Taylor Phinney: Creative riding

Cinelli’s partnership with former professional road cyclist Taylor Phinney is taking cycling in entirely new directions. Rouleur finds out how a creative brand and a creative cyclist are working together to change the sport

This piece has been made in association with Cinelli. 

When it comes to iconic cycling brands, few can match the storied reputation of Cinelli. Founded by Italian professional Cino Cinelli, the company has produced some of the most coveted bicycles in the history of the sport.

The legendary Supercorsa frameset, first designed for Fausto Coppi, was only produced in small numbers and models still fetch high prices today, while their  iconoclastic Laser took aerodynamic design to new heights in the 1980s, winning international awards even outside of the sport. But while the historic Italian brand is proud of its past, it has its eye on the future, and a new collaboration with Taylor Phinney, the former professional-turned artist, is offering just one glimpse of this.

Cino Cinelli founded the eponymous company in 1948. A formidable racer, Cinelli won Milan-Sanremo and the Tour of Lombardy as well as three stages in the Giro d’Italia. He also wore the maglia rosa. However, with racing opportunities limited during the war, he instead focused on developing his brand.

“Cino was one of those guys that knew everybody and was always at the centre of everything. He was an incredible communicator,” says Cinelli archivist Marcello Manca. “Even after his career was over he worked closely with cyclists. He founded the professional cyclists’ trade union, of which he was the president for 24 years, in 1946. In addition, his wife was Swiss and spoke five languages. That was very rare at the time, and it allowed him to develop connections around the world. But Cino liked to keep his hands dirty. He always had his head inside the bike.”

A set of white Cinelli Pressure hang in the company warehouse just outside of Milan

Cinelli’s star rocketed when he developed the Supercorsa frame set that was  quickly championed by Italian national hero Coppi. “Cino worked closely with Luigi Valsasina, a master frame builder who left Bianchi in 1947 to work with Cinelli. In 1951 they collaborated with Fausto Coppi. They built a bike based on  Valsasina’s standard design for him and also the new bike, with Cinelli’s modifications. Coppi really loved the latter and started riding it,” explains Manca.  “And that was what became the Supercorsa, a bike that has been in production for 70 years now.”

But while Cinelli’s bikes were widely admired, they were never mass produced.  He was the official bike sponsor to the host-country cycling teams in the 1960, 1964 and 1968 Olympic Games in Rome, Tokyo and Mexico City respectively, but he never sponsored a big team. As a result, he was never really seen as a threat to other companies and he could collaborate with all kinds of brands in the industry. He built long and lasting relationships with famed component manufacturer Tullio Campagnolo and Angelo Luigi Colombo, founder of Columbus tubes.

“Cino was just passionate about the engineering and design of the bicycle,” says Manca. “He and Tullio Campagnolo were always coming up with ideas. Few people know it, but in 1971 they even developed the first clipless pedal.”

And when Cinelli finally sold the company to Antonio Colombo, son of Angelo Luigi, in the late 1970s, it was with an eye on the future. Antonio loved the little-known fact that Columbus tubes were also used in the construction of avant-garde furniture by the Bauhaus art school in Germany in the 1930s, and saw the bicycle as an ideal vector for modern design. And it was under his tutelage that Cinelli produced the revolutionary Laser, a revolutionary pursuit and time-trial bike that inspired Francesco Moser’s 1984 world Hour Record bike. He also produced  some of the first mountain bikes in Europe.

No it's not Badlands, but Taylor Phinney was quickly at home with his Nemo gravel bike and the graffiti on Brick Lane in London

“What is incredible about what Antonio was able to do with Cinelli relative to Cino’s legacy was take the DNA of the brand – which was extraordinary manufacturing knowhow and a stubbornly nonconformist approach to engineering – and imbue it with something entirely new and incredibly modern: the creative design process,” says Lodovico Pignatti Morano, author of Cinelli: The Art and  Design of the Bicycle, an elegant history of the brand published by Rizzoli in 2012.

Today Pignatti Morano works as Cinelli’s creative director and possesses a deep understanding of the company’s past, present and future. “What has been created  from the layering of Cino and Antonio’s reigns is really special,” he says. “There are a lot of great Italian cycling brands but none that feel so contemporary and so able to make the bicycle representative of culture in the broader sense, connecting with social trends and tensions in a potent way.”  

During our visit, the company was in the midst of the gargantuan task of digitalising its entire archive under the supervision of Manca, who spends most days studying and organising the company’s vast archives in the Columbus factory and Cinelli warehouse on the outskirts of Milan. But while his task may be solitary in nature, he is in constant dialogue with the engineering and creative  teams, fostering a symbiotic relationship in which new projects  and innovation can develop utilising the non-conformist tradition that is so closely identified with the company. And one lead can be found in the company’s recent collaboration with former professional Phinney.  

Exerpts from various illustrations on the Cinelli Bootleg bike

Phinney was one of the most promising American cyclists on the scene when he  turned professional in 2011. But a horrific crash in 2014 compromised his career and during his long convalescence he focused on other passions, like painting and music. And when he finally decided to retire from the professional ranks in 2019, it was to pursue those avenues more fully.  But while he is no longer racing professionally, he has never been so enamoured with cycling. And today he divides his time evenly between painting, mixing music and cycling.  

“I really love cycling. I really love the bike,” explained Phinney over coffee after a walk down Brick Lane and a visit to Rough Trade Records while in London for Rouleur Live in November.

