Ask any cyclist about their preference of handlebar tape — soft or cushy, black or colored, cork ribbon or fabric — and you’ll receive an array of answers and as many suggestions for your own ride. Ask them what brand they prefer and the majority will have the same answer: Cinelli. But Cinelli’s contributions go well beyond handlebar tape.
Throughout cycling history, Cinelli bicycles have been some of the most innovative and race-proven machines to hit the road, trail and track. The company’s founder and namesake, Cino Cinelli, was the primary driving force behind this innovation and his bikes have become benchmarks in cycling technology as a result.
Long before the Cinelli brand gained its now-legendary status, Cinelli the man crossed the finish line a winner in the 1943 edition of Milan-San Remo, proving to the cycling world he was a major threat in the peloton. Cinelli was always interested in gaining an edge, and so with successful racing experience in his jersey pocket, he dutifully took to the machine shop and began working on new, improved cycling designs.
Five years later, in 1948, he founded Cinelli Bicycles. High on his list of priorities was a redesign of the bicycle cockpit: a more aggressive riding position to improve pedal stroke and aerodynamics, and stiffer materials to reduce power loss. With his racing career now behind him, Cinelli took his perfectionist nature to the drawing board and established a line of components that dominated the racing scene shortly thereafter.
Convinced that smaller wheels and longer cranks were more effective than then-standard 27 inch wheels, Cinelli developed a smaller, more aerodynamic bike with appropriately longer cranks for better leverage. He incorporated smaller wheels which, Cinelli insisted, provided higher cadence leading to a smoother, more powerful ride.
Though his concepts in this regard didn’t take off immediately or with great force, Cinelli slowly began revolutionizing frame design, not to mention the component side of the cycling industry. His frames were highly sought after by Olympian track cyclists and found their place in racing history as drastic reinterpretations of classic staples.
One of Cinelli’s most significant contributions revolved around the design of his forks. He contended that a sloping crown shortened the fork legs themselves, thereby reducing flex and adding rigidity that encouraged less power loss. Though its aerodynamic advantages were negligible — aerodynamics was a fad that didn’t hit the bicycle build scene until several years later — the design stuck.
Cinelli himself acknowledged horizontal crowns were useful on rougher roads, but otherwise, a stiffer fork was far more advantageous than earlier, flexier designs. In combination with his radical new frame designs – like the Super Corsa, which employed a more aggressive riding position and Fast Back seatpost clamp centered behind the top tube, strengthening the frame’s grip on the seatpost – Cinelli’s concepts came to fruition with a fervor and success the bicycle industry could simply not ignore.
Cinelli’s bar and stem designs accounted for most of his early business. According to David Herlihy’s interview with Cinelli,
“Annual production climbed from about 5,000 stems and bars in the 1950s, to 7,500 in the early 1960s. By Cino’s retirement in 1978, the figure had reached a giddy 150,000.”
Though he primarily designed steel components, Cinelli’s alloy handlebars were among the first to be accepted by professional racers in 1963 and subsequently by the cycling community at large. The Cinelli Ram, a full-carbon integrated handlebar and stem combination, was among the first of its kind to hit the market in 2002, and its aerodynamic yet ergonomic design has appealed to many riders in the professional peloton since then.
Always advancing the state of the art, Cinelli released Bivalent Quick Release hubs in 1963 – featuring a system that allowed the same wheel to be used in either the front or rear position. The Bivalent design employed use of a specially-designed freewheel that mounted to the frame independently from the wheel. It was radical, smart and pure Cinelli.
While the hubs were made by Campagnolo and the freewheel was manufactured by Regina, the concept – which allowed quicker wheel changes during time-critical races – never caught on. Several bikes that came spec’d with the hub system sold in the U.S., but sales in Europe remained tepid.
Cinelli abandoned the system in the late 1960s, but its various components remained in inventory throughout the 1970s. Nonetheless, Bivalent hubs were one of Cinelli’s most prized concepts, and the hubs have become more of a collector’s item than racer’s tool.
