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Classic bikes: A tour of Colnago's Italian factory

In-depth
28 Jun 2018
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Ernesto Colnago talks Cyclist through some of his favourite creations at his factory in Italy

Words James Spender Photography Mike Massaro

‘I remember I had to lie to get the job,’ says Ernesto Colnago in his office in Cambiago, Italy. Short, slightly stooped but still spry at the age of 86, the great framebuilder is nearly lost behind his vast mahogany desk and a litany of awards, photographs and memorabilia that covers almost every wall and surface.

Bicycles are very much where his heart is and seemingly always have been. He cheerfully regales us with the tale of forging papers to secure his first job as a welder’s assistant in the Gloria bicycle factory when he was just 13 years old.

The young apprentice progressed quickly, and by the time he turned 20 in 1952, he had set himself up as a subcontractor, building bicycles for other companies in Cambiago, just outside Milan.

Two years later, in 1954, he’d begun selling bicycles with his own surname on the down tube.

Thus started an illustrious career that has seen Colnago make bikes for everyone from Eddy Merckx to Pope John Paul II, the latter ‘a keen cyclist’ whose Colnago-made gold-chrome bike now sits in a sealed case at the company’s factory.

Trophies and accolades came thick and fast, as did a cult following, yet it’s the innovations themselves that Ernesto Colnago is most proud of as he walks us through his private museum.

Whether it’s a Paris-Roubaix winning fleet, five Colnago victories with the Mapei team, or a never-seen-the-light-of-day track bike, here is a man very much still in love with the very idea of the bicycle. 

‘Mosca’ Master, 1980

‘I made this bike with the Master tubes, which are crimped,’ says Ernesto Colnago.

‘The idea for the Master tube shape came to me some years before when I was in Tokyo. I could not sleep because of jetlag, and I started thinking what if tubes were not round, could they be stiffer?

‘The crimped shape I came up with has a better bending resistance of 15%.

‘This bike really needed to be stiff. It was built for a Russian track athlete who was very heavy – more than 100kg. He was competing in the Olympics in the kilo, which is all about power.

‘With one stem it was impossible to make the bike strong enough for him, so I used two stems, one either side of the fork crown.’

Colnago says he cannot remember the name of the rider, and further research suggests that, despite the name, this bike might not have ended up at the 1980 Moscow Games after all, and was instead a prototype made in 1979 as a forerunner to kitting out the Soviet team the following year.

Again, Colnago is not sure. What isn’t up for debate, however, is just how extreme the position is, and just how well the Soviet team did in Moscow.

They won the 100km team time-trial, team pursuit and road race aboard Colnago bikes.

Rominger hour record, 1996

‘I immediately after Tony Rominger broke the Hour record in 1994 he said to me he can go faster, he can break 57km, so I started work on this bike, a collaboration with Ferrari.

‘To go further the bike had to be the most aerodynamic possible in every detail, so the cranks are made from titanium to my designs, with the leading edges almost as sharp as knives to cut the wind, and the track nuts are rounded and smoothed.

‘The bars are a special project with me and ITM, but the most important aerodynamic features are the frame and the wheels.

‘Look at the wheels. We made these, and they have patterns on them like a golf ball to stabilise airflow. This is long before Zipp!

‘The frame is one-piece moulded, there is no internal structure, the same with the wheels, and it is very thin when you look from the front or above.

‘Today many aero shapes are wider, but on the track where there is no wind, the thinner an object is, the faster.’

Sadly for Colnago and Rominger, the UCI banned the bike as soon as its commissaires saw it.

‘They said it presented an unfair aerodynamic advantage. In any other place this innovation would be welcome. I am still very sad.

‘It might be the most expensive bike I have ever made, and probably one of the most beautiful.’

Super, 1986

By the spring of 1981, Belgian pro Freddy Maertens was a fading flame. He’d won multiple Grand Tour stages, the rainbow stripes, a Vuelta à España and two green jerseys, but form was eluding him on the bike and financial woes eclipsing him off it.

