Inside The Pro’s Closet

Colnago’s C40—the original meaning of carbon domination

By Bruce Lin

Photos: The Pro’s Closet

I’ve often thought that owning a Colnago would be the closest someone like me would ever come to owning a Ferrari. The comparison isn’t hard to draw. Both brands are Italian legends. Their founders, Ernesto Colnago and Enzo Ferrari, began collaborating in the 1980s to advance carbon technology in cycling. This partnership continued for decades with Colnago producing a range of special-edition Ferrari bikes. Both brands also have that innate desirability that stems from some ethereal combination of flair and class that some say can only be
attributed to Italian blood and Italian passion.

They are benchmarks in their respective categories, and their brand mystique is only enhanced by a strong
racing heritage. Ferrari has a long and storied history in Formula 1, the highest echelon on motor racing, while Colnago’s bikes have been featured beneath many of the world’s greatest riders. The legendary Eddy Merckx
dominated the peloton for years and set the hour record aboard Colnagos. The greatest pro cycling team of the ’90s, Mapei, rode Colnagos. Their results speak volumes. Between the two iconic Italian brands, they have produced countless wins and champions. They are both companies driven to win.

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY

Both brands also have a habit of celebrating important anniversaries by building special genre-defining machines. For Ferrari’s 40th anniversary they created the F40, an ultralight, twin-turbo supercar wrapped completely in carbon Kevlar. At the time, it was the fastest, most powerful and most expensive car Ferrari had built. To mark his 40th anniversary in 1994, Ernesto created a special bike, also all dressed in carbon, and, thanks to the Mapei team, it would go on to dominate an era. This was the Colnago C40.

Johan Museeuw on the cobbles. Photo: Colnago

If you’re of a certain, respectable age, the C40 was probably at one point your dream bike. Maybe it still is. The moment this classic Rabobank-colored C40 appeared in the shop, it was inevitable that I would ride it. As someone who grew up with Mapei as my favorite team, the C40 has been a bike I’ve been lusting after for over a decade. I simply had to ride it, and not even a slight aversion to the Spinergy wheels could stop me.

So, what was so special about the C40 that we took in? As the history books have written, it wasn’t the first carbon bike ever made, not by a long shot. Its predecessor, the C35, wasn’t either, but it was at least ostentatious enough to bring the shop to a standstill as people hoarded around to take their Snapchat and Instagram photos. With its svelte monocoque frame and prototype one-piece wheels—developed with the help of Ferrari’s Formula 1 engineers—the C35 was a technical showcase demonstrating what was possible with carbon fiber.

THE DECEPTIVE JUGGERNAUT 

The C40, with more traditional straight tubes and lugged construction, seemed almost pedestrian in comparison. But Colnago designed it for performance, not beauty. It was the bike that would finally make carbon fiber frames mainstream, and it did so in convincing fashion. The first C40 was introduced to the pro peloton in secret, as a test prototype beneath Tony Rominger in the 1993 Vuelta. Its innovative frame was hidden from unsuspecting eyes, appearing like a bonded aluminum frame beneath its paint. Rominger pedaled this new lightweight carbon bike during the mountain stages, and with it took his second Vuelta win. A great success for a prototype.

“After steel’s long reign, carbon was beginning to look like the heir apparent. The next year at Roubaix, Ballerini’s Mapei teammates pulled off a ridiculous sweep of the podium, all aboard C40s.”

Famously, in 1995, Mapei’s Franco Ballerini used a C40 to become the first person to ever win Paris-Roubaix aboard a carbon bike. With that win, carbon proved itself both capable and durable in some of the toughest conditions a bike could face. After steel’s long reign, carbon was beginning to look like the heir apparent. The next year at Roubaix, Ballerini’s Mapei teammates pulled off a ridiculous sweep of the podium, all aboard C40s. It’s an image that’s seared into my memory, one of my favorites from cycling history. Johan Museeuw, Gianluca Bortolami and Andrea Tafi riding three abreast across the finish line, their arms raised in victory, their loud multi-colored Mapei kits screaming to the world that they had no equal.

The podium sweep was an unlikely accomplishment, and yet, in 1998 and 1999, the team would go on to repeat the feat at Roubaix two more times. Mapei was a cycling juggernaut, and more than anything else, it was their exploits that made the C40 special to me. Wins at Flanders and countless other Spring Classics have firmly cemented the C40 in my mind as the definitive ’90s weapon of choice. The C40 was the bike of the moment, and everyone else was playing catch-up.

