Motoring: The day I fell off my Ferrari - It was bright and brash, it brayed like a donkey - but it went like a bat out of hell. Stephen Wood on (and off) the new Colnago-Ferrari

If you are looking for the best at a bargain price, you have to compromise. The producers of Miami Vice desperately wanted a classic Ferrari Daytona so that Crockett and Tubbs could chase drug dealers around the city in style, but the price of the car - Daytonas then fetched about dollars 1m - and the cost of panel-beating led them to opt for a glass-fibre imitation.

Similarly, if you have set your heart on a Ferrari but don't have the pounds 67,151 price of the entry-level model, the Mondial t, you too will have to compromise. If you are prepared to make do with a Ferrari with only two wheels and no engine, you can get one for under pounds 4000.

To celebrate its 35th birthday, the leading Italian bicycle company, Colnago, commissioned Ferrari's engineering division to design a radical new model. A prototype of the Colnago- Ferrari appeared at the Milan bicycle show in 1987. Its frame, finished in Ferrari's familiar rich red, was made of carbon fibre - 'the same material', Ernesto Colnago proudly pointed out, 'as is used for Ferrari racing cars'. Although based on a traditional 'diamond' shape, the frame looked as if it had melted in the high-temperature oven in which carbon fibres are baked: the 'tubes' fattened and flowed into their joints, and the one below the saddle had sagged into a curve. The wheels, also made of carbon fibre, were just as strange, with five thick spokes offset from the hub like a turbine.

By the time a production version of the Colnago-Ferrari appeared last autumn, collaborations between the big names in grand prix racing and bicycle manufacturers had become commonplace: Lotus Engineering produced the track bike on which Chris Boardman won a gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics, and both Benetton and Minardi were involved in the design of mountain bikes. But the Colnago-Ferrari still looked shocking. Colnago had, unwisely, commissioned an artist, Claudio Mazzi, to airbrush its showpiece models with Ferrari themes.

By comparison, the standard bikes are a fairly sober black and gold, with one hint of flamboyance in the yellow tyres; unfortunately, the one that Colnago lent me to test had a red Ferrari and the New York skyline on one side, and a white one driving along a beach (complete with seagull and windsurfer) on the other. Be grateful that our photographs are in black and white.

It was a mistake to take it out for the first time on Boxing Day. Christmas presents, most with 'stabiliser' wheels at the back, were being ridden with pride; I was wearing dark glasses. It was not just that the bike looked loud, its paint job set off by red tyres, a saddle that seemed to have been made from a zebra with a skin complaint, handlebar tape with a nautical theme, and enough gold accessories to make a Lebanese night-club jealous; it sounded deafening, too.

First contact between brake blocks and freshly lacquered carbon fibre is, I discovered, a painful thing. The front brake made a noise like a pig being slaughtered, the back brake was a braying donkey. Within half a mile - and without stabilisers - I had fallen off.

Although its frame is radical, most of the Colnago-Ferrari's components are traditional: the brakes and transmission are from the superb C-Record set by Campagnolo, Italy's top manufacturer. But the pedals, made in France by Look, have the relatively new 'click in, click out' system, already standard issue for road-racing cyclists, which uses a spring-loaded clip to grip a plastic plate fitted to the sole of racing shoes. Anyone who has spent years perfecting the technique required for toe-clips and straps, of dragging the pedal back with the sole, then kicking the foot forward into the clip, will find clicking down into Look pedals tricky, and clicking out of them - sideways - more so.

Coming up behind a car at a junction in sedate Dulwich village, I concentrated on braking as quietly as possible, alternating the squealing pig and braying donkey. Only when I came to rest just behind the car's bumper did I remember about the pedals. Too late. Clicking your feet out is even more difficult when you are lying in the road.

If stopping was - at first - a problem, going certainly wasn't. Under acceleration, it was apparent that the bike had more in common with Ferrari's grand prix cars than the road-going models: its response was instant, thanks to the secure pedal fixtures, the light, tubular tyres (glued on to the rim, like those used by racing cyclists), the unbelievably swift and clean selection of the 14 gears, and the light, stiff frame.

Bicycle frame design, like that of racing cars, has the twin objectives of lightness and rigidity. Under acceleration and on hills, a lighter bike will always be faster; but if the frame is not rigid, the rider's energy is wasted in bending it. Carbon-fibre composites, first used in racing cars by Ferrari's grand prix designer, John Barnard, combine lightness and rigidity far more effectively than the steel-alloy tubes used for traditional lightweight bikes. Ferrari engineering's frame weighs less than a kilogram, but I could detect no flexing in it at all. A short wheelbase adds to rigidity - hence the curved seat tube, bringing the wheels closer together.

Of course, racing cars are built for speed, not comfort. So is the Colnago- Ferrari: the lack of flexibility means that you feel not just the bumps but the road surface, too. You get used to that, as you do to the Look pedals, at least when there is not much traffic; and the brake blocks get used to the carbon-fibre wheels, so that after a while the farmyard noises diminish and the power of the brakes becomes something to enjoy.

True, some drawbacks remain: so pricey a bike cannot sensibly be left in public places, and pumping up the tyres is such a performance that pounds 35-worth of equipment is needed to do the job properly.

Still, there are bound to be compromises in buying a cheap Ferrari, and on a bright morning, on a smooth, empty road, they all seem acceptable. Except one. To get round that, the answer would be to swap the bike for an even cheaper one - in black and gold.

Ernesto Colnago, 19 via Cavour, 20040 Cambiago (Mi), Italy (010 392 95308082, fax: 010 392 95067379). The Colnago-Ferrari is not sold in Britain, so the exact price depends on the exchange rate.

SPECIFICATIONS

Colnago-Ferrari C35, approximately pounds 3,700

Carbon-fibre frame, forks and wheels; Campagnolo C-Record Synchro component set, gold-plated, with 14 gears; 3TTT handlebar and stem; Regal saddle; Gommitalia tubular tyres. Also available in black- and-gold colour scheme, priced at pounds 2,949. Total weight: 8.9kg

COMPARISONS

Aston Martin mountain bike, pounds 3,495

Nivacrom steel frame, finished with 12 coats of paint; made to order. Dual-stage elastomer-damped suspension system on front forks. Shimano XTR component set, with 24 gears changed by handlebar twist-grip. Total weight: 10.4kg.

Audi quattro 'Pikes Peak', pounds 1,205

Limited-edition mountain bike: three still available out of 150 built. Titanium/vanadium alloy frame, hand-welded with titanium; wheels with titanium spokes. Shimano component set, with 21 gears and cantilever brakes; Tange Prestige handlebars; Ritchey 'Racing K' tyres. Total weight: 11.3kg.

Lotus carbon road bike, approximately pounds 4,000

Road frame based on Lotus track bike, to go on sale this month at Lotus Sport bicycle dealers. Carbon- fibre monocoque frame and forks, with twin rear stays; tri-spoke front wheel and disc rear wheel, also in carbon fibre. Complete bicycles built to special order, price depending on specification. Price above includes Dura-Ace STI component set, with 16 gears. Total weight: approximately 7.5kg.

Peugeot Team Line ZX1, approximately pounds 3,500

To special order only. Vitus Kevlar monocoque frame with Dural front forks; Mavic ZMS component set, including 16-gear 'Zap' system with electronic, push-button change. Mavic carbon-fibre wheels, Vittorio Corsa CX tubular tyres. Look pedals; ITM stem and handlebars; Selle Italia Flite titanium saddle. Total weight: approximately 10.2kg.

(Photograph omitted)

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