Ernesto Colnago: This Cycling Life

From Rouleur issue 19.7, first published in November 2019, Marco Pastonesi sits down with the inimitable Ernesto Colnago

“The world is a wheel: one moment you’re up, another down, a period you’re in shape, another you’re in trouble.”

He can’t stand still for a moment. He gets up, checks on something, sits down, makes a phone call, gets back up to check on something else, sits down again, makes a note, gets up, invites someone in, sits down, responds to a question, nips out, comes back, sits down, makes a quick sketch, up again. Always coming and going. Inexhaustible, unstoppable, incredible. That’s just how he is, Ernesto Colnago.

Ernesto is sharp, quick, nimble. He says: “I’ll be 100 in 13 years, but what really matters is not the number on the ID card, but rather, the person’s lucidity.” Ernesto’s personal maxim: “As long as there are dreams, there are projects. As long as there are projects, there is work. And as long as there is work, there is life.” He adds: “I’m full of work,” gesturing towards his desk. It’s full of designs and plans, notes on scraps of paper, commitments he needs to meet immediately, problems he needs to solve urgently.

Colnago, born a sprinter?

“I was born poor. My father was a peasant. Any time that he didn’t spend working the land, he considered wasted. So you can imagine what he thought of riding bicycles. Perhaps because he thought it was best for me to combine work and my passion, he sent me to work in a workshop nearby that repaired agricultural equipment and also bicycles.”

Was the work paid?

“You must be kidding. The country was still at war, and I was only 12 years old. There was a payment – two kilos of cornmeal – but it was my parents who paid it. They sent me there to learn a trade, the one I’m still doing now.”

And then?

“After the war, I found work in Milan. I had to get up at 6am, by which time my dad was already working in the stables. For breakfast, I’d have a cup of milk, and then I’d prepare my schiscetta, the lunchbox, with a little sandwich or some frittata. Then I’d jump on my bike and pedal as fast as possible to the tram station, where I’d leave my bike with a woman who looked after hundreds of them in a little shed.”

A bike garage?

“I said shed, because back then, garages didn’t exist. That woman was formidable, she was like a computer before computers had even been invented. She knew every single cyclist and recognised every bicycle right away, without any help. My bike was the smallest in the whole shed, and she had a special spot for it, right at the entrance, so that I could drop it off quickly and rush to the stop to catch the 6.40 tram. An hour later, I’d get off in Milan, at Piazzale Loreto, where the first Giro d’Italia had departed at 2.53am, 37 years earlier. From there, I had to run to Viale Abruzzi number 42, to Gloria.”

Gloria Bicycles.

“I left school at a young age – like cycling, my father also considered education to be a luxury – but going to work at Gloria was like university for me. I worked until five in the afternoon, then I washed my hands and my face, and headed back home, running up to Piazzale Loreto to catch the tram, and then on my bike to pedal home, happy and content.”

Did you feel like they took advantage of you?

“No, I felt privileged. Actually, I doctored my identity card so that I could start working a year earlier than I should have. On my first day of work – 25 November 1945 – I showed up with a coat that belonged to my uncle, who had just returned from Russia. My mother shortened it for me, but left the pockets as they were, and so they dragged along the ground.

Milan had been bombed during the war and the streets were still full of rubble. Most houses were in ruins and the shops were all empty. Bicycles were a real luxury. People used them to go to work, or to look for it.”

Like in the film, Bicycle Thieves?

“Exactly like that. Gloria was a respected brand, they’d won the 1931 Giro d’Italia with Francesco Camusso, and the 1936 Milano-Sanremo with Angelo Varetto. Their road racing bikes were known as Garibaldinas, and their riders Garibaldini. On Sundays I raced too. I was an amateur Garibaldino. At that time, I worked in the factory alongside Ernesto Formenti, who would become the Olympic boxing champion in 1948, and Gian Maria Volonté, who went on to become a great actor.”

What age did you race until?

“When I was 19, I had a bad fall at the Milano-Busseto, and I damaged my leg and ended up in a plaster cast. But I didn’t want to lose my job, so I went to the foreman, Angelo Righi, and asked his permission to work at home, building wheels. He agreed to give it a shot, and it wasn’t long before I realised that I was earning more in a week at home making wheels than I had been in a month at the workshop. I asked for another meeting with Righi and he took me to see the owner, Alfredo Focesi, a gentleman from the 19th century. We made a deal right away: I would assemble 25 bikes a week.”

And that was the beginning?

