A guest blog by Tony Clay
Some people remember and like to reminisce about their first love, the smallest details recalled with pinpoint accuracy, burned and burnished in vivid, Kodachrome memory. Some people constantly hearken back to their school days, sometimes seen as the zenith of their life, the time when they were at their happiest. For others, their powerful, memorable moments came attending the birth of their children (personally, although indelibly burned on my cerebral cortex, it was an experience I’d rather forget – I’ve never felt more useless and powerless, but that’s just me).
For others though … well, apparently, they can recall their first proper bike in glorious, intimate and scarily forensic detail.
Hmm, I remember my first proper bike. It was blue … or was it red? I know it had two wheels and a saddle and … handlebars? It did, didn’t it?
Luckily then, you don’t have to rely on my ever-fallible memory to fill a blerg post reminiscing about the dim and distant detail and provenance of my first bike, we’ve brought in an outside obsessive to do all that for us.
You may recall leaving this particular obsessive on the road to Hexham, astride a borrowed bike, but startled by the revelation of briefly riding a real racing bike. This was an experience that lit a fire that burns to this day.
We pick up the story shortly after this transformative event.
So, I had survived my first real bike ride, our 50-mile trip to Hexham in the summer of 1974.
Aye, I was hooked. I hung onto Dick Taylor’s Raleigh Clunker™ for as long as possible, but I only managed to eke out about 3 weeks before he started getting impatient. And he was a very Big Lad!
A search for my own bike began.
The first and most obvious step was to go to our (very) Local “Bike” Shop, Tommy Braunds. Well, I say bike shop, but it just happened to sell bikes alongside toys, model kits, dolls, prams and other assorted odds and ends. We used to pass it most days on the way home from school.
There was a lovely purple and chrome 5-speed Carlton Corsa in the window, £55. But my Dad wasn’t prepared to shell out that much for something that he thought might just turn out to be a short-lived fad. [SLJ: by the magic power invested in me via Google, I can tell you that £55 then is equivalent to £576.99 today. Well, sort of, approximately.]
Continuing my search, I found a bike that I fancied in our ‘Littlewoods Catalogue’, I can’t remember the make, but it was 10-speed, bright green and was £2 a week for 39 weeks. As my pocket money was only £2.50 a week, and most of that already earmarked for Airfix model kits and the latest singles and LP’s, it was out of my reach.
Word came that a lad at our school, Dave Curry, had ‘some’ bikes that he might sell for a couple of quid. He lived not far from me, so I wandered down to his one evening and found him in his backyard, completely surrounded by frames, wheels and components. It transpired that he was probably one of the first ‘re-cyclers’ as most of his stuff had been gathered from derelict houses (we lived on the edge of a slum clearance area), skips and, in the case of my eventual frame, the local (heavily polluted) river Team.
I knew it had come out of the river because of the stinky black mud still lurking inside the bottom bracket, seat tube and fork steerer. Still, I had a frame, and it only cost me £1.50. I’m not sure of the make, possibly a Raleigh, Sun or BSA, but it was sound and had half chrome front forks. Class!
Dave dug out some additional parts from his “bike store” (a.k.a. the coal shed) and I was set. Over the next couple of weeks, I cleaned up the frame, gave it a coat of ‘rattle-can’ paint, and polished up the rusty bits. They were all chromed steel, so just needed a few hours with the wire wool and Autosol. Some parts I had to buy new including a rear mech, a Huret Svelto at a whole £2.50, the cheapest you could get, but very simple and reliable.
When complete, my bike had mismatched front and rear brakes, a saggy leather saddle and an alloy stem with steel handlebars. I found out later that this combination of steel and alloy was actually quite dangerous as the alloy stem doesn’t hold the steel bars securely and they can slip, often prompting an unscheduled trip to the dentist. Fortunately, this never happened to me.
Still, it was my bike and rode it as often I could.
Gradually, bit by bit (quite literally) I managed to improve it by finding good second -hand kit, or occasionally a new part, after I’d saved up a bit and I started swapping the old stuff out.
Fiddling about with my bike so much, often breaking it down to ball-bearing level and rebuilding it, had made me quite handy at fixing them and I could make a fair job of truing a wheel. I ended up working on most of my mate’s bikes too.
