My Colnago Misadventure: A C-50 FLR Bicycle Frame Nightmare
To read this in Italian click here.
To read this in Italian click here.
Over the years I have owned several bicycles most recently including an Austro-Daimler Vent Noir II arranged for fast touring, and a 'Giant Cadex' carbon fiber framed trail model. Each of the bikes I purchased over the years were pretty much what the bike shop had on display the day when I visited, each with some minor adjustments to fit me. However, even then as a "techno geek" on a limited budget none of those prior bicycles had been everything that I hoped for. In the Spring of 2006 I found myself again feeling that long standing desire to build my ultimate dream road bicycle, but this time it was accompanied by the wherewithal to proceed.
Right: Image of the Colnago "President" model frame in the FLR color scheme. Image is from their 2007 catalog page and although this catalog went online Sept. 2006 this is the same FLR advertised in their 2006 materials.
My research led first to the selection of the components, those parts that attach onto a frame and make the bicycle complete. Bicycle component makers including Shimano of Japan and several companies in the US now manufacture components that seem to be in the forefront of technology. And who could argue with the blend of performance and beauty of Shimano's "Dura-Ace" components? But I still dreamt of building that custom all "Euro" bike, one that would be an elegant machine with all the great names of bicycle components that I grew up desiring represented now at their very best: Campagnolo, Cinelli, Fizik Arione, Continental, Velox, Vittoria and more. The components would me made of dazzling aerospace materials (Titanium, Carbon, Ceramic, etc.), and probably cost sky high prices too but I would be "in for a Penny, in for a Pound" and make no compromises this time.
But interestingly, even as I researched the best technology for 2006 it seemed that my "state of the art bicycle" would be obsolete within weeks. I read for example that Campagnolo would soon introduce an improved line of "Record" series components for 2007. I read about electronically controlled Derailleurs that were already showing up on the racing scene and nearing the consumer market. And I wondered how long before I would find myself again wanting to upgrade my old "state of the art" mechanical components to keep my bike where I wanted it to be - in the forefront of bike tech.
Yet one nice aspect of being an amateur pursuing this for my own riding experience and for my interest in the technology is that this would be my "Über Bike" - the state of the art, ultra lightweight demonstration of the best performance technology of 2006 - and all without having to comply with competitive weight minimums. Now the only aspect of the bike that remained to be decided was the frame.
Narrowing The Choice Of Frame:
There sure are many fantastic bike frames on the market in 2006, some so advanced that it left me wondering what could possibly change for the better in the next decade or two? It seemed natural that this bike would incorporate the lunatic fringe end of frame technology, and as I saw it this meant Carbon Fiber. I would seek out a frame that would be ridiculously lightweight, yet rigid enough to transfer power well, and refined so that it's rigidity would not rattle my kidneys at every bump in the road. Over the course of my research I had read some stories about carbon frame failures albeit mostly attributed to impact, I decided to narrow the search to well proven brands that measure their confidence in their frame with a generous warranty and ideally with accounts of good customer support after the sale when needed.
As the big names in high technology bicycle frames came to my mind, at the top of my list was the Trek "Madone SSLX" announced in 2005. The Trek SSLX was represented to be an improved version of another race winning predecessor the "Madone SSL". The most notable improvement of the 2005-2006 SSLX over the 2005-2006 SSL frame was it's fifteen (15) percent greater rigidity due to the laying in of Boron fiber to reinforce the bottom bracket area as I understood it. Both the SSL and SSLX have a proven history of winning in the hands of athletes most notably Lance Armstrong who won his last two "Tour de France" races with these frames - OK, I know Lance could have probably won riding my 1960's Schwinn....
Above: Trek Madone SSLX of 2006, made famous by Lance Armstrong's use of the type in his seventh "Tour de France" victory. Image from Trek.
Click on the image to see enlarged view
However, for me there were drawbacks to my choosing the Trek SSL or SSLX frames:
Postscripts: after I had gone through the frame ordering process described below, in September 2006 the Trek 2007 catalog went on line announcing the SSLX had been replaced as their highest tech offering by the Trek Madone 6.9 SSL. This is represented to be superior replacement sold as either a complete bike, or it could be ordered as a Frame only and with the choice of several color/paint schemes.
