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  • The Wizard of Cambiago

    Posted on
    Photographs: Ben Ingham

    A young, recently retired racer and bicycle factory worker named Ernesto Colnago had noticed a fault with a rider’s bike. The bike belonged to national favourite Fiorenzo Magni, and, prior to the 1955 Giro d’Italia, he was frustrated and struggling with leg problems. Colnago quickly spotted that his cranks were misaligned and running unevenly, so, somewhat ambitiously, he persuaded Magni to let him have his bike in for repair. Colnago knew immediately that the cotter pins that held the chainset to the axle had to be accurately re-filed for the crank arms to line up perfectly, and he worked hard to perfect the crooked drive train. His attention to detail was admirable. Magni’s knees recovered; Colnago was established.
    This type of repair was not unusual in the 1950s, and racing bikes of the era required a lot of fettling. Wheels needed constant truing, brakes had to be set up on a daily basis and gears were constantly on the point of breaking down. What was unusual was the ability to spot these problems. Ask any current team mechanic about the tools of their trade and they will say that they only need a handful of simple ones to fix a modern racing bike.
    In fact, most days, the bikes just need a wash and some fresh bar tape – serious problems are rare. In Colnago’s day, you needed a watchmaker’s attention to detail and an engineer’s workshop to carry out even the most basic repair, so very few mechanics could cut it on the demanding professional circuit.
    Colnago’s repairs quickly built him a formidable reputation. His apprenticeship as a welder at Italian racing bike giant Gloria meant he could build frames, too. These were highly regarded by the local racing fraternity and, soon, many top stars called on his services, even those with other bike sponsors. He always worked hard, often staying up all night in his tiny workshop, once to build more than ten pairs of wheels for a local team the night before a stage race.
    But Ernesto was more than just a grafter. Colnago had a sickness, an addiction. His creativity and engineering talent meant that his “Wizard” nickname was soon established and his pride in his work rewarded. 
    These days, little has changed in the small industrial town of Cambiago, just outside Milan, where Colnagos have always been produced. Ernesto is a youthful-looking seventy-something. He starts work at 7am and finishes at 9pm, as he always has. He answers the phone at lunchtime, when the factory closes. He can’t stay still for more than ten minutes; when we visited him, he had meetings all day. A friend needs a fitting for a new bicycle, then the phone is stuck to his ear for hours on end as he talks to distributors.
    Later on, team bosses, riders and mechanics float in and out of his office. We, like the others, all receive the same brisk approach. Colnago only slows down when we take his picture; out comes a medium-format film camera and he starts to relax. Perhaps he enjoys the chance to see someone else at work or he has a regard for another’s craft. Whatever the reason, he clearly enjoys Ben’s approach and even manages a laugh.
    We work fast because we have no choice. The time allowed for our interview is short, but, to be frank, we’ve seen enough. It’s tiring just trying to keep up with his pace. Added to the hustle and bustle is the process his business takes – everything goes through his office. Signor Colnago rubberstamps even the smallest decision. He can see almost all the factory from his desk and the bits he can’t see are across the road, in the sprawling basement under his house. 
    We are soon ushered under the house to witness an Extreme Power at assembly stage. Each size of frame has its own steel alignment table where each junction is assembled. There are no mass-production techniques here. The man who selects the pre-cut, mitred tubes and corresponding lugs from their pigeon-holes will oversee each stage of the frame’s assembly.
    This slow approach confounds, given the presence of this global brand. Each frame, once completed, stays on the table and is hardened, or “cured”, in situ with an individual oven to avoid any unwanted movement. Suddenly, it becomes clear why a customer may have to wait a long time for one of these frames.
