What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Restoration: A Special Colnago Mexico

My father’s into cars. And car magazines. There must be 5 or 6 subscriptions. Although I like the cars, I am more fascinated by the magazines. The cycling journalist in me is downright envious. Auto journalists are much more opinionated and critical – most likely because they are much less dependant on the industry’s advertising. Their budgets, locations, access, perks and everything else is inconceivable in our little niche of the bike world. Yet, one area where we can hold our own is in restoring treasured, old machines. The one featured here is a mid 80’s Colnago Nuovo Mexico.

The Colnago, post restoration.

Acquiring The Bike
Classic car magazines readily point out that most readers are trying to re-live their childhood. Now in mid-life, they are able to afford the dreams of their youth, dreams called Corvettes or Ferraris or whatever. I contend that the very act of cycling, riding a bike fast, still makes us feel like kids. Maybe not every time we saddle up, but often. More importantly, this happens irregardless of whether the bike is old or new. But the old ones are especially romantic. Now, I too can afford bikes that were beyond my allowance 25 years ago and am always on the look-out for classic bikes. About a year ago, I was contacted about this Colnago.

This is how it looked before the restoration.

The original owner, Vincenzo Tripodi, had passed away the previous year – everyone knew him by the nickname Cecce (pronounced Chay CHAY). His wife called me and explained that they wanted to find a good home for his old Colnago. A few days later, I rode my early 70’s Ciclo Piave (a wonderful gem that always garners attention) to their apartment on the outskirts of town. Mrs. Tripodi was accompanied by her sister and brother-in-law. They admired my bike, which instantly earned me bonus credibility points. And we struck up an easy conversation about Texas; the sister having lived for awhile in San Antonio. I looked over their Colnago which seemed a bit tired but sound [a note about My Motives: I’m not really into these bikes, too common and too desired by others, my instinct was to sell it to fund other purchases/dreams]. So I made them a modest offer and then was told to come back in a couple of days. It turned out that this was actually an interview. The first one.

Two days later, I was invited into their home for coffee and another round of questioning. This time Cecce’s daughter, Alessandra, was there along with his 90 year old mother-in-law and granddaughter. I was made to understand that Vincenzo Tripodi was passionate about cycling. He had chaperoned, coached and mentored young riders for the Veloce Club Bolzano for many years. Later, he worked with the Libertas Laives club where a young Maurizio Fondriest was just beginning. But more importantly, he was a kind, good natured man.

Vicenzo “Cecce” Tripodi, racing the Colnago back in 1999.

As Alessandra recounted:
“One day an old man comes into the store [Tripodi owned a hardware store] and asked for a chain cutter because the key wasn’t working in his bike lock. So my father loans the man the chain cutters and the next thing he sees is the old guy riding off with his bike. Well that’s life, he thinks. Then, a couple days later, the old man brings the bike back and says he’s sorry, he got confused and took the wrong bike, ‘no wonder that damn key didn’t work.’ My father laughed, especially after he saw that their bikes didn’t even look anything alike!”

Midway through this second interview, I had changed my mind: I wanted to keep the bike. With the promise that I’d take good care of it, I paid a sum greater than I had offered, though still quite reasonable, and took it home.

What Is It?
This is a Colnago Nuovo Mexico, the “new” refers to the crimped Columbus SL tubes. In about 1981, Ernesto Colnago decided to crimp the top and down tubes; something that bike builders had been doing to chain stays for decades. Though it was reported that the Nuovo Mexico was stiffer, there were some complaints of instability at high speeds. Crimping the down tube twice, which conveniently mimics the company’s logo, seemed to solve the problem. And given Colnago an idea for the future.

Here’s the double crimped downtube.

Ernesto Colnago is a sharp man and can be recognized for three achievements (at least). His was the first bike company to mass produce quality bikes, relatively speaking. While some could boast higher quality or greater production, no one could do both like those guys in Cambiago, Italy. Secondly, Colnago was (and still is) passionate about racing and marketed the success of his riders into sales. Lastly, he was an early adopter and serious promoter of carbon fiber. In a fitting narrative twist, Colnago’s competitors would take advantage of these advances to unseat him from preeminence by the late 90’s.

I will draw a line in the sand and state that the Nuovo Mexico is significant because it marks the end of the classic, lightweight road bike era. This frame most likely dates from 1985 and it was the last in the line of those Super and Mexico traditions which followed other traditions since the beginning of racing bikes. By 1986, Colnago would introduce the Master frame with severely sculpted tubing, larger rear spacing, and subsequent models with additional labor/cost saving features. The Master is still in production today which attests to its contemporary design.

The next step, from crimped to sculpted tubing on this Master.

