They called him The Sheriff. For years Italy’s Francesco Moser was nothing less than a giant in the sport. And while his Italian sponsors were little interested in sending their star rider to the Tour de France, Moser nevertheless forged an international reputation, winning no less than 155 races before retiring in 1988.
Words and Images by James Startt
There were his three consecutive Paris-Roubaix victories in 1978, 1979 and 1980. And any cycling fan that has watched the legendary film by Jørgen Leth, “A Sunday in Hell,” will never forget the scene where Moser powers past Frenchman Raymond Poulidor on one of the crucial cobble sections. For all of his brute force, Moser virtually floats over the cobbles with beguiling grace.
Then there was the footprint he left on his native Giro d’Italia, winning no less than 23 stages and carrying the distinctive maglia rosa for a total of 50 days, not to mention overall honors in 1984.
And then of course there was his memorable world hour record in Mexico City, where he destroyed Eddy Merckx’s record of 49.431 kilometers—which many thought unbeatable—on what was considered at the time a futuristic bicycle, with a sloping top tube and full disc wheels. His record performance of 51.151 kilometers of was more than a historic ride—it was a revolutionary performance that changed the face of modern cycling in many ways. And nowhere was this more evident than in his bike design that brought together the greatest minds in science as well as in cycling to create a nearly space-age machine that was simply faster, more aerodynamically efficient, than any bike before it.
Moser had long harbored the idea of going after Merckx’s hour record, and the bike that would help turn that into a reality came out of a longtime collaboration with Columbus. Moser had ridden the Italian tubes for nearly his entire career. In his early professional days, his Benotto bikes were equipped with Columbus SL tubes. And when he launched his own brand of racing bikes, Columbus was the obvious choice. By the time he started planning his hour record attempt in 1983, there was simply no question that the bike would be built with Columbus tubes.
“I got the idea to go for the hour record when my teammate at the time, Ole Ritter, made an hour record attempt in 1974,” Moser recalls during a recent visit at his wine vineyards over the hills of his native Trento in Northern Italy. “I was with him for the attempt and we stayed for 20 days. He fell well short of Merckx’s record… ”
Moser explains that the plans did not come together until September of 1983, leaving barely three months to come up with the bike design and do proper testing on it before an attempt at the record in January.
The Italian champion quickly turned to legendary tube manufacturer Columbus, in particular because of the their collaboration with Cinelli on the revolutionary Laser track bike. Using a 28-inch rear wheel and a 26-inch front wheel, the Laser was distinctive for its deep-plunging frame design. The bike soon became the choice of national pursuit teams around the world. And it immediately attracted Moser’s attention.
“I had already ridden the Laser,” Moser recalls. “The German team had it and I was able to try it and I really liked it. The position was great. That bike we constructed here in our shop below the vineyards today. For me there was no question we would use Columbus. When it came to steel tubes, Columbus was simply the reference in Italy. They simply were the best.”
“The tubes were no different; it was just a different geometry,” Antonio Colombo says about the Laser and the hour record bike. Colombo, the son of Angelo Luigi, the founder of Columbus, is the head of both Columbus and Cinelli today. He was on hand for Merckx’s famous hour record in 1972, and he played a more active role with Moser in 1984.
“Both Cinelli and Moser had been working with Professor Dal Monte, a highly-renowned sports scientist and biomechanics specialist,” Colombo remembers. “We were all working from our own perspective, conducting research from our own angle, Cinelli with the Laser bike and Moser with the hour record bike. But the common denominator was Columbus tubing.”
Dal Monte was the scientific director of the Italian Olympic Committee’s Institute of Sport Science, and he had already collaborated with industry leaders in sailing as well as the aeronautical and automotive industry, but a world hour record bike provided unique challenges.
“Weldability and rigidity were the two most important factors for us,” Colombo says. “This was the beginning of the era of TIG tube construction. And these bikes were some of the first to really explore the possibilities of TIG. And they took it to a very high level. With TIG construction, there was much more freedom when it came to geometry and size of the tubing and these bikes really played on that with their revolutionary designs.”
In some ways it is hard to fathom the impact TIG welding has had on the modern bike design. A TIG welded bike no longer relied on the traditional lugs to join the different tubes and hence using different diameter tubes became instantly easier.
In addition, these bikes featured the new state of the art Columbus SLX tubing, which integrated an innovative system of spiral butting for greater rigidity in the joint area and bottom bracket. The innovation of this helicoidal reinforcement provided another key element of the frame’s performance and allowed the frame to maintain maximum stiffness despite its radical design.
And while the Laser and Moser’s hour record bike were some of the first to really exploit this technology, it opened the door for entire new tube sets. And today mixed tube diameters and shapes are found in all of the modern tube sets available at Columbus.
