A new cycling bookshelf

My Dad moved house towards the end of last year which caused me a bit of a crisis.

Nope, nothing to do with the man or the move. But as he was “downsizing” he told me was clearing out some bike stuff, his old maps and some of his bike books. I cannot imagine losing one of my books, in any shape or form, I keep them all. If you need a cycling guide to Belarus written in Russian I can oblige, not to mention a volume on cycling in Taiwan in Mandarin.Photo Kevin Mayne

I can’t read them, but they were given to me by fellow cyclists and I convince myself that on some occasion I can look at the pictures and daydream.

Dad has accumulated a lot of stuff over the years and some of it is unique, and probably collectable. At minimum I would want it to go on Ebay so anyone with an interest can pick them off. However that’s not exactly Dad’s area of expertise and definitely not the thing to start when in the throes of a house move. In that situation the book collection was destined for the local charity shop where it probably wouldn’t sell and would end up in a skip. This was indeed a crisis.

I made a dash over to Bungay a couple of weeks before his move was due and “saved” a part of the collection, in particular the books. We sat together and I worked through the pile until I had identified about 20 items that I felt were impossible to miss.

It was a diverse selection. Firstly there were the recent books that I surprisingly had not accumulated myself or had read and passed on. These included Ned Boulting’s entertaining “How I won the yellow jumper”, the bicycle passion of Rob Penn’s “It’s all about the bike”, David Byrne’s pedalling philosophy and wry observation in “Bicycle Diaries” and the book I think is the most best autobiography of a pro bike rider I have ever read, Laurent Fignon’s “We were young and carefree”.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Then there were some absolute classics of their kind that are far too collectable to be dumped. In particular there were several of the wonderful 1940s Harold Briercliffe touring guides to England which inspired a modern BBC TV series “Britain by Bike” by presenter Clare Balding and a reissue of the books, but these are originals.

Photo Kevin Mayne

And who could not love a volume that is priced in proper old money, three shillings and sixpence, and features pictures of people doing “Scientific Cycle Training” with weights in gym clothes. Without their bikes? I bet that didn’t sell too many copies at the time.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Collecting the books was fine until I got home and contemplated my own situation.

The existing collection of about 40 books that has occupied its own dedicated space for the past few years and adorns the top of my rarely updated “Library” of book reviews page on the blog. (That ignores the shelves of travel and tourism books and the cupboards full of maps, which is quite another story!)

Cycling Books

However doing a lot of cycling visits means that volumes like the guides to Belarus and Taiwan are not the only books I have picked up.  I have accumulated a shelf overflow in the last couple of years that were piled all over the place. Together with the collection from Dad’s place it was time for an accompanying new bike book shelf.

I was a bit surprised to discover that a quick tour round the house found another 20 volumes and the new shelf is itself almost full. Which leaves me the prospect that I either start accumulating e-books, or I have to find another 40 books to justify the next shelf. What would you do?

Short reviews:

Since I collected the books I have read and browsed a few of them. Here are two in particular that I have thoroughly enjoyed and are already inspiring thoughts for the blog.

“It’s all about the bike” Rob Penn

I mentioned this a couple of times in my recent blog posts about my own bike restoration project, so I won’t repeat the way the book helped me frame those posts.

What I really liked about this book is the feeling of travelling with a kindred spirit, someone who cares quite a lot about bicycles, but cares far more about the spirit, passion and craftsmanship of the people who make the machines we might take for granted.  This is writing about manufacturing as others write about art, his description of legendary builder Gravy lacing a wheel in California evokes the sense of a musician tuning the finest of violins. If you think this is about bike parts you have missed the point.

Photo Kevin Mayne

“Bicycle Diaries” by David Byrne

If your affinity to cycling is a sort of urban cool then David Byrne could be your adopted high priest, as he is for many cycling advocates in the US. His band “Talking Heads” combined a really eclectic mix of musical influences from the mid 70s to the 1990s as well as making a concert film “Stop making sense” that highlighted their experimental styles.

Byrne himself was the band’s lyricist and front man together with working in film, on the stage, producing World Music artists, painting, drawing and creating installation art. In the New York arts and music scene he can only be called a powerhouse.

