Columbus Steel: inside the Italian factory
We take you backstage inside the Columbus factory in Milan and show you just how they make premium steel to rival even carbon and why we partner with them in our process creating gravel, road and race bikes.
Photography by Joe McGorty
Art, fashion, creativity and industry
Milan is famous for its fashion and is home to the country’s major fashion brands. It has a rich history of art and architecture, so it's no surprise that as we walk up to the door of the Columbus factory — a mere thirty minutes from the fashion capital — we are greeted by a huge mural painted on the factory shutters, giving us an inkling of the history, creativity and craftsmanship that lies behind them.
At Condor we’ve always believed that a good bicycle is one that has an excellent ride quality, a quality that you can feel and one that you enjoy. For that, you need the best materials. We’re sure you’ve heard of the old adage: a chef is only as good as their ingredients.
So here we are, the Columbus factory, where the ingredients are grown, or in our case custom steel tubes are made for us.
Fast forward into the twenty-first century and we’re standing in the same spot as the founder of Condor, Monty Young, when he visited to inspect the legendary Columbus SL tubes. However, the process of turning raw steel billet into bicycle tubes has changed an awful lot. Now there are hydraulic presses, high-pressure jets, machines pushing 10 tons of pressure, gigantic ovens, and huge sanding belts. Despite plenty of machinery, production of performance lightweight tubes is still highly labour intensive. Especially for applications like road plus riding, road and gravel racing where there are new considerations for tyre clearance, weight, stress and ride quality.
Columbus standard tubes catalog counts more than two-hundred and fifty different tube options, made with several types of steel and titanium alloys. There is a wide range of custom-made tubes specifically designed with special bike manufacturers, including Condor.
Step one raw steel
We start with the raw materials; really long, thick, dull and heavy looking tubes.The factory works in batches, and today they are working on Spirit steel and XCr stainless steel. The next stages can only take place with a specific type of raw steel with metal crystals that won't lose integrity. Columbus call this steel Omnicrom, and use it to make various levels of tubing.
Coated in zinc phosphate
The tube is cut then a soapy coating (zinc phosphate) is applied to lubricate it before it’s handed over for the first of up to fifteen stages of manipulation.
Cold drawing begins
Now, with a rough chalky finish, the tube is placed in front of a mandrel — a solid bar that has variable diameter along its whole length. Then pushed, the tube enters a hole — the custom Condor die. The die, a custom shape designed by Condor, is a different dimension to the tube that passes through it, minutely different but different enough to completely change its form.
What emerges on the other side is now mirror-smooth, almost black, and nearly twice as long as a steel tube.
Why create a custom die?
Columbus Omnicron metal can be manipulated to have almost any characteristic. One of the ways to do that is using a die to shape and stretch the metal. For some of our bicycle frames we want a ride that meets our preferences for compliancy and comfort, whilst other models need to have a responsive, performance quality to meet the sign off by riders in our UCI Pro Team.
This tube now has a greater internal diameter and thinner walls, all without the use of heat, only pressure. This is called ‘cold drawing’ and through this process the structure of the metal is changed, improving its tensile strength whilst making the tube lighter.
At Condor we only use cold drawn tubes for our framesets because they create a more stable material during welding. One pass through a cold drawing process is not enough to finish a tube; it will pass through a minimum of seven times and a maximum of fifteen, depending on the intended use of the tube. Drawing can alter tube width, whilst others control the butting or diameter, eventually reducing the wall thickness by up to 65%.
Creating a chainstay
Next to us is a small machine that require water to cool the tube as it is drawn. A small diameter tube that has already through some stages of cold drawing is placed inside. One of the Columbus veteran metalworkers keeps his eyes focused on the tube and control a hydraulic press pushing the tube through the die. The first part of the tube emerges to look almost the same, but the second section is flattened. Our metalworker gives us a nod and smile and inspects it before placing the newly-formed chainstay in a Columbus cart.
Hand inspected and high-polished
The tubes are then sanded by a machine. The grade of the tubing depends on how much it gets polished. Unusual tube shapes, such curved seat stays, found on our Fratello, and the flattened chainstays, found on the Super Acciaio and Bivio Gravel, cannot go in a machine. They are hand-polished using three different grades of paper.
Final process; stress relief
Lastly the tubes enter their final phase known as annealing or heat-treating. Not all tubing grades are heat-treated because they are not manipulated to be ultra thin. The heat treating process adds another step in production and cost. Heat-treating adjusts the shape of the metal crystals, providing further strength. If you are looking to make a very lightweight steel frame for gravel riding or road racing, this is the cherry on the top in tubeset production.
All the tubes are then oiled to protect them before being shipped 300km east towards Venice, ready for the next set of craftsmen at the Condor factory.
Art, pride and ability
The team of eight craftsmen, led by Ciro, inspect every tube, carefully controlling the tube as it’s pushed, pulled, pressed and passed through the dies, ensuring its quality, integrity and tolerances. One grain of sand or a spec of dirt could compromise the tube and the whole process.
Most of the technicians in the factory have been here for ten years and some twenty years, developing and honing their skills. Some of these men will have made the tubes that have powered riders to Tour de France, Giro and/or Paris Roubaix titles.
Maybe it's being surrounded by bicycles signed by artist Keith Herring, legends Macro Pantani and Gino Bartali, but this factory doesn’t look like your usual bleak industrial outpost; there is an air of real craftsmanship – and pride in the materials they are making, ready for us to craft into bicycles.