Saturday, 11 June 2011
A Herd of Tin Donkeys: 1982 Colnago Mexico “Saronni”
My collection of bicycles has grown considerably since I arrived in Germany last year as I have added a number of interesting steel bikes to the fleet. High on my list of Bikes I Must Have has always been a Colnago, and in particular, a Saronni Red Mexico or Super.
Ernesto Colnago is one of the Grand Old Men of the racing bicycle industry, having worked as a mechanic for Eddy Merckx and his famous Molteni team. Colnago established his company in 1954 in Cambiago, Italy (near Milan) but it was through Merckx and in particular his One Hour Record bicycle of 1972 that Colnago became famous. Although almost all Colnago bicycles today are built in the Far East, the company continues to be led by the founder and still seeks to innovate. Although some consider Colnago’s reputation overblown, to many the bikes remain representative of the highest standard in racing cycling.
Working with lightweight Columbus SL steel tubing, Colnago developed an iconic range of high-end racing bicycles in the 1970s and 1980s, the Mexico and very similar Super models, which were followed by the long-lived Master and Master Light steel bicycles. Colnago retains a steel bike in its lineup even today as a nod to its glorious past. And part of that glory and the legend of Colnago came through the exploits of racer Giuseppe Saronni.
Born in Piedmont, “Beppe” Saronni became a pro in 1977 and in a twelve year career was to win 193 races, including 24 stages of the Giro d’Italia. He won the Giro overall in 1979 and again in 1983, and included in his palmares are the Tour de Suisse, Milan-San Remo, the Giro di Lombardia and La Fleche Wallone. In 1982 he won the road World Championship in Goodwood, England, with an astonishing sprint that earned him the nickname of “the Goodwood Rifle-shot.” Protected perfectly during the race by the powerful Italian team, watch Saronni blast off in the last 200 meters of the race (at 0:58):
At Goodwood and the Giro and a lot of other races, Beppe Saronni rode a Colnago in a very distinctive wine-red paint scheme. This beautiful colour became known as “Saronni Red” and you can still get it on the current steel frame from Colnago. These are very expensive and are designed to be used with current groupsets but I had hoped to find an older bicycle in good condition, or at least a Saronni Red frame that I could build up with period components.
Earlier this year I was fortunate enough to be the winning bidder of a Colnago in what looked like good condition but part of the bargain was that the bike had to be picked up. Getting up early, I took a three hour train ride to Neustadt an der Weinstrasse, a picturesque little town in the wine region of Rheinland-Pfalz. I met the seller and we had a coffee in the charming old part of town before I took possession of the bike. I had planned to ride for a few hours before my train back but the seller was concerned about the condition of the tires, which he thought were original. I suspected that this was possible since everything else looked period except the seat. I decided to make my ride a short one and planned to leave on an earlier train.
I rode out of Neustadt, fully aware that if I had a flat tire there was no way for me to fix a tubular and I would be doing some walking, so I trained to ride a course parallel to the railway. The bike was in very good condition: the paint was still very shiny and the metal components unmarked for the most part. The decals were also quite good, which was surprising on a 30 year old bicycle finished without a protective clearcoat.
I passed through vineyards and some small villages but my enjoyment of the ride was suddenly cut short as the seatpost let go and dropped into the frame. I had brought some tools with me but I was unable to tighten the seatpost binder bolt so I just rode to the nearest railway station that would bring me to the main line in Mannheim. I had lunch in Mannheim while waiting for my train. It was a busy weekend for travel and I was unable to get any reservation earlier than the one I had originally planned but at least I had some good food while waiting.
Subsequent to my return to Düsseldorf, I did some research on the bike. The seller had thought it was a 1981 Mexico but from the Campagnolo Super Record parts it dates to 1982, the same year Saronni won at Goodwood. The rubber brake hoods were shot and I have replaced them with correct Campagnolo replica hoods and I have changed the nasty plastic bar tape for some lovely Colnago-branded white cork tape. The brake cables were replaced. The strangely long 135 mm 3TTT black stem has been replaced by a pantographed Ernesto Colnago black stem, also by 3TTT and at a slightly shorter 130 mm. These stems are rather difficult to find but I wanted the bike to look as close as possible to the factory standard. Pedal cages and straps have been added and the modern gel saddle replaced with a NOS 1981 Selle San Marco Regal saddle, with copper rivets. This is the same saddle as on my Raleigh Team Professional and is very comfortable as well as beautiful.
Richard, my Mechanic par excellence, changed the stem for me as I could not figure out how 3TTT’s secret adjustment screw worked and he also corrected the more serious problem of the ovalization of the seat tube. He has worked his magic on the seatpost so even if the bolt, which now fits, fails, the seatpost will not drop down into the tube again. In his view, old Colnagos are among the best bicycles built as Ernesto’s primary concern was fit. I can certainly bear this out as the bicycle is very responsive and rides very smoothly. The only changes left are to rebuild the front wheel using the Mavic GP4 rim but with a Campagnolo Super Record hub (for some reason the front wheel has a Shimano hub) and I have the new hub already. I have a new set of decals, which I may wait a few years to use, and a pair of new Continental tubulars, although the present Vittorias seem to hold air well enough.
When I restored the Raleigh Team Pro, I found an old test report in Bicycling magazine, which compared the bike to its competitor, the Colnaglo Super. Now that I have examples of both brands I can conduct my own test. Much like Jan Raas and Freddy Maertens did at the 1982 Amstel Gold Race!