By 2009 to 2010 Another maker that really seemed to be coming on strong in terms of frame technology is Specialized, of Morgan Hill, California. Their frames came to my attention some years after this article first was hosted, and are on par with and race win proved as being among the best in production. A friend let me borrow his S-Works Tarmac SL3 and as I rode away from him I briefly considered.... For my sensibilities these S-Works frames are more tastefully appointed than the Trek Madone or Colnago, without all the overblown trade or sponsor names plastered to be seen from every angle; though the smaller labels in particular on these 'riding Billboards' are rarely more than a blur in race video clips or images anyway. So by early 2010 the Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL3 was among the few that had worked their way high on my list for consideration as my next frame.
But now back to the past:
Choosing The Colnago C-50:
The hunt for my bicycle frame continued with research on the Internet and visits to bike shops. In May I visited a local specialty bicycle shop where I was attracted by a strikingly painted carbon frame made by Colnago of Italy. This was their model C-50, one of the finest competition caliber frames made. The frame finish was absolutely beautiful to my eyes, with a fascinating latticework of lustrously clear coated carbon fiber in a twill weave pattern that disappeared under a blue that seemed to be as deep as the sea. The frame was so lightweight to handle that I almost broke up laughing about it as I compared it in my mind to my own older "light weight" bikes. It too had "Colnago" decals in a shiny chrome lettering that would drive digital cameras crazy. And there was no way to look at the frame without seeing one of the twelve or thirteen Colnago labels, but I was willing to live with this distraction from an otherwise work of art.
Right: Colnago C-50 as represented in the Blue WH05 color scheme for 2005-2006. Image from Colnago.
After I left the bike shop my efforts turned to researching this Colnago company. I learned Colnago has an impressive history among Italian bike makers and with many notable accomplishments. The founder of the company, Ernesto Colnago, remains at its helm and this too brought comfort to my mind that the fine traditions continued to this day. Colnago had made and sold several bicycle models in an association with the famous car maker Ferrari. And Colnago sources their High Modulus grade of carbon fiber from ATR, the Italian company located near Colnago that also provide the carbon fiber used to manufacture high performance Ferrari and Porsche automobiles. My reading left me with the impression that this was a company that blended high technology with old world craftsmanship.
As I researched Colnago's offerings I became convinced that their model C-50 frame and fork set could be the basis of my new bicycle. Although they also made another model that appeared simply striking in the choice of FLR color scheme, and this was their "President" model frame. The President frame differs from the C-50 in some respects but most obviously in that the C-50 is a lugged frame whereas the President is a monocoque arrangement. The lugged arrangement is where the cylindrical tubes of the bike frame are slipped into and joined by sleeves. While the monocoque construction relies on the carbon tubes being formed together at joints without the use of lugs, and this can provide a more streamlined appearance and possibly some added design flexibility. When made professionally then either frame construction arrangement can provide excellent performance, and can be durable and reliable too. For proof of the capability of the monocoque arrangement just see how many races are won with the monocoque arrangements.
Initially I did not understand the differences between the Colnago C-50 and the President models, although my Internet research found several professional cyclists who ride the C-50 and its variants. So I telephoned the importer and distributor of Colnago, this is Trialtir USA in Houston, Texas. During my first conversation their employee informed me there was no practical difference between the C-50 and the President model frames. However on my followup calls I spoke with Todd and Massimo - two very helpful people who are well informed and experienced. I learned that while the frame geometry is identical between C-50 and the President, in fact this second generation C-50 was notably superior to the President for competitive riding in terms of rigidity and light weight.
The Love Affair With The FLR Begins:
The Colnago sales literature promised:
It was late in May when I came upon what is to my mind a most beautiful paint scheme - Colnago's "President" model frame finished in their color scheme designated "FLR". The images from the factory and Trialtir Internet sites enticed me, showing the FLR as a wine purplish-red translucent finish that gradually transitions from the front of the frame towards rear into translucent black. And along the full length of the frame the twill weave is visible clearly. It was difficult at first to be sure if I would like to order an FLR since at retailer sites I only found only modest quality images of the full frame. But I found the more detailed images on the Colnago and Trialtir web sites. Soon after this I came across even better defined images of the President FLR on the Internet but only one of these (shown below) illustrates the entire frame and that one image I found hosted by "Maestro" bicycle shop in the U.K.
