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House of Colnago

From issue 31 • Words by Colin O'Brien w/images from Gruber Images

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Today, the legendary Italian frame-builder Ernesto Colnago turns 89. To honor him, we went back 7 years ago to issue 31 of Peloton for a thoughtful profile of the man and the Colnago company.

To most people, the idea of being the first into work every day at the age of 82 would be something too hellish to imagine. Ernesto Colnago’s not most people. Weekdays, the energetic octogenarian is among the earliest to arrive at his company’s HQ on the Viale Brianza in Cambiago, just outside of Milan. He comes in Saturdays too.

His office is large, with two desks, both covered in papers and books and bicycle parts. There are trophies, photos of family and racecar drivers, cyclists, and Ernesto himself with those two great paragons of Italian culture: the Pope and Enzo Ferrari.

The room is on the second floor of the building, down the corridor from the company’s museum—a place of borderline-erotic appeal to a cyclist—and just above a large workshop, where there are several men busying themselves with carbon tubing and repairs on old bikes. There’s a camera crew too, from an Italian TV station, another journalist, and a photographer. Note to self: make an appointment next time.

“Every day can be beautiful or ugly,” offers Colnago when I try to start a conversation about the highlights of his career. “Every day I wake up early, and I look for something to do. Maybe something to create, or a discussion to have, something to improve. That’s a beautiful day. A day that you’re trying to speak to people, and they don’t understand you, when I say something is red and they say it’s black, that’s a bad day. But I’ve had so many wonderful days. At the Giro, Paris-Roubaix, Milano-Sanremo…. Maybe the day I got to meet Pope John Paul II was the most special, to be in front of one of the most important people in the world and to give him a bicycle. He told me that he missed cycling, because when he lived in Poland he’d gone to do 40 kilometers or so twice a week, and so he wanted a sporty bike to ride around Castel Gandolfo [the Pope’s summer residence outside of Rome]. So I made it for him.

“I’m the son of a contadino, a peasant farmer. But I didn’t want to work on the land, so I went to a garage when I was 11 or 12 and I worked there repairing bicycles…doing a little bit of everything. I didn’t get paid for that, in fact the opposite. Every week I had to give them two kilos of flour. Then, in the evening, I went to school. This was during the war. There were three guys in the class, one became an engineer, one a doctor, and I made bicycles.”

He allows himself a chuckle. “After the war, there was an ad looking for young boys to work in the Gloria bike factory in Milan. They made the most beautiful bikes I’d ever seen. I started there when I was 13, but I had to tell them I was a year older because that was the minimum working age. I started as a welder’s assistant, and from there my passion for cycling was born.

“They had a professional team, with Gino Bartali, Ezio Cecchi …and when I was 15 I started racing for them. Then, in 1951, when I was 18 or 19, I raced the Milano-Bussetto, which used to be an important classic for international amateurs. I was in fifth at the finish, but there was a crash and I broke my right leg. I was laid up for 60 days because of it, but at the factory I had been the boss of eight people, in charge of assembling bikes. So I asked the company to send me work at home, while I was in bed, and they sent me the wheels to build. In five days, I made as much money as I would have in a month normally.”

An important decision was made. The company began sending Colnago their best bikes to assemble at home, and in return he took payment in parts rather than money, so that he could run his own repair business. By the end of his teens, he was the owner of a small, but successful, business. When he was 21, he met the great Fiorenzo Magni on a training ride with a friend. Legend has it that the Lion of Flanders was complaining about a pain in his right leg, and that the young Colnago told him with no uncertainty that it was a problem with his cranks. Magni rode on, saying nothing, but that evening he sent his masseur to Ernesto’s home with the offending bike in hand. Colnago fixed it and sent it back, and two days later Magni came in person to thank him and offer him a job with his Nivea team.

Colnago still speaks of Magni with great affection, just as he does about the time he spent as a mechanic with the Italian national team or with Molteni or his work with Mapei. He talks the same way about his bikes and the life he’s spent making them. He lights up when he tells you about the infamous inner tube they tied to Magni’s handlebar that, gripped between his teeth, allowed him to ride on to a second-place finish in the 1956 Giro despite having a broken clavicle. Or about the time Magni got mad and demanded that they lower the soft-top on the mechanic’s car during a particularly cold and wet stage because he wanted them to suffer with him. That day they had to use a screwdriver to punch holes in the floor so that the rain could run out.

He could probably go on for days about developing the earliest carbon-fiber frames, about working with Enzo Ferrari, about proving the industry—ironically now obsessed with the black stuff—wrong with those unforgettable C40s that so bullishly conquered the cobbles of Roubaix in the 1990s. And that gets to the heart of why he’s still there, in his office, decades after most people retire. He’s a cycling fan. A fan of the sport, and a fan of the wonderful object that is the bicycle.