And all that time he was riding his bike, during a period when he was probably one of the very few cyclists in New York. Now he is feted for his commitment to the cause and was invited by the city to design some cycle parking stands that reflected places in the city including his dollar sign for Wall Street.  Last year I discovered his lovely “Poem for Cyclists” which is a lovely short film connecting lots of cycling clips, I cannot watch it without smiling.

That is the background to “Bicycle Diaries” from 2009 which is a collection of writings inspired by his bike rides around the world. To me it reads just like my favourite cycling diaries and blogs. It isn’t really about the cycling. It is full of the thoughts that actually go through his head while riding. Musings on society, urban development, architecture, transport, philosophy and culture flow from rides around various places in the US, London, Istanbul, Berlin and many other cities. Occasionally he comments on how bad a city like Istanbul can be for cycling, but clearly after New York he isn’t fazed by much so he is willing to ride everywhere.

It is particularly fun to get his take on cities I have visited and see how he picks up feelings about the city from his bike too, so this book must rate as a particularly good addition to my new bookshelf, a and one I can see myself dipping in to for city writing ideas again and again.

Those two make such a good start to the new collection. Many more reading days to come.

Transformation. The joy of cycling through a changing season

Photo Kevin Mayne

Suddenly I feel the seasons may have changed. I feel uplifted. Recharged.

It’s not like it never happened before. It will happen all over the Northern Hemisphere in the coming weeks. But I am having my relationship with the countryside refreshed, personally and privately, deep in the Belgian woods.

I “cycle to work” every day. That can either be a ten minute ride to the local station or what we really call the “ride to work”, 25km across the rolling valleys that criss-cross the countryside to the south of Brussels, of which at least 45 minutes is spent on peaceful forest tracks through the Forêt de Soignes/ Zoniënwoud before the bustle of the Brussels rush hour.

This year I am trying very hard to get a bit fitter over the winter (for reasons which will become clear in a few weeks) which has meant I have ridden the longer distance many more times than usual. It has been a long, hard winter in the woods. The dark forced me to stick to one simple route where I know every bump and hollow but I still feel like I have been squinting into the dark trying to avoid holes and fallen branches forever, it has been hard to relax and roll.

Two weeks ago I went off to Munich for several days which was an even colder experience, but enjoyable none the less.

When I came back to Belgium it was like a switch had been turned. It was only a week away but things had changed. Suddenly and unexpectedly the light had just crept though the magical time shift where the whole of my forest ride was in daylight. Maybe only a soft dawn light as I enter the woods but enough to see without the lights, to relax and pedal without nasty surprises in the dark.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Secondly we had a week where the morning temperatures rose quickly above freezing. They may have dropped again this week, but that one week was enough. No green shoots have come through the carpet of golden beech leaves left from the autumn, but nature got the message. From the sombre silence of winter the birds have just burst in to life.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Over the winter my only accompaniment has been the owls. The area is alive with what we call tawny owls in English, the source of the classic owl sound as the males “tu-whit” and the females “tu-whoo” in reply, a seamless exchange that comes across as a single call.

Now it is the turn of the day birds to rediscover their energy. Blackbirds, robins and all the woodland birds are bursting with song, a true dawn chorus. Every valley seems to have a woodpecker hammering energetically at the mighty beech trees that line the paths. The owls have been replaced by the top predator of the daylight as buzzards can be heard mewing as they circle above the tree tops.

The absolute beauty of it is that the days have been still, cold and crisp. Despite the fact that I cannot see them I can hear every note, every peck.

As if in response to their enthusiasm I feel uplifted myself. The ride has been transformed from a trudge to a pleasure.  Instead of wanting to get it over and done with I find myself adding 10, 20 even 30 minutes to my route by adding extra loops deep into the woods.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Alone, except for the birds and the deer.

Because the deer will be my other constant companions for the coming months. While I ride around dawn they are bold and foraging close to the paths. I know they have been there too in the dark as I occasionally hear them bouncing away over the dry rustling leaves, but I never see them. Nobody else comes this way at this time so they have not been scared away from the paths and the silent approach of the bike doesn’t seem to alert them until I am quite close. So now in the mists of dawn we carefully watch each other from a comfortable distance.

Photo Kevin Mayne

The first weeks of a new season and I am bursting with life too. The transformational impact of a simple bike ride.  Like the birds and animals I know it’s going to be a great spring, because I can feel it.