    Later on, all the office and factory workers drop by and say goodnight to Colnago as he sits at his huge desk, working on into the evening. To say this man is a control freak is an understatement, but that’s not to be disrespectful. Given the choice, you’d want a man with this much obsession, care, and experience to build you a bike, especially as his passions in bicycle design have always been the paramount prerequisites of rider comfort and safety. As a former racer himself, he knows that a bike needs to handle impeccably and look after its passenger. These things have always been far more important to Colnago than the latest colour scheme, the lightest weight or the quirkiest marketing gimmick.
    Colnago has long and deep associations with bike racing since the days when Gastone Nencini won the 1957 Giro d’Italia aboard one of his bikes. This relationship, however, operates on another level. Colnago’s riding experience has enabled him to spot several great riders before their potential was realised: Giuseppe Saronni, Pavel Tonkov and Yaroslav Popovych have all been mentored by Ernesto. During the 70s and 80s, he would send 30 bikes a year to the former Soviet Union, bikes that would be ridden by one rider after another, the company’s ace of clubs logo no doubt etched into their minds. 
    Today, he still helps young local racers who can’t afford a bike, often giving them a secondhand one for races. He knows how hard the sport is and how important good equipment can be. He’s acquainted with many of the riders personally and knowledgeable too, remembering every one of their victories like any true fan. So however determined and tenacious he may be in business, he certainly has a love of the sport and a wish to support it generously.
    Colnago’s current sponsorship deals cost him 530 bikes a year, all custom-made and approved by the man himself, which means cyclists who ride for a Colnago-backed team will certainly get what they want. We asked him about the sponsorship side of the Colnago business. Is it something that shapes the product? And is the association with the pro teams the thing that drives Colnago forward?
    “The relationship between the bike manufacturer and the sponsor is very important,” he says. “It’s like a family. You need this relationship for the best results. For example, we have been working with Rabobank for ten years. And this association is a good example: Rabobank put in the money, Colnago supplies the bicycles, and the riders put in the heart. You need to work together.”
    A museum is the latest addition to the Colnago complex, containing a retrospective of a sculptor’s finest work: Ballerini’s C40, still covered in Roubaix mud; Merckx’s hour record bike with titanium stem and drilled chainrings; Rominger’s, too, with its simple white colour scheme – each bike with the Colnago signature and the Asso di Fiori (Ace of Clubs) head badge. These are works of art and bikes that shaped the recent history of bicycle racing.
    For many, the one that started it all for Colnago’s worldwide business, and for a host of Colnago fans, is Giuseppe Saronni’s 1983 Giro-winning bike. Sitting on a pair of perished Clément silks, it’s a discarded beauty, in wine-red enamel, white panels and chrome.
    The Mexico, with variable profile tubing, was perhaps the forefather of many tube-shaping exercises we now take for granted. Using a mix of Columbus tubing, it featured small ribs in the side of the top and down tubes. Interestingly enough, the inside faces of both chain stays had a similar detail, their aim being to improve stiffness while avoiding an increase in weight. The Mexico was also one of the first frames to use a microfusion cast bottom bracket shell. This method of fabrication was a departure from the pressed steel offerings of old. Cast shells were more accurately made, in most cases, allowing an improved meeting place for the chain stays, down tube and seat tube, thus maximising rigidity. 
    An elegant pair of slightly tear-dropped seat stays completed a rear triangle, which was as good as it got at the time. This frame was also one of the first to feature a brazed-on front mechanism boss, which gave a clean look to this area. Beautifully raked fork blades were another feature that made the Mexico stand out.
    While not strictly a Colnago exclusive, its forks were always lovingly hand-shaped, using a wooden former to create those smooth lines. Compare them to the predominant “broken dog’s leg” offerings of many competitors at the time – Raleigh to name one – and the difference is clear. A cast, rather than pressed crown, added strength to a part of the bike that Ernesto Colnago has never taken risks with. 
    Colnago also took a new design of fork end, which was cast with a “plug-in” feature, rather than the usual Campagnolo forged end. Traditionally, this component was introduced to the blade by slotting the end and brazing it in place, before filling the void around it with additional brass if needed. This socket-type of fitting was much easier to fit, as the fork simply needed to be cut to the correct length and the dropout brazed in place. Less heat was required during assembly – another bonus – and the finished article was claimed to have better lateral rigidity. Either way, it looked neat and worked well.