CHASING LEGENDS

Former American racer Chann McRae rode for Mapei from 1999 to 2000, and he remembers his time with the team fondly. He was truly living the dream, riding for the strongest team, a team full of his idols, and lining up alongside them for the biggest races in the world. And about the bike?

Was anything he ever disliked about the C40, I asked. “Not really,” he said, pretty emphatically. “The bike delivered every time it was asked to do so.” To prove the point, Chann recalled the time he chased down a French legend on the C40 that perfectly captured the feeling of almost absolute confidence the Colnago gave him.

“My most memorable race on the C40 came in the 1999 Giro d’Italia when I snuck off the front in a small group with Laurent Jalabert. We were descending on some very narrow country roads, and Jalabert was putting the stick down, shredding the group and trying to get some time on his big GC rivals. I felt that he could go as fast as he wanted down the mountain, and I wasn’t going to be dropped by him. It was like I was glued on his wheel, quickly whipping the bike through a succession of endless switchbacks. We were flying that day; it was the first
of many.”

I thought of Chann’s story as I prepared to ride the C40 for the first time. No, I didn’t have a Mapei kit, but I was ready to give everyone on the ride a proper Mapei-style thrashing. The C40 in my possession is a 2002 example, an MK-3, identifiable by the “B-stay,” which are one-piece, wishbone-shaped seatstays Colnago introduced to stiffen up the rear end slightly. It’s one of only a few small tweaks Colnago made during the bike’s 10-year tenure.

CAMBIAGO MAGIC

The major advantage of the C40’s lugged construction is that it allows Colnago to produce a large range of sizes in 1cm increments. Modern, non-lugged carbon frames require a unique mold to produce each necessary size, meaning most normal manufacturers produce far fewer sizes and are often limited to using wider increments like small, medium and large. Of course, modern frame design has progressed to the point where lugged carbon is no longer in vogue. Flowing aerodynamic shapes, tunable stiffness and flex, and mass production are the cornerstones of modern bike design. Colnago and a handful of other small custom builders still stand alone in making lugged frames.

High-end lugged models like the current C60 are still made at their headquarters in Cambiago, Italy. Craftsmen painstakingly join tubes and lugs together by hand to produce each frame. Why? Well, I’m a giant sucker for this kind of stuff, so I’ll just say that it’s cool and classy. Maybe it’s just my unfettered attraction to vintage bikes, but something about the straight lines of the old-school double diamond will simply always look how the archetype of a bicycle should look. For me, it’s a major factor in the original C40’s allure. It’s a special combination of classic looks, artisan building techniques and modern materials. There’s no excessive flash or pomp, just humble utility.

The “art decor” paint scheme is another classic feature of the C40. Each individual frame is masked and airbrushed by hand, making each frame’s paint job unique. It’s painted in orange-and-blue Rabobank colors, another team Colnago once sponsored. The bike is built with Shimano rather than Campagnolo, which some may see as sacrilege for an Italian bike, but it’s the same Dura-Ace 7700 groupset used by the Rabobank team at the time. It was the first generation of Dura-Ace that featured Shimano’s lighter and stiffer Hollowtech cranks that we all now take for granted. But when the 7700 debuted in 1996, some pros were still skeptical of the hollow design and chose to instead run with the previous generation’s forged 7600 cranks.

The famous team sweep at Paris-Roubaix. Photo: Colnago

ABOUT THOSE WHEELS

On the topic of component skepticism, the only part of this particular C40 build I questioned was the previous owner’s choice to use Spinergy’s much maligned Rev-X wheels. They are period correct for an early 2000s bike, and to be fair, I do remember Mapei at one point running Spinergy wheels with Ambrosio decals, but these unique American-made wheels just felt out of place. A box-section Mavic or Ambrosio rim would suit my Classics ambitions and the Euro roots of the C40 much better. But beggars can’t be choosers, so I rode them.

“It’s the type of handling that generates those cliches about a bike feeling like it’s ‘on rails’ going through the corners. It’s the type of bike that will match the intensity of your inputs perfectly, remaining calm and only baring its teeth when you’re ready to pounce.”

