cycling utah May 2000

Classic Corner

Ernesto Colnago's craft still evident today

By Greg Overton

Colnago. Is there anyone who loves racing bicycles out there who has not said at one time or another, "Some day I'm gonna get a Colnago."?

Every time one of the major magazines in cycling conducts a poll of the most sought after bike, Colnago seems to win. It is rivalled only by Bianchi in associations with professional racing, and has more victories in racing than any other bicycle.

Colnagos are loved by the "classic" bike crowd and by the "latest and greatest" crowd. Even those who are turned off by the "decor" (as Colnago calls it) of the recent models with several different colors blended in swirls, stripes and swoops, can find beauty in the bike itself. And much of that beauty comes from the fact that Colnagos have always been great riding bikes.

Ernesto Colnago's bicycle company was created in 1953, in Cambiago, just outside Milan. He was born into a farming family, but always knew that the bicycle was his passion.

After manipulating his birth document to show age nineteen, instead of the correct age fourteen, Ernesto took an apprentice position in the Gloria bicycle factory. From this acorn grew a small one room shop where he did repair work to local riders' equipment on the side.

He attempted a career as a professional racer, but a collision with a post during a sprint resulted in a terribly broken fibula, and from then, he was forced to follow his talents and interests in the equipment instead of racing.

Taking the logical step, Ernesto became a race mechanic, eventually working his way into a position under the master Faliero Masi. This position was invaluable to his growth in the profession.

And his opportunism, visibility and outspoken demeanor gained him more notoriety. All of these attributes were duly noted by the young Colnago himself, and he was not ashamed to squeeze himself into post-race photos, awards ceremonies and interviews. He knew that to be successful, the cycling world must recognize him, and that for years to come, those photos and quotations would be of great use in marketing his products.

Ernesto's notoriety gained him a position with the powerful Molteni team in the sixties as head mechanic, and supplier of the team's equipment. It was a match made in heaven, for Molteni would soon enlist an up and coming superstar named Eddy Merckx. Molteni was a sausage company, and its team bikes were painted sausage brown with the sponsor's name on them, as was the tradition at the time, so the builder of team bikes was always a mystery.

Colnago was not beyond solving the mystery of Molteni's bike builder for anyone who cared to listen. Another great marketing move for the young entrepreneur. Many frame builders' legends grew out of this era when stories could abound almost unchecked as to the builder of great champions' bikes, but Ernesto was quick to set the record straight that he was the builder of the Molteni bikes.

In fact, several builders take credit for the construction of the great Merckx's frames, from the Belgian firm Helyett to Colnago to Masi, and DeRosa. Probably, they were all participants at one time or another.

It is known; however, that the current trademark Gilco tubing used by Colnago, in which the main tubes are sort of diamond-shaped instead of round resulted from Merckx's opinion that Colnago's frames did not descend well. Comparing them to DeRosa's, Merckx felt the Colnago to be too flexible.

Upon hearing this, Ernesto set about remedying the problem, even though it was the only complaint he had heard regarding his frames' performance.

But if Eddy Merckx feels your bike is too flexible, you should heed the advice and make changes. Colnago did not want to add weight to the bike design he had worked hard to lighten, so he decided to increase the torsional rigidity without adding weight.

With some work using an ordinary shop mandrel on normal round tubes, he flattened all four sides of the tubes to decrease flexibility under pedalling forces, and unknowingly produced his future trademark.

For many years now, Columbus has drawn the diamond-shaped tubes to Colnago's specification, and two decades of racing have proven the merits of the idea. The resulting frame is light, stiff and offers a compliant ride quality, all of the attributes of a great race bike.

Colnago is now seen as the leader of great Italian builders, even though his factory is larger and output has steadily increased over the years.

Always consumed with producing the best product, Colnago has ventured into territories that no other "old school" framebuilders would go. His series of carbon fiber bikes are considered to be among the best. Titanium was a medium of construction that Ernesto was eager to try, albeit with his own style in creating the Bititan, which had two smaller sized downtubes instead of the traditional one large tube. This was done so that the tubes could intersect the bottom bracket as far toward the side as possible to reduce bottom bracket sway, because it was felt that titanium was too flexible. This design has now given way to an oversized and oval downtube, as the process of drawing the tubing has allowed.

The only real negative in the history of Colnago frames was a slew of "counterfeit" Colnagos that showed up in the early eighties. Basically water pipe frames with Colnago decals. These frames were breaking all too often to be Colnagos, and the mystery was solved. Since the discovery of these, there have been no Colnago decals, and all those fancy colors and graphics that you see are painted onto the frame. Once again, Ernesto found a great and creative solution to a challenge.

Ernesto Colnago is happy to wear the mantle of master of the great class of builders, and will only really acknowledge equal status to Ugo DeRosa on the platform. Insisting that all others merely copy his frames and innovations, Colnago will dismiss any comparisons other than to DeRosa.

One need only look at the results of races over the past three decades to find the source of pride for Ernesto, as his bikes have been ridden to victory in every tour, classic, world record, olympics , track and cyclocross venue. Even today, Colnagos grace seemingly every magazine cover as riders are continuing to win on these fine machines.

Ernesto's never decreasing energy and passion for his craft shows in the finished product and in the fact that your Colnago is built no differently and by the same workers who built bikes for Mapei, Rabobank and even the Pope!

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