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Colnago Master X-Light review

25 Mar 2016

The Colnago Master been a classic ever since it arrived in the 1980s, but can it still hold its own against the flashy newcomers?

Buy the Colnago Master X-Light from Sigma Sports here

Between them, Eddy Merckx and Giuseppe Saronni won 719 races from 1965 to 1988, and the bulk of those victories were aboard a steel Colnago. Ernesto Colnago first designed the Master frame in 1982 as a replacement for the Mexico, which was named after Eddy Merckx’s successful Hour record in Mexico city. Over the course of 17 years in the pro peloton, the Master was ridden to hundreds of wins, and there are few bikes that have such a palmarès.

The Master frame is most famous for its crimped tubeset, although its introduction was less than straightforward. Early Colnagos had regular round tubing but some of the professional riders complained it was not stiff enough, so Ernesto Colnago set about designing a new, stiffer tubeset with the help of Italian steel masters Columbus. 

Colnago Master X-Light frame

‘Making the first Master was a nervous moment,’ says Colnago. ‘We took the same tubes we were using for the Mexico and crimped them.’

Antonio Colombo, son of Angelo who founded the Italian tubing company, wanted nothing to do with the crimping, as he was concerned it may compromise the integrity of his round tubing, so Colnago went to Antonio’s brother Gilberto instead. The crimping was a success and the innovation has carried on throughout the Colnago range, right up to the current carbon C60.

With the introduction of aluminium frames, the steel Master disappeared from the peloton, but it has remained a constant in the Colnago catalogue ever since. Despite staying true to the spirit of the original design, the Master frame has been steadily upgraded over the years – the latest big revision being the move to Deda DT15V steel when it officially became the Master X-Light in 2000. 

Old dog, new tricks

Colnago Master X-Light headtube

The Colnago Master first arrived in the Cyclist office on the holiest of days – the day we go to press. On ‘press day’ every second is precious, but nevertheless all work came to a halt while the frame was removed from its box and gently released from its bubble wrapping. We all gazed in peaceful wonder at its elegant beauty. Then the arguments started: how do you best build up a bike that is both brand new and yet nearly 40 years old?

It had to be Campagnolo, that was obvious (anything else would likely be an affront to its Italian heritage), but which groupset exactly? A traditional nine-speed Record perhaps? No, the frame is brand new, not vintage, so it needs a brand new groupset. Athena then, which is a modern groupset but comes with a retro-polished alloy finish? Not that either. The Master is a top-tier frame, so it needs a top-tier groupset. After a heated debate we settled on Super Record. The finishing kit had to be polished metal but modern, which meant Ritchey Classic was the obvious option. It’s worth noting that the Master still uses a 1-inch unthreaded steerer, so any modern stems have to be shimmed to fit. 

The lug work is absolutely immaculate and the art decor scheme is truly something to behold.

When it came to choosing wheels, Ambrosio recently reissued its China Blue Excellence rims from the same period as the original Master, so we built those onto Record hubs to finish the bike. And what a beauty it is. It may sound daft to spend so much time considering each individual component, but that is part of the pleasure of a frame like this. With all the effort that has gone into refining it over the years, knocking it together with any old parts would be an insult.

The Master is still handmade in Italy and the quality really shines through. The lug work is absolutely immaculate and the art decor scheme is truly something to behold. I don’t think I will ever tire of seeing the hand-painted rider on the top tube, and it seems nor will anyone else. 

Colnago Master X-Light paint

I have the pleasure of riding around on nice bikes a lot, but I’ve only been asked about what I’m riding twice. I was stopped four times on the first ride of the Master and mobbed on my regular cafe ride. 

It could be said that the cafe ride is the Master’s true stomping ground. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Master as just a posing tool, because underneath the pretty paint and shimmering chrome lives a true racing bike. The geometry is classic Italian (73° head tube, 74° seat tube), so it rides and descends without any stumbles, hiccups or quirks. The handling is textbook in almost every way. The surefooted ride these bikes are famous for is a feeling that many manufacturers have sought to replicate with modern carbon frames.

A word of warning about the frame sizing, though – the Master is a traditional frame, so unlike a modern compact frame the top tube is long and the head tube is tiny (just 108mm on this 53cm model). Combined with the relatively deep drop and traditional bend of the Ritchey handlebars, the position is decidedly long and low, and certainly won’t suit everyone.

Ambrosio Excellence China Blue

Considering its skinny tubing, the bike is surprisingly stiff. It’s not close to an oversized carbon frame but I never felt like I was riding a soggy noodle either. It might shed the odd watt compared to a modern carbon frame, but it makes up for it tenfold in souplesse, and provides an easy excuse when you’re last to the top of a hill.

The Master is also light for a steel bike. The 53cm frame weighs 1.6kg, which sounds a lot by today’s standards, but the full build here is only 8.1kg. Opting for the modern Master rather than an original also saves any headaches around wheel spacing as it can comfortably accommodate modern 130mm axle wheels and 25mm tyres.

Colnago Master X-Light review

For me, the starkest difference in performance compared to a modern bike came from the wheels, which don’t accelerate anywhere near as a quickly as lightweight carbon wheels. Once up to speed, though, they hold it well, with the Cult ceramic bearings in the Record hubs spinning along willingly. I never felt like I was sacrificing the ride performance just for looks. 

If you’re considering a classic bike like the Master, you may be thinking about saving it for the finest days. Perhaps you would display it above the fireplace and rarely risk soiling its pristine looks, but to do so would miss out on one of the best things about it – the uplifting feeling you get when you swing a leg over the top tube.

Despite the miserable, drab, grey winter surrounding me when I was on the Master, going out for a ride was never a chore because wherever I went there was always a beautiful view. It was right there beneath me.

Buy the Colnago Master X-Light from Sigma Sports here

Model Colnago Master X-Light
Groupset Campagnolo Super Record
Deviations None
Wheels Handbuilt Ambrosio Excellence 'China Blue' rims on Campagnolo Record hubs
Finishing kit Ritchey Classic barsRitchey Classic C220 stem

Ritchey Classic seatpost

Selle San Marco Concor Light saddle

Weight 8.10kg (size 53cm)
£1,799 frameset £4,358 approx complete build

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