In what counts for spare time I’ve got two book proposals I’ve been working on. One of them concerns frame builders. My online column for peloton, called Artisans, is meant to be background research for many of the builders I believe will be the subjects of the book. If you’ve never checked it out, you should drop by and read a few here.
Recently, I was on the phone with one of the legends of frame building. We got to talking about the dream that leads one to want to become a frame builder. I’ve always enjoyed talking to frame builders. They have that feel of brother-of-a-different-mother to me. The work is solitary, creative, essentially commercial in nature and requires simple acts to be repeated thousands of times to hone one’s craft. After a while, they find they begin exploring arcane ideas about heat, silver, steel. At a certain level, writing is no different. I find myself thinking about verbs and the relative evil of sentimentality.
The builder I was speaking to told me how he had dreamt that being a frame builder was like being a shop keeper, such as a tailor. You show up in the morning, open up, work a full day, then close up and head home. But the idea was that working alone was meant to foster craft and remove the need to crank out production-style work. He believed that working alone was the key to being able to perform artisanal work. But that’s not all: When he was starting out, he had a belief that most of the builders who weren’t employed by the big companies like Colnago worked in exactly that manner.
By the time he found out that wasn’t the case, he’d already been building on his own for a few years. What I’ve learned of most of the European shops is that their priorities were shifted toward maximizing efficiency to increase output. Most of the builders I’ve spoken to working in the U.S. in the 1970s and ’80s favored limited output so they could focus on quality. Indeed contract builders were common in Italy. There were some who kept a stock of their clients’ decals around for when they came calling.
What American builders—and consumers—seem to struggle to appreciate is that to most of the builders working in Europe up through the ’80s and ’90s is that the bicycle frame was a commodity rarely separated by more than paint and decals. Branding and identity were the province of paint, decals and sponsorship. That is, you could put Colnago paint and decals on any bike and—ergo—it was a Colnago. There wasn’t a belief that anything beneath the paint could be terribly special.
When you consider those early builders here in the U.S., that is the group that really helped put frame building on the map here in the 1970s, guys like Albert Eisentraut, Richard Sachs, Peter Weigle, Ben Serotta and Brian Baylis, they each epitomized that ideal of the solitary craftsman, at least early on. Nevermind the fact that Eisentraut and Serotta never really made a career of working alone, that romanticized notion of the shopkeeper craftsman that inspired many of them—and most of today’s builders as well—is largely a fiction.
This idealized vision held by a handful of American builders of just what the life and purpose of a one-man frame shop is is largely responsible for the state of frame building in the U.S. and even around the world. The example set by Sachs, Weigle and other one-man shops is directly responsible for the influx of guys like Sacha White of Vanilla and David Wages of Ellis. The irony is that Sachs and Weigle weren’t really responding to a tradition; they were inventing one.
Relationship counselors are in the business of reminding us that when we enter a relationship we rarely see the object of affection as they are. We see them as we want them to be. Think about that a second. Is there a better demonstration of a love of craft than setting out to be an artisan as part of a grand tradition that exists only in your mind?
Colnago has been one of the most sought-after, most coveted brands in cycling for longer than I’ve been alive. They’ve managed this in spite of themselves. Most riders I know who’ve owned a steel Colnago also have a story about a broken dropout or chainstay. Brazing has not always been as up to snuff as their painting.
That Colnago has succeeded in spite of this shouldn’t surprise us. Witness brands like Toyota that have suffered quality control issues and endured, with little scuffing to their reputations.
What has made Colnago a lasting symbol for bike lust has been the company’s ability to stay ahead of trends, trade on a quintessential expression of Italy’s che passione and associate itself with many of the world’s finest teams and racers. This last may be the single most important ingredient in what Colnago has achieved. The company’s ties to racing virtually ensure that every bike magazine on the planet will run a photo that shows a Colnago each issue.
Colnago has tried more ideas than any other bike company I can think of. Some of its more adventurous designs elicit guffaws of laughter that even a 1980s mullet can’t conjure. But some of those oddball designs paid off as well. I have two friends who still sing praises for the Bi-Titanio—the titanium double-down tubed frame that was supposed to offer increased lateral rigidity without creating a more vertically harsh ride. Those who actually rode one concede it wasn’t super light, but the design worked as advertised.
