Saturday, January 19, 2013

Thirty years ago in Cambiago, Italy.

It must be a disappointment to provide a child with a university education only to see them choose the m├ętier of a pole dancer. Not that there’s anything wrong with pole dancing. Nor should we consider an education lost just because a person chooses to practice outside it’s field (it’s a whole lot better than the idiot who completes an education and somehow manages to remain an idiot without the capacity for other endeavour). But it does seem rather a waste of resources. 

Like most small-time collectors I never set out to collect anything, least of all something as utilitarian as bicycles. Over the past couple of decades I have spent a lot of time riding a bicycle, poring over bicycle magazines, and more recently, wasting time on bicycle websites, blogs, ebay, and snooping in on some very knowledgeable but ultimately geeky bicycle forums. I even managed to spend a couple of weeks building a bicycle frame with David Bohm. If you think that this means I have attained a certain level of sophistication (at least when it comes to an appreciation the steel-framed bicycle) then you will be disappointed. 

Sure, I have a Schrade built by Georges Pflugi, a 3Rensho reportedly built by Masahiko Makino, and a Llewellyn that Dazza built for himself. But what I really want is this:

The suit. The man. The legend.

Like so totally. 

But, if it must be a bicycle, then this:

The 1983 Colnago Master built by some faceless dude in a large factory in Italy.

Two decades flirting with the steel bicycle and I want the very bike I aspired to when I first started cycling. Two decades percolating the wisdom of the elders and I want a high-profile, standard production frame that appeals to the least discerning amongst us.

Actually, it’s not that simple (it never is). 

Remember that kid who tried just a little too hard to be cool? Well, he grew up and got himself one of these.

When I first became aware of the Colnago Master it was already the start of 1990’s. Snooty club cyclists with fragile physiques and shaven legs strutted around with an air of superiority to the manifest bemusement of everyone else. Outliers in a society fixated on cricket, rugby, and displays of male bravado. But they didn’t seem to care. Being small, thin and hairless (and having recently acquired a bicycle) I felt a certain affinity with them. They were kindred spirits. Spirits who, like me, whiled away the hours riding around on a bicycle.

The early 90s was also a time when Shimano and various other non-European companies (notably industrious Japanese and impertinent Americans) scythed apart the insular world of competitive road cycling. Friction shifting was on its deathbed, Synchro sucked, and index shifting with an integrated drivetrain was the only way forward. The Japanese proved dependable, inexpensive and effective. The Americans innovative and reliable with their carbon and aluminium creations. Road cycling defined itself in a world that included BMX and MTB. And in the process shook off the inertia of a parochial history.

The early 90s was a time when Italian racing iron was spoken of in solemn tones. A glorious past seeking to justify its raison d'etre in a brave new world. Seasoned cyclists spoke softly of the compliant caress of steel, of modern tubesets like Columbus Genius (1991) and Max (1987) made of Nivacrom, of the TreVolumetrica, of Campagnolo and Mavic and “retrofriction”. Of the perfectly trimmed derailleur. Of the practiced art of the over-shift. 

Talk that sounded like sentimental bullshit it belonged in the preceding decade.

Tubeset designed by Gilberto Colombo.

Bottle cage by Ale.

Groupset by Campagnolo.

Nisi Laser sprint rims with Clement tubs.

Thirty years ago in Cambiago, Italy, Colnago began production of the Master frameset. The frame that would eventually replace the Supers and Mexico’s as the default option for Colnago followers with road-racing pretensions. Classic design, beautiful handling, an incomparable race profile, and Ernesto’s legendary showmanship made it an icon. 

The Master is most easily recognised by its diamond-shaped, Gilco-designed tubing (made by Columbus, with Tange Ultimate Superlight from Japan making a show in 1994, after which production returned to Italy or so it seems) but it wasn’t Colnago’s first attempt at a steel frame with manipulated tubes. The Colnago Mexico (at least in its later years) sported reinforcing grooves in the top tube, downtube and chainstays. The Oval CX which Colnago introduced in 1982 had a proprietary aerodynamic tube/lugset from Columbus (similar in profile to the existing and more widely available Columbus Air but, ahem, uglier). The Master Equilateral (a close cousin of the Master) was also released in 1983. Then there was the Esamexico with externally grooved Columbus SL tubing and, of course, the Arabesque with its box-section tubes and Arabesque lugs. (And there were several variations on the theme like the Arabesque lugset could be combined with the Esamexico’s grooved tubeset in which case it was called the Regal or Regal Arabesque, or the Master’s tubeset in which case it was called the Master Arabesque). 

None but the Colnago Master made it out of the eighties. 

I will endure.

3TTT stem and bars.

In 1988 Colnago removed the ridiculous side-flourishes of the Arabesque lugset, stuck them on the ends of a Master tubeset, added internal routing for the rear brake cable, and (quietly) removed the lovely fluted chainstays. And so the Master Piu was born. (Again, there were several variations on the theme and, confusingly, some were labelled “Master”, others as “Master Piu”). In 1989 the straight-blade Precisa fork made its debut. 

Early Masters had a lug profile similar to that of the Supers and Mexicos.

“Special” tubing by Columbus (later Masters sported a Gilco label or logo).

By the time the 1990’s rolled in Mr Colnago, happiest at the cutting edge of bicycle technology, had redirected his attention towards carbon (refining work started in the mid 80s) and titanium. Die-hards demanding the cutting edge in steel frame technology were compelled to scope out (other) manufacturers who could offer ovalised or oversized tubing. 

And yet the Master endured. The next two decades saw the Master lugset change with plug-in dropouts out the back and a somewhat inelegant seat lug solution to facilitate plug-in seat stays. Various paint schemes and names like Master Olympic, Master Light and Master X-Light did little to mask what was essentially the same bike. Master frames with two variations of a carbon rear triangle saw production for a couple of years. And more than a few Masters were sold with the carbon (Star) fork. 

Iscaselle Time saddle. Lizard skin luxury with a clock/ stopwatch embedded in the nose.

Excuse me miss. Permission do my two most favourite things: ride my bike and stare at my crotch.

Permission granted.

Just one last look at them fluted chainstays.

When I first became aware of the Colnago Master it was already the start of 1990’s.  A time when the Colnago Master fitted with a Campagnolo C Record groupset was the epitome of the Italian racing heritage. Behold and you quite literally felt the weight of history. But it was beautiful beyond reason. With a bloodline born of sweat and tears. 

A legend, burnished through time, that could only lose lustre in its telling.

Bicycle appreciation goes beyond cache names like Colnago or Campagnolo. Indeed, bicycle appreciation goes way beyond frame construction and component design and into lifestyle, and racing, and touring, and making choices, and sacrifices, and the simple joy of turning a pedal and feeling with the wind in your face.  But if you are looking for that sort of thing then I’m sorry but you have clearly stumbled onto the wrong blog. Such things should be left to those blessed with the casual eloquence to articulate the unquantifiable. The inept can only bludgeon with clumsy wordage. 

I am rather fond of the Colnago Master. 

This here is the first production model. 

Thirty years ago in Cambiago, Italy, a legend was born. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013