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Tales from the classic peloton, January 8, 2004
Ernesto Colnago 50th Anniversary Interview - Part four
By Tim Maloney, European Editor
Early in 2004, Cyclingnews sat down with Ernesto Colnago to discuss further his last half century of passion for 'le due ruote' in an exclusive one-on-one interview, this time about the Merckx and Sarroni Years:
Cyclingnews: So when did you see Eddy Merckx for the first time?
Ernesto Colnago: I first saw him race when he won the amateur World Championships at Sallanches, France (1964) and then I met him when he was with Peugeot. A rider who had ridden for Phillips team, Mickaels, and then became a soigneur, he brought Merckx to my place a few days before Milano-San Remo and I gave him a pair of special wheels we built to race on. And a pair of pedals too... we wanted him to get to know Colnago and they didn't really take care of him at Peugeot. The next day, Merckx won Milano-San Remo on our wheels, beating Gianni Motta, who was riding my bike. So that's I became friends with Eddy Merckx. He was a rider with a lot of desire to win. Then I saw him in the Giro d'Italia, with Peugeot and I'd have to say that Merckx learned his trade as a pro cyclist very well. Even at that age, he was already mature. As a rider, as a man, he was one who didn't say a lot. If it was raining or sunny, cold or hot, he was the same. That was Merckx. I remember the Wednesday before he won the World Championships in Mendrisio, he did a training ride of 380km! He rode from the Abetone Pass in Tuscany all the way to Cambiago! It was hot there so Merckx left at 5am with his soigneur Isaia and a Molteni team car behind. I told him 'if you're tired and are still 50km away, just stop. You have to keep going as long as you can and don't stop. Always allez!'
So Merckx made it here and I had prepared three bikes for him to ride Sunday in Mendrisio.
We took him to a hotel not too far from here in Cannonica Lambro, Albergo Forsati, and I said 'Eddy, think about which bike you want to use Sunday.' Because each bike had a different seat-tube angle, so I suggested that he get up tomorrow morning and try the three bikes. When Isaia went to wake up Merckx at 8am, he was already gone! He asked in the reception and they told him 'Oh, Merckx left at 7am to ride the Ghisallo.' The day before he had done 380km and the next day he was out on the bike again. So Isaia jumped in the car and by the time he caught up with him, Merckx was already in Lecco, halfway to Ghisallo. That was Merckx...
CN: So after Peugeot, Merckx came to race in Italy with Faema, the rival squad with your Molteni team. How did you look at that?
EC: I'll tell you something about that; the letter that Faema sent to his manager Van Buggenhout with a three-year contract, I brought it Belgium because they asked me to... But when Merckx came to race in Italy, he was on the same team as (Vittorio) Adorni, who became World Champion that year. People could see that Merckx already had an extra gear than the other riders at that point. He was so good... so Merckx came to race in Italy, first with Faema and then with me and Albani at Molteni. And he won, all over the world.
CN: You told us before how Mr.Molteni loved cycling. How did he get Merckx on his team?
EC: The Moltenis simply wanted the best rider on their team and that was Merckx. They had already had good riders on their team like Motta, Dancelli, Altig but there was only one Merckx. Plus Molteni saw a good opportunity to sell (salame) in Benelux, so they signed a contract with Merckx when his deal with Faema was up.
CN: Ernesto, could you call that time the golden age?
EC: Certainly! Merckx won everything then, the Giro, the Tour, all the Classics, the World Hour Record. I remember that when Merckx was preparing for the World Hour Record, he won the Giro dell'Emilia alone, then he won the Trofeo Baracchi (with Roger Swerts), who could barely take a turn that day. Merckx brought him to Molteni as well as other Belgian riders like Van den Bossche, all his faithful team riders.
CN: How did the transition go when Merckx's group came into Molteni?
EC: There were no problems; Motta left the team and since Faema had folded, Merckx brought most of his teammates over from there. I remember the first bike I made for Merckx. It was in October 1970 and he was down in Montecatini for the mineral bath treatments with his family. I went there to get his measurements for the bike and then when it was done a few days later, we met at Barbarino di Mugello. There was some sun that day and we took pictures of him in his new Molteni jersey with his new team bike.
Merckx was not only into the technology of the bikes; he also took a lot of care with the look of the bike. You see, Merckx had never really had special light bikes made up for him before with all the drilled out components like we did. So we able to make bikes for Merckx like the World Hour Record bike that weighed a little over 5.5kg. At that time, Merckx was an up and coming champion and I was an up and coming bike builder. So it was a real honour to work for a great champion like Merckx. It helped us to grow... when we made special forks, and special bikes... Merckx became like part of our family. He could come from Brussels in the morning and leave in the evening with a new frame. We would cut the tubes and braze it up as he wanted it, then bring it to the painter in Milano, where we would wait until it was ready, then bring it back to our workshop in Cambiago to assemble it.
The next day, Mercckx would call and say 'I did 260km on the new bike and it's OK'. We used to make Eddy Merckx at least 20 bikes a season.
CN: Ernesto, it's always been said that Eddy Merckx was very fussy about his bikes, especially his position.
EC: If I had to explain it, well, when he began working with us, he refined everything a bit with his approach. No detail was too small for Merckx to pay attention to. I remember that one time, I told him I could file a lug a certain way that might save a few grams and he was excited; 'Do it that way!" He learned a lot from us too, perhaps that's how he learned to build bikes in the first place and why he does this now. He was often in our workshop and we never hid anything from him. You understand?
CN: Did you ever get fed up with making all these bikes for Merckx?
EC: No,no,no,no,no! Sincerely no. Never have I never said that I have a lot of other work; I'm tired... because he was so involved with everything and that was special. Merckx would ask for this or that, a wider saddle, a narrower saddle, narrower handlebars, longer stem... a frame built with such and such frame angles for a particular race. We'd only did this for Merckx because there was only one Merckx. I don't see a Merckx in today's cycling... magari, magari. (If it only would be...) Even though I'm 72 years old now, I'd still stay up all night to build a frame for Eddy Merckx. We innovated a lot of new things for Eddy; titanium parts, drilled chain, super lightweight bicycles and parts. We made rims that were 260 grams for him, 24 spoke wheels... everyone was using 36 spoke wheels then. We looked at every detail to save weight and do special things for Merckx and that helped us improve our total approach to bike building.