My time on Colnagos has been limited; I simply haven’t had many opportunities. When the occasion to review one came, I leapt at the chance.
What I received was a CLX 2.0, a few rungs down the evolutionary ladder from the company’s flagship C59. Generally speaking, what I see on the road are C59s, EPQs and Master X Lights, so I was hoping to ride something representative of what so many cyclists around the world covet.
The CLX 2.0 features construction that was state-of-the-art in 2002, but today is a bit OTB. A monocoque carbon fiber main frame sports lugs into which wishbone seatstays and chainstays are plugged. And despite asking for something in the 57 or 58cm range, I was told I would get a 56cm frame, but as it turns out Colnago doesn’t make that size in the CLX 2.0; what I received was a 54.
So when I tell you that this bike was plenty stiff and I had no trouble getting enough weight on the front wheel to descend, but felt cramped, even with a 13cm stem installed, understand that each of these three aspects of the frame’s design were irrevocably influenced by the fact that this bike was too small for me.
I’ll grant that Colnago is honest with the consumer when they admit that the CLX 2.0 is meant to be more affordable than their top-of-the-line stuff, and also weighs a bit more as well. No harm there.
What I had a harder time trying to understand was why one of their staffers fed me a cock-and-bull story about why the construction of this bike was more advanced than anything the competition is doing. Really? I’ve probably seen more carbon laid up than this guy has and was pretty surprised that he’d lie to my face. Terminology in their brief marketing materials did little to tell me—or anyone else—more about the bike. I still don’t know what “alfa carbon” or “leaf-shaped seatstays” means—and I read the entire site.
I made numerous attempts to get the fork rake for each of the forks used on the CLX 2.0. Most responsible companies will spec two different forks over a range of six sizes. By using a 43mm and 45mm rake fork, they can achieve more consistent trail through all the sizes. However, I’ve seen plenty of companies spec one fork rake for six sizes, with all sizes sporting a different head tube angle. The upshot is that every bike handles a little different. And the difference in handling from the smallest size to the largest can make the bikes unrecognizable in character. I make a point of it to get both head tube angle and fork rake so that I can talk about how your experience riding a bike might differ from mine, based on changes in geometry.
I never got those numbers.
I rode the bike for about a month. The one aspect of ride quality that I can report on, the one dimension that wasn’t thrown off by being on a frame too small, was the bike’s road feel. The CLX 2.0 felt like every bike I’ve ever ridden that was constructed of 100% intermediate modulus carbon fiber. While the bike handled quickly enough (thanks to a wheelbase shorter than I’m accustomed), the frame felt fairly dead. It just didn’t possess that lively character that is present in an increasing number of bikes.
Is there anything wrong with the CLX 2.0? Nope. The paint was good, the workmanship seemed to be good and I didn’t experience any red flags, such as tracking left or right when riding no-hands or, worse, developing a speed wobble when going downhill.
The bike is perfectly fine. But it strikes me as heavier than necessary and deader in feeling than I’m apt to get excited about. That curving top tube and those swooping transitions from head tube to top tube and down tube don’t do much to increase torsional stiffness or improve ride quality, but it does add weight.
I’ve yet to ride a bicycle in which an oversized seat post or a seat mast design contributed anything positive to a bike’s feel; this is just another one of those occasions.
The real problem I have with this bike isn’t that it’s ordinary. An ordinary carbon fiber bike is an extraordinary thing to most cyclists in the world. But making an acceptable bike isn’t what’s at stake here. We’re talking about Colnago, a company that has done more to inspire bike lust than any other maker on the planet. I hold them to a higher standard. Making a lesser Colnago so the serfs may also ride one dilutes the brand. It’s not a pig in lipstick, more like a really good-looking golden retriever in lipstick.
So I’ve drawn my line in the sand. Perhaps the best rebuttal to my view should be presented Colnago, to wit: the company offers four models (a mountain bike, two fixed-gear models that aren’t track bikes and a hybrid) that seem utterly wrong for the line. Were I the product manager, I’d axe all four of them for the U.S. market. I don’t see hipster fixie kids with ironic handlebar mustaches ogling the Super, but Colnago seems to be selling plenty of bicycles. My opinions may be missing the message behind the brand.