More importantly than frames, components have come to delineate the end of the classic era. Hinault won the Tour in 1985 with clipless pedals which would soon be adopted by pretty much everyone. Also in ‘85, Campagnolo would launch the C Record gruppo which introduced “aero” brake cables run under the bartape, Delta brakes, 130mm rear hubs to accommodate 7 and then 8 speed cassettes and most importantly, indexed and Ergo shifting. Though some argue that the classic era ended a bit before or even a bit after 1985, I’m sticking with my statement [a note about sandy lines: though declaring the end of bike eras is best left to zealots, I think that we’d be better served by continually evolving standards].

Another sign of changin’ times: these last generation Super Record brakes, produced only in 1985, with uniquely profiled arms.

What To Restore
Over the years, Tripodi had substituted most of the original parts, leaving only the seat post, handlebar, headset and brakes. Each modification told a story, for example the Sun Tour indexed shifters, derailleurs and triple crankset were certainly odd balls in Northern Italy – I’ve never seen any Sun Tour stuff here. Anyhow, these gearing changes pointed to an active, yet aging cyclist with good connections. While substituting clincher tire rims for tubulars was a pretty common “upgrade”, strangely Tripodi also got rid of the quill stem and replaced it with a converter and a modern Ritchey 11cm stem. A pair of Shimano 105 aero brake levers and a fatty Sella San Marco saddle round out the bike.

Hardly high end upgrades going on here…

Another thing I’ve learned from those car magazines is that every project needs a goal, otherwise things get out of control. So I decided to ride it “as is” for awhile and then decide. Actually, I already decided. While I like good stories, one man’s transformation of a classic Colnago into a more practical ride with ungainly parts over the course of 25 years isn’t a very entertaining one. I had to get this bike back to its elegant origins. Goal No. 1: get some new decals and find some period correct parts.

Finding Parts, CheapOh
Finding decals was easy. There are a few sources selling reproductions, I got mine from Greg Softley through that big online auction site. Three weeks later, the decals arrived from Australia, looking pretty good. The parts were the hard part. Since the Tripodi’s had searched everywhere and could not find the originals, my next hope was to find the mechanic that did the repairs. I went to all of the bike shops here in Bolzano. Though none of them had done the work, they all had kind words to say. Even if the deceased always catch a break on goodwill, all sentiments were universal and sincere: Vicenzo Tripodi was a Good Man, always quick with a warm, funny comment. Not a prankster, more like the welcoming barman, the guy that instantly makes you feel at ease.

Trying to find mid 80’s Campagnolo Super Record parts is a pricey affair. Since I have written a few articles about being cheap, now wouldn’t be the time to let down my readers. My CheapOh Idea: buy a mid-range parts bike from the same time period. I was looking for and found a one in excellent condition and it happened to be another Colnago, too. It was wearing mostly Campagnolo Triomphe parts and it was cheap because nearly everyone wants Supers or Mexicos. I took what I needed off the bike and sold the rest, which more than covered the expenses to come.

A mid range bike from the mid 80’s, bought cheap!

Confession: I committed a Restoration Sin by selling the original seat post, a beautiful Colnago pantographed (meaning custom milled and logo’d), tricolore thing. It was one of those necessary, yet highly profitable sacrifices in the name of cheapness. I also sold the most “valuable” part off the Triomphe: the pantographed stem. The key to CheapOh is valuing what others don’t and selling what is overvalued. And pantographed parts make bike guys foam at the mouth. I invested these windfalls wisely, trust me.

This lovely seat post had to go…

Campagnolo introduced the mid-range Triomphe gruppo in 1985, or maybe 1984. The most interesting advance was the crankset with a 116mm bolt circle diameter that allowed cyclists to theoretically use a 36 tooth inner chainring, though mine has the typical 42. This was revolutionary thinking at the time, but it would take cyclists almost 20 years to realize that compact gearing was a good idea. Other than the clunky rear derailleur (luckily, mine had been replaced with a Super Record one), the Triomphe gruppo is visually striking and pretty rare, lasting only until 1987. So on to, Goal No.2: get these mid-range parts milled and drilled, like their high end brethren to elevate their undervalued status. There are a couple guys out there doing these things, I went with Jon “Otis” Williams. He did a great job milling the crankset and shift levers.

Lovely milling work by Mr. Williams.

Note: Campagnolo used to stamp some of their parts with date codes, which is helpful when trying to build a period correct restoration. The easiest to decipher is the one on the rear derailleur. Mine is stamped PAT.82, which obviously means that it was manufactured in 1982. Crank arms are also usually stamped. The 70’s ones have a single number in a diamond, for example a 4 would mean 1974, while the early 80’s have a number in a circle. Starting in 1985, Campagnolo put odd numbers in squares. My crank arms have an 11, which means 1985 (22 means 1986, 33 means 1987).

