Everyone riding a modern carbon bicycle today, from budget-friendly entry level rigs to ultra-light aero race machines, owes a debt to the innovative and daring bikes that helped pave the way decades before. They are many, but none of the progenitors of carbon bikes are as stunning as the Colnago C35. Released in 1989 to commemorate Colnago’s 35th anniversary, it wasn’t the first carbon bicycle, nor was it the best, but it was certainly was the most ostentatious. In a museum full of beautiful vintage bikes, the C35 stands out with its curving, sculpted lines, deep burgundy paint, and special gold plated Campagnolo components. Some may see it as gaudy. It exhibits that special, excessive Italian flair that treads the line between eye-catching and eye-melting. But no matter your opinion about its looks, there’s no denying that this bike demands your attention. As a piece of cycling history, it deserves it. Since the C35 appeared at The Pro’s Closet, all glittering and gold, countless people have come to pay tribute. In my memory, no other bike has ever drawn so many people to my desk or had so many photos taken of it. It just has that sort of effect.
The C35 was Colnago’s first production carbon fiber bicycle. New technology is always rough around the edges, and it is only through the persistence of dedicated pioneers that it can evolve to gain acceptance. Carbon fiber was no exception. Ernesto Colnago, Colnago’s founder and namesake, was one of the few who first recognized the material’s potential for frame building and was already experimenting with it in the early 80s. The early days of development, years before computer-aided design and lightspeed Chinese manufacturing, building with carbon mostly involved lots of slow trial and error. Colnago tested different molding techniques, manufacturing processes, and carbon layups frame by frame and, with no prior examples of carbon frames to build upon, produced plenty of duds in the process. A viable production carbon bicycle frame needed to support the rider properly, absorb road vibration, and be stiff without being too heavy. In 1981 Colnago unveiled his first rideable concept, the CX Pista, a track bike with the world’s first full monocoque carbon fiber bicycle frame. Though it never went into production, its spaceship looks certainly drew attention and laid the groundwork for the C35 to eventually come into being.
A few years later Ernesto Colnago approached Ferrari’s founder, Enzo Ferrari, to discuss the possibility of a collaboration. Ferrari had already been developing advanced carbon fiber technology and monocoque frames for its F1 cars for several years and, besides aerospace, F1 racing was the only other industry pushing carbon fiber development in the 80s. Enzo agreed, and Colnago received the help of the same engineering team working on Ferrari’s high tech F1 cars. Through Ferrari, Colnago was also able to develop a relationship with emerging Italian high-tech company, ATR, the company that supplied carbon to Ferrari and many other supercar builders. ATR would go on to supply Colnago up into the early aughts. With Ferrari, Colnago now had access to better technology and manufacturing, and the experience and knowledge of their engineers. In 1986 came the first product of this collaboration, the Concept, which never saw production due to weight and cost. Two years later, they finally built the C35, the bike that would put carbon fiber on the radar of drooling cyclists everywhere.
Like its predecessors, the C35 had a full monocoque carbon frame. Carbon impregnated with resin is layered and pushed into a mold with a bladder to cure into a single, solid piece. It is the same method used by every major manufacturer today to build modern carbon frames. In later years, Colnago did come to favor building frames using lugged carbon, a similar building method to traditional lugged steel, which allowed many different sizes to be produced (with monocoque frames, each size need its own specific mold). The wheels are also full monocoque carbon pieces with hubs pressed and epoxied into them. Designed and custom made by Ferrari, they feature a beautiful arcing 5-spoke design that compliments the C35’s curving shape. They, of course, aren’t as light as many modern carbon wheels, coming in at just over 2000 grams, but thanks to their beefy one-piece design, they are plenty stiff. The frame and wheels are color matched with translucent burgundy paint that shows off the carbon weave on the surface and finished with finely airbrushed gold accents.
A notable design feature on the C35 is its innovative straight-bladed fork. In their testing and experimentation, Ernesto Colnago and the Ferrari engineers happened to discover that a traditional curved fork didn’t absorb vibration and shocks as well as a straight-bladed fork, which went against the basic intuition behind the curved fork’s design. Colnago became the first manufacturer to switch to straight blades when they released the Precisa fork in 1987, which later went on to win Paris-Roubaix twice under Franco Ballerini. Not only did straight forks perform better, but they also were advantageous for carbon manufacturing because the carbon was easier to lay up.
This particular C35 was an “Oro” (Italian for gold) version, one of the rarest models, which featured a rare gold plated Campagnolo C-Record gruppo. The number “35” is pantographed onto the brake levers, crank arms, front derailleur, and seatpost to commemorate Colnago’s 35th anniversary. The brakes are gold plated C-Record Colbalto calipers. The Colbaltos were a standard single-pivot design Campagnolo introduced into the C-Record line after recalling the first generation Delta brakes. They are essentially Super Record calipers with a cobalt colored stone set into the recess of the mounting nut, thus giving the brakes their name. The Cobalto brakes were only intended as an interim solution while the Delta was sorted out and are thus quite rare on their own, and the even rarer gold plated versions have been previously sold at auction for up to $500 a set.
The C35 supposedly won races in its day, but I struggled to find examples of any pros of the era racing on it. I read just a single rumor on CyclingTips that maybe Tony Rominger rode one in the final TT of 1989 Tour, but punctured and finished on a different bike. It doesn’t matter much though, as racing pedigree is of little importance for such a unique bike. It’s not a bike that you’d necessarily want to ride. Valued at nearly $20,000 the C35 Oro is easily one of the most valuable bikes in the Pro’s Closet, and it’s in exceptional condition. It has spent most of its life hanging on display in Vecchios Bicicletteria, a local Boulder shop. The tires are the original tires, and unfortunately, no longer hold air, and the chain comes perilously close to slapping the clearcoat off the chainstay in the highest gears. The paint is original and exceptionally clean for its age, all the components are near flawless, and the unmarred brake tracks on the wheels reveal the bike’s pampered lifestyle. And it has deserved it. It’s a bike that, if I were brave enough to ride it on the road, would surely elevate both my ego and spirit up into the stars. But it already does that effortlessly, just sitting by my desk. It takes a truly special bike to do that, a bike that ignites the imagination, that is equal parts art and engineering, and that I just can’t help but ogle at every opportunity. That’s what the C35 is, a piece of cycling history, a bike that set new standards for what a bike could be, and paved the way for what bikes would become."