As I’m writing a dissertation next year on Italy, mainly about the joys of Italian cycling and how it came to shape the nation, I thought every so often I’d share a bit of the research that it involves. So far it’s nothing ground breaking or even things that more accomplished fans won’t know about, but hey, we’ve all got to start somewhere. So first off, I thought I’d answer a question that frankly I personally wanted to know the answer to, and so thought it might be useful to have a look at.
Italy it seems is defined in colour and myth. Everyone equates Ferrari with the colour red, for instance, and whenever the national cycling team races at the World Championships, they have been known as the azzuri, after the blue kits they wear, given that azzuro is the Italian for blue (They wore white at the Beijing Olympics because of concerns about the heat, and again in London apparently just because they had the last time). Interestingly, both Ferrari Red and the azzuri are linked – in the 1920, Italian race cars, regardless of brand, were painted ‘Rosso Corsa’. This had been decided on by various racing organisations, such as the Commission Sportive Internationale, which later merged into what today is known as the FIA, to help distinguish different nations cars: thus, French were blue, Germans white and of course the mighty Brits had ‘British racing green’. National colours and defining car colours are not so much an Italian phenomenon then as an international one – the difference is that the Italian brands have their colours stuck in the popular imagination: Ferrari are Red, perhaps due to their status and the success of their racing teams, and Bianchi, the oldest surviving bicycle manufacturer, are celeste.
For yes, ‘celeste’ is the official shade of the blue-green-aqua-marine shade that Bianchi has made its trademark. Unlike T-Mobile, whose constant shade of pink (which they claimed was ‘magenta’ ) never changed, the Bianchi ‘celeste’ has differed over the years, sometimes including more blue, sometimes more green. Where it actually came from, however, is essentially unknown, and depends on which myth you find most attractive to believe…
Bianchi was begun by a man named Edoardo Bianchi in 1885, and got his lucky break when Queen Margherita (whom yes, the Pizza is named after), the queen consulate at the time in 1895, asked if he could build her a version of his newly created safety bicycle, given its smaller diameter front wheel, with a crystal chain cover so that she could have ago at the new cycling lark. With high society now taking on the bicycle, Bianchi was onto a winner as everyone surged to get a piece of the action. It is from this royal encounter that the first legend of ‘Celeste’ was born – it states that the colour was created by Bianchi in honour of his highest customer’s beautiful eyes. Unfortunately, this is a bit of a stretch – neither Queen Margherita or her daughter-in-law Elena of Montenegro had turquoise eyes, which somewhat ruins that one. Luckily, for those keen to attach Margherita to some form of Italian colour making, Raffaele Esposito, who created the Margherita pizza for the Queen’s visit to Naples in 1889, used the Tomato, mozzarella and Basil as the three colours of the Italian Flag.
Chronologically, the most difficult to place is the claim that Edoardo wanted the colour to be a homage to the Milanese skies, but this too seems unlikely- the team of Bianchi was riding on bikes of the colour by 1899 at the latest, and whilst the colour may be oft referred to as sky blue, it is odd to see how the sky would remain constantly one colour for a period long enough to be seen as definitive, especially with Milan’s climate, with a fairly poor number of sunshine hours a year and frequent storms.
Perhaps then, it is because the colour was created to stand out from the peloton, and thus to sell more bikes? This one seems more plausible given the evidence from adverts – a 1930 advert in England promised the bike would be finished with ‘special Bianchi Celeste blue’ for instance. The advertisment on the colour has certainly been upped in recent years, with the company even once claiming they were going to change the ‘ugly’ colour and ensuring everyone knew they could purchase their machine in other shades. They even released an all black bike recently – paramount to blasphemy from not only fans but the Euro bretheren.
Another myth we can rule out, like the Queen Margherita one, is that the shade resulted from a painting mistake before a Giro Fausto Coppi rode, and the team just assumed the bikes were that colour for good luck. Unfortunately, as we’ve just seen, the colour was being used way before Coppi first entered the Giro in 1940 (winning at his first attempt) – it had been seen in 1899, and the teams even wore sky blue jerseys in the ’10s and ’20s. Thus, this story is just that – a story, probably cooked up to try and attach Italy’s great Campianissimo with the bicycles that he rode in a more meaningful fashion.
Another story is that there was so much green paint left over from the reign of Mussolini that everyone decided to mix it with blue to create a new colour. Without even getting into why Mussolini loved green (i can’t find anything about this so far!) or why they’d be paint left over, or even why they’d mix it with blue willy-nilly, we already know that the colour was created almost 50 years prior, which pretty much ruins the story there as well.
Essentially then, it looks more likely that the ‘boring’ tale of simply a colour used to stand out from the pack rather than anything as legendary as the shade of the Queens eyes. Whatever the reason, Celeste #227 is certainly the most recognised single colour in cycling, and will remain so for years to come – you just can’t have a Bianchi without some celeste in, as to do without would be be unaware of the history of not only a great brand, ridden by champions we haven’t even touched on in this piece, but also to deny yourself the true essence of a Bianchi.