PEZ Tour: Wooden Rims From Cerchi Ghisallo
While many know that the Madonna di Ghisallo is a special shrine to cyclists, only a few realize that another extraordinary place is located just 200 meters away: Cerchi Ghisallo. The Cermenati family has been crafting wheels, fenders and other wooden creations for three generations in the town of Magreglio. PEZ takes a tour and tries their wheels.
Beautiful wooden rims are made meters away from the Madonna di Ghisallo chapel.
Part One: The “Guided” Tour
Finding the workshop is the first challenge. There are no signs. I drive through the town a couple times, then stop and ask a local. He points me to the gas station-newsstand-cafй. Like many small towns in Italy, this place is the Culture Hub. It’s almost noon and a dozen compact, old guys are stopping by on their way home. They are drinking wine and shouting over each other. It’s like an old black and white film: Scene 1, Take 1- stranger walks in, silence, all turn, stare and then recognize him as that guy who’s come to write about the wooden wheels, then resume their shouting conversations.
Cerchi Ghisallo hides inside the building.
Giovanni Cermenati emerges from the group of old, short guys. Dressed in black and yellow mechanic’s overalls, he shakes my hand and barks, “YOU’RE LATE!” While punctuality usually isn’t an issue the more south one travels in Italy, I suddenly realize that we’re pretty close to Switzerland. It’s noon, so Giovanni’s going to eat lunch at his place upstairs. His sister-in-law, who runs the cafй, gives me a prosciutto sandwich and a glass of wine – on the house – and explains that Giovanni and his son, Antonio, handle the cars and the woodworking, while her husband runs The Magreglio Culture Hub.
After lunch, the tour begins. We enter through the station’s garage with two cars on lifts and out the back door and down a flight of stairs cluttered with used tires and faded boxes full of assorted automotive and bike parts. A narrow metal door opens up to a series of windowless rooms carpeted with saw dust and scraps. Welcome to 1946: the sour iron tools, the stale oil and an aged, jaundiced light are all in attendance. In fact, Cerchi Ghisallo was formed in the mid forties by Giovanni’s father, Antonio Cerminati. Since 2002, the business has been officially handed down to Giovanni’s son, (also) Antonio. It is assumed-hoped that Antonio’s son will inherit the business and be its fourth generation rim builder.
Typical woodshop floor.
It must be tactfully, yet respectfully stated that Giovanni is terrible tour guide. First, he talks like someone that has spent a lifetime around power tools: his words erupt at great speed and volume. Secondly, Giovanni explains like someone that believes their craft is self-evident. One word and a few gestures are enough for him, accordingly they must suffice for others. Perhaps it’s modesty rather than ineptitude. So the “tour” consists of me asking questions, trying to interpret the gestures, explaining them back and then waiting for confirmation.
Perfect beech wood planks.
I suggest to Giovanni that we start from the beginning. So he brings me to an outside shed where they stain and lacquer the finished wheels. Yep. However, the end is also the beginning. Giovanni shows me the freshly delivered wood planks that are stored in the next room.
Also the finished rims reside in this shed.
What kind of wood is this? “FAGGIO! [beech wood]” Finger pointing and caressing leads me to understand that their wood is the highest quality. I confirm, unable to find a single knot or other fault. Thumbs up! OK.
Where’s it from? “YUGOSLAVIA!” I have no desire to correct Giovanni’s dated understanding of geography.
The boards are sliced into thin planks.
How many wheels do you make a year? “DON’T KNOW! ASK MY WIFE!” Later, I do. With big glasses and hair wrapped in a tight bun, Mrs. Cerminati says apologetically, “I can’t keep track, we just get orders and send them out.” With a little prodding, she guesses that their production is somewhere between 500 and 1000 rims, “though probably closer to 1000.” Last year they made more than usual. Really, how much more? “Oh, I don’t know.”
Correction: flexible thin planks.
So Giovanni, how strong are these wooden rims? He takes a finished one and violently slams it down to the ground. The rim bounces back into his hand unblemished. He smiles like a magician that’s been doing this trick awhile. It is a very convincing demonstration of wood’s elasticity and liveliness and warmth and… downright, neatness. It would be very educational to see how aluminum and carbon rims handle this test [note to PezTech Editor: how about slamming a few of your rims for us?].
The planks are layered and glued into steel forms.
As I inspect the rim for damage, another one of my preconceived notions is deflated, these rims are surprisingly light. I own aluminum ones that weigh more. Curious, I ask Giovanni how much they weigh? “DON’T KNOW!”
Then removed from the forms.
Cerchi Ghisallo offers five differently shaped, low profile rims for tubular and four different clincher versions. So what’s the difference between these rims? “NONE!” Really? “YEP!” He points out that all of their rims are constructed exactly the same, with six layers of lap jointed beech wood. The differences are merely size and aesthetics. Mrs. Cerminati later explains that even though one of their models is called Rinforzato [reinforced], “it’s just a name though.”
I’m starting to appreciate the Cerminati’s. I love Giovanni’s brusque honesty. Most cycling companies eloquently articulate the seemingly insignificant subtlties in their products to justify their existence and expense. There are no trademarked and logo’d acronyms to be found here in Magreglio. And that’s just it: wooden rims are nostalgic and take us back to a “simpler” time.
The glued and formed wood is ready for the Big Machine – the overlap of the planks is visible.