So other than bitching about how bike reviews ought to include information about fork rake for each frame size (which I’ve been bitching about for more than 10 years), I don’t know that this review has provided any service to the reader. It’s not going to make anyone want to rush out and purchase a CLX 2.0 and it has done nothing to illuminate why people want the C59.
Back to that issue of service: This isn’t a bike you need to be warned about. It’s not a bad bike, but it’s definitely not a great one. The fact that I was sent a bike that was too small for me and then told it was plenty big shortchanged not just me, but you and Colnago. A bike that fits gets a better review. Every. Damn. Time.
As I’m not in a position to review every bike out there, I feel better about picking and choosing just what I’m going to review, based on those bikes that I think are a real cut above or at least worthy of mention—that’s why up until now every bike I’ve reviewed has gotten a pretty stellar review. It would be a different story if my whole job was reviewing bikes for a magazine. My feathers would be clipped from saying some of the more pointedly negative observations I have, but I’d also have a responsibility to get through as many different bikes out there as possible. But that’s not my mandate.
What I like least of all is that in concluding this review, I feel I’ve done nothing to inspire you to go for a ride. And that, dear reader, IS my mandate. I can accept that lack of inspiration if I’ve been on a tear about doping, but when I write about equipment, it should get you to thinking about riding, about your own riding and how the very next free moment you have needs to be on your beloved bike.
Day one of Interbike was a flurry of missed connections, reunions with old friends and, yes, introductions to new must-have bikes and parts. Somehow the day was over before I felt I had done enough; so it goes.
One of my more interesting stops was at Ritchey. Their components have fascinated me for their simple form and function ever since I bought my first Ritchey stem in 1990. More recently, the company has begun to make a firmer style statement. This has really come through on their wet white and wet black components. Yesterday they introduced wet red and this photo doesn’t do it justice; think lipstick red. As cool as I thought the black and white were, the red was a real stunner. I’d love to see a full pro team on them; that would look PRO.
This may have been the best looking ‘cross bike I saw yesterday. The matching fork is a new graphic touch for Ritchey and really ties the bike together nicely. And though not immediately apparent, this is a Break-Away.
Ritchey worked with Reynolds on this carbon clincher rim. They say that with Reynolds blue pads stopping is much better than with some other wheels and heat dissipates better than with Swisstop pads. Weight for the set is 1410g.
I’ve been digging Twin Six stuff for a few years now and as much as like some of their jerseys, I saw some T-shirts yesterday that really caught my eye. This ‘cross design is from a watercolor one of the owner/designers did at home one night.
I don’t know how many non-Bostonians will get the Southie reference, but having spent time in Revere, this shirt may have been my favorite inside nod/joke I caught yesterday.
Larceny entered my head when I saw this $2499 as-equipped carbon fiber ‘cross bike from Bianchi. I think they are under-appreciated for their ability to deliver great-spec’d bikes for terrific value.
Hincapie showed some great new clothes and the new George Signature line caught my eye. It’s a more form-fitting Euro-style cut, meaning the jerseys and bibs don’t run so long and the seams are welded rather than sewn. If you dig the Giordana Formula Red Carbon, then you’ll love this stuff … and you’ll like the pricing as well.
Colnago introduced its new C59 frame. In it there are some surprising nods to the modern world, such as the slightly sloping top tube (not the first for them, but one gets the sense that each new bike could just as easily have been designed around a horizontal top tube). This bike is available either with cable guides or Di2 guides, but you have to order ahead.
I don’t ride Brooks saddles. I won’t criticize anyone else for doing it, but I’m just not built for them. I do, however, have great respect for their ability to work with leather. The bags I saw yesterday were the ultimate lifestyle pieces for the cyclist who wants to keep cycling clothing even when in street clothes.
Not only were these bags elegant and well-made, they were surprisingly functional. Once again, larceny was on my mind. And I don’t mind saying it.
Fi’zi:k introduced a seatpost last year to work with their saddles with carbon fiber rails. Yesterday I saw a new carbon fiber post. Being the geek that I am, what really caught my eye was that thing at the bottom.
