Colnago Vintage Bikes Guide: Colnago Master X Light And More

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Colnago are one of the highest-regarded manufacturers of bicycles of all time.

Even to this day, you’re likely to see some beautiful Colnago frames in the pro peloton. But one of the reasons Colnago enjoy such esteem is due to their iconic vintage bikes.

Colnago is not the oldest of manufacturers, founded in 1952, but has gained its prestige through innovation and consistently producing outstanding bikes – among them the legendary Colnago Master series.

Their reputation increased immeasurably with a number of high-profile victories and records, including the famous one-hour record set by the great Eddy Merckx in 1972.

But how did they generate such success in such a short amount of time? And what are the most iconic vintage Colnago bikes?

We’ll give you the lowdown on all things Colnago in this guide to vintage Colnago bikes, covering:

  • A Brief History Of Colnago
  • 4 Of The Most Iconic Vintage Colnago Road Bikes

Let’s get started!

Colnago Master Vintage Bikes: Title Image
Credit: Glory Cycles, CC BY 2.0. Edited from the original.

A Brief History Of Colnago

Initially founded by a young entrepreneur and bike mechanic, Colnago began in Cambiago, Italy in 1952.

However, back then it was just a 20-year-old Ernesto Colnago repairing bicycles in a small shop that opened in 1954.

Ernesto’s Rise To The Top

He had gained an excellent reputation as a bike mechanic by apprenticing for Gloria Cycles from the age of thirteen, where he had been schooled in the art of bike building, contributing to some extremely high-quality builds.

He began building bikes from scratch on his own in his workshop in the mid-’50s, but they didn’t really take off until Ernesto Colnago was hired as the head mechanic for the Molteni team in 1963.

The likes of Gianni Motta were then racing – and winning – on Colnago bikes. In 1970, Michele Dancelli took a stunning victory at Milano-San Remo riding a Colnago bike.

This victory in San Remo, known as the “City of Flowers”, inspired the famous “Asso di Fiori” (Ace of Clubs – or Ace of “Flowers” in Italian) Colnago logo.

This victory, together with Ernesto’s already established prestige as a builder of bikes, earned Colnago a reputation as one of the greatest bespoke bike builders in the world.

Collaboration With Eddy Merckx

Within a year of this momentous win, the great Eddy Merckx began racing on Colnago bikes.

Merckx went on to win a multitude of different accolades on Colnago’s bikes. In his first year at Molteni alone, he won the Tour de France, the Giro di Lombardia, the Milano-San Remo, the Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and many other highly prestigious races in road cycling.

This partnership with the greatest road cyclist of all time helped Colnago to climb to the very top of the bicycle manufacturing industry, where it arguably remains to this day.

As Colnago put it, “Merckx was an up-and-coming champion, and I was an up-and-coming bike builder. So it was a real honor to work for a great champion like Merckx. It helped us to grow.”

The Hour Record

One of the most famous successes of this collaboration came in 1972.

Ernesto Colnago crafted the lightest steel bike ever to professionally race, on which Eddy Merckx cycled the furthest anyone ever had in a single hour: 49.431 km.

An ode to the greatness of Merckx, his attempt beat the previous record by a full 8 km. The record stood for twelve years before finally being beaten in 1984.

Merckx would later describe this as “the hardest ride I have ever done”. Merckx’s success, however, cannot exclusively be attributed to his outstanding abilities. The bike he was riding was leaps and bounds ahead of the previous 1958 hour record.

This bike was completely cutting-edge at the time.

Ernesto Colnago had taken a number of steps to minimize the weight. The handlebars and stays were drilled, the chainrings were webbed, and the axles were completely hollow.

In 1972, this was the lightest bike of all time, weighing in at just under 5.5 kg. Even by today’s standards, with ultra-light carbon fiber components, that is unbelievably light. In fact, it would actually be illegal in UCI events, since the 6.8 kg minimum was established in 2000.

A cyclist rides a black Colnago through a port at sunset.

Pioneering The Future of Bicycles

This bike served as a testament to the innovation of Colnago.

In the years since then, Colnago has continued to innovate, creating some of the most iconic and beautiful bikes that have existed.

These include arguably the beginning of aero road bikes when Colnago realized in 1983 that crimping the tubes of the bicycle led to great performance benefits.

At the time, this wasn’t fully understood, but now it is commonplace on purpose-built aerodynamic machines.

Like many Italian brands, Colnago has remained true to its Italian heritage.

They have exclusively partnered with Italian manufacturers at every step of the process. This includes Columbus for steel tubing, Campagnolo for componentry, Selle Italia for saddles, and even Ferrari, for material science.

Colnago collaborated with Italian motor giant Ferrari in 1985 to create the first-ever carbon fiber bicycle.

Over the next ten years, Colnago, together with Ferrari, pioneered a number of alterations to carbon fiber to improve the tensile strength of the material. They experimented with different layering patterns in order to increase the resistance of the material to sharp bumps and crashes.

The ultimate proof-of-concept came in 1995 when Colnago created the first-ever carbon fiber bike to win the infamous bone-shaking monument, the Paris-Roubaix.

To this day, Colnago produces a number of flagship bicycles ridden by many riders in the pro peloton, and they remain one of the most sought-after bike brands. All of this success was built from a small workshop in Milan, and it remained a family business until 2020.

