To a young teenager, who harbours dreams of pursuing a career in the professional peloton, the hills and mountains of the north eastern Italian province of Varese are a rich playground in which to hone one's skills. Situated midway between the city of Milano, the chic capital of Lombardia, and the picturesque lakes of Como and Maggiore, Varese has been the home to many famous cyclists over the years. Alfredo Binda, born in the municipality of Cittiglio, who dominated the sport in the 1920's and early 30's, was a celebrated Campionissimo when Fausto Coppi was still using stabilisers. In more recent times, Varese has spawned a famous duo: the combative Claudio Chiappucci, and two time Giro d'Italia winner, Ivan Basso, who retired from the sport at the end of last season.
It was into this epicentre of Italian cycling that Flavio Zappi was born in 1960, but it was his elder brother Ivan, himself a keen follower of road racing, who recognised that the teenage Flavio had potential and cajoled him to join the local sports club, Unione Sportiva Carbonate. This was a very traditional Italian cycling club in every sense, with a culture in which new members, with little or no experience, were expected to race competitively from the outset. Every Sunday Flavio and his young team mates would compete in local races, the orange flag of the club proudly displayed outside La Cooperativa, a local restaurant that doubled as the club's headquarters, whenever a member of the team returned victorious. Success breeds success and the more Flavio won, the more determined and passionate he became.
US Carbonate, still thriving today, is all about racing and competitive cycling. When Flavio joined as a fifteen year old, he was mentored by older, established members of the club. Wise and experienced heads willing to hand down tactical guile accrued through cumulative years of racing in Lombardia and beyond. It is this culture and ethos – the 'famiglia' as he likes to call it - that Flavio sought to resurrect when he started his own pro team and cycling club in Oxford, England, in 2009. The majority of Zappi's CC may have missed their opportunity of signing pro contracts, but just like the young riders in the Zappi Pro Team, they routinely benefit from Flavio's vast experience, his knowledge and, of course, his body fat callipers! The Zappi Pro Team are already punching well above their weight (two of the squad secured podium places at the 2014 U23 National Championships). Flavio and his dedicated team have provided them with the solid foundations on which to improve their performance and, more importantly perhaps, he seeks to instil in his young protégés a racing instinct based on listening to what their body is telling them and what it is capable of. Sir Bradley Wiggins is one who recognises the benefits of this school of thought: two graduates of Zappi's Pro Cycling, Dan Pearson and James Knox, recently signed for Team Wiggins for the 2016 season.
The career trajectory of Flavio Zappi is proof that this is a system that can produce impressive results. He quickly established himself at US Carbonate as a youngster of huge potential, securing wins in many amateur Junior races before turning professional in 1981, when he signed for the Italian team, Hoonved–Bottecchia. In 1983 he moved to another domestic team, Metauro Mobili-Pinarello, announcing himself to the Italian public when he finished 12th in Milan-San Remo - a race won in emphatic style by the great Francesco Moser. Proving that this was no early season flash in the pan, he rode strongly again in Paris-Roubaix, finishing in 18th place, just 11 minutes behind the winner, Sean Kelly. His early season form continued into the Giro d'Italia - his third outing in the event. Zappi led the mountains classification for two whole weeks, before losing out to the French maestro, Laurent Fignon, on the final day in the mountains.
Despite his early promise, Flavio quit the sport the following year, disillusioned with the rampant doping and corruption that was endemic during this era. Despite his premature departure from the pro peloton, the team behind the inaugural Zappi Clothing collection were keen to pay homage to the short, but impressive palmarès of Flavio and the era of Italian cycling in which he was racing. Former Rapha designer, Keith James, was brought in to oversee the design, working with Flavio and the team to revamp the existing Zappi's CC jersey and conceive original designs that tapped into the rich heritage of Italian cycling. A keen cyclist himself, Keith was quickly infused with Flavio's passion and the altruism behind the brand. All proceeds from the sale of Zappi Clothing will go towards funding the Zappi Race Team.
Keith began with sketches, experimenting with combinations of the colours and designs of the team jerseys worn by Flavio, whilst never losing sight of the fact that the end product had to provide a high level of performance and comfort for the cyclist who likes to push him or herself to their very limit, whether riding in the Cotswold Hills in the biting cold of winter or the warm autumn sunshine of Varese. Pulling components from each of the jerseys to produce a contemporary, unique design and getting the balance correct, without losing sight of the reference points, is a tricky balancing act.
"It was about looking at every jersey that Flavio had ever raced in and coming up with a style of jersey around that: the colours and graphical breaks from the original jerseys", explains Keith. The result was the stunning Mondo 2 jersey, which skilfully combines the vivid orange club colours of the US Carbonate with the jersey designs of Flavio's two pro teams. Keith is understandably proud of the final design, both the historical language and the fact the jersey references lesser known domestic teams of Italian cycling, rather than the likes of Molteni, Bianchi and Salvarani. It's a happy co-incidence that the burnt orange colour of the raglan sleeve of the Mondo 2 is very much on trend at the moment, though Keith was keen to ensure that the jersey represented a coherent amalgamation and interpretation of all of Flavio's jerseys.
From the Metauro Mobili-Pinarello jersey that Flavio first wore as a neo-professionista, Keith borrowed the two stripes across the chest and likewise, the cream band beneath, where traditionally the name of the team sponsor would be prominently displayed. The vertical black and grey stripes that run down either side of the torso were borrowed from the Hoonved–Bottecchia jersey and reference the fact that the cycle clothing that Flavio would have worn in his pomp were constructed out of multiple panels, with different fabric colours meticulously stitched together by skilled hands.
The team behind Zappi Clothing are constantly looking to update and evolve the collection and Keith is currently working on more designs, many of which will once again draw their inspiration from Italian cycling, including one that will be a more direct homage to the Hoonved–Bottecchia jersey.
Flavio Zappi was born in the village of Cassano Magnago, just across the street from the villa in which Ivan Basso now resides, and though he may have made his home and raised his family in England, it was his formative years racing in the hills of Varese and Lombardia that dictated how his life would inevitably unfold. Passione Senza Contratto. Passion without contract – three words that sum up what cycling to Flavio is all about and the ethos behind his team and the Zappi Clothing range. It's all about the love, the passion, for cycling.
Dave Nash - Journalist and contributing editor to Wheelsuckers.co.uk, a social network for road cyclists
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