    Rear brake cable routing was the only issue with this frame. Two small braze-ons, rather than the more common three, were used to avoid over-heating the butted top tube in its thinnest, hence weakest, section. This meant that the rear brake cable could be a bit unruly and, at times, bow annoyingly. Old Campagnolo cables were slightly fatter than some on the market at that time, but a little blob of Blu Tack, of all things, at least stopped the cable buzzing against the immaculate paintwork. The gear cables, however, were routed better and were some of the first to run under the bottom bracket shell in neat runners, doing away with those messy brazed-on guides that accumulated so much road dirt.
    Today, the Mexico looks frail and dated when sat next to Colnago’s current creations, but in its heyday, it was good enough for powerhouse Saronni to race to many victories, that flash of red leaving all others in its wake – most notably in the finale of the World Championship road race at Goodwood in 1982.
    A couple of years later, and the Master was launched. Colnago sought the collaboration of Gilberto Columbus and is also rumoured to have consulted Ferrari’s engineers to discuss the unique tube profiles of this legendary frame. The star profile tube set, which has since become a Colnago trademark, was the end result of research into how to increase rigidity. Several manufacturers copied the complex tube design, but this frame was in a different class.
    Colnago was still governed by the restrictions that lugs placed on a frame-builder. Do what you will between the lugs, but when it comes to joining your tubes together, return to conventional-sized round sections. The Gilco tubes obliged, after an ingenious extrusion system was developed that created a star shape in the mid-section but made the transition to round at the end of each tube. It was claimed the resulting structure was 14 per cent stiffer, and the early versions – whilst having a slightly hard feel – certainly handled as though they were on rails.
    But the first Masters were relatively heavy. Refinement took several years through developmental incarnations such as the Master Piu, with its internal cable routing, Master Olympic, and Master X-Lite, where the tube walls were thinned, resulting in a necessary increase in diameters. The Master also saw the introduction of the now-ubiquitous Colnago Precisa straight fork. This design confounded the critics at the time and is still widely misunderstood today. Colnago knew that in long arduous races, the fresher rider who had wasted the least energy would be best-positioned to win.
    Stiffness ensured efficiency – but at the expense of comfort and vibration absorbency. This ultimately contributed to rider fatigue. Engineers at Ferrari showed how, in reality, a straight fork actually reduced the transmission of road shock to the rider. The advent of the microfusion fork crown then gave Colnago the strength to create the rake at the top of the fork, as opposed to along its length. The added benefits of a blade under less stress and with no compromise to wall thickness gave us the unmistakable straight fork that now graces every Colnago.
    The Master also had other interesting little tweaks, such as the inverted tops of the seat stays. Rather than having the traditional sloping outer faces found in most Italian frames, the Master had these surfaces facing inwards. Such attention to detail resulted in a brake bridge much shorter than conventional ones – another boost to the frame’s rear-end rigidity. The cast bottom bracket shell also featured an integrated web to avoid the necessity for a chain stay bridge – one less manufacturing process and less heat applied to this sensitive area.
    Over the years, other variants of this steel flagship frame have come and gone, the most recent being the Master carbon, which some would say was ill-conceived. This frame satisfied no one with its attempt at fusing new with old. The true steel-lover will only ever be satisfied with a product that is true to its roots and does not pander to market trends.
    Initially featuring a carbon rear triangle in 2005/06, for 2007 this has been reduced to a seat stay with chain stays reverting to steel. One can only hope that 2008 sees the full steel rear end return, taking us full circle – with a chrome-plated Precisa fork to boot. 
