Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
It’s always a special moment when we visit the Columbus factory, just outside of Milan. After all, few things are as iconic as Columbus tubing when it comes to the history of the modern bicycle. On celebrating its centennial in 2019, the manufacturer showed that its steel tubes were an integral part of not only some of the most revolutionary bicycles in history but also groundbreaking furniture designs by the Bauhaus in the 1920s. And then, of course, there is the charismatic company owner Antonio Colombo, a passionate art collector, who on occasion gets his bikes hand-painted by some of the biggest names in modern and contemporary art. No, make no doubt about it, this brand has truly earned its moniker: The Soul of Cycling.
While Columbus can boast a rich past, it also very much has an eye on the next century— and we have rarely seen the factory as busy as we did during an April visit. “Demand has not been so high in years,” Colombo told Peloton. “There is a renewed interest and real confidence in steel.”
Indeed, steel tubing is once again becoming a material of choice for many cyclists. Just a few years ago steel frames were part of a niche market, much like vinyl in record collecting. But today’s top-of-the-line steel road bikes can easily weigh in at under eight kilos (less than 18 pounds). Perhaps a tad heavy for an uphill time trial, but when one considers the added comfort and stability of steel, well, it offers an ideal choice for many road riders. And steel is once again demonstrating its versatility by proving to be highly popular for the ever-growing gravel market, where the forgiving and stable nature of steel offers an ideal choice for riders on technical, uneven trails.
For years, Columbus SLX was the gold standard for a top-of-the-line racing frame. And while purists can still find the SLX in production, the XCR and Spirit tubes are now the best-selling tubesets at Columbus. The XCR is its state-of-the-art road tube, while the Spirit is one of the most versatile tubes, perfect for road and gravel bikes alike.
“I often ask myself why I use Columbus over any other tube provider,” says Matthew Sowter, founder of Saffron Frameworks, an award-winning British boutique frame builder. “I could choose between five or six different manufacturers, but the reason I work with Columbus is the quality of the tubes. It is always accurate. The butting profile, whatever, is always accurate. When I put in an order for a couple of hundred tubes, I know exactly what I am getting. And that is something I don’t find with the other tube manufacturers. We predominantly build in stainless steel and we use their XCR tubes a lot. I just feel that they are outstanding! I have never had a failure. The chrome content is high enough that there is never any corrosion, and it has a high enough tensile strength, which means that the wall thickness can really come down to a small diameter. It just means I get a super-consistent tube.”
While Columbus built its reputation on steel, it doesn’t see it as mutually exclusive from carbon technology. Indeed, its Futura carbon fork—that boasts road, ‘cross, gravel and adventure models—is the fork of choice for Columbus framesets. “The weight and reliability of a carbon-fiber fork is unbeatable,” says Fabrizio Aghito, chief production manager at Columbus. “The fork was the first carbon component to really break into cycling back in the 1990s and it has really evolved since then. And we try to put all of the customer feedback that we collect into our forks—weight, performance, stiffness and design. The same carbon forks work in carbon frames and steel frames. It can be a challenge, as each frame builder has different needs. But it is very satisfying. Our eye is always on performance and I think that really allows us to provide the highest-performance fork for all of our framesets.”
For Colombo, however, there is little sign of surprise when it comes to the company’s latest renaissance. Evolution is part of the company’s DNA. After all, no one in cycling remains an industry leader for a century without constant innovation. And with the first 100 years now part of the past, the central question at Columbus is how to continue to drive innovation in the future. “The rebirth starts again,” Colombo says. “Columbus may be a 100-year-old company, but we are practically a new company, too.”