Bike story: Cycling reminiscences provoked by the restoration of my fixed wheel friend Freddie Grubb 11773. (Chapters 3 and 4)

cropped-freddie-grubb-31.jpg

This is the third installment of my fixie story, the restoration of Freddie Grubb frame number 11773 to its rightful condition as an example of classic British bike design from the middle 20th century.

In the previous two chapters I wrote about the bike’s life as a part of typical cycling club life in 1960s and 70s East Anglia, featuring grass track racing and roller cycling.

This third blog post brings us up to date covering the period 1980 to the present day. It’s a long time period, but for much of that time not much happened, except the creep of decline, and then in the last three years the restoration process bringing it back to life. It won’t call this the final post because I hope that it is just step towards another life, so we can call the two chapters Decline and Restoration.

If you have no interest in bike parts and history…well you can probably stop here!

Chapter 3. Decline

As I wrote in the last chapter I continued to use Freddie as an occasional racing bike to the end of the 1970s when I set off for university in Durham. So the bike was generally kept in reasonable condition up to that point.

My treatment of my bikes fitted many clichés of student life. I was always a bit short of cash so I bodged and bent my various combinations to keep myself on the road for three years, and I certainly didn’t have much sense of care, the bike was just “my old hack”.

I know for one year I took the fixed to Durham because I needed a spare bike, the catch being that instead of flat Suffolk the county of Durham is extremely hilly. I was definitely much, much, stronger then because I rode everything on fixed, including the legendary Stang climb out of Teesdale with its 20% opening section. But I must have gone soft because I even bodged a set of gears onto the bike by hanging a derailleur off the rear wheel for a few months.

From Durham I started work and I continued to use the fixed as a commuting bike for the next few years in places such as Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Bristol and Birmingham. It was my workhorse, taken out in all weathers and stored in all sorts of places on a weekly basis, a role for which it was perfectly suited with the low maintenance needs of a fixed bike.

Photo Kevin Mayne

And that damage wasn’t just wear and tear. Frames from that period have almost no fixing points for any accessories. I have a modern touring bike that has about 12 fixing points for racks, bottles or pumps. Next to it stands a 1970s Mercian road bike that has mudguard eyes and almost nothing else, so it has everything else bolted on to it, with appropriate damage to the underlying paintwork. Well Freddie Grubb had all of that abuse, and some. Over the years I fitted bottle cages, pannier racks, saddle bag supports, lights, those gears, cable stops and levers, each of which took off its own souvenir section of paint.

Photo Kevin Mayne

And at some point I just stopped using it, I think when we moved to Cardiff. It was hung up in the garage, not to be used for another twenty years. The best that can be said is that it probably didn’t get any worse in that time, except that a few bits got corroded in place. I probably could have got rid of it a few times when space pressures kicked in, but I probably never did because I couldn’t actually work out that it had any value to anyone else.

Chapter 4. Restoration.

So what changed? Why rebuild and treasure the previously unloved machine.

Two things I think. Firstly I had a growing awareness that my bike was perhaps a bit more than the wreck I had allowed it to become, especially as I was more exposed to some classic bike collectors and web sites.

Secondly I was looking for a good idea for my 50th birthday. I guess I might be typical middle aged bloke, whenever I am asked “is there anything you want?” for birthdays and Christmas I have no idea. However the Freddie Grubb just crept up on me as a “project”. Instead of something new and shiny I could celebrate by bringing something almost 50 years old back to life.

A bit of online research and before long it was a reality which I announced to family and friends.  However from that point onwards it was a long slow crawl, not least because minor events like moving to Belgium got in the way.

So taking my cue from Rob Penn’s “It’s all around the bike” here is a brief run through of the restoration process and some of the stories behind the bits and pieces that ended up on the final machine.

First steps.

The very first part I got came on my 50th birthday. Dad handed me a cardboard package still showing the original price in pounds, shillings and pence. An unused fixed wheel chain from PFK Ling of Bungay. Lord knows where he had it stashed in his bike sheds, but it was almost a perfect connection back to the bike’s roots in the Godric CC. The most unnoticed and abused part on a bike, but precious in this context.

However the main job was the frame and I quickly concluded that there was only one company I felt comfortable doing the job, especially as I wanted a few “non-standard” modifications, a confession I will pass over quickly because it will horrify classic bike purists.