Poor money management and bad investments had left him a huge unpaid tax bill. Then came the summer of 1981, racing on the Boule d’Or-Colnago team.

First he took the points jersey at the Tour in July, and then in August came the World Road Championships in Prague.

‘This is the bicycle that Maertens rode in Prague,’ says Colnago. ‘It is a steel frame with round tubes, although by now I was already using crimped Master tubes in other bikes.’

It’s ‘traditional’ – a lugged steel frame with a raked fork – but there are still plenty of flourishes.

The Colnago name is engraved in the top eyes of the seatstays, chainrings and fork crown, and embossed into the chainstays, and an alarming amount of material has been drilled out from brake levers and chainset and milled from the seatpost to save weight.

It worked, and Maertens beat Giuseppe Saronni and Bernard Hinault. He had surprised everyone, except Ernesto:

‘He knew he had to win – he was driven by the fear of going bankrupt.’ 

Concept, 1986

‘I was researching new materials and I came across carbon fibre, which was being used in Formula 1, so of course I went straight to Enzo Ferrari,’ says Colnago.

‘This was our first collaboration. Enzo personally designed the wheels.’

Those wheels are three-spoke and fabricated from carbon fibre, as per the frame, which is constructed from carbon tubes bonded and wrapped to carbon composite lugs, made from a polymide material still found in the headset of Colnago’s latest C64 and Concept 2.0.

‘It was two years of development work just to create the frame. Then we worked on these hydraulic rim brakes, the straight-blade fork – which was a first, now the cycling world copies the straight-blade fork – and I created an adjustable stem that could extend out to 130mm. But the real innovation was the gears.’

Housed inside the crank spider is what Colnago refers to as a ‘desmodromic’, but might better be described as a ‘planetary’ gearbox, much like a car’s transmission.

Seven speed and controlled by a gear stick on the down tube, it added 5.3kg to the bike’s weight.

‘We studied and designed like they design a car, where weight is not a very big concern compared to performance, as you have an engine.

‘But for road cycling the Concept was far too heavy, over 13kg, so we never made it a production bicycle.’

Gloria La Garibaldina, 1947

‘This bike is actually one of my personal ones, the very oldest. I have had it since I was 15. I was working at the Gloria factory in Milan as a young guy, just practising, just starting out.’

In fact, Colango was so young he had – as he’s already confessed to Cyclist – lied about his age to secure a job as a welding assistant at what was then one of Italy’s most lauded framebuilders: AMF Gloria, founded in 1921 by Alfredo Focesi in Milan.

‘I got the job through a friend who worked at Gloria. I won the Mamma Isolina Caldirola trophy in 1950 as an amateur on this bike, and I continued to race it until I was 18.

‘I had only three gears, and they were operated with these lever rods. It was custom for me at a time when people were not used to building custom bikes.’

The bike model, ‘La Garibaldina’, derives from Italian general Giuseppe Garibaldi, who fought for the unification of Italy, and signifies single-mindedness and willpower, two characteristics Colnago says carried him as a decent amateur but really came to the fore as a professional framebuilder.

‘The lugs are quite ornate for the time, the lily flower shape the pattern of Gloria, and the tubing is of course steel, the saddle leather, and we even have flint scrapers on the tyres. Gloria made the finest bicycles of the time, which is what Colnago makes today.’

Eddy Merckx hour record, 1972

‘I built this bike for Eddy Merckx to attempt the Hour record on. At the time it was the lightest I had ever made, 5.75kg, and this was 46 years ago!

‘The stem is titanium, and I had to send it to America to get it welded as no one in Europe knew how to weld titanium back then.

‘The spokes are titanium as well, and the hubs are made by Campagnolo from beryllium alloy, very light and stiff.

‘I drilled out every chain link by hand [saving 95g], which upset the chain’s makers, Regina Extra, as they said it would be too weak for Eddy’s power.’

Colnago also created an especially light headset – just 122g – and had a Columbus steel tubeset drawn that thinned to a mere 0.4mm wall-thickness in the middle, groundbreaking for the day.

