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Edwig van Hooydonck's 1991 Colnago Master

By Bruce Lin


"In my training-induced pro-cycling dreams I’ve always fancied myself to be more of a Classics specialist. Despite my best efforts, I have come to terms with the fact that my body will likely never be svelte and featherlight enough to be a pure climber or Grand Tour contender. So I’ve found myself looking up to the likes of Boonen and Cancellara, cobbled specialists with listed weights mirroring my own. It helps that the one-day races they favor are also probably the most exciting races in cycling. Months of training, preparation, pressure, and anticipation are distilled into a single day, one punchy climb, one solo attack, one incredible win.

I have the good fortune of working with former pros who have actually raced in the Spring Classics and have experienced the drama firsthand. I love hearing stories so that I can live vicariously through them, fueling my own riding fantasies. But, perhaps the most valuable thing I’ve gained from listening to my esteemed co-workers is a more intimate relationship with the storied history of the sport I love. Through my work with vintage bicycles I’ve come to feel more connected and reverent. I hear about the “old days” and look at the bikes, with their almost primitive technology, their boundless character, and am constantly in awe of the feats people are capable of on such machines.

One day, I received word that one of our former pros that he had tracked down just such a bike for our collection. “Do you know Edwig van Hooydonck?” he asked. Of course, I didn’t. I’d be thoroughly impressed with any American cycling fan from my generation who knows Edwig van Hooydonck. When he was in his racing prime in the 80s and early 90s, I hadn’t even gotten on training wheels yet. But without realizing it, I had already felt the impact of his influence on the sport. The Belgian was the inventor of the ¾ length bib short, which he used as a way to cover an aggravated knee injury without the use of bandages. Bib Kickers, as they came to be known, soon became all the rage and the rest is history. I truly have him to thank for all my late fall and early spring apparel. But he was much more than just a one-time cycling fashion innovator. He was a great racer.

After Edwig’s bike came to the shop I watched a grainy YouTube video of him riding it in the 1991 Tour of Flanders. He’s tall, extremely tall, towering above the group of four he’s riding with up the Bosberg. It’s not the most fearsome or legendary climb in the Tour of Flanders, but as the last climb in the race after a brutal 250km it’s crucial to winning and losing the race. If there was going to be a big attack before the finish, this was the launchpad. All four racers were riding in that classic vintage style, mashing big gears, ripping at the handlebars as they muscled their bikes up the hill.

“Watch when he passes the post,” my pro co-worker said, pointing to an electrical pole up the road. The story goes that at the end of long training rides Edwig would finish by riding up the Bosberg ten times, and each time he would sprint at that post, all out, all the way to the top. It was an effort and level of pain that became perfectly ingrained into his legs and mind. My co-worker shook his head when they came close. “They’re all f—ked.”

There’s tension in the Flemish commentator’s voices as the group rides past. Edwig van Hooydonck slowly rises from his saddle and, in a display of pure class, he simply accelerates away. The crowd screams and the camera pans across the other riders left flailing in his wake. They all pedal wildly to try and stay with him but, in an instant the, gap grows to several bike lengths. Edwig doesn’t just dance on the pedals, he smashes them into the ground, savagely whipping the bike from side to side beneath him as the camera follows behind him. When it turns back around, the chasing riders are simply gone.  

Robert Chapatte, a French commentator and former rider once said, “When Van Hooydonck takes 100m, you need a whole coalition of riders to catch him.” He was right, Edwig wouldn’t be caught that day. He soloed on to the finish and took his second Tour of Flanders win (his first was also his first Tour of Flanders in 1989, which he won at the young age of 22). It was also the second time he’d won Flanders by dropping his competitors on the Bosberg, thus earning him the nickname Eddy Bosberg, or The Boss of the Bosberg.

