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In pictures: Cinelli’s classic bikes

15 Mar 2019

This article was originally published in issue 83 of Cyclist magazine

If you can follow me, I am never square and logical – I go for successive waves.’

So says Antonio Colombo, sovereign-ringed fingers making the gesture of rippling water while his bright blue Nike Air Max bounce under the table.

‘I do not want to be a museum curator, but next year is 100 years, so a sort of bicycle museum has to surround us.’

He’s referring not to the bike brand of which he is president, but to sister brand Columbus Tubi, a subsidiary of the AL Colombo steel tubing company founded in 1919 by his father, Angelo Luigi, and which Colombo junior united with fellow Milanese operation Cinelli in 1978.

The story of events leading up to this merger could fill a book on its own, involving seaplanes, Ferrari chassis and high-end furniture production, but the pivotal moments came through bicycles.

Quite simply, Cino Cinelli made them, Columbus made the tubing for them, and a natural allegiance was formed.

Today the companies occupy connected buildings in the Milan province of Caleppio, and operate under the umbrella ‘Gruppo Srl’.

But while the tube-making facility is one of shiny industrial awe, it’s the bikes that we’re here for.

And boy does Cinelli have some fantastic examples.

Laser by Keith Haring, 1986-1988

 ‘I swapped this bike with Keith Haring in 1988 for our “Multi-fluoro” mountain bike, which was painted in these psychedelic colours, the aesthetic of the 1980s,’ says Antonio Colombo.

‘The exchange was I give you a new one, you give me an old one painted.

‘This was one of three bikes Henrik Oersted used for his Hour record attempt in 1986 [although the Dane pulled out at the last minute with a hand injury].’

Haring, who died in 1990 aged 31, was an influential street artist in 1980s New York, famous for his colourful murals that often depicted the ‘dancing men’ that feature on this ‘funny bike’s’ disc wheels.

‘People think I just gave Keith the wheels, but I sent him the whole bike.

‘So I was surprised when it came back and the frame was the same colour.

‘I asked him why he hadn’t painted it and he told me “because the paint was so good already”.

‘The link between Cinelli and guys like Keith is not straight. These guys are not interested in what is going on at the Tour de France.

‘But we have a connection with bike messengers and the fixed gear scene that came out of it.

‘Those guys needed low maintenance, fast and light bikes they could carry up stairs, so they ended up with track bikes.

‘As a messenger you spend your life on a bicycle, so they wanted the best they could afford, so they bought old Bianchi, Cinelli, Masi frames.

‘Everything that makes you feel better goes faster.’

Laser Stayer, c.1989

‘This bicycle was at the World Championships, where it won gold,’ says Cinelli’s CEO, Paolo Erzegovesi.

‘Walter Brugna was the rider [the year was 1990]. Not long after [in 1994] the UCI stopped stayer racing.’

Stayer racing is the most madcap cycling discipline, in which riders are motor-paced around a velodrome with the moto rider standing up to act as a windbreak and the cyclist riding as close as possible behind.

Stayer bikes have 24-inch front wheels, ‘reversed’ forks and exceptionally long stems to get the rider deep into the slipstream.

‘The G-force on a stayer when it corners is incredible, so the bikes had braces under the stem and seat to keep them stiff – we used to sell many of these braces – and the riders would wrap the bars with big foam pads to protect their hands from the pain of holding on.

‘They would average 70-80kmh per hour, and could reach 100kmh.

‘To get as far forward behind the motor-pacer as possible, the seat tube was very steep, but that meant the saddle nose passed the bottom bracket, which was against the rules.

‘So all the saddles had their noses cut off.

‘The rear wheel was brought in as far as possible too, sometimes so much so that a channel had to be cut into the bottom bracket shell, and the wheel could only be removed when the tyre was deflated.’

Cinelli SC, c.1968

‘The Super Corsa. It is Columbus SL tubing with the seatpost binder with the hole in the back,’ says Erzegovesi.

‘It has the [Alfredo] Binda toe straps, but the all-leather ones. Later we put in a plastic strip because the leather would stretch in the rain.

‘It’s the reason for the Unicanitor saddle we developed, the first saddle with a nylon base.

‘Like the toe straps, leather saddles would go saggy when it rained.

‘The first Super Corsas came out in the 1960s, and I think this one belonged to Cino [Cinelli] himself.

