The wisdom of Ernesto Colnago

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.”

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.”

“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.”

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 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.” 

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. 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. 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.

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.”

Ernesto Colnago

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.” 

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.”

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.”

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 damping came from the palm. Then he confirmed everything with computers. And that’s how I switched to using straight forks.”

Ernesto Colnago

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 Benedetto 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.” 

Life is 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.” 

Ernesto Colnago

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.”

Ernesto Colnago

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.”

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.” 

Desire: Colnago 87 – Happy Birthday Ernesto

Is there something that makes you angry?

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

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.”

This is an edited extract of an article that was originally published in Rouleur 19.7

Translated by Colin O’Brien


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