Should you have an occasion to slip the seatpost out of the frame, say for travel, the ring serves as a much better way to remember your exact saddle height than electrical tape. I used a glider board in the back of my wagon for years and every time I headed off to a race, the seatpost came out. I took an unnatural delight in this little gizmo.
By now you’ve heard that Fi’zi:k is introducing a shoe line. The sail-cloth straps look stiff but were surprisingly flexible. What I most liked about what I saw was just how Italian the shoes look. The cut of the leather and more understated accents made them surprisingly gorgeous in person.
For those considering relocation, the bible of city comparison used to be the “Places Rated Almanac.” It compared all the major metropolitan areas of the United States according to the standard indices you’d expect.
Concerned about education? That’s here. Transportation your issue? Got that. Jobs? Covered. Weather? One place is better than all others.
So that best weather? San Diego is tops. Allegedly.
That last is just a wisecrack. Everyone knows that if you want consistently good weather, unbroken 75-degree days for as many as 40 weeks in a row, you need to move to San Diego. It’s as close to Cabo San Lucas—the Love Boat’s favorite destination—as you can get and still be stateside.
I offer this as a backdrop to the Gran Fondo Colnago. Why hold a Gran Fondo in San Diego? Well, there’s the aforementioned weather. There’s the fact that it has a neighborhood called Little Italy full of amazing restaurants and wine bars. There’s an abundance of gorgeous scenery. It’s got the odd canyon road for a killer descent. It’s also got an army of rabid cyclists with the business savvy and boosterism to promote off one of the biggest rides I have ever attended.
The rain began as I was dressing. I rolled to the start in light rain composed of occasional drops the size of grapes. Standing at the start I was amazed at how the rain became heavier and heavier with each passing minute. The announcers, one of whom was Cycle Sport contributor Bruce Hildenbrand, began making jokes about how the heavy stuff would hold off—think Bill Murray in Caddy Shack.
By the time the Ferraris—three of them—started, the serious downpour was on. Of course, no amount of rain could drown the sonorous rumbling of one of Italy’s greatest exports (one of the few to rank higher than Colnago itself). I had already made up my mind that I was going to have a good time, rain or no and when I heard the Ferraris start I was ready to ride my bike. Hard.
The opening few miles involved a steady sorting of riders, with VIPs not interested in riding hard dropping back, fit riders heading for the rear wheels of the ex-pros and the thunder of those Ferraris. The first real sort came on the bridge to Coronado. There was a big acceleration at the front and by the time I made the left turn at the bottom of the bridge, a lead group containing former Olympian Dave Letteiri, former USPro Champion Kurt Stockton, former Olympian and National Champion Mari Holden among others were pulling away from a group of 20 or so.
Around mile 30 we arrived at the day’s second sag stop and after grabbing a couple of gels I immediately hit the road only to find myself riding with the Lettieri/Holden group. My carelessness was not without consequence. Following a few short pulls from me, the dozen-strong group quickly ramped up to a pace higher than I was comfortable riding at for the next 60 miles. There was a VeloNews staffer who looked eerily like Aussie Michael Rogers—on a time trial bike no less—who would head to the front of the group seemingly immediately after his own pulls and lift the pace. While Kurt Stockton looked comfy, I needed to save a few matches for the 80-mile mark.
I sat up on a long false flat and quickly saw a rider in one of the ’08 Highroad rain jackets make the same choice. Turns out it was AEG’s Andrew Messick who I’d met only the night before. Andrew proved to be terrific company. We rode together up the six mile climb and on the descents of Hawley Springs Road and Lyons Valley Road in the hinterlands near Jamul, Messick proved himself to be a very adept descender in the rain.
The rain continued like darkness.
Messick and I traded pulls like we’d been training partners for a decade. I hadn’t had that level of comfort with a rider I’d never ridden with before since I stopped racing. But at the Olympic Training Center we parted ways; I needed calories.
An engineer for a tire company once told me that the biggest contributor to flats, the thing that predisposed a tire to a puncture more than anything else was water. As you already know, rain is a great way to get a flat, and get a flat I did.
Soon after, a group caught me and it was this quintuplet that I rolled with to the finish. Somewhere around mile 92 or 93, the rain actually stopped coming down. I didn’t really notice at first; we continued to rooster tail through standing water straight to the finish.