Whipping through switchbacks, as Chann described, wasn’t exactly high on my priority list as, I’ll admit, I was sketched out by the wheels. The Spinergys are constructed of eight flat carbon spokes bonded under tension, and they unfortunately had a reputation for exploding, which, perhaps, had been greatly fueled by chatter on internet forums. Whether they really were more failure-prone than other wheels could probably be debated (the UCI supposedly purposely designed an unfair test targeting the Spinergys to justify banning them from competition). Some will say they’ve never had issues despite years of extreme and rough treatment, while many others will share horror stories of catastrophic failure and warn all those who are curious to stay very, very far away.

I’ll reserve any critical judgment for now and just say that I returned from my single ride alive and well. The Rev-Xs on this C40 have carbon X-Braces glued between the spokes, which were originally requested by pros like Italian sprinter Mario Cipollini (who won Tour de France stages on Spinergys) to stiffen the wheels up.

LUNCH-RIDE REVIEW

So, what’s my impression after riding one of my dream bikes? Overall, I’d say, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the ride of the C40 doesn’t feel as stiff and direct as a modern carbon bike. But, it doesn’t feel noodley by any means. If I had to describe it as anything, I’d call it subdued. Vibrations simply dissipate away, and the road turns into a silky-soft hum beneath the tires. The handling is extremely neutral and the bike flips from side to side with a languid but effortless fluidity. It’s the type of handling that generates those cliches about a bike feeling like it’s “on rails” going through the corners. It’s the type of bike that will match the intensity of your inputs perfectly, remaining calm and only baring its teeth when you’re ready to pounce.

Photo: Colnago

Some vintage-adverse critics would probably call the C40 “dead-feeling,” but it’s the sort of sensation that makes the thought of pounding through the gnarliest cobbles of Paris-Roubaix seem almost trivial, and it produces this feeling without any fancy modern tricks like decouplers, rubber inserts or suspension. The pros who rode the C40 loved it because it was a bike that you could easily ride for six to seven hours a day, day after day. In fact, the only thing I’d probably want to change if I purchased the bike is the cockpit. I’d probably have to shim the old 1-inch steerer to fit a proper stem, but upgrading to stiffer, modern, oversized (31.8mm) bars would probably sharpen the handling nicely without sacrificing much of the silky feel.

After my test ride, I’m starting to think that maybe this particular Colnago isn’t really the Ferrari of road bikes. It’s not a Ferrari F40, but more Porsche-like—a 959 in Komfort trim. There’s nice leather seats, air conditioning and a radio. It’s not just for one-day races; it’s something you can live with every day and at any speed. And when you need it to perform, you can open it up at will. I still want one. I always have. I’m hoping someday that a perfect Mapei C40—the bike of my dreams—will roll through the shop. Then, like Chann, I, too, can channel the power of Mapei and go chasing legends.

COLNAGO C40

  • Estimated value: $3000
  • Frame: 2002 Colnago C40
  • Fork: Colnago Star Carbon
  • Headset: Selcof
  • Stem: Colnago/ITM alloy, 25.4x100mm, 10 degrees
  • Handlebars: Easton EC90, 44cm
  • Brakes: Shimano Dura-Ace 7700
  • Front derailleur: Shimano Dura-Ace 7700
  • Rear derailleur: Shimano Dura-Ace 7700
  • Shifters: Shimano Dura-Ace 7700
  • Cassette: Shimano Dura-Ace 7700, nine-speed, 11-23t
  • Chain: Shimano Dura-Ace 7700
  • Crankset: Shimano Dura-Ace 7700, 53/39t, 172.5mm
  • Bottom bracket: Shimano
  • Rims: Spinergy Rev-X
  • Hubs: Spinergy
  • Saddle: Selle Italia Flite
  • Seatpost: Colnago Carbon
  • Pedals: Shimano Dura-Ace 7700
  • Weight: 17.12 pounds, (with pedals)
  • Top tube: 54.3cm
  • Seat tube: 55cm (center to top)
  • Head tube: 13.4cm
  • Head angle: 71.7 degrees
  • Seat angle: 74 degrees

Editor’s note: This is part of a continuing series from The Pro’s Closet featuring bikes from the past and present that deserve a spotlight, either for their place in history, their technical merits or simply because we think they’re special. Besides creating a museum of vintage race bikes, The Pro’s Closet is the top shop for the resale of quality pre-owned bikes, parts and valuations. 

www.theproscloset.com

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