigorous testing of compounds means they are able to identify the best new compounds for different conditions.
Our second day saw us huddled in the hotel lobby once again - although this time it was the press needing that third espresso. We jumped onto the bus and headed to another factory, this time to see how the tyre process all comes together. Although this factory is situated closer to Bangkok, we still needed to hustle to our way through the morning traffic. Trust me, NZ doesn’t have anything on Bangkok’s traffic!
Inside the Bangpoo facility (which is actually two facilities side-by-side) the tyres are put together before being shipped off to riders around the world. We walk into another immaculately clean factory and straight away it’s obvious the staff have good morale. I don’t know if it’s because we’re there, but they all seem happy, chipping away on certain tasks around the factory. It’s clear the leader here is Ms Penparn Kiatamornvong - she’s about five foot nothing and is the Managing Director of Lion Tyres’ factories. She has a lovely nature and greets all the staff with respect. They all seem to know her by name - well, from what I can tell, seeing as I don’t speak Thai - and this is no mean feat seeing as there are over 1500 staff across the facilities in Thailand. But Kiatamornvong has a good, albeit no-mess attitude and you can see why there’s so much respect for her.
It’s inside this plant that the tyre compounds are merged together - Vittoria is the only large company to use four compounds in a single tyre. The machines here are bloody impressive. A few years back (2015), Lion Tyres commissioned a piece of equipment capable of combining four distinct rubber compounds during the extrusion process. From what I understand, this is the only one of its kind in the world at present. You can see they put a ton of effort into ensuring the tyres meet a certain standard, and the quality control process is evident throughout the whole procedure of merging the compounds. It wasn’t just at this plant - all the places we visited had a strong emphasis on the quality control process.
The other facility in Bangpoo was a real eye-opener, being a very labour intensive environment. I know ‘handmade’ is a rarity in ans age of automated production, and fewer brands are holding onto their heritage as they search for cheaper, quicker and less labour-intensive production options,but inside this facility I witnessed tyres being glued and sewn together by hand. The guy running this production line probably has no idea that one day this tyre might claim a World Tour victory.
For me, this sums up the time, energy and effort Vittoria put into the process. It’s not unlike training, a process that also requires the application of time, energy and effort by the person involved. After all, only then will you reap the rewards. And, with Vittoria’s rich history and reputation, you can expect the rewards to keep on coming.
Words & Images: Liam Friary