Many bike manufacturers have come and gone over the years but Colnago have endured the bumps and bends and come out stronger for it. Much of this can be credited to 79-year-old Ernesto Colnago, the company’s founder. We sat down with him at the recent Gran Fondo Los Angeles ride to find out more.
Ernesto has spent his life around bicycles, founding his namesake company in 1954 outside of Milan in Cambiago, Italy. He essentially rode away from the family farm and never looked back, instead taking up road racing and later being employed as a mechanic for the team of Belgian cycling legend Eddy Merckx.
During the early years of Colnago, the company quickly gained a reputation as one of the best builders of custom road race frames, including the lightweight steel frame used by Merckx to break the world hour record in 1972. However, Ernesto was always interested in innovation as well as craftsmanship. “This was the reason we developed the straight-blade fork,” he says. “This fork [the Precisa] was able to better handle the bumps in the road.”
At the time, this fork was considered a major leap forward, but it was just one of the first of such innovations that Colnago would bring to the world of cycling. “We studied with Ferrari a way to do aerodynamic frames,” Ernesto explains, and this was essentially the beginning of the development of the modern carbon fiber bicycle. “We decided to bring carbon fiber into the world of bicycling, which was quite a challenge. It was never easy. Nobody in the world could afford to do a frame of that nature. We were the first in the world to prove it could be done with a bicycle.”
Colnago and his c59 italia 150th limited edition shimano di2 bike; only 150 were made for sale: Peter Suciu
Colnago and his C59 Italia 150th limited edition Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 bike
This tie-up with the car company is fitting, as Belgium’s King Leopold once reportedly called Colnago “the Ferrari of bicycles”. The partnership, which began in 1986, resulted in a bicycle known as “the Concept” which was considered years, even decades, ahead of its time. The first production carbon fiber bike came just a few years later in 1989.
While celebrities and top athletes loved the concept, not everyone embraced this radical change in bicycle design. “Despite the fact that this was a major step forward in the world of bicycle development, the International Bicycle Federation disagreed with our project,” says Ernesto, “and for a shameful reason – they failed the bike because it was too advanced.”
But Colnago weren’t about to be stopped. The company eventually proved that carbon fiber could be a worthy material for bikes, despite concerns that it could break or fail. “It isn’t because it’s a bad material,” says Ernesto, comparing frames to bottles of wine. “There are $1 bottles of wine and $100 bottles of wine, and bicycles are the same. You can’t judge them the same… It was just too advanced, but after years of producing carbon fiber we showed them it could work when we won two Paris-Roubaix races.”
Until 2005 all of Colnago’s framesets were produced at the company’s Cambiago factory, but in 2006 there was a shift, with ATR Group Materiali Compositi Avanzati and Giant Bicycles producing frames for them. And since 2007, the CLX line has been sourced from Taiwan. But to the purists and even the makers, these machines are still Italian at heart.
The most important consideration, says Ernesto, is making a frame that can handle the bumps in the road on long hard rides. And while he’ll continue to push innovation, he does believe there are limits. “Every maker wants to produce lighter and lighter frames, but the frame is the heart of the machine, so the frame has to support the rider,” he says. “We at Colnago have a lot of experience making bikes that can support the rider.”