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Tales from the classic peloton, January 8, 2004

Ernesto Colnago 50th Anniversary Interview - Part one

By Tim Maloney, European Editor

Sono stati 50 anni di intensa attivita e di successi... Non si e mai finito di imparare e creare per dar corpo ai sogni.

It's been 50 years of intense work and success... but the learning and creativity to bring dreams to life is never finished.

Ernesto Colnago

1940: Eight year old Ernesto Colnago on the day of his First Holy Communion
Photo ©: Colnago archives

At the end of 2003, Cyclingnews sat down with Ernesto Colnago to discuss his last half century of passion for 'le due ruote' in an exclusive one-on-one interview. Generally considered the world's most accomplished bicycle builder, 71 year old Ernesto Colnago is especially proud of the thousands of races won on his bicycles since 1954.

As 1954 began half a century ago, 21 year old bicycle mechanic Colnago would open his own "officina" (workshop) in Cambiago, Italy, just across from the most popular trattoria in town, "Il du e vint". Like the Wright Brothers half a century before him, Colnago's head was full of new ideas he had developed from almost a decade of working in the Gloria bicycle factory in nearby Milano, as well as racing all over Northern Italy. But since the airplane was already invented, an ambitious young entrepreneur Colnago decided to strike out on his own to focus on building top-level racing bicycles. For as 1954 began, Italy's outlook was increasingly optimistic, although the economic and political situation was still recovering from WW2 and government was unstable. The fate of Trieste was a continued area of conflict with Yugoslavia and the far-eastern area was finally given to Italy in a treaty in October. Alcide de Gasperi, Italy's first post war premier died that year while RAI, Italy's state broadcasting monopoly began regular television service in January.

The first ever Premio La Rinascente Compasso d'Oro Prize, the prestigious award for Industrial design was awarded, among others, to Marco Nizzoli for his Olivetti portable typewriter and Necchi sewing machine. 1954 was Gina Lollobrigida's big year in Italian cinema, Fellini's Oscar-winning La Strada hit the silver screen, while "commedia all'italiana" propelled actors like Alberto Sordi to stardom. The Eurovision Song Contest started in 1954, as Claudio Villa and Giorgio Consolini ruled the roost in Italian popular music.

1947: 15 year old Ernesto Colnago
Photo ©: Colnago archives

Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio was the big wheel in auto racing, battling with Italians Alberto Ascari, Umberto Maglioli, Guiseppe Farina and talented Brit Mike Hawthorn for the F-1 drivers title. Inter Milan beat Juventus in the Italian soccer league championship, while in the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, the home side dealt Italy a humiliating defeat 2-1, sending the azzurri home in the first round.

Legendary Italian rider Gino Bartali was on the wane. In his penultimate year of racing, he was still debilitated from a car crash in late 1953 and his battles with Fausto Coppi that had divided Italy in two were now just a memory. Fiorenzo Magni presented the first non-bicycle sponsored pro cycling team, Nivea-Fuchs. An unknown Italian-born Swiss rider Carlo Clerici managed to win the 37th edition of the Giro d'Italia in '54 on a Guerra bicycle, 24'16" ahead of countryman and Guerra team leader Hugo Koblet. During Stage 6 of the Giro, a hilly, winding 252km from Napoli to L'Aquila, Clerici and another rider got a 34-minute lead and gregario Clerici won the stage, giving the unknown rider the Maglia Rosa! '53 Giro winner Coppi was sick on Stage 6 with stomach problems and simply couldn't do much to chase Clerici and defend his title that day.

1950: 18 year old Ernesto Colnago (L) wins the Coppa Caldirola;.
Photo ©: Colnago archives

The '54 Giro was the Giro of the infamous "Bernina Strike". After Coppi had decisively won Friday's stage to Bolzano and pulled back some time on Clerici, the tifosi were hoping for more action by Coppi on the penultimate stage Saturday. But Fausto and the peloton took it extra-easy, climbing the Bernina pass "piano", which was seen as scandalous to the media and stunned tifosi. As the Giro finished in Milano on Sunday with a win by Van Steenbergen, the angry tifosi whistled derisively at the racers. Coppi, who led the "strike", lost a lot some popularity and was suspended for two months (later revoked).

Meanwhile, in Cambiago, Ernesto Colnago's officina started booming. Already well know as an expert mechanic, Colnago assembled all kinds of cycles and had learned how to build racing frames at Gloria. With Italy's post-war economy growing, people had more discretionary income and a growing passion for bicycle racing. So when local riders asked him to build racing bikes, Colnago's long odyssey as a world-renowned artisan bicycle builder began.

Part two: Tim Maloney talks to Ernesto Colnago, part one, Part three

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