Downing our espressi, we hop on a passing yellow tram at Porta Ticinese and rattle down Via Torino towards the city’s dead-centre. Through the morning Milanese rush hour rain, the iconic old streetcar’s dinging bell gently nudges through the commuters as they weave in and out of cafes and tabacs. Our tram lurches to a stop, and for a moment we are cast under the spell of the Duomo’s soaring, gothic drama before diving beneath the city and into the subterranean metro maze to catch the yellow M3 line to San Donato at the end of the tracks, beyond which our destination, Cinelli HQ, lies.
Somewhat unconvinced that our trail is still warm in the face of San Donato’s drab, morning torpor, we follow our map, on foot, down a semi-flooded gravel track between humming industrial units until we spy, through a chain-link fence, a two-ton truck emblazoned with Cinelli’s winged ‘C’ logo. Cinelli nestles unassumingly amidst one of those ubiquitous, anonymous and grey out-of-town, pre-fab Italian industrial estates that drive the economy of the otherwise Bel Paese. Not for the first time in my life, I am struck by the incongruous nature that often surrounds many of cycling’s most romantic, legendary marques and the physical reality of the actual product’s surroundings.
We have come to meet with Fabrizio Aghito, Vice-President of Gruppo S.r.l, the company that is the marriage of Cinelli and the legendary Italian bicycle tubing manufacturer, Columbus. The welcome is warm, a sign thoughtfully hung by the doorway heralds our arrival and ushers us into the office’s family atmosphere; the faceless urban hinterland is left behind at the threshold.
“Coffee?” Fabrizio offers
“Please – espresso?” I enquire
“We only have espresso…” Fabrizio smiles, humouring the out-of-towners.
Over the caffeine shots – and amidst the distinctly eye-catching, eclectic works of art hung upon the walls and resting on shelves – Fabrizio fills us in on the history of the two brands and how they became intricately intertwined. It all started in the late 1940s after Cino Cinelli had hung his racing wheels up on a career whose not immodest palmares boasts a Milano-San Remo and a Giro Di Lombardia.
“Let’s say the story has two parts: Cino Cinelli started his company for bicycle components and Columbus was founded in 1919 by Mr Angelo Luigi Colombo. Columbus was actually a small part of a bigger company which produced special steel tubes, based here in Milano. More than 600 people worked at A.L Columbus producing tubes for things like oil transportation, aircraft, cars, etc. Inside this big company was the Columbus division which produced tubes for bikes and furniture.
When Cino opened Cinelli he started to also distribute the Columbus tubes for the Italian market’s big bicycle manufacturers. That’s how they started to collaborate, Cino distributing Angelo’s tubing and also Cino designing lugs, fittings – all the parts needed to make up a frame. Cino also had his own frames, the Supercorsa, of course. He then went on to develop saddles and other components – bars, stems etc.”
That the two men possessed all of the requisite master frame-builder’s expertise and raw materials is beyond question, but Cinelli had traditionally focused mainly on the manufacturing and development of components rather than frame-building. A clipless pedal system, the M71 in 1971, for example, or his use of alloy shows how forward thinking Cino’s passion for development was. This rationale stemmed from Cino and Angelo’s keen business savviness, as Fabrizio explains.
“Before carbon fibre, all of the high end frames were built here in Italy using Columbus or Reynolds tubing, the two big makers of high end tubes for frames. We supplied the tubing for all of the big brands and so we didn’t push the manufacture of our own branded frames as that would put is in direct competition with our own customers! Our own branded components, back then, were much bigger business for us than frames: Bars, stems, seatposts etc. But now the balance has tipped –aside from bar tape. That is still a massive business for us!”
Times have changed: Columbus tubing no longer supplies the Italian powerhouse pro-peloton bikes in the naked form onto which their branding make-up is applied. But Cinelli has been agile enough to re-position itself in a market that has been drastically altered by the emergence of monocoque carbon-fibre frame construction and the financial might and mass-production clout of the big American brands. Fabrizio sums up, in one Italian word, the re-direction: Sfumatore: Differing shades; the differing ethos and ideas which come together and make up a whole. Confident I have understood the translation, Fabrizio expands upon his theme
“We, Cinelli, as a company always wanted to be a little bit out of the mainstream. Of course, when possible we have always sponsored teams with components. But this changed when the big American brands entered into the market with money – real money – to sponsor the teams.”
Rather than try to compete, to disrupt or crush, Cinelli chose a path of co-existence in order to carve their niche and to continue to share the passion for the bicycle that lives within the company. Key to this for Fabrizio and the team is engaging with and experiencing the many varied ways in which everyday cyclists express their own unique sfumature and mould their bicycle’s usage and form to meet the needs of their cycling habits and habitats.
“Cinelli always wanted to put art into the sport. That has been one of the targets of Mr Antonio Colombo, Angelo’s son who now runs the company. Also to support rider’s communities, such as messengers. To push not only the bicycle as a sport but also the grass roots usage, the culture, the everyday usage. We aim to have our bicycle culture here at Cinelli not just coming down from the top of the sport but also to come up from the communities that ride our bikes.”
This ethos, this desire to connect and draw from the cycling community in the world at large, may sound like so much more modern-day marketing talk. But it is an ethos which has been woven into the company since the days when Cino campaigned forcefully – and successfully – to improve the working rights and pay for bicycle racers in an era in which they were, in many respects, “treated as pigs” as Fabrizio puts it, or when Cino was a driving force behind bringing the 1960 Olympics to the people of Rome.
“Sure, we’ve always kept an eye on the competitive side of things – the products we develop should always have been performing at the highest level – but we’ve always tried to promote the bicycle as a concept, a philosophy even: A way of living your life. This is how we have entered into the fixed gear market; our collaboration with MASH, the riders in San Fransisco, and our support of the Red Hook Crit, the big, first serious urban race on track bikes. This whole scene has been a revolutionary thing in the bicycle world – a whole new way of riding and competing”
Espressi finished, we head off to view the beating heart of Gruppo S.r.L, the factory shop floor. As we walk across the courtyard Fabrizio talks about the modern day operation.
“We moved the production of the carbon fibre lines out to China, where the vast majority of the world’s carbon frames are produced nowadays, but kept the production of our steel, the Columbus, right here: our high-end frames, the Nemo, the Supercorsa, etc are all still made here, 100%, in Italy”
We enter a cavernous concrete unit, past rows of Cinelli display bikes from differing lines and eras, and into a land of lathes, tubing machinery and stress-test rigs. The sound of metal cutting and shaping metal and the aroma of oil and bike grease hangs in the air and clings to the smudged, dog-eared navy blue overalls of the busy craftsmen. The guys in front of us have, Fabrizio informs me, being doing this for 30 odd years. The evocative smells and sounds send my mind back to my childhood and my father’s own cramped workshop in which he taught me the fundamentals of bike maintenance. Columbus tubes, both raw and machined, are stacked ceiling high in serial-numbered batches. I pick out a sample at random; from the shaping and elegant curvature it’s clearly a chainstay.
Again, that incongruity of the surroundings and what is created here – the elegant, classic lines and exquisitely lacquered paintwork that is the hallmark of Cinelli – manifests itself: A team of five or six guys hidden away on an industrial estate and spending each day in work-worn overalls, the saccharine babble of Italian radio in the background, machining and joining tubing that eventually becomes, somewhere in the world, a cyclist’s gateway to days of adventure and great memories in the shape of their beloved bike.