    Aerodynamics raised its head with the introduction of the Oval CX, but what little it made up for in reduced wind resistance it gave away in added weight and unwanted frame flex. The Master Arabesque was a rare beauty combining the stellar tubes with artistic, hand-finished, elaborate lug work, while the Master Evo is perhaps the ultimate in esoteric framesets. Intricate, custom, star-shaped lugs carry the down tube’s dual sections which are parted on their journey to the bottom bracket and end up as far apart as the shell allows, all in the pursuit of increased resistance to pedal force.
    This innovative design feature with its quaint little bridges accommodating a bottle cage would find its way into the next generation of Colnagos, the Carbitubo. Other steel frames that came a little later, such as the Superissimo, were just marking time until the market was ready for something new.
    The Carbitubo was a taste of things to come, and the second carbon fibre frame from Colnago following the introduction of the C35 in 1989. A monocoque frameset, the C35 was an improvement on a steel frame in some ways, with the correctly applied characteristics of carbon fibre providing better ride comfort. But it was bulky, expensive to produce, and mould costs restricted the range of sizes that would be economically viable.
    The Carbitubo, on the other hand, bridged the gap. Using aluminium lugs and bonding technology in a suspiciously close-looking collaboration with the Italian frame fabricator Alan, this frame had some very familiar-seeming construction techniques. It also had the usual restrictive junctions that, while emulating steel frame dimensions, failed to make the most of carbon’s characteristics. It was time for new thinking and, ultimately, a manufacturing method that allowed these new materials to come into their own.
    Make way for the C40 – the frame that is perhaps the godfather of the modern carbon fibre racing bicycle. It was the first fully carbon frameset that offered a wide range of sizes and broke new ground in performance, retaining Colnago’s favoured lug construction, which became the subject of an animated argument in Ernesto’s local trattoria a few years ago.
    When questioned about Tig welding and alternative construction techniques, he used an empty glass and depleted bottle of the local produce to explain how the frame relied completely on the weld for any strength when it did not have a lug supporting the two tubes. This approach was carried forward into the C40, with a wide range of monocoque lugs created to allow a wider range of sizes than ever before, and a carbon fibre frame that could stand on its own before any adhesive was introduced.
    Early C40s had a steel Precisa fork as standard and were supplied for a short period with a Time carbon option. But Colnago was not satisfied, so he set out on a product enhancement programme that was to span ten years. The ground-breaking Star fork was a masterpiece, introduced in time for Pavel Tonkov’s 1996 Giro d’Italia victory. Featuring a one-piece construction, even the dropout was integrated into the blade with a small alloy skin added for durability where the wheel was held in place – a fork so light yet instilling 100 per cent confidence.
    Tubing sections were also refined and beefed up. Cable routing was improved. The original rear seat stay evolved into the B-Stay, where both seat stays joined together before meeting the seat tube to provide improved strength and vibration absorption.
    The frame developed mythical reputation; light, comfortable, durable and with impeccable manners on the road, it was becoming the frame everyone wanted to ride. The final tweak came with the addition of the HP chain stay with its unusual diamond-shaped gap. While this last modification had its detractors who questioned the claimed “five per cent increase in lateral rigidity and 3.5 per cent improvement in vertical compliance”, it merely pointed to Colnago’s never-ending pursuit of improvement, however small.
    “The C40 convinces me to go faster, try just that little bit more, to be a racer. This bike has everything covered: it can sprint, climb and descend. It’s comfortable, it looks good, it’s strong, it’s light. The finish lasts. Ownership means instant respect, instant envy.So, life after a C40: never the same again? Probably.”
    41 – ProCycling, June 1999
    Aluminium frames made a showing with the introduction of the Dream and its variants, but Colnago never felt that this material was ultimately where things were headed. Lower-cost offerings, such as the Asso, came with Colnago’s pedigree and proven geometry but little else, which meant they did not become as influential as the frames mentioned here in more detail.
    Colnago also experimented with Titanium, producing models such as the CT1 and CT2, both of which have their diehard fans. But once he realised that these offerings were really a stopgap, it became clear that his real interest was in the black stuff.