“I rented a room from a farmer, 25 square metres, and that was my little bolthole, my shop, my kingdom. Inside, there was only a table made of mulberry wood, a little hand drill and a vice, all of which I’d bought from the little money I had made racing. I set myself up nicely, and from that day, I’d never have another boss. There was more satisfaction, both mentally and financially, and I had a lot of ideas to develop, projects to realise, dreams to fulfill.”

And you went from bicycles to cycling?

“Thanks to Fiorenzo Magni. He was already known as the Lion of Flanders when I met him, and I was a nobody. One day in the spring of 1955 we went out for a ride together. He mentioned that one of his legs hurt when he pedalled. I took a look at his bike and noticed that one of the cranks was bent. I fixed it and the pain went away. Magni asked me if I wanted to follow him at the Giro d’Italia, and I didn’t think twice about it. What’s more, his mechanic at the time was Faliero Masi, who had his home and his workshop at the Vigorelli velodrome. He was an artist. I knew that I could learn a lot from him.”

And did you learn?

“It was a master’s degree, or rather, a supermaster’s. The races gave everything a sense of urgency, and I developed the art of adaptation, always doing my best. At the 1956 Giro, Magni fractured his left shoulder blade. He could endure pain like no one else, but this was intolerable. He didn’t want to abandon the race, though. To him, quitting seemed shameful, indeed, scandalous. I remember saying to him: ‘Signor Fiorenzo, why don’t you try to tie an inner tube to the handlebars and pull on it with your teeth, to relieve some of the pressure on your left arm?’ I got a Clement tubular, took out the latex inner tube and tied it to the handlebar. Magni put it between his teeth and tried. ‘That feels better,’ he said. And like that, he rode the time-trial to the sanctuary of San Luca, in Bologna, and also the stage to Monte Bondone. By the end of the race, he was second only to Charly Gaul in the general classification.”

“Every material has a soul, a heart, a skin. Every material speaks, tells a story, remembers, suffers, complains, sings” 

Did you know Fausto Coppi?

“The first time I saw him, I was still working at Gloria and I was racing with the amateurs. It was in Milan, at the Hotel Andreola, where Coppi stayed a lot. He was introduced to me by Donato Piazza, a gregario on the Bianchi team, who was from Brianza like me. I met him again at the 1955 Giro d’Italia, when I was working for Magni.

“Magni won, Coppi was second, Gastone Nencini was third – Magni said at the time that Coppi was classy both as a man and as a racer, and that Nencini was a real fighter. After the Giro, a kermesse race was organised in Cologno Monzese. Coppi arrived by car with his gregario, Ettore Milano. He asked me to help him take his bike down off the car and while I was at it, to get it ready for the race.

“For the sake of transparency and honesty, I first asked for permission from Magni, who granted it. When I was done, Coppi said thanks and went to pay me. I refused but he insisted and gave me a thousand lire. I kept that thousand lire note in my wallet for years: I was Magni’s mechanic, but in my heart, I always followed Coppi.”

And Eddy Merckx?

“With him, it was always a race against time. Often at night. After the stage, he’d come asking for a change, a tweak here or there, and I’d rush back to the workshop, often working until dawn before rushing back to the start of the next stage.

Was Merckx a maniac?

No. He was a perfectionist. Before the Mendrisio World Championships in 1971, he had me prepare three bikes with three almost imperceptibly different set-ups. On the eve of the road race – I was with the Italian national team – he called me to his hotel. I went on a Vespa with a friend of mine who specialised in smuggling, using closed roads. Eddy was locked in his room with his team-mates. He’d lined up three wheels and was pointing at them: ‘I’ve already chosen, now you choose.’ Without knowing, I chose the same one, and when I picked it up, I could see it was off-centre. I fixed it for him and he asked what I wanted in return.

I told him: ‘It’s my wedding anniversary tomorrow, send some flowers to my wife, Vincenzina.’ He won the next day, but didn’t forget his promise, and sent her a basket full of carnations. The next year he set a new Hour record, and I played my own little part, making a bicycle that, by drilling here and filing there, weighed only five kilos and 750 grams. And now, every 25 October, on the anniversary of that achievement, I call Eddy early in the morning. He knows to expect that phone call: it’s the symbol of our friendship.”

Was there ever a rider you particularly liked?

“From Gianni Motta to Beppe Saronni, from Gibì Baronchelli to the guys at Mapei: I loved them all. I would have liked to work with Vincenzo Nibali: he’s courageous, loyal, uncomplicated. After 16 years together, Sven Nys left for a team with another bike manufacturer, and he wrote me a long, true, profound, moving letter that is now on display in my personal museum. I’d like to work with Wout van Aert: I had him for cyclo-cross, but not for the road. That boy is a phenomenon. The dream would be Peter Sagan: he makes headlines even when he doesn’t win, indeed, even when he doesn’t race.”

