In 1983 Antonio Colombo invented an entirely new “feeling” in the history of cycling bartape: Cinelli Original Cork Ribbon. Upon its release this grippy, spongey but durable and ultralight mix of EVA and natural cork immediately rendered bar tapes of the day (made from cotton or vinyl) technologically null. Within the space of a few short years the tape became an industry standard, spontaneously adopted by professional and amateur riders across the globe and copied (poorly) by every major cycling brand in the world.
While today Cinelli’s bar tape range is broad and varied with options to suit an infinite range of styles and personal preferences, Original Cork Ribbon – still made with the identical “secret recipe” of EVA and natural cork of 1982 – remains technologically unmatched in its essential balance of ultra lightweight, durability, grip, comfort and, of course, sophisticated aesthetics.
Accordingly, serious riders across the globe still know that Cinelli Original Cork Ribbon is the bar tape for superior racing bicycles.
The debut of cork ribbon
The first advertisement publicizing the arrival of Cinelli’s revolutionary EVA and natural cork bar tape. “Cork Ribbon, Iron Fist, Velvet Glove” reads the claim.
In 1982 I was visited by an inventive supplier of ours, who proposed uses for a new industrial vinyl acetate that he had recently begun to produce, called EVA (Ethylene-Vinyl-Acetate). He suggested it might be suitable for bicycle handlebar tape. As I listened to his suggestions, I stared at the strips of EVA that he had brought with him and which he was only able to produce in one colour, a kind of natural “gum” tone that was very dull and soulless.
Yet it was this colour which triggered an idea in my head. At the time I was a passionate fly fisherman, sneaking off whenever possible to Britain. Not just to fish but also to go shopping for the best rods and fly guides and dustry books form the early 1800s on how to tie the perfect lure. The finest fly fishing rods use cork on their handles: the material is extremely lightweight, sweat absorbent and pleasantly tactile.
So when I examined these strips of lightweight shock-absorbent foam called EVA, somewhat lacking in fantasy in that natural colour, I begin to imagine something a little more magical for the cyclist and I asked the supplier to experiment with the possibility of introducing natural cork into the EVA.
This experimentation actually took a long time, since cork is not at all elastic while EVA is, and bar tap needs to be sufficiently elastic to be able to be tightly stretched across handlebars. We worked on perfecting the proportions of each component for a long time before eventually arriving at a perfect feel. This proportion of parts of cork to EVA remains the “secret recipe” used exclusively by our Italian manufacturer.
So finally, in 1983, we had a product to sell, though only in this one “natural” colour. For two years we stubbornly insisted in promoting this technically amazing new product, but with very little success. In 1985, though, came the breakthrough: we were able to colour the EVA part of the tape. We began by offering eight colours and almost overnight the tape became a runaway success. I remember seeing Andy Hampsten ride a time trial in the Giro d’Italia around that time, using the Cinelli Cork Ribbon and no gloves (!) – I immediately bought up all the photos from the grand tours of stars riding without gloves and using our bar tape and used them for advertising. After that everything just blew up and we were able to make more and more colours and stranger and stranger styles.
We were imitated so much, by everybody in the industry, who didn’t just make bartape from EVA (which in itself was a good idea) but also shamelessly sprinkled cork into their mix, making it seem almost identical to us. So we started writing “Original Cork Ribbon” on our boxes for those who couldn’t remember!
I’m still very proud because even though most cycling products from that time are no longer used much, Cork Ribbon is the only product still used today to win Grand Tours that is identical to what it was 30 years ago.
In 1992 Cinelli exploded the idea of a clean, simply coloured bicycle, taking advantage of the latest advances in EVA manufacturing technology to make up CORK SPLASH, which contained up to seven different colours and was most famously promoted by Claudio Chiappucci
As far back as I can remember I’d always liked and raced with Cinelli components (when I was a kid it was so expensive and special for us that we used to call it C-Notes Cinelli instead of Cino Cinelli) so I was pretty happy when in 1985 I signed my first professional contract with the 7-Eleven team and discovered they were going to be sponsored by Cinelli.
I always preferred racing without gloves unless I thought it was a race I was going to get into trouble so the new Cinelli cork bar tape I was given was the perfect thing to hang on to. It was thick and padded, and you could hold on to it in a similar way as to the old cloth tape, which I’d really liked – but it was still easy to clean, like the shiny plastic stuff everybody was using at the time. Even in hot and sweaty races or cold, wet conditions, there was always some grip; I always associated this fact with the little pieces of cork I could see in the tape.
Toward the end of my career I was riding with the Spanish team Banesto and I asked the mechanics to put Cinelli cork tap on my bike, admittedly unreasonably since we weren’t sponsored by Cinelli that year. They looked at me and shrugged as if to say, “If the shiny tape is good enough for Indurain, it’s good enough for you.” So I put my gloves back on for the season! I can always remember the years I rode Cinelli tape because they’re the years I could race gloveless whenever I felt like it.
1988 Giro d’Italia winner