It’s pretty easy to figure out when those old derailleurs were made.

Most likely, Tripodi had bought his Colnago from Cicli G. Turci since it was the only Colnago retailer in the region. This store has been selling fine racing bikes since the 50’s, and has been chronicled on PEZ before. The owner, Giovanni Turci, knew Cecce well since they were both involved in the racing scene. Turci offered to give me a New Old Stock wheelset that he laced up about 30 years ago and then never sold to help the project along. A set of Record hubs, 1.8mm spokes and oh so rare for these parts, Araya Aero tubular rims. Lovely.

Rare birds in these parts flooded by Campagnolo, Nisi and Ambrosio rims – of course, wearing buttery Veloflex tubulars.

The New Clothes
Now the only thing that bothered me was some bubbly rust on the top tube, where all-too-often the cable and cable guides trap the rider’s sweat. At first, I thought “ya know, this was Tripodi’s sweat, so that’s a good thing, a character thing.” Then I asked my 12 year old son about it. Rather bluntly he said, “well, it’s kinda dumb to put all these cool new parts on a messed up bike.” And I had to admit that he was right.

This bubbling thing was troubling.

Off to Tuscany. I’ve brought a few things to be refinished by Color Sistem in Montevarcchi, near Arezzo. They’ve been painting bike frames since the 60’s and are the right place to bring a frame like this one. Luigi, Ivo and Mario are the guys that invented the fishnet spray fades for Tomassini in the early 80’s (later copied by Colnago). There, I learned that my Nuovo Mexico color, referred to as Saronni Red, is actually silver with a layer of red tinted clear coat on top. The decals were applied and then another two coats of clear, clear coat – originally, the decals were placed on top of the paint and very prone to scratching and peeling. Also, it must be stated that today’s paints are much better than the ones used 30 years ago. This color looks great in the sunlight, the metallic silver base really pops, the depth is incomparable. Obviously, this calls for Goal No.3: better than new condition. So I got Ivo to line the chain stays by hand and scripted Tripodi on the top tube.

Color Sistem’s Ivo.

Putting It All Together
From Goal No.1 and through Goal No.2, I had planned on assembling the bike myself – I know my way around things until the STI/Ergo age. But if this restoration needed to be better than new, then it would have to be built by Marco Balduzzi, the wrench artist recently featured on PEZ.

Marco Balduzzi hand filed ramps into the old freewheel to make it shift with a newer, 8 speed chain – that’s beyond my wrenching skills!

Naturally, fond memories returned to Marco as he worked on the bike:
“My very first race, I was sixteen. Cecce brought his brother, who was a pretty successful cyclist and another strong guy and then filled out the team with me and another beginner, to get us some experience. It was pouring rain and cold, a real tempest. The course was 120km, we had 52 X 14’s back then. Tripodi’s brother and the other guy bailed out quick, they were more interested in the girls anyway. I finished dead last. What I most remember was that Cecce made me feel all right, that I had done good. In the car heading home, he made fun of the experienced riders saying, ‘so you two got girlfriends now?’ This was typical Cecce, his joking didn’t hurt their feelings, but it stopped them from otherwise ridiculing me.”

Stopping often to tell another Cecce Story.

Smiling, he recounted another:
“Cecce kinda treated us like his sons. I’d like to think that he especially cared for me, but he probably treated everyone like this. When I was 19, I was the only rider in this category in our club and they didn’t want to support me, they didn’t want the expense. Cecce thought I should be given a chance to race and succeed in this category, since I would have to serve in the military soon and lose a year. So he found a few riders and some younger guys to make up a team and make it worthwhile for the club to support [note: a bunch of top 10 results certainly helped Marco land a spot with Team Wilier after his year of service].”

Merano 1974, Cecce (in blue sweater) consoles Marco with an evidently good joke after finishing a disappointing second.

It’s Done
Now there were only two more things to do. Ride it and show it to the Tripodi’s. So how’s it ride? Like a Colnago; predictable, smooth and stable. But I already knew this from before. Mrs. Tripodi was a bit surprised by my call almost a year later. Again, I was invited into their home for coffee and homemade torte (a lemony-biscuit one). Alessandra and her mother admired the restoration, pleased that the bike had a new life, enjoyed hearing some of the stories I had learned about Cecce (a side of him they knew very little about), gave me a photo of him (the one in the beginning of this piece) and best of all, told me that my money had gone into buying his granddaughter’s first bicycle, which I think’s the perfect ending for this piece.

A NOS 3ttt Gimondi style, leather wrapped bar and milled shift levers complete the picture.

Finally done.

I wish to thank the Tripodi’s, Marco and Davide Balduzzi, Giovanni Turci, Otis Williams and the boys at Color Sistem. Thanks.

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