Are the riders grateful?

“They’re special. Olaf Ludwig came here the other day. He hugged and kissed me as if I was his father, and then he asked me to restore his old Olympic bike so he could put it in a shop window, as if it were a painting or a sculpture. Things like that are priceless. History, but also experience, friendship, respect, esteem – those things cannot be bought. Leaving aside the 61 world titles and 18 Olympic medals won. You don’t buy history, you make it, day by day, perhaps even at Christmas and Easter.”

Even at Christmas?

“At Christmas, it’s better to be with your family, recharge, discover your focus. But I have always gone to work on New Year’s Day. When I was young I used to recite this line, like a nursery rhyme, a mantra, a philosophy: “If I work on the first of the year, then I work all year.”

Excuse me, I interrupted.

“I was saying: you have to work hard, you have to try and try again, even if you make mistakes, trying to make as few as possible, but if you never get it wrong, that’s a mistake too, because you need mistakes to learn. And you must combine technology with passion, and science with feelings, because even the scientific formulas need to be humanised, personalised, felt.”

Do you love your bike or your rider more?

“They all feel like my children. But the bikes – I think of them as creatures, not creations – feel like my sons, or rather, my biological children, and the riders are more like adopted sons.”

Colnago, where do you start to conceive and create a bicycle?

“From a drawing. The drawing gives a sensation, and that in turn gives a vision, a scent, a colour. Sometimes, also from a comparison, from an exchange, from a word, from a meeting. Among the most decisive ones was my meeting with Enzo Ferrari. He was a genius. He always told his engineers: ‘Remember that the bicycle is a perfect machine.’ And he explained: ‘If a bike that weighs eight kilos can reach 80 kilometres per hour without vibrations and oscillations, how much should a Formula One car weigh if it does 300 per hour?’ He never got an answer.”

And why Ferrari?

“He introduced me to carbon. Back then, bicycles were made of steel, aluminium, titanium. Every material has a soul, a heart, a skin. Every material speaks, tells a story, remembers, suffers, complains, sings. You need to get to know it, and learn how to listen to it. Carbon was an innovation and its lightness was, for me, a shock. So I studied it, often working late into the night. Some didn’t believe that we could work with it, tame it, and there were those who made fun of me, but when Franco Ballerini won Paris-Roubaix in 1995, they all had to think again, and then they copied me.”

What does it feel like when your idea is copied?

“It’s a mixture of pride and satisfaction. Good ideas inspire. The important thing is to recognise where they come from.”

Did Ferrari give you any ideas?

“He asked me once: ‘Why are your forks curved?’ To better absorb the vibrations, I replied. ‘To dampen better?’ He was shocked. We were having lunch. He put his hand under the table and tapped the surface, first with his fingers, then with his palm. And from the sound it made, I understood how the real dampening came from the palm. Then he confirmed everything with computers. And that’s how I switched to using straight forks.”

Did Ferrari teach you anything else?

“He asked me how old I was once, and I replied, ‘I’m already 54.’ There was a moment of silence, and then he shot back: ‘You should be ashamed, talking like that. At that age I began to do the most beautiful things.’ Then he added that once, he’d sold his wife’s purse to pay his workers. The man had courage, charisma, authority. He was also someone of few words, so when he told me, ‘I like you because you’re plainspoken,’ I was happy.”

Does perfection exist for you?

“They say that Giotto drew such a perfect circle that it seemed like he used a compass. Everything is feasible. But if perfection exists, it is unattainable. You can approach it, one step at a time. As Jacques Anquetil did, filing a few seconds off every time at the Grand Prix des Nations, or as Sergey Bubka did, raising his world record in pole vaulting, a centimetre at a time. It’s dangerous to do too much: you risk, as happened to me, that a bicycle is rejected because it is ‘too advanced’. And it’s also dangerous because if you achieve too much, the journey might come to an end.”

Speaking of perfection: Is there a God?

“I believe in God. When the last Giro d’Italia honoured Padre Pio with the stage to San Giovanni Rotondo, I went into the church, knelt in a confessional, and in that silence, with the scent of incense and wood, praying, it seemed to me that God was really there.”

The philosopher Baruch Spinoza said that God is triangular.

“Perhaps the triangle is the form that touches perfection. Certainly, in terms of resistance, it exceeds the square. But before geometry, you need curiosity applied to a passion.”

Is life a journey?

“Even at this moment, we are travelling. It’s a journey for which we have not bought a ticket, and for which both the duration and destination are unknown.”

Are encounters an artform?