Left: Colnago "President" model frame close up as represented in translucent FLR color scheme for 2005-2006.
The President FLR image from Maestro shows the beautiful twill weave pattern across the entire frame. But the original image seemed to have been taken by a digital camera using a flash which produced harsh, and the image seemed very much color shifted towards the magenta so that the frame looked quite grizzly to me. Some days later I came across other better defined images of the FLR (below left and right), but none of them showed the complete President FLR frame. Looking again at the image from Maestro I noticed how the entire image seemed to have a magenta cast and so I used some simple tools in my image viewing software to manipulate the color balance. I worked to get the image to more closely reflect the actual colors, these colors were based on comparisons of some items in the background (toolboxes, etc. that could be verified) and the color tone of the FLR images (above left for example) taken from Colnago and Trialtir. After this cleaning up, Maestro's FLR image appeared more true to its real red wine purplish coloring - but probably not fully true to the real frame color.
Right: Colnago "President" frame in FLR color scheme. The original image was from Maestro's web site, but this shows minor processing by author to show what I thought might be the truer color.
In the course of my research I came across other images of the President FLR which showed the translucent nature of the FLR finish and its lustrous wine red color. These made me feel much more comfortable with the FLR since they seemed to verify the fidelity of the Colnage FLR image close up shown above left. I post the two images here to help support this article, but unfortunately I do not recall where they originated to give proper attribution:
Above Left and Right: Colnago "President" frame in FLR color scheme, taken in daylight (no flash). These two images were found on the Internet but I do not recall the source.
After falling in lust with the FLR color scheme it occurred to me that Colnago might be able to provide me with the best of both worlds: a C-50 in the FLR scheme. And so I asked Trialtir to inquire with the factory in Italy about this for me. The answer came through Trialtir that Colnago would indeed make a custom C-50 in FLR for me, and in fact one other had been made and sold in the USA. If I placed the order in the first week or two of June, then the bike frame might be made before the August factory vacation: speed in putting this together was never the overriding concern, but August sure sounded good to me!
I selected a local specialty bicycle shop to order the frame and build the bike with the components I had researched. This was "The Bicycle Place" in Silver Springs, Maryland. I had previously visited their shop and had been impressed that this was a small, specialty service oriented shop that sells very well regarded products including the custom made to order "Seven Cycles" brand of frames. I sensed that with their advice and expertise Über Bike would come together nicely there. I explained to Mike Butchko, the owner of The Bicycle Place what I had learned from Trialtir. I also explained that even after being reassured by Trialtir, I was still somewhat concerned that the color might be too much into the magenta or a bright purple. On 22 June I placed the order with The Bicycle Place so that finally I could sit back and wait. As I awaited the production and delivery my new Colnago frame, when I would order a glass of a nice red wine with my meal I found myself holding the glass up to the light, looking through that fine Pinot or Bordeaux while imagining what my Colnago FLR would look like.
The Frame Is Not The Frame I Ordered:
On 11 August to my pleasant surprise I was informed by The Bicycle Place that my C-50 frame had arrived. And on the next morning I visited to see it. As I walked in the shop I noticed a Colnago C-50 frame hanging on the wall but I did not think it was mine since from the distance it did not look like FLR. When the frame was pulled down for me I was perplexed, it was not the FLR I expected. I thought the problems might have something to do with room lighting, and I went so far as to ask the salesman to take the frame outside into bright sunlight; but nothing helped. I began to take images of the frame for my records, the colors and the exposure of the image appear both pretty true as can be judged by helmets and other gear in the background.
The Colnago C-50 frame that arrived for me differed in two respects from what I had seen:
2. the C-50 FLR frame paint towards the front is so thick that the finely detailed latticework grain of the carbon twill weave is obscured. Even under intense flash lighting at close distance the pattern is not as visible as the images by Colnago show it is supposed to be.