“When I first worked with carbon, I went to Ferrari. That was in 1986. Everyone told me that it wouldn’t work, that it would break, but when we won the first Paris-Roubaix, everyone started. And then they all went to China. But carbon isn’t always the same. They’ll tell you that it is, but do a silly test with me….” At this point, he starts firing pieces at the floor. “This is carbon.” Bang. “And this.” Clang. “And this.” Ping. “And this.” Thud.

From the outside, all the tubing looks almost identical. They’re the same size, and shape, more or less, but clearly not all made equal. “Okay, so this tube here is made in Italy. It’s beautiful outside, and inside. This one is Chinese: beautiful outside, but look inside.”

The tubing is cut in cross section, and the interior is as rough and messy as the exterior is smooth and glossed. When it’s flung on the ground again, it makes a sound similar to a plate breaking. The Italian, by contrast, sounds more like a piece of wood. Not exactly scientific, but demonstrative enough to illustrate a significant disparity.

Conversation with Colnago is imbued with an odd dichotomy between tradition and relentless, necessary evolution. He still talks in a way more akin to an old mechanic, full of conviction about the overriding importance of utility and long-term strength in things that others have long since abandoned to engineered obsolescence and profit margins. But at the same time, he’s gushing with curiosity and discussing cutting-edge developments that he himself has been responsible for. For example, when he’s not firing bottom brackets at the wall or the floor in a low-tech, high-impact illustration of their strengths and weaknesses, he’s talking about the intricacies of carbon fiber and the fact that rather than being regressive, the uniquely shaped lugs on his latest bike are actually an innovation that he and his engineers have conceived to add structural strength and durability without relying solely on glue.

Colnago remains a company so far unscathed by the cold winds of change, the relentless current that’s driven so many of his competitors to retirement or to the Far East. There’s nothing wrong with a bike made in Asia if it’s done properly, of course. Plenty of cycling’s biggest brands, including Colnago, build fine bikes there. But the end product, even if technically sound, ends up being somewhat soulless or, at the very least, an uncomfortable example of the modern world’s obsession with skeuomorphism.

The best of what Colnago does, the C59 and the new C60, are made from start to finish in Cambiago, from Italian carbon fiber. Others will tell you that it can’t be done, not anymore, or not at a profit anyway. And yet, there they are, resplendent, if somewhat expensive, in a showroom near you. The difference, then, with companies like these is that they still rely on an outmoded and unfashionable idea that, butted up by history, pedigree and enduring craftsmanship, they can survive without huge advertising budgets and sweeping marketing campaigns.

“The things that are made well come out well,” Colnago says, “as long as it’s done with love. If you’re a barber, and you’re shaving someone while looking around the room, you’re going to cut him, no? This latest bike has taken us two years of work. We’ve got Paolo Savoldelli here, who won two Giri d’Italia, testing. We’ve studied and worked for it.

“If I just think of dollars, someone like you isn’t going to want to come and speak to me. I’m not interested in money; I’m interested in technology, in speaking about my work with Ferrari…. There’s a difference between your love and your wallet. I’ve never thrown away a lira—never—but all the research, the investment I’ve done, I’ve done for my heart. Yesterday, for example, was the Milano-Sanremo. In the morning I went out and walked for four kilometers, then I ate something, and then? Thank goodness there was the race because otherwise I’d have had nothing to do! Here, there’s always something going on. It’s a question of living, of expressing who you are and staying true to it.

“Is there something left for me to do? There’s always something. Twenty years ago, I made the C40. Then, the C50. Now, we’ve got the C60. I hope I’m still here for the C70, but I’m 82 years old now—I might not look it, but I am!”

So much of cycling’s history has been packaged, distorted, bought and sold that it’s hard to know what’s real anymore. You can make a fortune in cycling selling heritage that was never yours to begin with—plenty of brands do. Colnago remains in contrast to that rather grimy reality. Aside from that other famous Italian brand beginning with C, there’s no company left in cycling that can boast such a rich legacy and yet be so inextricably tied to one man, doing things his own way, in the town where he started all those years ago. Colnago the man remains very much tethered to those humble beginnings back in the 1950s. And for all its appeal and its global reach, Colnago the company remains fastened to the man and the hands-on way he likes to do things. He could have sold up or outsourced everything like so many before and since. He’d have been miserable and bored. Instead, he stuck to what he knew: working hard, close to home. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to do business that way anymore. But when you’re name’s above the door, it doesn’t have to.

From issue 31. SOLD OUT!