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Viva l’Italia: The making of a cycling masterpiece

Antonio Colombo remembers his unique friendship with artist Keith Haring, and the story behind his stunning hand-painted Cinelli.

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Viva l’Italia! We celebrate all things Italian this week as the country begins to open its doors again after over two months in lockdown due to the coronavirus crisis. Businesses have been closed and bike races been canceled. And while the Giro d’Italia has been postponed, we will celebrate Italy’s rich cycling heritage and culture in a series of special features this week.

For our final chapter in a three-part series on the 100th anniversary of Columbus tubing, we talk to Antonio Colombo about how he got artist Keith Haring to hand paint one of his bikes.

When it comes to giving your bike a personal touch, few can surpass Antonio Colombo. After all, back in the 1980s he managed to get pop-art legend Keith Haring to hand-paint one of his distinctive Cinelli track bikes.

Colombo is a bike-industry giant. The son of Angelo Luigi, the founder of Columbus steel tubes, Colombo heads both the historic family brand as well as Cinelli bikes, which he bought from Cino Cinelli in 1978.

Antonio Colombo
Keith Haring art adorns the walls, and the Colombus steel Cinelli bicycles. Photo: Courtesy of Columbus/Cinelli

But he is also a passionate art collector. And it was at Haring’s first exhibit in Milan where the cycling industry giant met the star of the contemporary Pop Art scene in 1984.

Colombo first bought a large-scale untitled work from the show, and a friendship quickly started. “We met at the Salvatore Ala Gallery when he was having his show,” Colombo remembers. “I bought a painting and we became friends. He painted anything he could get his hand on, and when he learned that I was in the bike industry he said, ‘Oh I want to do a painting on a bike!’

“Everything started from there,” Colombo said. “He loved bikes and hung out a lot at City Cycles in New York City, which was close to his studio. He even designed caps and tee-shirts for them I think. He was just so creative. Keith Haring was a star but so easy-going. He was a good person.”

Soon the two worked out a friendly deal. Colombo gave Haring a Cinelli bike of his choice. In exchange, Haring would hand-paint one bike for Colombo. Haring himself opted for a Rampichino, one of Cinelli’s first mountain bikes. But Colombo gave the pioneer of Graffiti art and the star of the modern art world a very different bike to paint—a futuristic Cinelli Pista track pursuit bike with full disc wheels.

Keith Haring signature Cinelli funny bike fabricated of Colombus steel. Photo: Courtesy of Columbus/Cinelli

“I gave him the best bike that I had. I didn’t give him any directive. I just told him to paint whatever he wanted.”

But when Haring returned the bike, Colombo admits that he was initially disappointed. “I was thinking that he was going to paint all over the bicycle, but in the end he only painted the disc wheels!” Colombo remembers. “He said that the bike was already so nice, the color was so nice!”

Looking at the bike today, it is hard to quarrel with Haring’s aesthetic choices as the Pista pursuit bike is considered one of the most revolutionary designs in the history of the bike. The distinctive “Azzurro Laser” blue color is nothing short of iconic, and it contrasts perfectly with the disc wheels filled with Haring’s figure so full of movement. Today of course Colombo admits, “Now I love it! It’s such a masterpiece! And I think it is safe to say that the bike he gave me back is worth a lot more than the bike I gave him!”

The bike exchange was the first of several collaborations between Haring and Colombo and they were soon developing long-term plans to design both bikes and jerseys. But that was before Haring was diagnosed with HIV in 1988.

Keith Haring signed the downtube of this Cinelli funny bike. Photo: Courtesy of Columbus/Cinelli

“We remained friends and I visited him in his studio in New York in 1988-1989,” Colombo remembers. “But he was just beginning to get sick and he said that he just wasn’t going to be able to do any long-term projects. He was very sad. He knew that he had only a limited amount of time and he just wanted to focus on personal work.”

Today Colombo’s two Haring masterpieces are together in his office with numerous other stunning works of contemporary art. And, in fact, for the past 20 years, Colombo divides his time between the family bike business and the Antonio Colombo Arte Contemporanea gallery that he founded in downtown Milan. And like Haring himself, Colombo needs to fill every space with creative work.

“Freedom is the territory of art and the territory of the bicycle,” Colombo likes to say. And for Colombo, it is clear that the two are inseparable.

Keith Haring with a mountain bike.
Keith Haring. Photo: Courtesy of Columbus/Cinelli