Photo Kevin MayneThe company was Mercian of Derby, specialists in this area and still making traditional road and touring bikes of their own. When I worked at CTC our tech guru always said Mercian had the best paint treatment in the country, so that was endorsement enough. And because so many traditional bike owners use Mercian they also had a relationship with the suppliers of bike decals from traditional brands so I knew I could get proper replica Freddie Grubb decals. That in itself was tricky, because as part of the research I discovered that the Holdsworthy company gave the Grubb image a makeover in the early sixties and I had to get just the right badges to match my bike’s original design or they would be the wrong year. The “crossed flags” image was meant to bring a touch of Italian class to the badge apparently.

When I sent the bike off to Mercian I asked for three main things. Firstly a colour to keep close to the original, something close to the emerald green of the club.

Photo Kevin MayneSecondly I wanted fixing bolts for a bottle cage. No need to cover the bike in new fixtures, but I cannot imagine riding these days without a bottle and I didn’t want to tarnish the frame with a clamp on cage. They are discreet, but will be useful.

However my final mod is the one to upset legions of fixie purists. I wanted a back brake. Yes I know that it is entirely possible to brake using only the back wheel and yes I used to be able to do all those kinds of antics like almost locking up the real wheel. But my knees are shot, I have already had two sessions of keyhole surgery on the left one and I find that the hard “anchoring back” you have to do to use the real wheel as a brake really makes my knee ache. So two cable stops were added to enable me to ride with a back brake.

I have made my confession, it is done and the changes work for me. I am entirely comfortable that a future owner will go back to a frame restorer and say “get rid of these abominations” but at least the provenance of the modifications is public. The order was placed for an amount of money eye-wateringly more than I had planned and far more than the frame is probably worth and Freddie set off to Derby. Never to be seen again.

Well, not quite. Mercian may be wonderful, but quick they are not. Let’s call if “craftsmanship”. It took a series of plaintive phone calls over several weeks for the frame to make it back to me just before I relocated to Belgium, several months after I sent it to them. The unveiling of the shiny, immaculate new look took place just days before moving to Belgium, forcing me to reluctantly put it back in its packaging because it did look great.  (As I wrote at the time.)

Wrapped bicycle frame

The hiatus of moving stopped an entire winter of activity in the bike shed, so it was only in the summer of 2013 that I began to contemplate the rest of the rebuild. This delay was also a result of my indecision. I couldn’t quite decide whether to modernise the bike with parts that looked retro but would arrive bright and shiny or whether to put in the hard work to sort, polish and shine my ragtag collection of bike bits into a something that resembled my original steed.

However once I started the build the decision came easily. Like a kid with a new box of Lego I wanted to get it done and that meant only buying the parts I couldn’t find at home. I am not one of life’s polishers, but restoration was the choice, which brought another trip down memory lane.

I thought about fitting some nice modern dual pivot brakes that actually work and stay where they are bolted. But looking at me from a box were the pair of Weinmanns that I used for nearly 20 years on my race bikes, something I had bought new with some money saved from my paper round in the late 70s. Old friends indeed. I do remember that the bloody things would never end up in exactly the same alignment from one week to the next but the drilled levers were the height of fashion at the time and they polished up really well.

Weinmann brakes on Freddie Grubb

Contact points – bars and saddle.

There was never any doubt about the handlebars. I had the pair of deep, rounded steel track racing bars that I always remember being with the bike, the real track rider look. However they are bars for just one purpose, getting down on the drops and sprinting. There is no real flat point on top of the bars to provide a hand rest for a road touring position so I am sure we used to switch to more traditional touring bars when the bikes were not used for grass track. But they look the part and I don’t see myself doing long road rides on the bike, so it’s a small compromise. Red bar tape, of course, club colours.

Track handlebars on Freddie Grubb fixie

The saddle was more of a dilemma. I have never owned a Brookes saddle and I wondered if this might be the time to go for the authentic look. I know lots of fixed wheel bikes from the 60s were ridden on the Brookes Professional and this might be my time to give it a try.

However I don’t recall anybody at the Godric ever using Brookes and there were certainly none in our house. By the time I widened my horizons they had become deeply unfashionable except for die hard CTC cycle tourists, you would never see one on a race bike.

