On a very hot day in Milan I slowly work my way to Zara, one of the metro stations on the outskirts of the city. Carlo has kindly offered to pick me up and drive me to Columbus’s HQ just outside of the city where I am to meet Federico Stanzani, Columbus’s brand manager.
Before he gives me the guided tour he allows me to sneak into Antonio Columbo’s office to see some of the rare bikes, artwork and books. This is like no other office and more like an artist’s studio than anything else. It is almost impossible to imagine some of the finest cycling steels hard graft coming from such a clean and bright office, but it has.
As we walking into the main building I am greeted by an Aztec-like painting of a body, filled with patterns and forms, from which the tubes of a bicycle drawn from. The work of Z10 Ziegler, commissioned by Columbus. It shows how Columbo’s love of art is given to the feel of the company. In the main building I am greeted by a huge array of bikes. Quickly given a telling off as I photograph some of the prototypes for possible future release. I soon realise how important the relationship between Columbus and Cinelli are, especially with trying out new ideas.
Federico explains that none of these have been shown outside of the factory. They are trying new methods of joinery, expanding the ranges of steel and carbon as well as other interesting developments. Every part of the process has to be tested, from steel fabrication to carbon weaves. It is alright to produce a tube, but it is only when it is built into a frame do you know how it is going to react and if it is any good.
As I walk round there are machines of all sorts pulling, bending and shaping tubes into what we see as frame builders. The chalky finish raw steel is pushed through a circular dies, all of which have a different purpose. What emerges out of the other side appears to be an entirely new material. The black tubing, now twice as long starts to come alive. A greater internal diameter, thinner walls and a new exterior finish, all done using just pressure. Cold drawing creates new shapes and dimensions, but is also used to butt the tubes. The rack of dies allows different shapes, thicknesses and length to be created, as well as creating a variable wall thickness from end to centre.
“Usually we start from a minimum of seven passes of cold drawing to a maximum of 15” I am told by Federico. “Once this has been done the tubes are put into an oven to allow the crystals to reform and create the strength and durability we expect from a Columbus tube”.
It is hard to talk about Columbus without all the history, the well known riders and names given to the individual aspects of the tubes sets. From the aerodynamic Cinelli Laser Strada to Nivacrom developed in the 80’s to increase the strength-to-weight ratio of the tubes. Since then the brand has developed Niobium and XCr. A stainless steel similar to that developed for Reynolds 953. The top end of Columbus’s range that I personally used to love when building my own frames.
While I am shown round the factory I talk with Federico about how I originally came to know Columbus through furniture. Years ago I was given a metal and wooden chair from the 60’s. It turned out to be one made from Columbus steel. We talk about the history some more as it shows me to a hidden part of the warehouse. Up a flight of stairs he shows me a huge array of chairs, signs and office furniture. With 2019 being the 100th anniversary of Columbus they are slowly starting to organise their collection, source various previous projects and catalogs.
It is hard to believe how things have changed over the past 100 years. When Angelo Luigi Colombo opened a small factory to produce steel. Bicycles were all the rage, especially in Italy, so Colombo’s first customers were the likes of Bianchi and Miano, all masters of classic Italian steel.
What was to come was years of producing some of the finest bike tubes created. Having been ridden victory in the Tour de France by such cycling legends as Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil and Greg LeMond.
The future is bright for Columbus, especially with the resurgence of “Steel is Real”. While many people like the feel of carbon, the longevity and wide applications of steel, within the cycling world, will surely mean that Columbus will be around for years to come.