On the shoulders of giants

Colossi Cycling sometimes feels like one of the industry’s best kept secrets. The UK public certainly don’t know the name and you’d be hard pressed to find a bicycle retailer who’s heard of it either.

Out of a straw poll of several dozen industry people at the London Bike Show and some surrounding events, it became clear that the only people who had heard the name Colossi in a cycling context were framebuilders and steel tubing manufacturers.

Jan Kole, founder of Colossi

Jan Kole, founder of Colossi

In a sense, that should bring a smile to the face of Jan Kole, the founder of Colossi Cycling, which, despite the Italian sounding name, was actually founded in Kole’s native Netherlands. And when you think about it, colossi, the plural of colossus, does have Latin roots. It means something gigantic, of great stature. And when you look at the list of companies Colossi do make frames for, on a white label basis, there really are some giants among them.

Unfortunately, until the European and American bicycle industry becomes more open about what is made in the Far East under a Western banner, the names of those giants will remain secret.

Colossi is one of those companies that has a good story behind it, a story that comes from having a history and heritage. Kole, now in his early 60s, likes to do things the traditional way, and if you look at coverage of some of the big Asian races over the past decade, you’ll see plenty of references to Colossi cycling teams standing out at races in a sea of carbon with their classic, steel frames.

Just as he still gets his hands dirty on the workshop floor, Kole still participates in races today, over two decades since he officially retired.

Like his hero and mentor, Kole got into professional cycling almost by accident. In the early 1970s he had the fortune to meet Jan Raas, a Dutch professional cyclist whose 115 wins include the 1979 World Road Race Championship in Valkenburg, the Tour of Flanders in 1979 and 1983, Paris–Roubaix in 1982 and Milan – San Remo in 1977; and ten stages in the Tour de France. Raas took Kole under his wing and took him out training until Kole himself became a pro racer in 1976, riding for both the Netherlands and Belgian national teams over a fairly short career.

Jan's own stainless frame

Jan’s own stainless frame

Like Raas, Kole was also forced to retire due to injury after a particularly bad crash, and like many ex-professional racers of the day, became a custom framebuilder, working in steel and classically lugged frames.

In 1982 Colossi was formed and soon began to makes waves with the local bicycle companies in the Netherlands. With a keen insight into the way the manufacturing industry was evolving, Kole was routinely commissioned to help bicycle makers in Holland move their production facilities to Taiwan and eventually to China throughout the 80s and 90s.

But by 2005, Kole had grown tired of the mass market propositions and the industry’s newfound fascination with aluminium. So he refocused Colossi’s efforts on the original idea, to make small runs of high quality, custom, hand made, frames.

Kole has a love for steel, believing it to be the most stable and comfortable product for frame building, whereas materials like aluminium require too much treatment to give it the same qualities, such as suspension, that steel has naturally.

He was so fond of steel that for a time he even banned his cycling team from running carbon forks, but eventually he accepted that fashions change and he capitulated, at first with his cycling teams, and then with his business.

Steel frame, carbon fork

Steel frame, carbon fork

The company now runs two workshops, one which produces handmade stock frames sold by retailers all over the world. And another which makes custom builds to order, where the tubing is filed and lugs polished by hand and only silver brazing material is used.

All the frames that come out of the Colossi workshop are handmade, with the company now specialising in a range of tubing including Columbus, Kaisei, Reynolds, True Temper, KVA, 4130 butted seamless and Easton, as well as, yes, aluminium.

Kole has seen the explosion in bicycle culture first hand; the rise of the cheap bike was an industry development he even participated in. But throughout, he held fast to the belief that good quality, well made bicycles would always win out in the end.

Although he now lives out in China, he grew up, like all Dutch do, with cycling in his DNA. European markets like the Netherlands and Denmark are perhaps decades ahead of the UK in terms of cycle culture, where cycling is still almost an alien concept. Kole is now witnessing that evolution in other markets. It’s already taken a grip on much of Asia and the UK is striving to become cycle friendly. The tipping point will come when cycling becomes a form of transportation, not just a form of recreation, and when the vehicle itself becomes a more valued, but still practical, possession.

And when that happens, new giants will rise. After all, the Colossi sigil bears the motto: “Luctor et Emergo”; “Struggle and Emerge”.

*(Full disclosure: James, the author of this piece, is an importer of Colossi products to the UK)