On November 25, Ernesto Colnago celebrated a special anniversary. He will be 88 next February 9 but November 25 was a far more special moment, one that first inspired his genius as a bike designer and frame builder and lead to the creation of the legendary Colnago brand and to bikes like the current top of the line C64 or the recently presented V3RS disc-brake bike.
"74 years ago I was 13 years old and I started work at the Gloria bike factory in Milan," Ernesto explains to Cyclingnews with pride, recalling how he lied about his age so that he could start work before the then legal limit of 14.
Ernesto the teenager was a quick learner and keen to escape the poverty of post-war Italy. When a crash in a race left him with a broken leg and forced him to work from home, he set-up his own wheel building and assembly business. In 1954, he began making frames and helped Fiorenzo Magni resolve a problem with his bike position. That earned him a job as a professional team mechanic and he developed his Colnago brand at the same time.
"I did the Giro d'Italia 25 times as a team mechanic and learnt to listen to the riders and then build their bikes. When you spend years with a perfectionist like Eddy Merckx, you learn how to do everything," he points out.
Fast-forward 74 years and Ernesto Colnago is still the patriarch of Colnago and arguably of Italian cycling. He is often the first person in the Colnago offices and warehouse each morning and often the last to leave in the evening. It helps that his home is across the street in his village of Cambiago, east of Milan, where the C64 carbon fibre frames are built in the basement but he rarely takes holidays, his mind whirling with ideas after just a few days away from Cambiago.
Despite his age and his years in the industry, Colnago's creative temperament still burns defiantly. His rivals would be foolish to think he is on the wane.
Other members of the family now run the day-to-day business but Ernesto has the final word and receives visitors in his office like the Pope holds an audience in the Vatican.
His office, like the famous museum of Colnago at the rear of the warehouse, is a treasure trove of Colnago history, packed with photographs and mementos from his career in cycling, family photos, awards, cycling magazines and pieces of carbon fibre. Note pads and pieces of paper cover two desks and fill drawers.
Lead Colnago engineer Davide Fumagalli uses CAD to design the fine details and air flow around the frames but Ernesto's intuitions are inspirational and quickly drawn on a piece of paper.
Not afraid to call out his business rivals
Colnago will again supply bikes to UAE Team Emirates this season but in the last decade brands such as Specialized, Trek, Cannondale and Canyon have gradually taken Colnago's spot as the biggest, most successful and most influential brand in the professional peloton.
Rival brands have apparently tried to buy out Colnago but he is not for selling. Indeed, he seems as defiant as ever. And more angry than ever.
Colnago shows Cyclingnews a copy of a recent issue of the French Top Velo magazine. The C64 was voted best bike.
"I know Colnago is still the best bike out there, we can only hope people remember that too," he says, shaking the Top Velo magazine.
"Unfortunately these days a lot of people don’t understand the real quality of a bike, what's under the paint and in the joints, they just look at the appearance. At Colnago we're not interested in the quantity of bikes we sell, we're interested in the quality of the bikes we sell."
Like once business partner and creator of the Ferrari motor racing cars Enzo Ferrari, Colnago is not afraid to call out his business rivals.
"They're the ones who don’t play fair. They try to convince everyone that carbon fibre bikes are all the same, that there's no real difference in the quality of the carbon or how they are made," Colnago says raising his voice.
"But who invented carbon fibre bikes? Who? Colnago! Who first fitted disc brakes to a high-end carbon road bike? Colnago! Who first understood the benefits of a straight fork? Colnago! I've never copied anyone. The people who churn out carbon fibre bikes from the molds in Asia, should thank me for introducing carbon fibre bikes and helping them make a load of money."
Colnago takes two pieces of carbon fibre and indicates to watch and listen carefully. It's a stunt he often does during interviews but it always makes an impression. When the first piece of carbon hits the floor of his office, it makes a light, hollow-like ring and bounces a few times. The second piece carbon fibre has a more reassuring and deeper clang to it. Colnago's message is simple: the first is what other people use in their frames, the second is what is Colnago uses.
"We use a high quality carbon fibre, the same that Ferrari use for their F1 motor racing cars. The quality is certified, they cut the tube and look at the lugs to check the layup and the quality. People still visit us and see how C64 bikes are made. They're amazed by what they see."
A Colnago C64 frame costs around £4,000, the V3RS and the Concept aero frame a little less. Silver welded steel Colnago Master frames are also available for around £2,000. Other brands can be cheaper but Ernesto rebukes any comparison between a Colnago frame and cheaper, price-point rival.
"Colnago costs a few hundred Euro more but our frames don’t suddenly break," Ernesto argues bluntly. "I meet hundreds of people who have had a Colnago for years. Maybe I've made the mistake of making my bikes too strong.
"Unfortunately there are brands who put all kinds of stuff in their frames but people who buy the cheap frames and focus on the price don’t realise they're getting ripped off. They look at the final layer of paint, drink up the marketing talk and don’t worry about what's underneath.
"The difference is like buying a cheap jacket from a fast fashion brand and buying a made to measure Italian suit. In truth, there's no comparison because you end-up throwing away the cheap garment after a few washes. But people end up paying the same price for a poor quality frame because they don't realise the true quality and the true value of a Colnago."