Mapei Colnago C40

As Colnago releases the flagship C60 frameset, it is perhaps fitting to peer back two decades to the iconic C40 which catapulted the successful Italian manufacturer to industry leader in carbon technology, a time when all production was still presumed to come out of it’s home in Cambiago, Italy. The C40 remained the crème de la crème Colnago and arguably, bike of the peloton until the release of the C50 a decade later.

It’s nearly impossible to mention previous editions of Paris-Roubaix without referencing the dominance of a single team through the 90s. A dominance that saw them round out the podium on not one, but three occasions (1996, 1998, 1999). Through a combination of tactical brilliance, luck and the most powerful stage racers of the time, Mapei’s legend in the classics is set in stone like the cobbles they pounded. The depth of talent that sprang from the Mapei squad is staggering and listing the riders is a veritable who’s who of cycling in the 90s and modern era. When the Spanish outfit of CLAS removed it’s involvement, Georgio Squinzi scooped the riders from the squad for his own Mapei outfit – which in 1994 was in it’s second year. Viner was replaced by Colnago as the bicycle sponsor with an iconic machine that would become a benchmark by which others were measured for the next decade.

Carbon frames to pre-cursor the C40 like Giant’s CADEX, Lemond’s TVT, and the Trek 2100 used carbon tubes as substitutes to alloy lugs with a bonded construction. The C40 used moulded carbon lugs which other than weight saving allowed for tweaking of frame geometry relative to the frame size – geometry borrowed from Colnago’s proven steel frames.

Colnago’s earlier experiments with carbon while visually spectacular (Ferrari Concept, Volo, Carbitubo, C35) where not commercially viable, and the experience gained from these frames allowed Colnago to mass produce the C(arbon) 40 frame with great success.

The shape of the C40 carbon tubes was a deliberate reference to the steel Master series of Columbus Gilco crimped tubes, and while the increased performance is difficult to quantify, it’s marketing effect was undeniable. Lush paint over the majority of frame made a huge visual statement, particularly in the exuberant Mapei team colourway. Mapei frames during this time included the alloy Dream, Titanio, Bi-Titan and Master-Light but it was the C40 that stood above them all.

While Mapei was heavily controlled and influenced by its Italian roots, Director Sportif Patrick Lefevre and superstar Johan Museeuw both from Belgian would eventually lead to a division in 2000 when the Belgian based Domo Farm-Frites was born. Though Museuuw would enjoy more success with the new Belgian Squad, racking up another two Roubaix victories, his time with Mapei aboard a Colnago is most celebrated, akin to Wayne Gretzky’s original success with the Edmonton Oilers. The victorious Roubaix machines of Ballerini, Bortalami, Tafi and Museeuw are on display at the Colnago musuem, covered in the dust and mud from the 267km event. The bike pictured in this is a flawless unridden example of the top of the line Mapei team bike. 8.38kg as pictured, the frame was quoted in Colnago publications as 1000g in weight(54cm).

Any doubt over the sturdiness of such a feather light frame was extinguished in 1995 when Johan Museeuw won Tour of Flanders, and a week later Franco Ballerini won Paris-Roubaix by 2 minutes on a C40 with a steel Precisa fork while other teams dabbled with suspension ‘technology’ as a way of conquering the Queen of the Classics. Roubaix has always been the ultimate testing ground for product and components and the C40 was passing with flying colours – blue, orange, black and white.

The frame, save the headbadge decal is completely painted in a lush, wet finish. A complex operation of many layers, passes and masks required for the transitions, logos, fishscales and airbrushed cubes make this a true piece of art irrespective of the C40 canvas.

The Colnago Star fork was a complete carbon leg and steerer with titanium reinforcements in the crown for strength, stiffness and durability, an upgrade from the alloy steerer of the Flash fork. Rumours abound to a feud between Campagnolo and Colnago that led to Ernesto choosing the Japanese component supplier. Dura Ace had been available for 20 years at this point, and had pioneered the integrated controls in 1991. The 7700 Shimano Dura-Ace ensemble pictured was the second iteration of the STI controls, now with 9 speeds. The platform included the splined ‘OCTALINK’ bottom bracket, cartridge brake pads and a standardised cable pull throughout the Shimano hierarchy. The anodised finished on the components is superb and arguably better than Campagnolo as blasphemous as that may sound.

In another mythical marketing effort, Shimano created limited versions of the crankset and team controls emblazoned with SHIMANO in place of Dura Ace. The differences are minuate but any passionate velospotter will appreciate the scarcity of these items, just as the team Briko sunglasses of the time also had large decals on the lenses which were not readily available for retail consumption ultimately making them more desirable. A Colnago carbon seat post was an alternative to the Shimano 7410 alloy post, and in true Colnago style it has been airbrushed with the clubs should there be any question as to the bike’s marque.

Mapei’s dominance included 5 Roubaix’s in 6 years, 653 races in it’s 9 year span and only Milan-San Remo and Le Tour De France were the major victories to elude them. The association with Colnago was the beginning of an era of unrivalled success, nearly as dominant as the Chicago Bulls who paralleled in time.

Much like the Nike ‘Jordan’ brand which lives on beyond the career of the greatest player of all time, on any popular cycle route you will see flashes of the iconic Mapei cubes on bibs, jerseys, jackets and caps on cyclists, with the Lion of Flanders firmly in their hearts.