Thursday, September 6, 2012

Il Progetto Colnago è finito or how I learned that some bikes have a soul

Several months ago, I embarked on a project on building my dream bike.  This past weekend, I rode that bike in the Bay Country Century, and it performed flawlessly.  In the process of building my dream bike, I learned a lot about the (almost) lost art of boutique artisanal bicycle making using thin steel tubes, a little about the Italian regard for industry standards, but most importantly, I learned that some bikes--especially old Italian steel bikes made by a man from Cambiago named Ernesto--do have a soul.

The story began in mid April of this year, just after I had defended my PhD.  I've long lusted after vintage Italian bikes, especially Colnagos and Cinellis, but could never afford one.  I promised myself that if I could get a hold of a frame in great shape, I'd want to do a period correct restoration, downtube shifters, pantographed seatpost, the works.  Fast forward to June 1, and a well used Colnago Super frame/fork popped up on Ebay for next to nothing.  Only caveat was that t had a cracked driveside chainstay.  The crack was only on the inside of the chainstay, next to the tire, and not all the way around.  Was the frame straight?  Was the crack repairable?  I didn't know, but for some reason I decided to gamble.  I clicked "Buy it now" and the frame was mine.

I sent the frame down to Alchemy Bicycles in Austin, TX, a well respected shop with a reputation for being able to repair just about anything.  Sure enough, Dave from Alchemy called me back to say that the fix was do-able and gave me a very reasonable price quote.  The only problem was that this would destroy the paint over the repaired section, requiring a repaint.

Over the next several days, I pondered what to do about the paint job as Alchemy worked on the repair.  Being a newly minted PhD., I don't have too much in savings to pour into this bike, and I wanted to run top end parts on the bike.  Something had to give.  The solution appeared to me after browsing a few galleries online of vintage steel bikes.  Since the chainstay was being repaired, the value of the bike decreases significantly as a collector's item.  It wouldn't be worth buying a whole period correct Super Record gruppo to go with this frame (plus I hate downtube shifters), nor would it be worth it to respray the frame to an original color.  I decided to go a very different route, one that guaranteed a unique bike: strip the bike of all its paint and equip it with the best and winningest gruppo currently made, SRAM Red.

After I got the frame back and repaired, I tried to strip the paint myself, but that just gave me a headache and a lot of paint chips on my floor. Instead, I dropped the frame off at Figure Finishing in Manassas, VA.  A few weeks later, the frame was ready to be picked up, stripped and clear powdered.  To say that I was blown away would be an understatement.  Every torch mark was visible, along with the small gold colored lines of braze at the lug-tube joints.  The clear powdercoat oven had darkened the steel to a rich brown color, and the powdercoat itself made the bike look wet all the time.  I took the frame home and set to work building it up.

The Colnago in her birthday suit.

In my original post I listed the build list as

Chris King 1" threadless headset
Ritchey WCS carbon fork 1" with alloy steerer (for stiffness)
Ritchey WCS 4axis carbon wrap stem
Ritchey WCS carbon bars
Ritchey WCS carbon seatpost or Moots Cinch seatpost
SRAM Red (black) gruppo
Ksyrium SL wheels
Fizik Arione seat (white)
Continental GP 4-Season 700x28c tires
Arundel stainless bottle cages

As it turns out, that is a pretty expensive bunch of parts.  I was able to source a lightly used 2011 SRAM Red gruppo, and an unused 2010 SRAM Red crank (Tour Edition), but the full carbon Ritchey cockpit was just out of my budget.  Fortunately, I recently upgraded the Fuji's bar and stem to an integrated Pro unit, leaving me with an Easton EA90 stem and a EA70 bar (check and check).  A used Thomson Elite seatpost from Ebay completed the (all-American) cockpit.  I got an unmarked titanium (I think?) bottle cage from a clearance bin at a local bike shop, Velo Orange skewers, and I decided to re-use the Colnago fork that came with the frame, which meant a 1 inch Chris King gripnut headset went in.  The headset required a little tweaking as the top of the fork was too tall for the Gripnut's stack height, so I had to internally shim the locknut to get it all to fit right.

I ran into another problem installing the bottom bracket.  Normally, Italian bikes have a 70mm bottom bracket with an internal diameter a little bit bigger than a standard English thread.  Also, both cups are right hand threaded.  On my bike, I happen to have a 68mm Italian threaded bottom bracket.  Why?  Because Italia, that's why.  So I was in a conundrum.  My SRAM Red crank and bottom bracket were designed for a 70mm shell, so what now?