4 Of The Most Iconic Vintage Colnago Road Bikes

Colnago has produced so many iconic bikes over the years, but here are four of the most stand-out bicycles ever made by Colnago.

Colnago Super, 1968

The Colnago Super was the first production bicycle made by Colnago.

It featured a different geometry from many of the prevalent designs in the era, making it stiffer and lighter. For this reason, the bike was extremely popular, continuing in its production for more than 30 years.

The bike utilized Columbus SL tubing, but the larger sizes were crafted from thicker SP tubing. This is because Colnago always prioritized the safety of a bike over its weight. According to him, “A frame is the heart of a bike. It has to be safe”.

Having said this, despite the thicker tubing and larger size, Ernesto employed a number of clever tactics to keep the weight down of the SP Supers. So much so, that the difference in weight was negligible.

The bike came equipped with the flagship Campagnolo Nuovo Record, Cinelli handlebars and stem, and Campagnolo Record wheels.

Colnago Master Olympic Art Decor, 1991

The Colnago Master is perhaps the definitive range of Colnago frames.

They were created in 1983 by taking the same tubes from the Colnago Mexico – Merckx’s hour-record bike – and crimping them for improved aerodynamics.

One of the most successful Colnago Master models was the Master Olympic Art Decor, released in 1991.

A beautiful art decor design – a colorful display of different colors beautifully intertwined with classic Colnago patterning joined together with fully chromed tubes on the stays and forks.

The design features a little cyclist painted on the top tube, one of the design features that make this bike one of the most iconic Colnago releases to date.

The bike came with crimped Columbus SL tubing, Campagnolo Super Record groupset and wheelset, and Cinelli handlebars and stem.

Colnago C40, 1994

Although the C40 was by no means the first carbon fiber bike created by Colnago, it remains by far the most famous.

The reason for this is perhaps the record five wins over the brutal pavé of Paris-Roubaix.

Back in the early ’90s, before this bike was released, no one even considered entering the Paris-Roubaix on a carbon fiber bike. The material was relatively new to the industry and was not thought to be nearly strong enough to deal with the terrain of the infamous monument.

Before the 1995 race, many concerns were raised by experts in the sport. As Colnago recalls: “The night before Paris- Roubaix I had Mr. Squinzi, the Mapei boss, on the phone to me raising his concerns about using such a delicate-looking thing.”

Despite this doubt, Colnago remained confident in his design. He had developed a special layering technique that resulted in an extremely strong material, easily strong enough to survive the terrifying cobbles of the “Hell of the North”.

He was right to believe in the design. The 1995 race was won by Franco Ballerini of the Mapei team, riding the Colnago C40. The C40 would go on to be ridden by victors of the race on four other occasions

The C40 remained the flagship carbon fiber Colnago model for another 10 years and was the foundation for the famous Colnago ‘C-‘ range that contains their flagship carbon bikes to this day.

Colnago Master X-Light, 1998

Colnago Master X-Light leaning against a white wall.
Credit: Aerolin55CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

The Colnago Master X-Light was released in 1998 as a continuation of the hugely successful Art Decor Master series. It actually became one of the most popular Colnago bikes in history, for a number of reasons.

A call-back to the Master Olympic, the Master X-Light was designed in a very similar manner with a stunning Art Decor splash of color stretching across the crimped tubing, and beautifully chromed forks and stays.

The bike again features Colombus SL tubing made from DT15V steel and comes equipped with a Campagnolo Super Record groupset, the flagship Campag componentry from the era. Keeping everything authentic and Italian, the bike has Cinelli handlebars and stem, a Campag Record wheelset, and Campagnolo pedals.

Another reason the bike is so highly regarded is it weighs under 8 kg. Although this doesn’t sound so light now, it was one of the lightest-ever production bicycles at the time.

This was achieved with remarkably thin tubing, but still somehow retained the stiff and responsive feel Colnago had become renowned for.

This bike, at the time, only remained in production for a short while. This led to the bike becoming the ultimate addition to any vintage bike collection, and was extremely sought-after, commanding eye-wateringly high prices.

However, nearly 25 years later, the bike has been re-released in 2022. This isn’t just a call-back to generate attention for a new bike, either. It is basically a completely newly crafted version of the exact same bike.

Ernesto Colnago went to extreme lengths to ensure the authenticity of the bike. Columbus no longer made steel tubing anymore, but Ernesto tracked down the actual person who drew the tubes of the original X-Light and commissioned the drawing of the new tubes, even with the original DT15V steel.

The re-released model comes with Cinelli handlebars and stem, Campagnolo Super Record groupset (but the newest model), and Campagnolo wheelset and pedals, just like the original. It has also retained the famous art decor design of the original bike.

You can now pick up the 2022 Master X-Light frame for around $2500, but the originals still go for significantly more.

Found this Colnago Master guide helpful? Check out more from the BikeTips experts below!

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Jack is an experienced cycling writer based in San Diego, California. Though he loves group rides on a road bike, his true passion is backcountry bikepacking trips. His greatest adventure so far has been cycling the length of the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, and the next bucket-list trip is already in the works. Jack has a collection of vintage steel racing bikes that he rides and painstakingly restores. The jewel in the crown is his Colnago Master X-Light.

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