Colnago, the history of the mythical Italian clover
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Created in 1954 by a genius craftsman and emblem of the beautiful transalpine bike (with Bianchi and Pinarello), Colnago is the brand of Italian class, performance and high-end finishing, in a word of the bike of haute couture. Known first for making steel frames for racing, the company is also known for itsToday, Colnago is known for its creativity, both artistically (frames are hand-painted by airbrush) and technically (using innovative materials and cutting-edge technology).
Sharing the sense of detail and the love of beautiful mechanics with his compatriot Enzo Ferrari with whom he collaborated from the mid-1980s, Ernesto Colnago was the first, with his legendary C40, to promote carbon, not only on the asphalt of the South, but also on the cobblestones of the North - with the success that we know. A tireless inventor, a visionary technician and, incidentally, a former cyclist, Colnago worked alongside all the champions that this sport has seen in the post-war period, from Coppi and Magni to Pogačar, Merckx and Saronni.
A native of the province of Milan, the Maestro of Cambiago celebrated his 90th birthday this year. Aero" bike, carbon fiber, compact frame, straight fork, monocoque, disc brakes... The man who invented almost everything about the modern racing bike started from nothing. Here is a look back at the extraordinary career of a small Italian who became an absolute legend.
Ernesto Colnago in his office - Photo: Topvelo.com
Colnago, a precocious mechanic
1954... The end of the Indochina war, the beginning of the Algerian war, the birth of Elvis Presley in Memphis, the birth of François Hollande in Rouen... But that was also the year in which Ernesto Colnago, the son of Lombardy farmers, opened his own bicycle workshop in his home in Cambiago, after working as a welder at the Gloria bicycle factory in Milan. With his experience in the field and on the road (he successfully participated in a few local races), Ernesto was not yet 20 years old and knew what a good bike should be: in a few months he attracted a clientele of transalpine riders, but it was the (almost accidental) meeting of the "third man" of Italian cycling, Fiorenzo Magnian opponent of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, that changed everything. Ernesto made a bike for the disgruntled champion that was more compact, lighter and straighter. Magni is amazed by his performance. He talks about it to his friends. Ernesto becomes Colnago.
Colnago, frame builder extraordinaire
After working with Magni and his team (Nivea) as an assistant mechanic, especially on the Giro d'Italia he won in 1955, Colnago became chief mechanic for the prestigious Molteni. Working for Gianni Motta and Michele Dancelli, he designed and assembled the bikes, redefined the geometry of the frames, worked on weight, integration and performance. Ahead of his time, he continued to record victories - grand tours, classics, Olympic titles. By the end of the 1960s, Colnago was considered one of the best steel frame builders in the world.
World record in Mexico City
The early 1970s saw the beginning of a new and important partnership: after the dismantling of Faema, the great Eddy Merckxwho had already been supplied with custom wheels in 1967 (which enabled him to win Milan-San Remo), joined Molteni in 1971. Ernesto became Eddy's regular bike builder - up to 20 per year! Among other feats, Colnago built the track bike for hour record (49.431 km), set on October 25, 1972 in Mexico City - special steel and handmade chain, for a total weight of... 5,750 kg! During the steel era, Colnago was synonymous with lightness, class and innovation. Its bikes were beautiful, light, compact, even avant-garde. The competition is clawing at it, trying to emulate it, but they're behind the curve. Notepad and pen in hand, the "Maestro" continues to dream.
The Master sweeps all
The early 1980s saw the creation of machines as mythical as they are legendary - the Arabesque but especially the Master created to replace the Mexico with its star-shaped Columbus tubes. In 1982, Colnago joined the Del Tongo family's project to create its own team, Giuseppe Saronni won the world championship in his new colors, and the following year he won the Giro. For almost 20 years (Master Più, Master Olympic, Master Light, etc.), the Master recorded hundreds of successes on the professional circuit. Even today, few bikes can boast such a record of success.
