The Canary Islands: home of the family package holiday. A Lanzarote resort complex is not, on initial thoughts, the most natural of places for Colnago to showcase their latest top end road bike to the media.
Then again: why not? Colnago’s prestige is built around good bicycles. The brand’s celebrated reputation pre-dates the bike industry era of fancy-pants pretensions. They’re actually quite a small company. 28 employees. Family run. And the Aequora Suites are as family friendly as vacation destinations come.
Ernesto’s even brought his grandson along – Alessandro, who’s a key figure in the business.
The bike is unveiled to our small crowd of journalists in a starkly lit basement room below the lobby, where Ernesto greets everyone warmly.
“This is the discoteque,” he tells me with a smile after we descend the stairs into the cavernous room. It is, I acknowledge with a nod to the DJ booth, and we both stick out our thumbs and start wiggling our hips for a couple of seconds of pretend grooving. Like you do when you meet Ernesto Colnago.
The Italian (pictured above) is in his mid 80s now. In fact, the bike is being officially launched on February 9th in celebration of his 86th birthday – and in the seemingly more suited surrounds of a Milan pavilion. The C64 title: a nod to the company’s 64th year.
Tonight though, the strobe lights stay off, the mirror ball static. Forget kitsch disco, it actually feels more like a school assembly hall.
In a navy jacket, dark trousers and a pair of black leisure shoes, the spritely octogenarian stands on the stage and enthuses about the new model before whipping off the sheet. Having followed up a 1986 concept carbon bike with the C35, the groundbreaking C-series is now 29 years strong.
“Colnago never stops,” he asserts.
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The bike. That’s what we’re here for. Enough of the scene setting. What to say about the bike?
Well, it’s a Colnago. Genuinely Italian made. The latest top-model. Reason enough for some to part with some cash for one. Reason enough then to not waffle on about lateral stiffness, compliance and the other build virtues that get wheeled out at every bike launch. Not too much anyway. A Colnago is a Colnago. The name is revered.
That’s not to say Colnago rest on their laurels. Or to belittle the engineering genius that has gone into this project, or indeed any other manufacturer’s attempts at improving the 130 year old contraption that is the safety bicycle. For Colnago’s R&D Engineer Davide Fumigalli (pictured below), it was a very difficult project.
“I’ve been working at the company for nine years, and spent the last four years on this,” he tells me as we roll off a roundabout the next morning and start climbing into Lanzarote’s moonscape hinterland.
As successor to the C60, he says he started working on the C64 the day after the former launched. What, ironing out the bits he wasn’t happy with? The parts he didn’t quite have time to address? The C60’s failings? Not quite. The difficulty in the project lay in identifying where enhancements could be made.
“It’s hard making improvements to the best bike in the world,” he notes without any reservation. “We really did feel the C60 was nearly perfect, so we had to work very hard at what we could improve.”
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Here’s another thing about having a launch in Lanzarote. If the bike you’re showcasing happens to be black, grey and white with clean lines and an earthy matt carbon finish, it may well be aesthetically complimented by the neat geometrics of Lanzarote’s white architecture, the smart shadows cast by the warm low January sun and the rugged black volcanic fallout that surfaces much of this southeastern side of the Atlantic island.
Whether these subtleties were discussed in the launch planning meeting is another matter. The more obvious draw is the island’s good, smooth, rolling roads and the pleasant subtropical-desert climate. Plus: a journalist is always going to be partial to a choice of four pools and an all-inclusive wristband at the bar.
But we’re in the disco-cum-school hall doing a kind of show-and-tell with individual joins and tubes from the bike’s modular anatomy. A new integrated seat tube and lug with hidden seat clamp, a bottom bracket shell to house the latest collaboration with Ceramic Speed, the asymmetric chainstays that compensate for the extra leverage put upon the left. For the cameras, Ernesto will later slot these demo tubes together.
There’s a downtube with a recessed bottle mount. A top tube. Another Alessandro, Colnago’s PR guy, instructs me to take a look down the inside. It’s so clean, so neat. So exquisite. Normally there’s a spider’s tangle of loose carbon threads in there.
Nevermind that this is a view an owner will only ever see in the unlikely event of their C64 falling apart. Or more probably, an embittered, jealous spouse taking a hacksaw to it. The message here is precision engineering. The backstage and fire escapes are tidy too. These Colnagos look stunning. But that’s not just front.
* * *
The attention to detail may be second to none, but even a Colnago needs an occasional fine tuning. On the first climb away from the coast, the lower gears of the mechanical Super Record on my test bike jump around like an Irish-American rap anthem.