“And pieces of fortune. I remember meeting Bruno Raschi, from the Gazzetta dello Sport, who was nicknamed ‘the Divine’. It was just after the Milano-Sanremo of 1970, which was won by Michele Dancelli, and we had stopped for dinner in Laigueglia. He was there with his Olivetti typewriter, and had just finished dictating his article in which he had compared Dancelli’s bicycle – a Colnago, for the record – to a flower. I knew that a flower should be my new logo, instead of the eagle. The first proposal was for a lily, but the lily is too tied to Florence and Tuscany. The second was for a clover. ‘It will bring you luck,’ Raschi predicted. I also recall meeting Arrigo Sacchi, the coach of the great AC Milan side with Ruud Gullit and

Marco van Basten. We were on holiday in Cortina, I remember [former Ferrari chairman] Luca di Montezemolo was there too, all of us on mountain bikes. Sacchi punctured his front tyre and he couldn’t get it off. I rolled up my sleeves and replaced the tube. They had all thought I was just another industrialist or a manager, forgetting that every day I go from my desk to the bench in my workshop, and that for years I worked on the road. The road is a university.”

What does friendship mean to you?

“It means a lot for very few. How many people are real friends? Who are they? I know a true friend of mine: Giorgio Squinzi.”

And love?

“An awful lot, just for one, my wife Vincenzina. I was 14 years old when I met her: she was waiting for me to come back from work to say hello. She died two years ago. I miss her a lot. At home I feel lonely. But fortunately there is my daughter Anna, who adores me. And the rest of my family too. And I still wear my three rings: the first is from our wedding day, the second, after 25 years of marriage, and the third, after 50 years.”

What about happiness?

“If I wasn’t happy, I wouldn’t be here. I’m happy for all that I’ve done, and also for how I did it.”

What do you mean by that?

“I never felt envy or jealousy. I always said thank you whenever I got more than I gave. I have respect for those who know more than me, but I’ve never copied anyone. I feel sorry for those who have wasted opportunities, squandered money or thrown talent into the wind.”

What does wealth mean to you?

“My health. And ideas – or better, ideas that come to fruition.”

Are your bikes a luxury?

“Shirts are changed every day, bicycles once every ten years. And remember: it takes a lot of courage to stay on top.”

The workshop? The factory? The company?

“Everything, I built from scratch, from nothing. A second family, a second home. Which must be taken care of.”

Have you ever laid down hard rules?

“I gave examples. They were followed, observed, learned. These days, there are even some who get to work before me.”

What about your own rules?

“To travel a lot – but you can also travel with the imagination, insights, feelings, stories, reports. And to sleep little. Every time I got on a plane, I’d write on the in-flight menu and fill it up with thoughts, drawings and night projects. One thought? Be careful not to stop at green lights. Another thought? There are more and more Chinese with American names. A drawing? Monocoques, before they existed. A project: 49 special bikes for the 49 kilometres of Eddy Merckx’s Hour record. I keep all those little menus, from trips to Taipei and Tokyo, Frankfurt and Taiwan, in a green folder under my desk.”

You’re from Cambiago, Brianza.

“The people of Brianza have always been great workers: rich in inventiveness and courage. Truthfully, if I worked less, I would get sick. By Saturday afternoon, I already feel sad.”

Does cycling make rules?

“For other sports, we talk about the life of the athlete. For cycling, we talk about the life of the rider, because the rider’s life is a lot harder than that of the athlete. They have to get up early in the morning, eat well, train better, go to bed early in the evening, 360 days a year.”

Does the bicycle make rules?

“The world is a wheel: one moment you’re up, another down, a period you’re in shape, another you’re in trouble. When you’re up high, you need to save money and buy a mattress that will cushion the blow when you fall. That’s something we must all understand. We mustn’t get too excited, but we shouldn’t get depressed either. We just have to keep pedalling.”

Is there something that makes you angry?

“Most of all, lying. After that, carelessness. Maybe also marketing, a little.”

Is there something that makes you sigh?

“The ‘limited editions’. We have not even finished making them when they’re already sold out. And to think there are those who, having arrived late, have missed out and would be willing to pay two, three, ten times the normal price.”

Is there still one thing you hope to design?

“Every day I think of something. Some more urgent, others less so. I tell myself that I’ll do the less urgent ones when I am old.”

You’re 87. Do you feel your age?

“I consider it a moving target. I’m already aiming at 88.”

Do you still have new heights to reach?

“For sure I do. The important thing is to reach them, and then, on the descent, you regain the strength, the desire and the curiosity to continue.”

Is there hope for this world?

“Trust me, it’s moving too fast.” 

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