Established in 1896, Emmo Ghelfi founded the Frejus brand in Torino, Italy, building a small workshop in the courtyard of the Piazza Statuto. He would be one of the first manufacturers of bicycles in the whole of Italy, naming his brand after the nearby Monte Frejus, on the border of Italy and France.
Emmo and his brother designed and hand-built every frame Frejus produced, focusing on sleek lines, simple lug-work and balanced handling. The Frejus name grew to acclaim during the 1930s, as the great Gino Bartali rode to victory during the 1935 Giro d’Italia upon a Frejus bicycle. Many successes would follow, from 6 world championship titles to Ferdie Kubler’s win of the Tour de France in 1950. Their world championship successes were immortalised on every bicycle, as for every victory came a new Campione del Mondo stamp on the head tube.
As the second half of the 20th Century turned, Frejus were looking to expand. Sales negotiations with Emilio Bozzi of Legnano began and the Turin workshop was moved to Milan, with the intention of co-producing bicycles with Bozzi. However, this partnership was shortlived following the unfortunate events surrounding Bozzi’s death. It wasn’t long before Bianchi bought the rights to the Frejus name; from then on, Frejus ceased to manufacture bicycles.
The foundations of the brand
The brand Colnago is the creation of the genius Ernesto Colnago, born in 1932, he grew up riding bikes as much as he could. At the age of 13, he forged his birth certificate so that he could get a job in the Gloria bicycle factory in Milan.
Ernesto loved cycling so much that he not only worked in the shop but also entered amateur races. After a few years, he sadly suffered a career-ending injury - making his future extremely clear: he would build his own bikes. So, in 1952 at the age of 19 he left Gloria and set up Colnago in the small town of Cambiago, just outside of Milan.
The legendary ‘clubs’ logo that is synonymous with Colnago comes from a conversation with Ernesto’s friend Michele Dancelli. He remarked that Colnago bikes were ‘in bloom’ after a victory by the first Italian in 17 years at the Milan-San Remo in 1970. San Remo is known as the city of flowers and Ernesto had always hoped to be a manufacturing ‘ace’. He left the race that year with the image imprinted in his mind.
An example of Colnago’s vision realised on a Colnago Mexico TT.
Colnago’s road to success
A chance encounter on a leisurely ride around Milan would propel the brand towards their legendary status. In 1952, Ernesto met the extremely successful Fiorenzo Magni who was complaining of pains running down his leg. After a quick survey of the bike that Magni was riding, Ernesto deduced that the crank arms had been badly fitted on his bike. Magni listened to the advice and upon returning home altered his bike and knew right away that Ernesto was a man that knew bikes and could be trusted.
For the 1955 Giro d'Italia, Magni chose to bring Ernesto along as his mechanical assistant. Magni went on to win the illustrious Pink Jersey and as a result the Colnago brand gained a huge amount of popularity.
Ernesto’s success with Magni meant that he was scouted to work with the Molteni team through the 1960s. During this time, many great cyclists rode Colnago bikes for the team. One particular rider who was just emerging was Gianni Motta, who achieved wonderful victories during his time with Molteni between 1964-1968.
The Eddy Merckx years
Following the collapse of the Faema team, the legend Eddy Merckx was approached by Molteni to ride for them. Some of Merckx most inspirational and successful races were done on Colnago bikes. He also had extremely high demands and his own ideas about how to get faster and be more successful. This time working so closely together helped Colnago gain invaluable experience.
Merckx was so content with the construction of Colnago bikes that when he attempted to break the One Hour World Record, there was only one made for the job. Then in 1972, Merckx headed to Mexico City to do it. Colnago designed a custom track bike for Merckx to attempt the challenge - which he succeeded in demolishing.
The steel framed bike that Colnago produced weighed a tiny 5.75kg! It also took over 200 hours of work to be realised; however the results were phenomenal and worth every second of effort.
Colnago and the end of the steel frame
After the success of the SCIC Cycling Team sponsorship of Colnago in 1974, Colnago was allowed to put its logo of the ace of flowers onto clothing and frames - meaning the brand became instantly recognisable.
At the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, the Soviet Union entered a technical and commercial collaboration with Colnago. The USSR team won Gold, a massive victory for the world of cycling and even more so for the brand that made it all possible: Colnago.
In 1983, after feeling as though perfection was in his reach, Ernesto went back to the drawing board to make the ultimate steel road bike. With the help of the infamous Columbus Tubing, the Colnago Master was born. An innovative bicycle that included beautiful star shaped tubing to increase rigidity of the frame. It would also turn out to be one of Colnago’s final ventures in the world of steel frames.
The 1980s saw a boom in new technologies being introduced into professional road bike racing - one of particular importance to Colnago was the reliance on carbon fiber as opposed to steel for frame manufacturing. Colnago invested heavily into it and reaped the rewards after success with the Mapei cycling team throughout the later part of the 80s and well into the 90s.
The most breathtaking Colnago’s to ever exist
During Ernesto’s time at Gloria bicycles, he learned to love intricate lugwork design that featured on their bicycles. He wanted to pay tribute to the company that helped him along his way to success by mimicking the ornate lugs on his Arabesque. The joints of which are decorated with designs that are reminiscent of Arabian intricacies and makes the bike breathtaking to behold.
The lugwork on the Colnago Arabesque are extremely ornate and beautiful. On this vintage model from 1984, you can really see the contrast between the striking chromework and the paintwork
A replica of the Colnago Super that Merckx rode during his time with team Molteni as he achieved title after titled in the early 70s.
Following Merckx’s astonishing world breaking record in the Hour, the Colnago Nuovo Mexico was released. This spawned from the success of Guiseppe Saronni in the 1982 World Championships in the same city Merckx achieved greatness.
Here is a Colnago Super dating back to the 1970s, when frames manufactured from steel were the only option for professional teams. The matte black paintwork pairs beautifully with the yellow detailing which is then enhanced by the chromed front fork.
The long-lasting legacy of Colnago
Due to Colnago’s involvement with high-end professional racing, the brand earnt itself a prestigious reputation. This is something that it still very much enjoys to this day, as the brand is still in operation and producing top of the line road racing bikes. Although the steel frames have widely been replaced, the ethos of providing the ultimate vehicle for the athlete to achieve great things remains at the centre of the company.
They still sell 2 retro bikes: the Colnago Master and the Arabesque. These are two of the most successful models that the brand ever released and have stood the test of time, as they are both still extraordinarily popular.
A fine example of a vintage Colnago Master. Looking closely, you can see the star shaped tubing on the top tube and of course the unmistakable Colnago logo.
However, nowadays the brand enjoys unparalleled success from their carbon frames - although it is a venture away from the origins of what made the brand great in the first place, it shows the innovative nature of Ernesto.