Even when they eventually bed-in, multiple barrel twiddles and 50km of mis-gearing later, I’m of the view that the clunky click of Campag’s top-end components are at odds with a very gracious ride. But I’m Shimano-conditioned these days, and others appreciate Campagnolo’s assertive feel. I do note, however, that Fumagalli’s own disc brake model -still being test ridden ahead of a May launch date- is equipped with Dura-Ace.
Fumagalli is effectively a one man band in Colnago’s R&D stable. Which makes me curious: when first working on the project, was it primarily with the disc or rim brake model in mind? Does what you want to do with one, lead the other?
“We work on both together,” he answers diplomatically. In a way, it could be perceived as a trick question (which one’s the afterthought?). But it’s a transitional time for the industry, and where priorities lie says something significant about vision, history, demand, inertia, modern trends and technology.
Fumagalli elaborates that the disc brake C64 (above) presented the greater technical challenges with internal routing, tackling weight and accommodating bigger forces. But for an Italian heritage brand like Colnago, rim brake models are still the bigger seller.
Discs or no discs, the front-end has seen a lot of development. The forks have been redesigned with an internal ribbing that makes them stiffer, while also being lengthened to accommodate the growing desire for wider tyres. It should take 28mm no problem.
At the tips, the disc brake thru-axle is now threaded to further reduce weight, while the rim-brake version’s drop outs are now all carbon.
This reworking of the forks necessitates a headset rethink. Say hello then to the model reworked from the Concept aero-bike which, through carbon-nylon polymer cups and elastomers, promises to absorb road vibration.
The new combo of fork and headset does away with the need for an expander plug, but in turn calls for a new in-house stem for the disc brake model which neatly internalises cables. Thankfully this is compatible with standard handlebars so the knock-ons -and this trawl through the technical details can- stop here.
* * *
The road summits a little beyond Asoma, where it cuts through a string of volcanic craters. The descent drops you into Lanzarote’s remarkable viticultural region where thousands of hillside vines grow in isolation in their own little micro craters. These catch water in the long dry summer and –often embellished with a small stone wall- protect the crop from Lanzarote’s perma-wind.
We turn left and enjoy the one section of the ride where we have the breeze on our back. The bike speeds without fuss. Calm and steady. As solid as a rock (not the best simile in a landscape so recently reshaped by molten earth-spew), even when its rider gets over-excited, out in shorts again after months in thermal tights – or just in per se.
After a roundabout at Uga dominated by two oversized model camels, the road climbs again, quite steeply. The C64 climbs as well as its heavily wintered rider allows.
Colnago go to great pains to stress that they’re not overly preoccupied with weight, that they will not compromise ride quality or safety in pursuit of saving grams. Nonetheless there have been trimmings. The fork, head tube, the seat clamp and the rear triangle have all been designed to be lighter. As an overall bike, Colnago claim the rim brake C64 to be approximately 205g lighter than its predecessor and the disc version 270g so.
* * *
Some folk might feel that they can sense subtle differences between top-end bikes within a handful of kilometres. That it’s stiffer, or lighter, or more compliant than another model. Me, I just not that perceptive. If it fits well, if it rolls nice; unless there’s a problem, a discomfort, an annoyance, then all’s well. An overview will take shape eventually.
The early miles tick by forming a couple of provisional impressions. But as with all rides, you settle in, engage in conversation, gape at the landscape and let your mind wander. You enjoy the flow, the fresh air, the sun, the curves of the road, the endorphin-release from exercise. You fret. About your fitness, about the distance, the wind, the half wheeling, eating enough, getting back in time for a dip in the pool. Oh yeah, and what you might write.
We drop from sharp descents in traffic, wind through towns, round rugged headlands, admire the rectangles of the salt ponds on the coast and the singular humps of the tourist-lugging dromedaries at the top of a cruel, ruler-straight headwind drag through the Timanfaya National Park. The sun revolves around the sky. The colour of the land changes. Black, ochre, green, desert khaki, beige. There are tear ups, there are easy bits, a pull-over by the police for taking up too much road in the crosswinds and a slap-up lunch in an Italian restaurant on the other side of the island.
Ernesto follows behind us in a van. Gives me a shove to get going from a stop at some point. Round the dinner table he tells us that it takes him back decades to his time as a mechanic in team cars at the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France – high flattery for our scraggly bunch. Honestly Ernesto, your bikes are nice enough.
I had meant to ride directly back to the hotel from our meal stop. But I’m tempted on. And on. Approaching the end of the ride, I consider I’ve not ridden anything like this distance since April last year. It’s anecdotal. Hard proof of absolutely nothing. But I’m still comfortable. The C64 feels fast and natural.
Not just a holiday romance, I want to take it home with me.