Memoirs of a teenage cyclist: when it was all steel and Campagnolo.
I don’t remember exactly what originally attracted me to riding bikes in my early teens. Was it the sense of freedom? Did I want to go kerb crawling on two wheels to pick up a date?
It must have been strange seeing me travel at 40, 50, nudging 60 mph
Was I into causing havoc and road rage by cycling on the pavements and running red lights? Whatever the reason, I got hooked. Perhaps it was because I loved doing that thing boys do, of taking stuff apart (bicycles) to find out how they work, then never putting them together again.
My first bike
I do remember one thing that gave me a huge buzz. I used to follow my school coach in its slipstream down the dual carriageway at insane speeds. Maybe that’s what drew me. It must have been odd seeing me travel at 40, 50, nudging 60 mph on my first bike, a metallic green steel Claud Butler 10 speed racer, not long being out of nappies (diapers to some). Maybe I was hooked on the thrill of danger.
If I had the cash, I’d buy something and cycle back home.
(Oddly I’ve often found myself drawn into situations where I put myself in harm’s way. I have a story of staring down the barrel of a gun… and another of being in a cafe when someone drove by and unloaded an automatic through the window…. We’re talking about UK here…. Maybe I’ll post those stories one day)
My local cycling club
Anyhoooo… I found myself a member of the local cycling club, going on Sunday club rides, frequenting the local bike shops and getting involved in the local cycling scene. I’d save up my pocket money and the pay from my paper round (It was a thing kids like me were coerced into. It involved delivering newspapers to people’s houses), to spend on all the shiny bike bits I lusted after. I guess I was and still am an addictive personality.
Juniors, like myself were always made to stay outside whilst the seniors would go in and get us a half of shandy to go with our cheese and ham sandwiches.
I think it was on Tuesdays or maybe Thursday evenings, possibly when I left school early, that I would saddle up and ride the 50 or 60 mile round journey from my house through the New Forest to the Southampton bike shop to look at all the expensive Campagnolo stuff they had on display. If I had the cash, I’d buy something and cycle back home. On reflection, my Southampton jaunts were probably Thursday because I used to go to race and train at Winton outdoor track on Tuesday evening. I could probably check this with Pat, who used to ride with me back then and stayed local to the area.
The weekend club ride
Sunday club rides were always fun. Often 100 miles or so. We would head out any direction from the coast: it could be Dorchester way, up to Salisbury, taking in Lymington or Lyndhurst, always lead by Ken who held a steady pace on the front all the way, unless of course we sprinted for town signs, road markings or any other excuse we could find to whizz off.
I could strip, clean and put back together a bike in under 4 hours.
My mum would make a packed lunch for me that I’d sling on my back in a musette (a small tote bag thing-a-me) for the pub stop that the club would pause at. Juniors, like myself, were always made to stay outside whilst the seniors went in and got us a half of shandy to go with our cheese and ham sandwiches. Those final miles back to the start/ finish point were never easy. I was in my early teens regularly doing 100 miles on a Sunday, so I was going to feel it.
Then there was the bike maintenance. I was lucky to have a garage at the house and a father who was an aircraft engineer to refer to. The garage conveniently had wooden beams. So I slung an innertube or rope over a beam just behind the door to the garage and hooked my bike up by the nose of the saddle on the loop it made. That was my makeshift bike stand. Those Campag parts were expensive and it was up to us to maintain everything if we expected it to last. I was covering some serious miles every week.
The speeds you could reach matched the speed I got whilst drafting the school bus.
I would think nothing of completely stripping my steed down to parts after every ride. It all came off, headset, bottom bracket, front and rear wheel axles, brakes, downtube shifters (remember them), the only thing I probably left on was the saddle. Even then I would fiddle with its position as I knew that’s what Eddie Merckx did, so that I could get it just right. All the bearings were cup and cone. Each part down to individual ball bearings would get meticulously cleaned in paraffin (I know right? None of your environmentally friendly degreaser back then) dried and resembled. I could strip, clean and put back together a bike in under 4 hours. That thing would gleam. It’d also run like a Swiss watch.
