The most dedicated fans will remember how in 1938, the Fascist regime prevented Gino Bartali – the undisputed champion on the national cycling scene and star of our collective imagination – to compete in the Giro d’Italia.
The government considered it far more serious that the number one in our most popular sport was training for the Tour de France, seen as a symbolic political alliance with our neighbours across the Alps.
And that year at the Tour, Bartali won – on the back of an historic Legnano bike with Pirelli tyres.
However, the successful partnership between the company’s tyres and Italian cycling dates back even further. The “pneumatic seals for bicycles” sector was opened by Pirelli in 1890 (eighteen years after the establishment of the factory itself in Milan), and was immediately a hit: just think that in the first Giro d’Italia in 1909, more than half of the 50 finishers rode on Pirelli tyres.
From the outset, the company launched a partnership with Bianchi, the famous Milanese bicycle manufacturer, to test and introduce a series of innovative products to the market – the high quality of which was guaranteed by the names of both brands. The very same team, in turn, permanently marked the history of the two-wheeled sport in Italy – as well as the collective imagination of a society devastated and yet strengthened by the war. Bianchi, founded as a road cycling team in 1905, subsequently became Bianchi-Pirelli – and as is known included champions such as Fausto Coppi, who left Legnano to join the team immediately after the war (further fuelling his on-going rivalry with Bartali, in a team showdown unparalleled in the memory of Italians).
The history of Italian cycling and that of Pirelli advanced side by side in the years to follow – on a shared journey of sports and passion, without forgetting advertising and creativity.
In fact, since the forties Pirelli – showing admirable farsightedness – surrounded itself by the best names in European design, forming a highly creative team for the graphic development of corporate communications (involving designers such as Bruno Munari, Armando Testa and Max Huber). Thanks to the contribution of these artistic personalities, Pirelli’s bicycle tyres became even more imprinted on the national mind-set, becoming inseparable from the heroes of modern cycling (when for the first time sports stars were truly idolized in Italy).
In the post-war period, for example, Pirelli started collaborating with Lazio-born illustrator Riccardo Manzi. Trained as a painter before turning to advertising graphics, Manzi’s style was a novelty for the company’s posters – populated by an ironic world of cartoon-like characters. Featuring a minimalist graphic style, both extravagant and playful at the same time, Pirelli's protagonists were stylized men and women busy with daily activities, which blended ironically with the tyre contours.
From belts to umbrellas to hats, Pirelli tyres became imaginative, playful and almost infantile with Manzi’s pencils, recalling the contemporary contribution of Bruno Munari for the tales of Gianni Rodari.
In 1954, the Dutch designer Bob Noorda – among the most important Nordic figures in the industry – moved to Milan during the economic boom. With a functionalist background (and thus inheriting a Bauhaus aesthetic), Noorda almost immediately started working with Pirelli, as well as other big names in the city, including Olivetti and Rinascente. And although many remember him for the Milanese underground signage, his contribution to the communications sector of the tyre brand was just as decisive. Noorda’s advertising posters differed from Manzi’s with more minimal stroke, coupled with a clever use of colour. Coloured bicycle wheels on a yellow background, between figurative and geometric abstraction, conveyed a modern and dynamic vision of cycling, tailored to meet the needs of all enthusiasts of the most popular sport in Italy at the time.
These two examples tell us how the role of communications was key for Pirelli in the post-war years. While advertising today, for reasons inevitably linked to changes in online society and the rise of social networks (and thus the media used to express the same) is called to satisfy demands for instantaneity, rapid use, and volatile immediacy – on the contrary, back in those years an advertising campaign was meant to last. Coming close to works of art, graphic design contributed to establishing a real consciousness, translating the expectations and dreams of a constantly evolving society into visual works, which attributed the emotions related to free time to national cycling champions, in light of the need for distraction from an often harsh reality. Both Coppi’s victories and Manzi and Noorda’a posters teamed up to promote a popular and passionate sport, in which Pirelli tyres played a crucial role.
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