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Photographs: Ben Ingham

Antonio Colombo: My father started in 1919, doing tubing for general applications but without any brand name. He started to brand the tubing in the ’30s with the name Columbus, and at the time we were also making furniture. And at that time we were doing aircraft structures in very light tubing – so the speciality from the ’30s to the ’50s was doing hi-tech tubing for industrial, aeronautical and cycling applications.
After the war, the company changed to industrial applications more than bicycles, and when I was 22 – which means 1972 – I started to work at the company. My father was a bit old, and what I liked more about the history of the company was the bicycle and the furniture tubes more than industrial tubes, so I asked my father, “Why are you leaving this part of the company. You don’t push this!” And he said, “You do that if you like.”
And I started to work on the bicycle tubes, to rebuild the names, which was going to be a little bit difficult – nobody in the company cared about what’s going on in cycling, so I started to work with cycling. And to give an example – at the time Cino Cinelli, who was a friend of my father, was the only one who was allowed to sell our bicycle tubes in the world cycling market. I went to my father and said, “Hey, why should only one guy be allowed to sell our bicycle tubes?” My father said, “Because we don’t know bicycles.”
So I started to look around what was going on in the world of cycling. I started to talk with Cino Cinelli and had a sort of argument with him because he said, “You are not able, you’re a young guy, you’re not a cyclist, and you don’t know anything about cycling!” He was the best bike builder at the time and well connected with the federation of cyclists – he was the founder of the sindicato, the cyclists’ union, and the president of the union of the racers. I started to frequent with him. The first Tour of Italy I did with the car was with him – I was 23, 24 years old. I was driving the car and I learnt a lot. So after the initial fight, he started to understand that I was able to do something alone, and he gave me back the possibility to sell Columbus around the world.
After a while he decided to stop work in the company, and his son was not willing to take over, so he made an agreement with me and his son to continue running the company. That was around the start of the 1980s when my era in Cinelli and Columbus began. Basically, we had a lot of success – our goal has always been to make the history of cycling, and we succeeded with a lot of innovations that Cinelli made and that I was able to make. But one funny thing was that it grew from the competition between Columbus and Reynolds.
In 1972, Reynolds was stronger than us. They had tubing made in manganese alloy and ours was chrome molybdenum. We had been in competition for around 40 to 45 years. Reynolds had the flat fork blades that were called “English style” so the first thing I did in advertising was call ours “continental style” – we had the more rounded section blades, and because we designed them with better shock resistance and a heavier gauge steel.
English style had [arguably] a sort of lateral weakness, but they carried on with the English style and we stuck with the continental, so it was a sort of fair competition and playing with words. I knew the people at Reynolds, guys like Terry Bill, and met them many times. And at that time we were the only two brands in tubing, so we released SLX and it proved to be one of the hits of tube history. So as I said, our goal is make the history of cycling – when we do something and we believe in the story, that’s our goal.
Over the years, we amalgamated three small companies – Columbus, Cinelli and 3T, which we had bought. They were more or less the same size with 25 people in each. Putting together all three companies was a good decision in a way, but not so good because that time saw the beginning of off-shore operations – everybody in the industry was going to China. We built up this company in order to produce everything here and then we realised that production must be in China if you want to grow and be competitive. So we decided to concentrate more on the Cinelli brand, because there was some overlap in products between 3T and Cinelli – each time we came out with a product, we always wondered if people wanted it for 3T or Cinelli.
There was a certain internal competition which I was not able to bear, and production moving to China coincided with the carbon frame boom. We were making at least two million tubes in steel and aluminium per year, but five years ago we were making two hundred tubes because the market for tubes completely finished overnight – no one, or at least none of our customers, wanted to build steel bikes. So we were forced to shrink the company and go to China to produce handlebars and carbon frames and other components.
All my life, my problem with workers, with the environment, was noise. You have to be careful manufacturing tubes because they bang, there are machines, they’re noisy, so we had a lot of mechanisms in order to avoid noise. We made a lot of investment in automatic machines which didn’t bang, and that was because we had… I wouldn’t say problems with unions, but confrontations with unions to reach the goal of reducing noise. So noise was the main problem – and then we started to become silent because we’re not making any tubes! Now slowly, in the last two years, it’s coming back.
This is an extract from issue 17 of 1 Magazine, which was published in March 2010.

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