    After taking the C40 as far as he could, and after 50 years of bike-building, Colnago introduced the C50. This took the characteristics of its predecessor and introduced an oversizing programme that embraced a higher modulus of carbon fibre. Oversizing created an opportunity to reduce weight without sacrificing any of the other characteristics Colnago had worked so hard to achieve. But the market has now become ferociously competitive; well-informed consumers now want specific characteristics in their new steeds.
    While the C50 provides an exceptional combination of different ride qualities, Colnago has responded to customers’ demands with the Extreme C, which offers a lighter frame with, inevitably, a slight reduction in comfort. A couple of rigorous seasons with input from Rabobank’s King of the Mountains, Michael Rasmussen, and Vuelta winner Denis Menchov, has provided a worthwhile product with no compromise to rider safety.
    The other superstars on Colnago’s books, Alessandro Petacchi and Erik Zabel, have made different demands on their equipment, resulting in the birth of a completely new frame – the Extreme Power. Building on the heritage of the C40, C50 and Extreme C, the tubing has a substantial increase in rigidity to resist the great stresses a sprinter puts on their equipment. Featuring a noticeably larger section to all the tubes and a clever internal rib system dubbed CRS, the end result is a light frame with a 30 per cent improvement in stiffness.
    So what will happen next? When pushed, Ernesto Colnago himself is somewhat unsure where the next development will come from. Hints that new composite materials are in development leaves one feeling that they are still some way off. We suggest magnesium. “Not possible. It’s unstable.”
    Titanium, then? “We made bikes for Master [steel], Titanio [titanium], but titanium is too heavy – 15 per cent too heavy. Then aluminium [Dream] and now carbon [C40, C50].”
    So the next big material after carbon? He shrugs, then looks at the floor and laughs. “Marble? No idea.”
    In a recent move, the manufacture of a range of ready-to-ride bikes has been outsourced to the Far East – although it should be pointed out the design has remained in-house. Proud of his heritage, some detractors would argue that Colnago has sold out, but he’s also a businessman and is careful about the products he allows his name to be used on. Ask about other carbon brands and he is quick to respond: like the cliche of the old-school football manager, he worries about Colnago, not the competition.
    He refuses to adopt concealed aheadsets, extended seat tubes and super-lightweight components, concerning himself instead with function over form rather than the annual merry-go-round of bicycle upgrades. Now he just wants to reach a bigger market, so fair play to him. Let’s remember that when many of the current crop of mainstream manufacturers where cutting their teeth in Taiwan, Colnago was building race bikes and changing wheels for Merckx, Motta and Dancelli, with dirt under his fingernails and a busy workshop filling his head with ideas for race bikes.
    Incorporating his strongly-held principles into ready-to-ride bikes has not been without problems. And by striving to have transparent business practices – something that cannot be said for several of his competitors – he has created some confusion surrounding the brand. His intention is simply to bring a more affordable range of bicycles built on the foundation, legacy – call it what you will – of a life’s work, and that aim is currently being led by the CLX.
    Combining a monocoque carbon fibre main triangle coupled to a modular rear end, the frame pays homage to the Master tube profile with subtle tube detail, which one suspects in this case is more for “show” than “go”. Carrying the well-established straight fork, it has a modern, curvaceous appearance that sits uneasily next to its more conservative brothers. The traditional Colnago customer may not even give it a second glance. Nevertheless, the bike undoubtedly carries the Colnago pedigree and perhaps sets the brand up for the future.
    But maybe the final decades of the 20th century were the golden years for frame design and manufacturing. After all, it took ten years to make a better carbon frame than the C40, and customers now demand new developments every year. It is sad to say, but Colnago has to change, and change it will. But whatever happens in the coming years, Colnago is still the name that instantly conjures up images of countless victories, quality products, innovative engineering and a love of the bicycle – a love of cycling.


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