My introduction to training and racing
In the winter, when outdoor track training was out of the question (being too wet and dangerous), we used to do weight training somewhere on the way to Hengistbury Head. There must have been a youth hut or community centre with a room where the club would meet and break out the barbell. I also recall we had some static rollers to warm up on. I got pretty good at balancing on them. If you were in a cycling club back then, you were expected to do regular weekly 10 mile time trials, train at the track, and know how to ride the rollers, all as a right of passage.
It was dripping with Campagnolo Pista gear: the chainset, the bottom bracket, the hubs, the headset.
I enjoyed track training a lot, probably the most. It was something about the pristine surface, the tubular tyres pumped up to 160 psi, as hard as a strip of iron; the sheer smoothness of the whole thing seemed to appeal to the perfectionist in me. We were even allowed to progress to training behind a derny, where you break out the motorcycle and try to follow it as closely as you can. The speeds you could reach matched the speed I got while drafting the school bus. You should have seen the girth of my thighs OMG – it was amazing!
Stories around the track bike
It was inevitable that I’d need to get myself a track bike. It wasn’t long after setting out on my quest to find the perfect one, that I discovered my dream machine in the pages of Cycling Weekly. I fell head over heels in love, and desperately wanted to get me an artisan bespoke Geoffrey Butler made out of Reynolds 531 Double Butted Race Light tubing. It was the thing at the time. There was no such thing as carbon fibre, although it was being experimented with. I would have chosen Columbus… but, you know… :/
I noticed blood pumping from the end of my finger.
My father drove me to the WF Holdsworth bike shop just outside of Putney to get my dream Geoffrey Butler. There’s still a bike shop there with a different name. I’d saved hard and no doubt my parents, as some parents do, were helping cover the cost – BankOfMum&Dad.
Geoffrey was green, he was beautiful and fitted like a glove. He was twitchy, I mean proper twitchy. He would’ve thrown me over the bars without shedding a tear. The toe overlap was more than 6 inches. It was dripping with Campagnolo Pista gear: the chainset, the bottom bracket, the hubs, the headset. I think it had Cinelli sprint bars Wienmann aluminium tubular rims and Vittoria tubs. All the top end stuff that you would have seen the Worlds best trackies riding. A gleaming, green racing machine. If you tapped it with your fingernail it would sing like a tuning fork. It was that keen to escape the starting blocks.
Geoffrey the track bike bites me
I remember getting it home and putting it upside down in the music room where there was an upright piano. I sat there just spinning the cranks with my finger to marvel at the soft tick, tick, tick of the 1/8th inch chain as it ran around the chainring and cog, when I noticed blood pumping from the end of my finger. Geoffrey had amputated the tip of my first finger with surgical precision, right down to the bone!
I met up with Pat again by accident to discover he has that track bike still today.
That was the first time he put me in the hospital. I was horrified, screaming with terror, whilst painting a scene of a horror movie. When I eventually calmed down, I sat there feeling sorry for myself. I felt so stupid. My finger had caught between the chain and the chainring as I was spinning it. Precision engineered moving metallic parts have a sharpness to marvel at. I really expected to be maimed for life. However, to my relief and eternal gratitude, my finger magically healed in a few days, maybe 5 or 6? Such was the healing power of this 14 year old. No scar or mark was left – gone.
Sadly, when I gave up riding and heeded the call of a musician’s life, I ended up having to sell my first love to my mate Pat. I got a fraction of what Graham cost. In a bizarre twist, many, many years later, after most steel bikes would have long been buried in landfills, I met up with Pat again by accident to discover he still has that track bike today. He’d stripped it of its handsome green paint and chrome plated it, which may be the primary reason it survived. I suspect Pat still loves that thing as much as I did.
Check out Part 2