On two wheels and four, the need for speed is core to Italian sporting culture. And, more often than not, those wheels are wrapped in Pirelli rubber, a tradition now establishing itself in the cycling world, too, as riders pro and amateur alike enjoy an F1-inspired boost to their performance.
From its unmistakable logo to its legacy pushing the limits of tyre design, Pirelli embodies style, technology and restless innovation. It has tasted success at the highest levels, and across a wide range of top-level sporting disciplines.
The global tyre partner for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship for over a decade, Pirelli is also the exclusive supplier to the FIA World Rally Championship and FIM World Superbike Championship, and has powered countless champions to glory in some of the most demanding conditions imaginable.
This same spirit carries through to its latest cycling product range. Pirelli-shod professional teams now compete at the highest levels of road cycling, as well as in gravel and across the mountain biking disciplines of cross-country, enduro and downhill.
Some of the biggest names in cycling, including two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar, Paris-Roubaix Femmes winner Elisa Longo Borghini and former road world champion Mads Pedersen, are now benefitting from the same technology that has powered the likes of Lewis Hamilton to world-dominating success in F1.
For all that association with motorsport, Pirelli’s history in cycling goes back just as far, a significant number of the competitors in the very first Giro d’Italia in 1909 running its tyres in a race that departed from the company’s hometown of Milan.
When Edoardo Bianchi was looking for a tyre supplier with an innovative spirit equal to his own, he knew where to turn, leading to the formation of the first Bianchi-Pirelli team for the 1914 Giro d’Italia. Further partnerships followed, including victories in the 1950s in the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France for Fausto Coppi in the classic blue and white Bianchi-Pirelli colours.
In 2018, Pirelli made a triumphant return to the world of competitive cycling, with no fewer than three professional teams now using its tyres on the UCI WorldTour, including Trek-Segafredo, AG2R Citroën and UAE Team Emirates.
Today, Pirelli’s road bike tyre range encompasses everything from commuter clinchers to racing tubulars, many using technology carried directly from motorsport.
“Pirelli has an identity deeply linked to racing since its inception 150 years ago,” explains Samuele Bressan, head of global marketing for Pirelli’s cycling division, “so, it comes deeply into the company culture that, at any level, this is always at the centre of any decision.”
Powering this mindset is a dedication to innovation going back to the very origins of the business, with more than 2,000 people now working in its Milan-based research and development department alone.
“Our global R&D is structured crosses all the disciplines, from motorsport and passenger car tyres, to moto and cycling ones,” says Bressan. “There are engineers working across all divisions, including the compounding department, which works on everything from F1 to cycling, from one day to another. The same goes for others, including materials, chemical laboratories and field testing.”
Science and instinct
Check the specifications for products such as the critically acclaimed P-Zero Race TLR and you’ll see a plethora of branded, patented technology, including SmartNET Silica, SmartEVO compound and TechWALL casings, much of it influenced directly by Pirelli’s motorsport know-how.
Picking SmartNET Silica as just one specific example, this motorsport-inspired compound uses elongated molecules rather than the circular ones found in most tyres.
“By orientating these rods in the rolling direction of the tyre, you get a mechanical advantage in terms of rolling and energy dispersion, which allows you to tune the whole formulation,” explains Bressan. “In terms of pure feeling for the rider, it is difficult to discern – you just have a tyre which is faster and with more grip at the same time.”
This combination of science and instinct is what makes tyre design so fascinating – and challenging. It’s why Pirelli’s engineers work hand in hand with pro riders to help ‘tune’ a tyre that delivers at both a subjective level and an objective one.
“We work based on data evidence,” says Bressan, “but pro athletes are always pushing for even tiny improvements, and then the feeling of the tyre also has to make them feel in control and able to push the limit. But at the same time there is no point making a tyre based on feeling if there is no solid data that proves it is also faster.”
Striking a balance
Balancing this creative tension between feedback from the pros and what the engineers can deliver is well understood by Pirelli, given the similar relationships it has with top competitors in F1, superbike racing and rallying. It’s just one way in which a tyre tailored to the finely honed senses of Pogačar or Hamilton can deliver the same performance benefits to riders and drivers of any level.
While many of the patented technologies Pirelli has developed over the years for motorsport have found applications in its road cycling tyres, there are also specific advantages when the engineers adapt things such as the SmartEVO Compound used across the P-Zero range.
“Due to the low weight of our product, we can use almost every polymer we want, regardless of its complexity,” says Bressan. “The price impact on the final product is therefore almost negligible, so we are in a very positive situation where we have the full availability of our latest and most advanced polymers at our disposal.”
The very specific demands of racing tyres for motorcycles also translate perfectly into human-powered two-wheelers, even on the more ‘everyday’ products such as the Angel Urban commuter tyres. “The cross-section takes that typical shape of moto tyres, with high shoulder tread,” adds Bressan.
Forged in competition
“In our case, it’s also a proprietary one, because radius proportion and ratios are defined and patented. A more obvious example you can see is the tread pattern, which is almost identical and simply re-engineered for the lower forces of a bicycle.”
Pirelli’s return to the cycling market in the midst of a widespread shift to tubeless technology also provides a fantastic opportunity to seize the technical initiative.
“From our side, the move to tubeless is of course good in terms of pure performance,” says Bressan. “Tubeless is faster and the best-performing technology, so it makes sense to focus on that.”
For some pro teams, tubulars still reign supreme, and Pirelli’s innovative P-Zero Race Tub SL, with its lightweight TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) inner, remains part of the product line-up, with a specific focus on the weight reduction demanded by WorldTour riders.
Few outside that realm may actually use such tyres these days and the tide is turning towards tubeless in the peloton, too. Lizzie Deignan (2021) and Longo Borghini (2022) won the Paris-Roubaix Femmes on 30mm Pirelli P-Zero Race TLR tubeless tyres.
However, for Pirelli, it’s also a matter of pride – and reflection of a culture forged in competition – that tubulars, as a specialist product, should get just as much attention as big-selling consumer equivalents in the P-Zero Race range.
The fact this particular high-performance line-up scores so well with discerning cyclists comes as no surprise to Pirelli, given in the automotive world its equivalent P-Zero tyres account for nearly three quarters of its overall sales, underlining its premium supplier status.
Given a good number of motorsport fans are also into cycling (and vice-versa) the brand recognition of products such as P-Zero means it was a natural move to carry this name over from automotive to cycling. Likewise the colour coding of the logos on the sidewalls, the all-weather P-Zero Race 4S bearing the same blue stripes as the equivalent F1 rain tyres.
All of which goes to prove that, while Pirelli may seem a relative newcomer to the cycling market for some, the company brings with it a long-standing appreciation of the sport, informed by its wider participation in similarly focused motorsport disciplines.
This culture, the aforementioned need for speed and the understanding of how to deliver it for the most demanding customers in the world is why the Pirelli logo is the perfect finishing touch for any dream bike build. Because, let’s face it, with a set of P-Zero tyres, you are following in the tracks of champions.