Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Classic Tubes: Columbus

This version of the classic Columbus tubing decal would
likely have been seen on bikes from the mid 1970s.
While I'll always have a soft spot for vintage bikes built with Reynolds tubing, it's hard to deny the appeal of a great Italian racing bike -- and for many years that almost always meant Columbus. The little white dove of Columbus tubing adorns more classic Italian racers than anything else.

The history of Columbus goes back to 1919 when Angelo Luigi Colombo (or A.L.) first set up a shop to produce steel tubing. In the 1920s Colombo's tubing was used for aircraft applications, and also, according to their own history page, frames for motorcycles. They first began making double-butted tubing for bicycles in 1930, the same year they created the "Columbus" brand name.

An early 80s decal.
Unlike Reynolds, whose famous 531 bicycle tubing was a manganese-molybenum alloy, Columbus primarily used chrome-moly steel. Their top tube sets up through the 1980s were a proprietary formulation of cold-drawn chrome-moly that they dubbed "Cyclex" but other than their particular process for working the steel, I was unable to find out exactly what makes "Cyclex" any different from any other chrome-moly (including that which was used in Columbus's own lower-priced chrome-moly tube sets).

A lot of mid - late '80s decals specify
if the tubing is SL, SP, etc., signifying
the wall thickness of the tubes.
On classic vintage steel frames, the typical high-end Columbus-tubed bike would use their chrome-moly steel which could be drawn to different wall thicknesses and specifications. The most common "classic" designations one would find would be SL or SP -- sometimes a combination selected by a builder to suit a particular rider or riding style. Those designations signify the wall thickness. For example, an SL down tube would be drawn and butted to .9/.6/.9 mm, while an SP down tube would be 1.0/.7/1.0 mm -- making it better suited to larger frames and heavier riders. Later variations included SLX and SPX which included some spiral-like reinforcements at the butted ends -- like the "rifling" in a gun barrel -- and TSX, which had the rifling through the entire length of the tube.

The wider-section of the fork blades became a Columbus
distinguishing characteristic.
Without the tubing stickers, many sharp eyed and discerning riders could still tell the difference between a bike built with Reynolds and one built with Columbus tubes. Although not entirely foolproof, and certainly not without exceptions, one could sometimes tell the difference by looking at the fork blades. Columbus fork blades would have a larger-section oval -- slightly wider than those used by Reynolds. These slightly wider-section blades became very popular and came to be known as "Italian" or "Continental Oval" blades, as opposed to the "Imperial Oval" blades that Reynolds manufactured. Over time, due to the popularity, Reynolds tubing started to make tube sets available with the "Continental Oval" fork blades.

Another difference, though harder to see unless one could get really close, was in the fork steerer, which was single-butted (thicker at the lower end) and rifled. The scan on the right, from The Custom Bicycle (Michael Kolin and Denise de la Rosa, 1979), shows a cutaway view of the fork steerer.

In 1977, Antonio Columbo, son of founder Angelo, turned Columbus Tubing into a separate entity from the A.L. Colombo company. Soon after, the new company purchased Cinelli, gaining access not only to the bicycle manufacturing, but also to Cinelli's lug business -- a perfect complement for the tubing company. Along with Cinelli bars and stems, and the historically close relationship with component giant Campagnolo, Columbus would come to dominate the Italian cycling scene, and also greatly increase market share elsewhere as well.

With the purchase by Columbus came a logo change
for Cinelli. The purchase gave the tubing company the
perfect complement in that they could now offer
builders everything they needed to build frames.
Although primarily known for their chrome-moly tubing, Columbus did make some tube sets for less expensive bikes. One of these was called "Aelle" -- the name of which was derived from the name of the company founder A.L. Colombo. This was a straight-guage (non-butted) manganese alloy. There was also a less-expensive chrome-moly dubbed "Matrix" (later changed to "Cromor" due to trademark issues). Another designation one might see on a lower-priced Columbus-tubed bike would be a "Tre Tubi" set. Seeing this meant that only the three main tubes were whatever the decal said. The stays and possibly the forks could be either from a lower-cost Columbus set, or could even be supplied by another manufacturer as a cost-saving effort.

Around 1990 or so, Columbus introduced their Nivacrom steel tubing, using vanadium and niobium as alloying agents. With names and designations like Genius, MAX, and EL, one of the things that distinguishes Nivacrom from the older chrome-moly tubing is that it is better formulated for welding. More recently, just as Reynolds did with their 953 stainless steel, Columbus has released a seamless, butted stainless steel called XCr. All of these newer tube sets boast much higher tensile strength than the chrome-moly that was used through the 1980s, and can therefore be drawn with thinner walls to save weight compared to earlier tube sets.

Scanned from a 1986 Bicycle Guide
story about Columbus.
Bicycle tubing is only one part of the Columbus story. As already mentioned, there were aircraft applications, and motorcycle frames. According to the company's history, in the 1950s Columbus tubing was also used in great Italian cars, like Lancia, Maserati, and Ferrari -- with chassis designed by Gilberto Colombo, another son of company founder, Angelo. One lesser-known part of the story is the furniture business. In the 1930s, the A.L. Colombo company made steel tubed furniture that, according to a 1986 Bicycle Guide story about Columbus, "left the art deco rage behind and embraced the Bauhaus ethos of Marcel Breuer."

1986 Dave Moulton Fuso. Moulton built only
with Reynolds when he lived in England, but
when he moved to America, he found his U.S.
customers expected Columbus on a high-end
bicycle frame.
As already mentioned, Columbus tubing dominated the Italian industry. Colnago, De Rosa, Pinarallo, Guerciotti, Ciocc, the list goes on and on of Italian brands that used it exclusively. By the late 70s - early 80s, it had taken a huge share of other markets as well, especially in the U.S. By 1980 or so, many American builders were switching from Reynolds to Columbus. Schwinn Paramounts, built with Reynolds for decades, were switched to Columbus when Schwinn moved their production to Waterford, Wisconsin. Many American custom builders did the same.

Today, steel obviously isn't nearly as popular as it had once been -- with aluminum and carbon fiber now dominating the industry. Columbus has a hand in that market too, though, offering carbon fiber frames and frame components. But steel has made a bit of a comeback recently, as evidenced by the growing list of participants in the North American Handmade Bicycle Show -- many or most of whom work in steel. But many of today's builders don't use one brand of tubing across the line, or even in a single frame, but rather will custom mix and match tubes from different makers to get a desired quality. And Japanese tubing, from manufacturers like Tange and Kaisei are today considered just as desirable as the classic brands of Reynolds and Columbus. So as often as not, there won't even be a tubing sticker on a top-quality custom frame. Time was, you could hardly find a high-quality bike without one of those little stickers. Funny how things change.


  1. This column is so informative and well written, I'd just like to take a minute to say 'Thank you'.

  2. Brilliant. Thank you for your efforts and sharing them.