‘Interestingly the decal on the seat tube says “Speciale Corsa”, but this is because at one point there was an error with our printers and we received the wrong badges.

‘So there is no difference between Speciale and Super Corsa, although we did have the cheaper Modello B, made with fenders, and the “Sophisticated Lady” Corsa for women.

‘The bike was super-light for its time, made from very thin steel tubing.

‘Very nice to ride but terrible in the long term, because over time sweat would collect around the cable guides on the top tube, which Cino insisted the bike had to keep it light.

‘He just said this is a bike for professionals so it only needs to last three years.

‘Something else – the holes in the lugs might look decorative, but they meant you could see whether the brass had been properly sucked into the brazed joint.

‘They were like little windows.’

Laser, 1981

‘I did a drawing for a Laser after I saw a French aerodynamic bicycle on a trip to Japan,’ says Antonio Colombo of a bike he’d seen with ‘webbing’ between the tube junctions.

‘I was with Andrea Pesenti [who would go on to head up the Laser programme] and I said, “Why don’t we do this? It gives it a much more aerodynamic look and more strength.

‘It can look beautiful.”

‘We realised we needed very thin metal to wrap around the tubes to form the webbing, and by chance found that the boot assembly on a Fiat Cinquecento had this incredibly thin, strong metal, so we cut the pieces for the first Laser frames out of a Fiat.’

Thus the first Laser prototypes were born, and in 1981 the Laser and Laser America were released.

‘This is not the first one, but it is the same model,’ says Erzegovesi.

‘There were two versions, the “America”, which had Modolo mini-brakes, chosen because they were small enough to fit under the bottom bracket for aerodynamics, and the Aero Road, with normal brakes.

‘But really the main drag is the rider, so the original Laser concept was to offer more freedom with geometry, but keeping straight tubes.’

To that end, Erzegovesi explains that while those iconic swoops at the tube junctions might look aero, their purpose was to be able to reinforce acute angles.

This design trait evolved into some of the first low-profile ‘funny bikes’, with drastic saddle-to-bar drops and smaller front wheels.

Laser Ammortizzatta, 1986

‘Ammortizzatta’ is Italian for ‘cushioned’, but at first glance it’s not immediately obvious why this strikingly red Laser gets that moniker.

Look a little harder, just under the headset and at the top of the seatstays, and you’ll see the reason.

‘I worked with Professor Dal Monte, who designed many of Francesco Moser’s Hour record bikes,’ says Erzegovesi.

‘We worked on many stupid things, including this.

‘The idea was to reduce rolling resistance on the track and the road, so we used special tyres and suspension.

‘The chainstays are designed to flex, damped by an elastomer at the top of the seatstays and suspension above the fork crown.

‘It produces probably a couple of centimetres of movement.

‘We used the suspension so we could run very high-pressure tyres. The standard tubulars then were 19mm, but we tested 17mm.

‘For that you needed super high-pressure – we calculated 16bar [232psi], which made it impossible to keep the tyres inflated [as the tubulars’ latex inner tubes naturally leaked air].

‘So I took some wheels to this guy who made drums for typewriters out of very dense rubber.

‘I asked him to cover the edge of the rims in this material, then I machined them on a lathe to make the tyre.

‘The contact patch with the ground is very, very small – just 9mm.

‘At some point we lost the original front wheel, which was also a solid tyre disc wheel.

‘This was the only one we made. A crazy project!’

Experimental track bike, c.1985

‘Around 1985 I said the future of bicycles would be carbon fibre,’ says Erzegovesi.

‘I am passionate about boats and they were using this material already, so I started to experiment.

‘We were also very keen on aerodynamic experimentation as well.

‘This bike was just for research, to test on the track.

‘We painted it afterwards – it used to be completely black.

‘It is just two panels of carbon fibre with some foam inside.

‘The first one was more stupid than this – I made it in the garage of a friend of mine using cavity insulation foam that I simply cut out and stuck to a steel frame.

‘It did make a lot of difference to the drag, but it was totally illegal and the cycling federation said no way.

‘After the Francesco Moser disc wheels [which secured Moser an Hour record in 1984] everyone was trying things like Lycra fabric from the bike to the rider to form some kind of spoiler, or a piece here or there for a fairing.

‘The UCI decided to change the rules so that no dimension of the frame could be more than 75mm.

‘That changed bike design massively. Everything we could do suddenly got smaller.