Well, it turns out that no one makes an Italian bottom bracket spacer, so I had to make one myself.  I do this by taking a 1.3mm Shimano cassette spacer and filing out the inside so that it could be slipped over the threads.  This spaced my bottom bracket out to about 69.3mm (offset slightly to the non-drive side). I was lucky in my choice of SRAM Red as the SRAM GXP system locates the crank sprindle using only the non-drive bearing while the drive side bearing floats.  I slathered up the drive side cup with a lot of Phil's waterproof grease and attached the crank, hoping that the system would tolerate 0.7mm of spindle sticking out the drive side.  So far, I'm happy to report that it seems to be working beautifully.

The rest of the build went together smoothly.  A quill to threadless adapter had to be sourced to attach my modern stem, and I cannibalized the seat post cinch bolt from my Motobecane.  I used an old cromo railed Selle Italia Ponza Lux saddle I had laying around.  I thought I would have to replace it soon, but it's proven to be a surprisingly comfortable saddle, so I guess it'll stay until I can find an nice used Arione to replace it.  Finally I ended up using Continental GP4000s 700x25c tires as brake clearance wasn't huge.  So the build list ended up looking like this

Chris King 1" threadless Gripnut headset
Ritchey WCS carbon fork 1" with alloy steerer (for stiffness) Colnago chromed and lugged steel fork
Ritchey WCS 4axis carbon wrap stem Easton EA90 120mm stem
Ritchey WCS carbon bars Easton EA70 bars, 44mm
Ritchey WCS carbon seatpost or Moots Cinch seatpost Thomson Elite 27.2mm seatpost
SRAM Red (black Tour edition crank and standard Red) gruppo
Ksyrium SL wheels
Fizik Arione seat (white) Cromo railed Selle Italia Ponza Lux
Continental GP 4-Season 700x28c 25c tires
Arundel stainless bottle cages Unmarked Ti(?) cage

The finished bike

It's finished off with some white Shimano Dura-Ace cables, Fi'zi:k bartape and a few little flourishes such as Italian tricolore bar tape and top cap.  The top cap is actually made from an old bar end, so I'll be changing it regularly.  I'm thinking maybe I should carry a cap from an Italian beer on there or maybe use a cork from a bottle of wine.  Anyone have any suggestions?

Details matter on a bike like this.

So, most importantly, how does it ride?

In short, like nothing I've ever ridden.  Rough roads that would normally make me brace are smoothed over, but it doesn't have the dull wooden feeling of a carbon frame.  Road texture is transmitted loud and clear, only the jolts are filtered out.  The old saying is right, "Steel is Real". Especially, I should add, Italian steel.  The handling is absolutely sublime, and despite the 1 inch steerer, it carves corners deftly.  Sitting up and riding hands free requires no extra balancing act in the transition, the bike can be easily steered with tiny adjustments from the hips, even in rough pavement. I rode it in the Bay Country Century, and I didn't feel any aches or pain over the 100 miles.  Despite weighing in at 19 pounds, it climbs pretty well, especially if you keep a nice smooth cadence while seated. The weight and the fact that it's slightly flexy compared to modern carbon wunderbikes mean that sprinting and charging up climbs take a bit more planning than on the Fuji.  Even a Colnago has to obey Newton's laws.

But here's the thing.  Cycling is more than hammering up hills, carving corners, or beating your friends to the county line.  It's the connection you feel with the bike, the way some bikes hum as they go about their business while others silently move along, perfectly unnoticed.  The Fuji is the silent type, its speed is deceptive and it's ruthless, efficient, and silent, exactly what you want in a race machine.  The Colnago is a different beast.  It feels a little softer, it invites you to ride hard, but also to look around.  There's a hum about it, both audible and more metaphysical, that's evident once you're at speed.  In fast club rides, even though it's a little heavier and a tiny bit more sluggish to kick than the Fuji, I always have one more kick in my legs if I'm on the Colnago.  You don't lose wheels on this bike, it won't let you.

I know it's just a machine.  But it's a machine made by a man named Ernesto in Cambiago.  This frame, with its torch marks and brazing, has seen more days and miles than I have.  It moves over the road like an experienced horse, with speed and grace, sure in its footing and soft in its step but letting you know exactly the terrain it's traversing.  There's really no other way to describe how this bike rides other than it has a soul, and it yearns for the road. I'll do my best to feed its yearning.

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