I’m not quite sure of how it came about but, one day I got a phone call from my Aunty who had gone to school with Mrs. Braund, Tommy’s wife. Tommy, the eponymous owner of my LBS, had died in his shop of a heart attack. His wife had heard I was handy with bikes and she needed a Saturday mechanic, £4 a day and 10% discount on all bike stuff, (although sadly not Airfix Models!) [SLJ: Once again, Google suggests about £41.96 in today’s money].
I had a wage! I could now start thinking about getting some real kit and started saving.
The first significant upgrade was when I bought a pair of ‘sprint wheels’, Mavic rims and Campagnolo Nuovo Tipo hubs, £35 [SLJ: that’s £367.18 today, you bloody spendthrift!]
Even though the ‘tubs’, Hutchinson Aguiras at £2.50 each, were the worst I ever, ever had, like tractor tyres and a nightmare to repair, riding on the light wheels, even with the dodgy tubs, was great.
A really key moment was when I spotted a real bargain in a local second-hand shop. I’m sure he didn’t know what he had, when I bagged a fully chromed Reynolds 531 Condor with a Campagnolo Nuovo Record groupset, Universal Brakes, Cinelli bars and stem with sprints and tubs, all for the princely sum of just £30. To put that into perspective, a brand-new Raleigh Chopper back then was about £65 [SLJ: £681.90! No wonder I could never afford one].
The seat tube on the Condor was 22 ½ inches and way too big for me, but I had a ‘pukka gen’ racing bike and did a fair amount of miles on it.
Denton’s Cycles (227/9 Westgate Road, Newcastle) [SLJ: Once, but sadly no more] was always the place to go for quality kit and we’d spend hours drooling over the unaffordable bikes and all the shiny components on display.
It was there that in February 1976 my Dad bought me a beautiful sky-blue Denton frame for my 16th Birthday, and it was the correct size too – 21 inches. Full Reynolds 531, double butted tubing with Campagnolo forged ends and fitted with a Stronglight headset for £65… SIXTY FIVE QUID just for the frame?! My Dad nearly had a bloody seizure! [SLJ: well, I’m not surprised, he could have bought a new Raleigh Chopper for that!]
So, I stripped all the kit off the Condor, thoroughly cleaned, polished and lubed it all and transplanted it onto the Denton. It made a really nice bike. A very dear friend of mine, sadly no longer with us, had started racing in the early 50’s when kit was in extremely short supply after the war. He once told me, ‘Nivvor hoy owt away!’ and, over the years I’ve pretty much stuck to that maxim.
Never throwing anything away was brilliant in one way, as I’m now using some of that exact same kit from the Condor/Denton to renovate a 1976 Team Raleigh, meaning I don’t have to pay extortionate ‘Eroica’ inflated eBay prices for second-hand 70’s kit.
But on the flip side, my flat is full of box after box of components and bits and pieces that, realistically, may never get used [SLJ: Ahem … may never get used???] But there is another plus side. Last year a guy posted on a vintage bike Facebook page that he was desperate for a lock nut for a 1970’s Campagnolo Record rear hub to complete a renovation. Of course, I had one. I let him have it for the cost of postage. Where did I have to send it? Victoria, Australia!
I had no idea about structured training and just enjoyed being out on ‘me bike’. Alone or in a small group, sometimes with SLJ, I’d ride to the coast or down to the lovely city of Durham. At Durham we would sit on the banks of the River Wear, not the River Tyne, as “whistling genius” Roger Whittaker would have you believe in ‘Durham Town (The Leavin’)’.
We’d also go up into the Silver Hills that rose up from the Team Valley in Gateshead and in our young, teen imaginations we were in the Alps and Pyrenees, battling it out ‘mano a mano’ with Merckx and Gimondi up the Iseran and Tourmalet. The rides were usually a good couple of hours long and I gradually got fitter and more skilled at bike handling.
Then one weekend, near what is now ‘Beamish Open Air Museum’, we happened upon an actual bike race. It whizzed past us all bronzed limbs, rainbow coloured peloton and sparkling spokes and looked so exciting.
Now, I could really fancy having a go at that …
This afternoon I’ve just sorted out a guy with a 1980’s Campagnolo Super Record seat pin clamp bolt, and he’s in Pennsylvania!