Cinelli continued innovating components with new introductions to the cycling world including: the first clipless pedal system, the M71; a saddle named the Unicantor, made of a plastic material called Rilsan and covered in buffalo hide to compete with full leather saddles, which tended to get squishy and deformed over time; and Binda toe straps, a revolutionary and tough advancement of pedal functionality and the only one of its kind at the time.
As his reputation for innovation grew, so too did his respect as a frame maker in the race circuit. Cycling legend Fausto Coppi first raced a Cinelli frame in 1947 and from then on always remained willing to field test Cinelli’s new designs, such as a twenty-inch wheeled road bike with longer cranks and shorter wheelbase.
Cino Cinelli’s hunger for improvements and implacably meticulous nature lured Danish cyclist Ole Ritter to the Cinelli brand for his own personal quest: the hour record. So, in 1974, Cinelli designed an aerodynamic “Funny Bike” for Ritter, who broke his own previous record and brought the pursuit of the hour record to the forefront of cycling consciousness.
The bike itself used a longer crank set and narrower hubs to enhance aerodynamics, as well as winged fork blades and tubular tires designed specifically for the event. This model paved the eventual way for a new aerodynamic model – and one of Cino Cinelli’s final projects – named the Laser.
Cinelli frame output averaged around 600 to 700 frames per year at its peak, and around 200 frames per year at the company’s onset. Most popular – not to mention enduring – among his line was the Super Corsa, a steel road frame that underwent very few changes from its inception in 1947 onward.
Due to a label printing error at one point in its history, the Super Corsa was briefly labeled Speciale Corsa. According to Cino’s son, Andrea Cinelli, there is no difference whatsoever in the frames themselves aside from the label.
Aside from the man and company being so innovative, what made Cinelli frames so special? Many say the frames stood out because they were fully custom. According to Herlihy’s interview with Cinelli:
“Frames were only consigned per custom-order, and customers often had to wait months for delivery, or even longer when he had outstanding orders from Olympic athletes.”
This was due, in part, to the fact that Cinelli refused to mass-manufacture any of his frames. It would prove to be impossible to expand production of the frames without sacrificing quality, he reasoned, and Cinelli stood adamantly against any such move.
Though Cinelli bikes are no longer fully custom today, the ride quality they offer hasn’t diminished at all. “I ride a 2003 Cinelli Unica with an aluminum frame, carbon fork, and carbon seat stays,” says Hans Carlson, a road rider from Orono, Maine. Carlson goes on to say:
“My last bike was full aluminum, and it was harsh to say the least. I’ve found the geometry and the softness of the [Cinelli Unica] ride nice; I’ve been really happy with the ride characteristics and overall quality of the product.”
It seems Cinelli’s longevity hasn’t changed much, either. Says Carlson, “I would buy another one, but I believe this Cinelli is probably the bike I will ride for a long time to come.” Judging by the number of used Cinelli frames that remain available today, he is not alone in this belief.
Distinguishable features on Cinelli frames are helpful in determining the time period in which the frame was built. A bottom bracket grease port, prevalent on early models, was taken out of the design in 1965. Around 1968, a three-hole lug design began appearing on models.
In 1978, Cino Cinelli sold shares in his company to Antonio Colombo, owner of Columbus tubing – Cinelli’s frame material of choice from almost the beginning of his frame manufacturing; he started with Reynolds tubing, but switched to Columbus shortly thereafter.
Not long afterward, the classic Cinelli logo underwent a major redesign: instead of the classic and simple “C” that Cinelli favored, the logo became a multi-colored “C” which, according to Herlihy, Cinelli himself did not like. “I guess they felt they had to change something, the way a new boss rearranges furniture,” Cinelli said.
Serial numbers began running sequentially a short while after the logo change. New numbers were 5 digits in length, with the first two digits being the year of manufacture and the last three digits being the serial number of the frame for that year. This change occurred in 1980 and ran contrary to the previous, long standing serial numbering scheme, which did not indicate date of manufacture or sequence in any discernible way.