French company Clement provided 80g tubular tyres and Colnago redesigned a Cinelli Unicanitor saddle to have special sliding seat rails to achieve Merckx’s desired position.

The bars were also Cinelli, again drilled out to save weight. Colnago says the fabrication alone took over 200 hours, but it was worth it.

‘I went to Mexico City [chosen for its high altitude and low air pressure] as Merckx’s mechanic. I was not that nervous, but Eddy was. Just five minutes before the start he asked to change the handlebars.

‘In the end he broke the record with 49.431km, and we got drunk together afterwards. It was one of the greatest days of my life.’

Prototype hour record, 1968

‘Now every saddle has a hole in it, but I can assure you this was the first one, invented by me, made by hand,’ says Colnago of the slit-leather upper of this bike’s saddle, tensioned by a coiled extension spring at one end and clamped atop a seatpost whose multifarious bolts, grub screws and levers look more like a miniature dentist’s chair than a perch for a prototype record breaker.

‘The seatpost had to have many adjustment options as the position is very different to a normal bicycle.

‘The crank axle is far behind the rider’s hips, and they lean far forward onto the bars, a bit like a recumbent bicycle but as if you were lying on your front. My idea was for aerodynamics and for the rider to generate more power.’

As such, there is no chain as one would expect. Instead, the crank appears almost fixed to the hub axle like a penny-farthing, but closer inspection reveals an intricate system of sprockets, chains and freewheels.

The Ofmega CX crank turns a large chainring, which turns a smaller sprocket directly above it, on which another larger sprocket is mounted behind, with both attached to a freewheel bolted to the stay.

That sprocket drives a fourth smaller sprocket attached to a freewheel on the wheel hub. So precisely how many gear inches is that, Mr Colnago?

‘I cannot remember. We will need an engineer!’

C35 Oro, 1989

‘This is another bike made with Ferrari. It was never really raced at the top level. I think Giuseppe Saronni did maybe three or four races on a C35, but never won anything. This is the first one we produced.’

As legend has it, Colnago was first turned on to the idea of working with Ferrari not by investigations into carbon fibre in the mid-1980s – although that would be the match to the touch paper – but after the Merckx Hour record in 1972.

King Leopold of Belgium, together with his wife and daughters, had travelled to Mexico City to watch the feat, and when he saw the Colnago bike the king said to his wife, ‘This man is the Ferrari of two wheels.’

Collaborating with Ferrari is, of course, every marketer’s dream, but where the C35 is concerned, Colnago says it bore legitimate fruit.

‘With Ferrari we used incredibly sophisticated computer tools at the time – finite element analysis, CAD – to produce the C35, which was our first monocoque carbon fibre road bike. The name is because it celebrates my company’s 35th anniversary.’

This C35 also bears the mark of another longstanding relationship: a gold-plated Record groupset provided by Valentino Campagnolo complete with Colnago’s ‘flying ace of clubs’ and engraved name. 

Rominger hour record, 1994

Mapei’s Tony Rominger was out to beat Miguel Indurain’s Hour record, and as team sponsor, Colnago was only too happy to help.

However, despite being deep into carbon fibre design, Colnago opted for steel for Rominger’s machine. Partly this was due to time, of which there wasn’t enough to create a purpose-built carbon bike. But it also concerned something else.

‘Tony was a very good rider but he was not so good on the track, and carbon fibre bikes proved too stiff for him to handle on the track, so we produced this from Columbus Oval CX steel.

‘Look at the frame, the seatpost. See how thin everything is. The seatpost is 3mm thick, the seatstays 5mm. But the main drag on a bicycle, 85%, comes from the rider.’

Colnago had deduced that although Indurain was fast, he could have been faster. Not only did Indurain’s carbon fibre Pinarello Espada present a wider frontal area than Colnago’s steel bike, his position was sub-optimal, producing what was later reckoned to be a 13% larger frontal area than Rominger.

So with specially designed bars made with ITM, and pedalling a 60x14 gear, Rominger propelled this Colnago machine to a total 55.251km in an hour, breaking Indurain’s record by over 2km.