‘It has our M71 pedals, the first clipless pedals [Look pedals came later, and were known to be “automatic”].

‘A sprung pin bolted your cleat to the pedal, and the idea was if you go down you touch the ground with the end of the pin, which releases your foot.

‘I think there were more riders killed by the M71 than any other pedal.’

Ole Ritter Hour Record, 1968

‘This was one of Ole Ritter’s training bikes for the Hour record [which the Dane secured, riding 48.653km in Mexico City].

‘The bike he made his attempt on was a Cinelli bike as well, but we made it for Benotto, so it has their name on it,’ says Erzegovesi.

He explains that while this track frame might appear basic, it had many cutting-edge features for the day, such as the forks.

Post-war, Italy began to re-cover its poorly surfaced roads in asphalt, leading Cino Cinelli to redesign his forks to be stiffer.

He reasoned that the smoother roads no longer needed forks with long, heavily raked legs designed to flex.

Thus the sloping fork crown – a ubiquitous sight on most of today’s road bikes – was born.

‘That design was our invention, and it meant the fork could have shorter and therefore stiffer legs, which is exactly what you need on the track.

‘Another thing you need to be able to do is fine-tune the rider position, which is why the seat clamp here is also very special.

‘Cino wanted to clamp the seatpost without applying too much torque on the bolt, so the seatstay lugs are positioned behind the seatpost [not either side, as was more common] and are shaped and cut so the seat bolt goes right up against the back of the seatpost.

‘It meant the bolt required much less torque to secure the post than the old designs, where the bolt would fail after maybe 20 uses.

‘This meant we could change Ritter’s position many times without having to keep replacing the seat bolt.’

CMX-1, 1980

‘Cino Cinelli’s son, Andrea, used to work for the company back when I joined in the 1970s, although he left sometime in the 1980s to start his own company, Cinetica [making some of the earliest monocoque carbon fibre frames],’ says Erzegovesi.

‘One day Andrea saw Andrea Pesenti welding some of our industrial tubing with a TIG torch – this was when everything was still brazed – and he said, “Hey, do you want to try and make a bike like this?”

‘So this was the first TIG-welded bike we produced in big numbers.’

As the company did with mountain bikes in the mid-1980s (Antonio Colombo relates the story that ‘I went to a Grateful Dead concert with Gary Fisher, then I went to see him working in his garage outside San Francisco and thought, “This is the future of the bicycle.”’), Cinelli had foreseen the United States’ BMX boom coming to Europe.

It set about creating what might be the only mass-produced, Columbus-tubed BMX the world has ever seen.

It matched the frame with its own stem and seatpost (the latter interestingly marketed as ‘hollow at both ends for light weight but solid in the centre for additional strength at the insertion point’), specially commissioned hubs, chainset and pedals from Campagnolo.

And showing its true racing pedigree, the original spec sheet ran to 20-inch tubular tyres from Clement.

‘It was somewhat successful for the company. But looking at it now, what terrible weld beads!’

Laser Crono Strada

‘Columbus makes bicycle tubing, but AL Colombo made tubing for all kinds of industries, including oil and gas,’ says Erzegovesi.

‘This is how Andrea Pesenti came to work for us – or “Laserman” as people called him [and which Pesenti has tattooed on his arm].

‘He was employed to do the TIG-welding on high-pressure pipes.

‘It was Andrea’s TIG-welding skills that helped us create bikes like this lo-pro for the Laser family.

‘With Andrea Cinelli and some other colleagues, Pesenti started this company within Cinelli called “Formula Bici”, which they used to test new geometry, new techniques and materials.

‘That led to Cinelli making the first TIG-welded frames, which meant we could join tubes at any angles because we didn’t need lugs, so we could custom-fit every rider in the most aerodynamic position possible.

‘Pesenti worked for the company for many years, and we had many interesting experiences together, not always just about bikes.

‘There was this place in Italy called San Patrignano, where they offered help to guys with drug problems.

‘They got them to work on the land, so I thought we could see if they wanted to learn to make bikes.

‘I gave Pesenti six months’ paid leave and he went there and trained five guys to build frames.

‘After four years there were 30 guys, and they started to produce for us, Carrera, De Rosa.

‘Sadly they have closed this experience now, but you will still find these guys at some of the biggest framebuilders in Italy.

‘Building bicycles is an incredibly satisfying experience, and it really changed them.’