At one point one of the riders in our group, Allain, a Belgian hard man he flew over specifically for the event asked me if we were back in San Diego.
“I think so.” I didn’t really know. It had been five hours since I’d last seen a familiar road, which was while we were on Coronado Island. I could have been in Portland for all the familiarity I had with the neighborhood. We were entering an industrial area with numerous railroad tracks and all I could think about was watching for the turns and making it over the railroad tracks without falling.
Allain’s bike was equipped with some Schwalbe Super Moto tires that were wider than a “Biggest Loser” contestant. I eyed his bike with suspicion. Those tires were perfect for this weather. I began to wonder if he knew things I didn’t. Just how good were the weathermen in Belgium?
Rolling into the finish was surreal; riding through downtown gave nothing away and so our final left into the parking lot where the ride finished came unexpectedly. Someone yelled at one of the riders not to sprint in the finishing chute; thank heaven. It was narrow and contained a few turns. We received finisher’s medal after we crossed the line and returned the timing chips.
I’ve eaten more post-century meals than I care to remember. Most of them weren’t exactly memorable—little wonder I don’t remember most of them—even though they were all useful. This one was unusual for the quality of food. It was delicious as only Italians could produce. From pasta to polenta, salad to sausage, there was a lot of great food.
Looking back, the course had an extraordinary number of turns compared to most centuries I do. They were well-marked and the signs were easy to see well in advance. And with so many turns, there weren’t enough off-duty cops in all of San Diego County to have all the intersections controlled for us, so we needed good signage.
I know plenty of people don’t get what the big deal is about Gran Fondos. To all of them I say, do one. The mass start and self-selection into groups makes the event, well, a good deal more unified. The random start for the average century just isn’t nearly as interesting to me as the self-selection that comes when you find a group riding at exactly your pace.
While I showed up for the Gran Fondo Colnago ready to have an enjoyable ride no matter what Mother Nature served up, though I had admitted the only reason I didn’t want it to rain was to make sure I could get photos. Even with the rain, this was a high-profile event that was as well organized as any event I’ve ever entered, easily on a par with Sea Otter, but with the downtown departure and finish it made for a memorable event.
To the degree that this site might struggle to find a broad readership within cycling, I take full responsibility. I can geek out on aspects of equipment that some cyclists couldn’t care less about. I read geometry charts the way some folks read biographies. If they could examine geometry charts on Mythbusters, I’d record it and watch it daily.
I’d apologize, but the reality is, I enjoy it and from time to time I write something that actually turns out to help other cyclists.
One of RKP’s readers, Sophrosune, commented on the “Road Feel” post and asked me for my take on the Colnago E1’s geometry and to respond to Bicycling’s assertion that the bike was squirrelly on descents, something our reader claimed to experience as well.
I’ve talked a lot about geometry in theory, but this is a great chance to look specifically at one bike and just what information you generally get and what information you ought to get. So let’s start with the basics.
The Basics: If you really want to know a bike’s personality on paper, there are a handful of dimensions you absolutely need. They are:
Top tube length: this is the single greatest determiner of a bicycle’s size. Simply put, bigger people need longer top tubes.
Seat tube angle: this will have a huge effect on saddle setback and can change the effective top tube length by more than a centimeter on small size bikes and more than two centimeters on larger frames. The longer your femur, the slacker the seat tube angle you need to achieve knee-over-pedal spindle, but that’s only meaningful if you believe in that standard.
Trail: steering geometry is defined by the interplay of head tube angle and fork rake; if a chart lacks one or the other, there’s no telling how the bike will handle. More trail means the bike is more resistant to steering input; less trail means the bike is more reactive to steering input.
Bottom bracket height (or drop): these two numbers are virtually interchangeable, though one, BB drop, is absolute because it defines the distance the BB is below a line that bisects both axles. BB height is influenced by the tires used and any given BB height is dependent on a specific tire. A lower BB (a drop of 7.5cm or more) makes the bike easier to lean into a turn; while it makes a bike more responsive, many riders report that a bike with a lower BB feels unusually sure-footed. A bike with a higher BB (a drop of less than 7cm) requires a bit more countersteering to execute a sharp turn but feels more stable when out of the saddle.