But the Cinelli Company’s innovative spirit did not die when Cino sold the company. According to the company’s official website, Cinelli’s company goals are:
“New technologies, sophisticated materials, experienced technicians, very strict tests, state of the art tools, but also art shows and design competitions…Only new stimulations and new ideas can help us create the product which is a synthesis of (our) dreams and visions.”
Cinelli put this concept to practice in 1991, when they produced a frame and fork for the burgeoning mountain bike market. They enlisted the help of Gary Fisher himself for the design and called the new bike the OttoMilla.
This had been preceded by Cinelli’s dabbling in BMX bicycles a full decade earlier, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. As stated in company marketing materials at the time:
“This high quality Columbus double butted tubing frame has been specially designed for BMX use. Lightness and strength are its main characteristics.”
Production methods also changed over time, especially with the advents of the aluminum and then carbon crazes; instead of lugs, aluminum frames were constructed through TIG welding, and when carbon came along, the processes changed again to layered and monocoque designs.
Still, the core Cinelli philosophy has remained consistent over time: build stellar bikes while maintaining an insatiable desire for innovative design. Today, Cinelli carries a full line of aerodynamic and technologically current bicycle models. The Laser Mia, for example, boasts a full-carbon Columbus tubeset and matching tapered Columbus fork.
The fork design has an aerodynamic shape common among other forks today, though this was revolutionary when Cinelli first developed the Laser predecessor years ago in 1981. The new model comes stock with Campagnolo Super Record 11 components, which is no surprise, since Cino Cinelli and Campy’s founder, Tullio Campagnolo, shared a close relationship together throughout their careers as component designers and manufacturers.
In fact, Cinelli often rejected business opportunities because they would put his products in direct competition with those of Campagnolo. As even casual cycling observers can tell, competing with Campagnolo is akin to competing with the best.
Other road bikes in the carbon line include the Very Best Of, Strato Faster and Experience Speciale, each designed with Cinelli’s sloping top-tube design well intact. Always eager to stay on top of current trends, Cinelli has also developed lines of functional adventure and track bikes as well, such as the Hobootleg Geo, Gazzetta della strada, the Supercorsa Pista, and even a single-speed cyclocross model named Mash CXSS.
Coupled with a commuter-style series of bikes, Cinelli has refined their line to encompass most styles of riding without sacrificing ride integrity, technology or innovation. Nor has Cinelli forgotten its roots.
The company still produces the original steel Super Corsa, complete with Columbus Niobium tubing and fork, as well as Cinelli bottom bracket and lugs.
With its Fast-back design and detailed handmade artistry, the Super Corsa holds its place among legendary bikes even today, in turn helping Cinelli secure its position in the cycling world with this production model.
While materials may have changed over the years, Cinelli handlebars remain a trustworthy staple in cyclists’ gear bags. Ram bars now feature aerodynamic and ergonomic designs, integrated 1 1/8″ stems, lightweight monocoque T700 carbon construction, cycling computer bridges and unique paint jobs. The handlebar line has also found its way into the aero, bullhorn, flat, riser, track and urban niches, to name just a few.
Complementing these models are a full line of stems, seatposts and, yes, bar tapes. Indeed, bar tapes remain a staple of the Cinelli family of products, registering a full thirty different styles of tape at last count. Included here are glow-in-the-dark, vegan and velvet alternatives.
Considering the drive with which Cino Cinelli first founded and subsequently grew his company – and ultimately gained the respect and admiration of the cycling industry at large – it’s no surprise the Cinelli company has lasted so long.
One wonders whether the prevalence of Cinelli bar tapes – and conspicuous absence of Cinelli bicycles and components – in American bike shops diminishes the impact Cinelli has had on the industry, or simply adds to its mystique. Either way, cyclists who’ve been around long enough know Cinelli bikes have always been the quiet warrior, the go-to bike that had class, reliability and technology all wrapped into one pretty package. Luckily for us, the company remains hell-bent on advancing that philosophy today.
Cinelli Ebykr References: