May 29, 2009

A close up of 1983 Giro d'Italia champion Giuseppe Saronni's Colnago
(Photo: Yuzuru Sunada)


Cookies and coffee. For three days that’s all I had been thinking about. I had already had some wonderful meals and I certainly had had plenty of coffee. But this snack time was to be something special. On what would be my last day in Italy, I had a chance to go by the Colnago factory and enjoy some cookies and coffee with none other than Mr. Ernesto Colnago himself. Wow!

Ernesto Colnago is still as much a race fan as ever. When he does take time away from work it’s usually to thumb through the stack of cycling magazines he keeps nearby.

By the time Road Bike Action got to the shop it was just past noon. Knowing what lunch breaks mean to most Italian workers (many go home for lunch), I figured Mr. Colnago would probably be doing the same (all the more easily done since his home is located just across the street from the factory) and the last thing I wanted to do was interrupt his lunch schedule. However, I was assured that it wouldn’t be a problem since Mr. Colnago rarely takes lunch; instead, he prefers to stay busy in his office taking just enough time, of course, for some cookies and coffee.

On this day, unlike my visit to the Colnago headquarters last year (RBA, May/June ’08) the shop was mostly dark and quiet. We walked upstairs and there was the company namesake at his desk reading some sales reports and scribbling notes. Not two minutes after we entered Mr. Colnago spun his chair and reached down to the cupboard behind his desk to find a package of cookies. As soon as we shook hands and made introductions, Mr. Colnago gave a yell, “Marco, tre cafe’.”

And with that we sat down to talk about a variety of things: bikes, President Obama, the growing world-wide financial crisis, Lance, Lance’s investment in SRAM, and of course, the one topic that remains close to Mr. Colnago—racing. Who was his favorite racer of all time, I asked. Mr. Colnago looked perplexed, but then answered easily, “The best I ever had was Merckx, but in my heart it is Saroni. And still; guys like Friere and others are special. There is something in their character that makes them champions. I make bikes, but I live and breathe racing!” Bravo!

Things were going along well and soon enough we had espressos to go with our cookies. Yeah, things were going well…until I began to ask more questions. I was still intrigued about how the country dealt with the many issues pertaining to the challenges it faces in cycling today and so just as we had tried to do with last year’s issue that focused on the Italian cycling industry, I asked Mr. Colnago a simple question: What makes the Italian cycling industry unique? Why should it be so celebrated and revered?

Of all the accolades and accomplishments Ernesto Colnago has achieved over the years, he seems most proud of his affiliation with Ferarri. with whom they’ve been sharing aerodynamic and carbon fiber R&D since 1987.

Mr. Colnago looked at me while and I watched his physical reaction. In a flash Mr. Colnago’s voice rose and he started slamming the table. I figured that he thought that I hated his cookies. Actually, it turns out that Mr. Colnago loved the question. He soon stood up to first point to a giant photo of himself standing with the Ferarri Formula One team brass. His pride in their twenty-year association was evident. He then fetched a pile of carbon fiber cloth he kept behind his desk. Petting it gently, treating it like a fine fabric, Mr. Colnago said no one else could have as good material (Colnago and Ferarri share the same supplier and R&D). He then threw down a pile of Colnago carbon tubes with the internal butting and rifling. “I was born to do this,” he exclaims. “Yes,” he admits, “we build bikes in Taiwan, but they don’t have the history or love of cycling that we do. Ferarri would never put their name on a bike made in Asia. I wish my [bike building] colleagues would have more belief in Made in Italy products.” If one thing became all the more obvious after our visit with Mr. Colnago, it is that more than anything else, passion still plays a vital role in what he does.

Our stop at DeRosa was preceded by a quick lunch at the local il bociodromo (bocci ball court) where company namesake Ugo DeRosa often goes to hang with his friends to play cards and socialize. Like Wilier and Carerra, the DeRosa factory is fronted by a retail shop. Once through the front showroom you find yourself in a large warehouse stacked with bicycles in every level of completion. Although most of the space is dedicated to shipping the frames that are coming and going, there is still a small amount of frame building taking place in the back. Besides the aluminum and titanium frames built there, DeRosa also builds the carbon frames in-house with custom carbon tubes designed in Italy and made in China by the carbon powerhouse Mizuno.

It’s hard to miss the DeRosa shop.

If you head to the DeRosa factory around lunch time looking for company namesake Ugo DeRosa, you’ll most likely find him hanging out with his friends down the street at the local bocci ball court.

Like so many other Italian cycling companies, the DeRosa business is run by the family. Christiano DeRosa is the youngest of the three DeRosa siblings who each play important roles within the company.

Back in 1973 Ugo DeRosa was a mechanic for Eddy Merckx and built bikes for the Belgian great and the Molteni team. Lo and behold, there among the new DeRosa frames was an old Merckx frame.

DeRosa offers the latest in carbon fiber frame designs, but thankfully keeps the beautiful steel Neo Primato in the lineup as well.

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