When I first saw the C-50 FLR at The Bicycle Place to my consternation a few of the employees did not seem to understand my disappointment and one or two of them suggested that I had received a proper FLR: "the frames are hand painted and so they vary", "image color correction of computer screens vary" etc. It was not until I had them look up the Colnago and Trialtir web sites on their computer that they began to comprehend my concerns.
I went home and within the hour sent an E-Mail with images attached to Mike Butchko explaining this is not the beautiful frame that I expected. "It differs notably from what I expected and I do not wish to have a bicycle built for me using this particular frame. Since this bike frame does not appear close in color or in definition of the underlying Carbon, then I would not expect Colnago or Trialtir to expect me or the Bicycle Place to buy it. Please let me know if Colnago believes this is what an FLR on the C-50 should look like, and if they would like to give this another try or not." The images I attached are those above in this article, alongside images of the C-50 that arrived.
Above Left and Right: Colnago "C-50" frame as delivered in FLR color scheme on 12 August 2006.
How To Completely Turn Off A Customer:
On the 16th of August I received an E-Mail from Mike Butchko mentioning that by coincidence since my visit to his store a customer had stopped by his shop with a rare and brand new Colnago President FLR! Mike explained the new President FLR and the C-50 FLR on hand appeared identical. He complemented both the bikes and suggested I should be happy in a manner that it left me wondering if Mike was more concerned that Trialtir would not take back the C-50 and instead stick him with it. When Mike first explained how the President FLR that visited his shop and the C-50 FLR frame were identical and great I found his comments were dismaying to me and I replied to his comments with an E-Mail asking him to read my prior E-Mail again and look at the accompanying images. Mike offered to let me know when the President FLR would return so I could compare the two frames for myself.
Up to this point I had felt a sense of obligation to buy the frame even if any mild error was my fault; I had been as concerned about others as myself it seemed. However, the poor customer service I would encounter would help me get over that soon.
On 18 August I again visited The Bicycle Place and was amazed to find the two bicycles do appear to have identical finishes: at first glance they were twins of the bicycle that I did not order. I sent an E-Mail with the comparative images to Mike Butchko and to Trialtir with the comment "when I saw both frames side by side in your well lit showroom, they do appear similarly painted. Regardless, neither bike looks like those images of the FLR models I have seen from Colnago; neither is the bike frame that I ordered judging by Colnago.com and other on line representations."
Right: Colnago C-50 frame as delivered in FLR in front of a recently delivered Colnago President FLR bicycle on 18 August at The Bicycle Place. Image taken without flash in good room lighting captures the dense brown paint on both frames. They do appear nearly identical - and not what was advertised or expected by the author!
I was now without a doubt certain that Colnago in Italy had either messed up in their painting, or else had changed the specifications for the FLR without making this clear on their advertisements for the FLR (that were still on line). And Trialtir was at fault for either not seeing the changes when they inspected the incoming shipment, or for failing to make the appropriate changes to their respective Internet sites:
The opportunity to compare both bicycle frames provided the last additional material to dismember all arguments being made in defense of the C-50 FLR frame by some employees at The Bicycle Place, and by some at Trialtir USA:
On 18 August I telephoned Massimo at Trialtir USA. After some discussion that initially went along the lines above Massimo carefully read my two prior E-Mails to Trialtir and studied the attached pictures. He then explained to me that yes the FLR scheme had changed, and it seemed to him that the FLR's arriving at Trialtir lately had all been brown just as in the images which I had taken in The Bicycle Place. He concurred the FLR is no longer the transparent wine red color that is advertised. And he said that the FLR frames that Trialtir had received recently have also been painted more densely - nearly opaque so that the Carbon Twill Weave does not show through the paint in a translucent manner as the FLR used to. I asked Massimo to convey my thoughts and hopes to buy a C-50 in the FLR as I had originally sought to the Colnago factory. Massimo said he would speak with Mr. Colnago or the factory in Italy on the following Tuesday. Massimo's was the first honestly sympathetic reply and offer of assistance that I had heard since I was informed the frame had arrived on 11 August by Mike Butchko.