At first glance, the hour record bike appears similar in many ways to the Laser pursuit bike. But there were distinctive differences. “The Moser bike was conceived expressly for that record attempt and for the sporting regulations then in force,” remembers Paolo Erzegovesi, one of the members of the Laser development team. “It is very different from the pursuit bikes. The conditions of use, the accelerations to which they are subjected and, consequently, the rigidity necessary to govern the forces in play are totally different. Francesco’s bike did not have to undergo any quick changes in direction, it was substantially stressed only in the vertical plane and had wheels heavy enough to provide a moderate gyroscopic effect.”
The Laser team at the time was composed of the elite at Columbus and Cinelli, and up to 10 specialists collaborated on different Laser projects, be it the road bike, the track bikes or the hour record bike.
And the hour record is a singular discipline with very specific requirements regarding bike design. Minimal resistance to air is of course a foremost concern, but so is the need for the cyclist to be able to maintain the position with optimal power output for an entire hour. Other factors like turning and maneuvering, however, are less important than on an average track or road bike.
The search for the optimal solution was conducted by performing countless tests on a series of spare frames made available by Cinelli with Laser-inspired geometries. Moser progressively rotated through the frames to play with his bike position, all the while continuously monitoring his performance. Then once the desired result had been achieved in terms of the position of the bicycle axes and the athlete’s support points, Cicli Moser and the Enervit team—who designed the equally revolutionary disc wheels—produced the final product.
The Moser bike included a curved seat-tube to cut through the air in front of the rear wheel, making it possible to build a very short carriage, with the stiffness necessary in the initial launch phase; the vertical seat-stays, almost perpendicular to the ground, act as very light struts to support the saddle, mounted cantilevered at the end of a huge, curved top-tube; the small front fork with a very low rake is perfect to provide adequate drivability, despite the heavy load transmitted from the arms to the front axle. In many ways, the bike epitomizes the idea that form follows function. For while the entire conception of the bike centered around performance, it remains one of the most striking bicycle designs in the history of the sport.
Moser went to Mexico City late in 1983 to allow himself sufficient time to acclimatize to the altitude, but also to dial in his bike and accustom himself to the position he would have to maintain for an hour if he hoped to break Merckx’s record. But once in Mexico City it quickly became apparent that Moser was more than on track to surpass Merckx.
“I always loved being really low on the bike and the form of the Laser was perfect for this,” Moser remembers. And with his own adapted design, he quickly found an ideal position. “I don’t know how to explain it, but when I was on the bike I just felt good,” he recalls. “I actually didn’t have any problem adapting to the position. But actually I had more of a problem re-adapting to a road position when I returned.”
Throughout the month Moser continued to be on track. In fact, on January 19, four days before the officially scheduled attempt, he set a new benchmark. “We just set out to do a 20-minute test run that day,” Moser recalls. “But I felt good and just kept going. I finished the trial run at just over 50.808 kilometers, so already I was ahead of Merckx. But I still wanted to take it even further a couple of days later.”
The mood on January 23 was high, as Italian television stars and celebrities also joined industry leaders at the Mexican velodrome. But while a party atmosphere reigned in the stands, Moser was focused on the task at hand. And by the end of the day, he did what many conceived unthinkable, besting Merckx by nearly 2 kilometers. Clearly it is difficult to compare the two performances as the Belgian raced on a highly traditional steel track frame with spoked wheels. But few would argue that Moser’s hour record bicycle, with its use of sloping tubes and disc wheels, features found in some regard on racing machines today, wasn’t a watershed for modern bike technology.
Today Moser spends most of his time tending his vineyards, but his world hour record bike is never too far away. It can be found in his own personal museum located next to the wine bar. An identical back up, which was also on hand in Mexico City, is housed at the iconic Madonna del Ghisallo chapel, and was recently on display at Antonio Colombo’s own contemporary art gallery in downtown Milan as part of the Columbus Centennial Celebration in 2019.
Meanwhile, Columbus has sprinted into its second century with a complete line of modern steel tubes. Sure you can still order the legendary SLX tube set similar to that used on Moser’s bike, but new tube sets like the Spirit, XCR and Cento offer even lighter and stiffer tubes for the modern cyclist both on and off the road. But in many ways the lessons learned from the Columbus Moser collaboration was nothing short of a precursor to the modern steel bicycle. The world hour record and pursuit bike produced back in the early 1980s demonstrated unimaginable levels of adaptability and innovation in steel tube design, something that is very much continuing today as steel tubing is undergoing a real renaissance.
“The research we did with the Laser with new shapes, forms and sizes of tubing, while keeping in mind the performance and stability necessary, really pushed the steel tubing at its time,” says Colombo. “And in the last 10 years or so, a whole new generation of frame builders has really been rethinking the possibility of steel tubing. It’s exciting.”