Wheelbase: changes in front-center distance (center of the BB to center of the front axle) and chainstay length can have a big effect on wheelbase length, even though the difference between many road bikes at a given size may only be 1cm, which translates to roughly a one percent difference. Ultimately, most bike designers will tell you wheelbase isn’t as important as BB drop, but not everyone agrees.
The Colnago E1: Colnago is one of a teaspoons-full of European manufacturers that didn’t completely abdicate its manufacturing in favor of a factory in Asia. This is significant.
Let me try to make a tedious story short.
The first Asian production of carbon fiber frames was largely set up in conjunction with American companies producing bikes for the United States market. The frame designs were based on a CPSC requirement for pedal clearance; most manufacturers comply with this requirement by designing their road bikes with a 7cm of bottom bracket drop.
Italian companies don’t have this same restriction. Italy also contains the Dolomite mountains. That last detail may or may not have a lot to do with why most Italian bikes had a BB drop of 7.5cm or more. I can’t say for certain because most Italian companies treat their geometry charts like state secrets. They will, on occasion, say something like, ‘We want our bicycles to descend with proper confidence.’
Any bike designs available from Asian factories through what are termed “open molds”—our engineering (reverse engineered from one of our clients with a great engineering team), your decals—were all built around 7cm of BB drop (not to mention a shorter wheelbase and less trail).
Suddenly, a great many Italian bike companies had bikes with a BB a half centimeter (or more) higher than they traditionally were.
If you were someone who had just purchased your first Taiwanese- or Chinese-made Italian bike, you might not notice the change in handling. However, if you’d been with that brand since the 1970s, you’d notice the difference.
However, that’s not the case with Colnago. In the case of the E1, the BB is a millimeter or two higher than it was in the steel bikes I’ve ridden; same for the chainstays and front center, a millimeter or two shorter.
The one shortfall in the geometry is in the fork. The fork rake for each frame size is 43mm. The head tube angle, though not given here, gets steeper as the sizes go from smaller to larger. As a result, the trail decreases (handling gets faster) as the frames increase in size. Each size will handle a bit differently due to the variance in trail.
An aside: I’ve wondered from time to time if more trail in a small frame would be useful in overcoming the decrease in wheelbase length and lower center of gravity that comes with a smaller frame. I’ve talked to women who have ridden a variety of bikes in smaller frame sizes and those bikes with the slackest head tube angles (72.5 degrees or less) and relatively little fork rake (some had 40mm of rake) did what was expected—they didn’t want to turn. Scratch that idea.
So many builders will tell you they build a given model around a given trail. While a custom builder can build a fork to any rake, at best, bike companies will offer two different fork rakes for their size range.
Okay, so what about the question? Is this a squirrelly bike as Bicycling suggested? There are two problems with our data set: We have no wheelbase length and no head tube angle. Despite that, a quick comparison of this bike with a few other frames I’m familiar with shows the BB is 3-4mm lower (as it should be) and the chainstays on average a half centimeter lower than typical American bikes. The front center is pretty typical for a given size.
But is it squirrelly? Based on what I see on paper, my gut says it’s great on fast descents. For anyone not already accustomed to Italian bikes, out of the saddle, this bike is a bit more maneuverable than might be comfortable. I could see how someone might drift off their line on their first few out-of-the-saddle sprints.
The are other unknowns that will make a huge difference in how this bike handles, and two of the most significant are the combination of stem length and handlebar height. Suppose you set up one 56cm frame with a short (say 10cm) stem with 4cm of headset spacers and another with a longer (12cm) stem and no headset spacers will handle so differently as to seem like a completely different bike.
I’d expect this bike to seem rather maneuverable out-of-the-saddle, but great on descents, unless, of course, it had a short stem and a high handlebar, and then it would seem squirrelly all day, every day.
Moving beyond the specifics of this bike, this geometry chart shows how leaving out one or two key details can render the rest of the geometry chart almost useless. For me, the question is why so many European bike manufacturers treat head tube angles as trade secrets. Changing stem length and height will make a much bigger difference in handling than even a full degree of head tube angle. In a way, we’ve brought it on ourselves. So few riders look at geometry charts the manufacturers aren’t motivated to offer more; if they aren’t going to give a complete set of information, then they ought to just give top tube and head tube length and stop there.