Just as I am beginning to doubt all of this willful simplicity that borders on ignorance, Giovanni shows me their Big Machine – he doesn’t know what it’s called. It is a computer controlled router that requires a certain level of programming savvy. Antonio sets it up and then we watch it carve and shave beautiful rims from the glued, lap jointed forms. The tour ends here because the end was also seen in the beginning – where all of the finished rims are stained in any color the customer wishes. All of Cerchi Ghisallo’s rims are made to order, there’s no warehouse with stocked inventory, so I put in my order and two weeks later the package arrives. Included with the rims are metal washers that need to be seated in each hole and 2cm long nipples.
The Big Machine cuts the forms into rims.
Part Two: An Interesting Series Of Events
I visited the Cerminatis’ two years ago. The wheels have only recently been built and ridden as a result of an interesting series of events. The original idea was to build the rims on modern hubs and test them on my regular Campagnolo 10 speed road bike. I met Marco Belotti of PMP a couple years ago and have always admired the quality of their products. Since PMP doesn’t sell their stuff in the States (though I’ve seen some things on the Internet), they weren’t interested in being reviewed, but Marco cut me a deal and I bought some really beautiful hubs at a fair price. Then I brought everything to my wheel builder and he laced up the front one, but never got around to the rear.
Beautiful PMP hubs.
Welcome to Italy where patience isn’t a virtue it’s a necessity. Which reminds me of a story that aptly describes the difference between Italy and the States…
An American professor was on sabbatical in Rome. Everyday through his kitchen window, he observed two stone masons dutifully building a wall. After 6 months, the wall was nearly complete. The professor introduced himself to the masons and told them how much he admired their beautifully made wall. He also explained that in the States an army of guys would have finished this work in two weeks. The professor wanted to know how the masons were able to make any money since it took them so long. Where upon the dumbfounded masons asked the professor, “how do YOU make any money if the wall is finished in two weeks?”
While putting the blame on Italy is an easy charge, my own culpability should not be overlooked. It turns out that there IS a difference between the various rim offerings from Cerchi Ghisallo. The US importer of Ghisallo rims and wheel Guru, Ric Hjertberg informed me that my Corsa rims are the lightest and are intended for track use or laced to older hubs where the dish/tension isn’t as severe. After hearing that I wanted to test them around the ‘hood (here in the Dolomites), Ric politely informed me that I was delusional. Putting these gently tensioned wooden wheels on a rigid carbon frame and running them over challenging mountain passes would be ill advised. In addition, the braking required for some of the descents is an unreasonable demand for wood track rims.
Veloflex tubulars, yummy.
Chatting with some old timers dampen my desire even more for wooden rims. One guy tells me, “ya know, there were ONLY two problems with those rims, first they were always moving around, tying and soldering the spokes helped a bit but not really and the other bad news was braking.” Well, Winter arrived this year and Winter is the time where Bad Ideas get seriously entertained, most likely due to the brain going mushy from all those trainer kilometers. So. The rear wheel finally gets put together. A pair of gorgeous Veloflex tubulars gets glued on the wheels. And lastly, most importantly, I reset my expectations: the most reasonable choice is to mount them on my Ganna from the late 60’s. In addition to it Looking Right, the suppleness of this old steel frame matches the wheels perfectly.
Part Three: The Ride
In a word: Surprising. My first impression is that these wheels aren’t as soft as I’d feared. In fact, they are light and spin up nicely. Hey, they’re really nice. The hubs are so smooth, Campagnolo-smooth even. And nothing can beat buttery Veloflex tubulars. Wow, it’s much easier to get the frame to misbehave than these wheels. Also the braking doesn’t seem any worse than the old setup: Nuovo Record brakes with vintage Campy pads on Mavic GP4 tubular rims vs. new Kool Stop pads for carbon rims.
The surprise is wearing off, but my smile hasn’t. And then I get too confident: too much speed on a descent, late braking and the wrong trajectory for the turn. The rear wheel protests. Sh*t… whoa! In one of those very long seconds, I rescue myself and miraculously remain upright. A deep breath. A quick check of the wheel and everything is fine. It’s time to reset my expectations again. This was clearly my fault, not the wheels’, but it wakes me up. Stop daring this bike to rebel! Accordingly, all of my rides since this little tryst have been of the cicloturismo sort.
I lied. A few rides later, I find myself once again confident with this nostalgic platform. I’m descending a mountain with great joy and great speed (they go hand in hand). The car ahead of me slams on the brakes as another vehicle pulls out in front. I’m modulating, applying ever greater effort but the speed is not coming down fast enough. I pull harder and the brakes simply refuse to slow the wheels down. Maybe there’s too much rubber built up on the rim or maybe another pad would be better. Sh*t again. I’m a couple meters away from rear ending a Peugeot. Then the two cars ahead of me take off in anger and I narrowly avoid another disaster.
I’m really torn about these wheels. The Cerchi Ghisallo craftsmanship is impeccable. The wheels have stayed true enough and are plenty stable. They are so good, so smooth and light and fast that they encourage recklessness. Yet under extreme circumstances, they just don’t seem to be up to the task. My cycling incompetence requires trusty aluminum rims. The issue is one of expectations and usage – I often ride in mountains and have average bike handling skills. For many cyclists, this won’t be a problem. In the meantime, I’ll be trying some different brake pads in an effort to keep myself upright.
I’d like to thank the Cerminati’s and PMP for their hospitality, quality products and insight. My advice to readers interested in wooden wheel is to read through Ric’s blog – it contains a wealth of valuable information.