Colnago Saronni WC - Photo: colnago.com
Colnago x Ferrari
In 1986, Enzo Ferrari asked Ernesto Colnago to collaborate on the creation of a revolutionary bicycle, inspired by Formula 1 technology: "I only want beautiful things," he said, "that are worthy of Ferrari. It was the beginning of a long friendship and a fruitful collaboration: celebrating the 35e anniversary of the "cloverleaf brand" (the brand's logo is a clover crossed with the rainbow stripes of world champions), the Colnago C35 was the first full-carbon bike, including fork, on the market (1989). For the first time, the fork is straight, not curved, as the team proved by calculation that the straight fork is both more efficient and easier to manufacture than the curved fork. Never before seen.
Hot streak on Paris-Roubaix
Hhe direct descendant of the C35 and precursor of the the current C68the Colnago C40 definitively establishes the supremacy of carbon, demonstrating that it can be used to make bikes that can stand up to any terrain. The prototype, made up to look like a aluminum frame, allows Tony Rominger to win the 1993 Tour of Spain. On April 9, 1995, the bet is more daring: no carbon bike has ever ventured on Paris-Roubaix. So the night before the race, the first one where the Mapei to ride C40s, Colnago slept poorly. Worse, he received a call from his boss, Giorgio Squinzi, who was as skeptical as most of the specialists and commentators: "Ernesto, are you sure about this? Isn't there a risk of the frame breaking? The race could have turned into a fiasco and signaled the end of the Colnago myth (already threatened by the growing Anglo-Saxon multinationals), but it turned out to be a resounding success: Franco Ballerini won after a 30 km solo breakaway. Ernesto was modestly triumphant: "I was sure that my technical choices were right [...]. I just had to believe in it. I believed in it. Now they're all going to get on board..." The C40 will triumph 4 times during the 5 following editions of the queen of the classics (in particular a certain "Lion of Flanders", Johan Museeuw). In his personal museum, Ernesto Colnago still exhibits the winning model of 1998 - mounted by the same late Ballerini. Preserved "in its original state", the painted frame in the "Art Decor" style is covered in mud.
Colnago C40 by Franco Ballerini - Photo: colnago.com
Colnago, sponsor and equipment manufacturerIn the 2000s, Colnago equipped teams such as Rabobank (2002-2008), Milram (2005-2008), Tinkoff (2007-2008), Europcar (2011-2015), and more recently, UAE Team Emirates (2017-). For the record, Milan-San Remo 2004, Óscar Freire beat Erik Zabel in a sprint on a Colnago C50 Extreme Power; Tour de France 2011, Thomas Voeckler spent ten days in yellow on a Colnago C59. Finally, it was on a Colnago V3Rs of which he has just announced that he is auctioning off an autographed replica to support the Plume Strong operation) that Tadej Pogačar will win his first Tour de France in 2020. The ace of clubs Ernesto will have had to wait nearly 70 years before triumphing "officially" on the Grand Boucle! Indeed, the victorious bikes of the Cannibal were indeed designed and built by Colnago, but signed Merckx!
Colnago, an inexhaustible creator
In 2012, as usual, Colnago was the first to present a C59 equipped with disc brakes, fully hydraulic and compatible with both mechanical and electronic groupsets. Welcomed with general perplexity, they are now widely used, not only in the professional peloton, but among the general public. Isn't it the mark of pioneers to bump into each other for a while before being accepted?
Ernesto Colnago is 90 years old and still goes to his workshop in Cambiago every morning, at the same address where he opened his small store in Via Garibaldi 10. He continues to pay attention to every detail, gathering suggestions for new products, bikes and components. Multi-decorated, hailed as a star to the point of signing more autographs than his champions at cycle shows, his name has become both a major brand and a symbol of rebellious success in the face of multinational bicycle companies. As the figurehead of Italy's economic revival today, Colnago has literally imposed its vision and its rhythm on a cycling market that is not prone to revolutions. So for the love of bikes, cycling and cyclists... Grazie Maestro!
Ernesto Colnago in his workshop - Photo: topvelo.com
Colnago x The Cyclist HouseOur store is regularly stocked with the most beautiful pieces, including, as you may have guessed, jewelry by the Colnago goldsmith. In stock at the moment are some very nice Colnago CX-1 and C59.
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