The machine Edwig rode in this legendary attack is none other the venerable Colnago Master. The Master frame is instantly recognizable for its distinctive star-shaped tubing. This was Columbus’ Gilco tubing, named for Gilberto Columbo, an innovator in the world of motorsport who had developed racing chassis for the likes of Ferrari. Using a concept similar to how folding paper increases its strength, the crimped tubing purportedly provided greater stiffness at an overall lighter weight, though its limited use in only a few idiosyncratic Italian models is perhaps an indication that it wasn’t necessarily a game changer. Still, it was unique and thoroughly Italian, and thus desirable.

Edwig’s bike is interesting as it has 30mm extensions built onto the head tube and seat tube. This was to accommodate his height, allowing him to use a smaller frame that would be lighter and stiffer while still having his handlebars and saddle into the correct position. This style of frame is sometimes called "Freuler" geometry, named after Urs Freuler, a Swiss pro who was the first to use such a frame professionally. Many Colnago’s since have been offered with Freuler geometry for the largest sizes. Now with sloping top tubes and carbon fiber such designs are unnecessary, but for the time it was a simple solution for minimizing the flex and weight of steel frames built at the upper limits of sizing.  

This Master frame was built specifically for the Classics, as it has more tire clearance than was typical for bikes of the time so that a higher volume tire could be run for races like Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. The original owner also commented that the frame appeared to have been built in a hurry. A true “tradesman’s tool,” it was a race only machine built to be used in 5-6 races rather than as a showpiece. It lacks drainage holes for water and the paint and graphics are applied a bit haphazardly. It isn’t strikingly beautiful like some examples, but its battered paint oozes with utilitarian might, bolstered no doubt by its race-winning pedigree.

The fork is a Colnago Precisa fork, with its distinctive straight legs. Around 1987, when working on their carbon fiber collaboration, Colnago and Ferrari engineers discovered that a traditional curved fork didn’t absorb road vibrations and shocks as well as a straight bladed fork. The damping characteristics of straight versus curved legs is somewhat debatable (Trek, for example, has recently claimed improved comfort through slightly curved forks such as the one equipped on their Classics winning Domane) but the Precisa fork did go on to not only win Flanders under Edwig van Hooydonck, but also multiple Paris-Roubaix victories as well.

Edwig’s Master is built up with a complete Suntour Superbe Pro group from the second to last Superbe generation before Suntour shut down at the end of 1994. At this point, Suntour had already lost major ground to Shimano and Campagnolo, in part due to their slow adoption of indexed shifting. Though their components worked, their brand image had already suffered due to the unreliable nature of their early indexed shifting groups. One cool feature though of the Superbe Pro group is that the single pivot brakes have hidden brake springs, giving the calipers a super clean look. Too little too late though as Suntour’s competitors had already moved on to the more powerful and modern dual pivot design. In the early 90s, along with single pivot brakes, Suntour sponsored teams were mostly still using downtube shifters while Shimano and Campagnolo offered the newer integrated STI and Ergopower shifters. Many Suntour riders felt like this disparity put them at an obvious disadvantage when riding against Shimano and Campagnolo equipped teams.  

Of course, this never seemed to slow down Edwig van Hooydonck on his way to victory. He’d achieved his two Flanders wins in his early twenties, and was heralded as potentially the next Eddy Merckx. But he never fully lived up to the expectations and unfortunately, like Suntour, his career was destined to end in the mid-90s. He gave himself an ultimatum in 1995: if he couldn’t win another notable race that he’d face reality and stop. This ultimately may be due in part to the rise of EPO use within the pro peloton during the early 90s.

At least I like to think so. I like to think that the ferocity and bravery he showed exploding up the Boseberg came purely from within himself because I want to believe that I myself am capable of such an amazing feat. And I like to think that in the years that followed he simply saw the writing on the wall, and chose to walk away instead of being consumed. For that, he has my respect. It’s two different forms of strength. Something I wish to cultivate within myself. There’s a signpost stuck in the ground by one of my favorite climbs. On my next ride, I think I’ll sprint when I pass it and see if I can channel Edwig’s power, all out, all the way to the top."

-Bruce Lin

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