Since speaking with Massimo I heard nothing more on the matter until the last week in August when I telephoned Trialtir and spoke with Trey Henderson, their sales manager. He tried to convince me the C-50 FLR that had arrived was wonderful and so on, with basic arguments to the effect that:
I replied "every day I look at that $10,000 Merde Brown FLR I would be kicking myself for having been suckered". And if in fact the FLRs are now brown, then it would be pointless to consider having Colnago attempt to make another C-50 FLR for me.
"the President FLR image from Maestro is probably no where near accurate, they are a gray market dealer known to paint their frames". *
As he said this I tried to reason with him, explaining Maestro's FLR image looked pretty real to me and was backed by other images including those on Trialtir's web site - all the while I was wondering "how did this guy get ever this job?".
"the C-50 FLR as delivered to The Bicycle Place is how we are making the FLR now, and you would have no other choice".
I replied this would have be defensible it they had advertised that information before I ordered. I referred him back to his own Internet Site. And I postulated how many other recent FLR customers might feel they too may have been misled?
* I later learned that in fact Maestro's Colnago frames come from the Colnago authorized distributor in the Benelux. All Colnago frames sold by Maestro bear the Colnago ISO label, and this is something that cannot be easily counterfeited. And Maestro were kind enough to provide me with permission to use their images for my article, and they provided additional images of the President FLR to me so that I could see the true finish really is more like what I expected, and not what was delivered by Trialtir.
The conversation was brought to a climax by me when I simply made these points:
1. Colnago in Italy did not deliver that which it promises in their literature,
2. Trialtir USA is culpable too since they passed the frame on and while also hosting outdated images,
3. I will not pay for that which I did not order and I warned him that any Judge would support my position.
4. I warned if Trialtir attempts to stick The Bicycle Place with the C-50 FLR then I would host this article and let the public vote.
I explained to Mr. Henderson that as the CEO of a company I would not tolerate any of my employees treating a customer like this. After I suggested hosting an article about the experience to let the public vote he then paused and said he would look into the matter and then contact me again. That was more than one week ago as I sat down to document this chronology.
The Love Of Colnago Ends:
After my last discussion with Trey Henderson I became disillusioned with the prospect of ever putting together the new bicycle especially with any frame that involved Trialtir USA. The experience left me wondering how any prestigious manufacturer could produce such a result of hardware and advertising mismatch, while simultaneously providing such poor customer service management.
After the stress, disappointments, arguing, waiting for calls that were not returned, and after long thought, on 4 September I sent an E-Mail to Mike Butchko "I am canceling the order for a Colnago C-50 FLR based on contractual nonperformance by Colnago and Trialtir USA.... Two days later I telephoned Mike to be sure he read my E-Mail, and to insure he understood that I found no fault with his shop but I had been uncertain if he had stood up for the principles raised by this customer.
The process reinforced my conviction that the consumer must be prepared to defend his decisions with meticulous notes and documentation, to hold the manufacturer's literature as possible proof of any discrepancy, and position themselves so that they have recourse. So that even with incontrovertible proof if one comes up against an apparently indefatigable obstacle - then simply contact your credit card company and put the matter into dispute. Take this as news, entertainment, a consumer warning or simply as a business class lesson in "How to Mismanage a Customer".
2. In December 2006 it was announced that Trialtir and Colnago were parting ways and Veltrec Sports would take over distribution of Colnago in the USA. In March 2007 I contacted Veltrec and discussed my poor prior experience. I was willing to try again and so in April 2007 I placed an new order for the C-50 FLR with a promised delivery in a matter of weeks, but several months late and with no C-50 FLR in sight I cancelled that order.
3. Interestingly enough, in February 2009 it was announced that Veltrec and Colnago were parting ways too! Since then Colnago set up Colnago-America to distribute the product line in the USA. I have some better understanding that while Trialtir's candor with me was lackluster, the problems we all suffered were attributable right back to Colnago; these seemed to be issues beyond the control of Colnago distributors. It may just be that Colnago is not the easiest company to represent.