“The bike is just a toy. A toy for children or adults. I think that when I was racing and chasing different things, I saw the bicycle as a vehicle for success, but it was something that I wanted to preserve.

“One of the reasons I decided to retire was that I thought my relationship with the bike was becoming toxic and I was seeing too many riders end their career and never touch their bikes again. But I felt that I loved the bike too much to want to toxify it. In addition, I felt that I was limited and restricted to have to do just one kind of cycling. More and more I was interested in expanding my horizons on a bike. What can I do on a bike? Where can it take me? How many different kinds of feelings and sensations can I have on a bike? I was coming from a very speed-oriented perspective but I was always interested in mountain biking. I was always into things like flow, and how you can kind of dance and interact with the bike as an instrument. Today I am super stoked on bikes, all kinds of bikes and the Cinelli project highlights that desire for experimentation.”  

The collaboration was initiated by Davide Belfiore, director of the Cinelli Team. Belfiore rode the 2021 Badlands ultra-distance gravel event in Spain and was blown away by the event. Aware of Phinney’s interest in off-road riding, he came up with the idea to bring Phinney out of retirement, offering him an entirely new direction.

Cinelli then proposed to build him a unique bike that fit his needs and ambitions, one that addressed the needs of his own creative approach to cycling today as well as a bicycle that could handle Badlands.

Together Phinney and Cinelli set out to create the bike of his dreams. Using the Nemo gravel bike – Cinelli’s signature made-in-Italy frameset using Columbus tubing – as the starting point, Phinney began thinking about ways he could  modify it.

“When I was a professional, several teams promised to make me a custom bike because I am so tall. That never happened. But with Cinelli, it did,” said Phinney. “This is the first time I have had the freedom to create a bike that I wanted. I was sort of shooting for the stars. I wanted to see how big I could make it and we  definitely achieved that. I think the top tube is, like, 66.6cm. And then I wanted to incorporate the wide bars with comfortable hand positions et cetera. My dream was to make a gravel bike that was fast and had personality, but one we could ride comfortably.”

Long-term Cinelli archivist Marcello Manca admires one of his babies, an original unfinished Cinelli Laser frame 

Phinney’s Nemo passed the test. “I rode Badlands and really enjoyed the whole experience. And I did it without a lot of the pains that a lot of participants experienced. There is this mentality in cycling that you have to suffer, that it has to be difficult. But I think I have suffered enough on a bike. I think that being comfortable is okay.”

Read more: In the Spanish Badlands with Fernwee

For Pignatti Morano, Phinney’s modified Nemo is also a success and he sees a direct link to bikes from Cinelli’s past like the Bootleg, a dream-child of Antonio Colombo in the 1990s that was a sort of funky fusion between mountain bike and road bike and an urban punk warhorse that predated the concept of a contemporary city bike.  

“When I look at Cinelli’s history we have always had a certain creative dissatisfaction with the status quo or strict categories in cycling. Cino had it at a  technical and manufacturing level, and then Antonio was always looking for ways to imbue the performance bicycle with cultural things to make the bicycle more emotional, to make it more pleasurable to ride from an emotional point of view,” says Pignatti Morano. “I love cyclists like Taylor who are always modifying their bikes, asking the  question, ‘Why can’t the bike be this?’”

On display at Rouleur Live, Phinney’s Nemo got a lot of attention. Its supersized proportions made it impossible to overlook, but there were also non-traditional mods like the extra-wide handlebars, not to mention regular flat pedals.

Taylor Phinney's Nemo, which has been well used and loved, has a gear for every occasion

“The idea of non-clipless pedals stems from the idea of being able to dance with your bike more,” explains Phinney. “When I look at skateboarders, for example, they are moving on their respective instruments all of the time. When I started riding on my mountain bike with flat pedals I understood that I was moving my feet all of the time. Sure I might lose some power because I cannot use my hamstrings in the same way as with clipless pedals, but I also have no knee problems now because my feet can be more dynamic. I don’t develop hot spots in my feet or my knees like I would have in the past.”

But Phinney is quick to point out that his Nemo remains a work in progress. “The  thing I would like to change is to make it more playful. It has to be comfortable enough to ride long distances anywhere, but it needs to be more playful. Right now the bike is more of a cruiser than a dirt jumper, but I would like it to be more of a long BMX  bike that you can ride long dis- tances with.”  

For Phinney, the bike is like his paint brushes or the turntables. It is an instrument for creativity. “I think that, like mixing music or painting, riding a bike is very expressive. Everybody has their own style when riding. Everybody has a way of  being uniquely themselves on a bike. When I was growing up I loved finding a jump and doing it over and over again. When you hit a jump right and interact with your bike in the right way you are sort of interacting with time in a very special and natural way. I am very interested in that interaction with time and flow with the instrument that is the bike. It’s very much how I paint. And that is what music essentially is, interacting with time with an instrument.”  

In many ways Phinney is the perfect ambassador for the brand. Like Cino Cinelli, Phinney possesses serious cycling chops. But both Cinelli and Colombo were committed in their own different ways to constantly challenging cycling traditions, at times even daring to turn them upside down. And now with Phinney’s racing  career behind him, he is committed to taking the bicycle to places he never thought imaginable before.

Where can the bike take us today? It is a common question, but with Phinney and Cinelli, it becomes an existential ques- tion. And the answer may be: a lot further and in more surprising directions than we ever thought possible.