What I do have however is an original Unicator plastic saddle. Now these were the saddles I saw every day as a kid on race bikes. Apparently they were a real Cinelli innovation in the 1960s, the first plastic saddle. They are light and unlike a leather saddle they don’t change shape and needed no maintenance. And as if forecasting today’s trend for brightly coloured bike parts they came in all sorts of colours. I remember a particularly unappealing tangerine orange one appearing at some point and I had a green one on the Freddie Grubb. To those who have become used to saddles with a bit of foam padding the hard plastic shell looks like an instrument of torture but I never recall any issues. Pairing up the black Unicator saddle with a nice fluted Campagnolo seat pin that I had used on a variety of bikes over the years seemed to add a touch of Italian class, after all this had been a racing bike and a world record holder. I don’t remember when I got the pin, second hand in the early 80s but it’s been with me a long time.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Wheels

Most important for this discussion is the rear wheel. I had two or three scruffy looking wheels that I had scavenged off my Dad, but none of them offered much encouragement that they would shine up to complement my new machine. They were much more from the “hack bike” tradition with a good layer of grime, spiders’ webs and surface corrosion. I started an online search for a retro looking pair of fixie wheels but never quite got round to buying so to get the bike on the road I went back to the old wheels. After a lot of prodding and spinning I found one seemed to be still in true and definitely had a nice smooth running hub so I decided to polish it up “just for the moment”.

It was a chore but I actually got a nice shine, apart from some tarnish on the hub. However the focus on the hub exposed a discrete trademark a bit like the Campagnolo mark and some initials that I didn’t recognise.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Just out of curiosity I looked it up and discovered I had stumbled upon a rare gem. Fratelli Brivio was an Italian firm making high quality bike parts from about the 1930s, just around the time that the Campagnolo business was growing. I also found numerous references to the possibility that FB made at least part of Campagnolo’s hubs, although exactly what and when seems to be unsure. But there is no doubt that for most of the 50s the FB hub was one of the very best around and I had accidentally chosen the very best wheel to fit my rebuild. Unfortunately I don’t have the pair, but what a great find.

Chainwheel treat

Along with these Italian parts what I coveted was an original Campagnolo Pista chain set, the perfect complement. But I really didn’t want to fork out over €100 or more on top of what I had spent on the frame for a second hand part. Fortunately I spotted a lovely retro styled chainset from London firm Brick Lane Bikes at a reasonable price, so the next time I was visiting London on a work trip I made a diversion by Boris Bike down to the East End and bought just about the only new item on the bike, capping the other choices off nicely.

Brick Lane Bikes single speed chainset on Freddie Grubb

Finishing touches

And that was almost it. The bike was almost ready. Almost. It passed a small test ride with flying colours. But I wanted just one more item to take it right back to its roots. Bluemels mudguards.

I could buy lots of modern mudguards, mostly from German firm SKS, owners of the historic British brand Bluemels. They are undoubtedly easier to fit and more robustly constructed than the old guards that wobbled, warped and chafed requiring almost constant adjustment. However the modern guards seem to be available in just 3 colours, black, white and silver. Surely somewhere there is an innovative manufacturer producing colour matched guards, because I wanted a nice red to go with the rest of my look?

It is probably a reflection of the low longevity of those old mudguards that nobody seemed to be offering a secret store of old-style guards, except one dealer in Cyprus who occasionally put a pair on E-bay at over €100 a pair, something I just could not be drawn into. Once a month I dipped into the online world to see what was out there and put posts on retro web sites, a depressing process that lasted almost a year with nary a sniff of a purchase. I had just about resigned myself to boring black when a pair of original burgundy Bluemels Clubman guards appeared on Ebay in the English Midlands. I leapt in and secured them, the final piece in the equation. They were the perfect look and were just as useless as their predecessors in sitting nicely on the bike, so really authentic.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Which brings us back to the beginning, the re-launch of Freddie Grubb on to the streets of Belgium last summer, almost 3 years after the project was conceived.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Now I can look forward to those summer days when I can spin him around the lanes and maybe he can be introduced to one or two retro-bike events. And in the long, long term he will hopefully one day travel back to East Anglia where he will have an extended life as the treasured steed of the next generation of Godric CC members. But I hope that is a long way off, I have lots of rides to do before then!

The chilly cycle tourist – a short winter cycle tour of Munich

Gallery

This gallery contains 16 photos.

This was the cycling excursion that was never going to happen. It was the result of a three day process that went from “no way”, through “maybe” and “what the heck” and ended up as “that was good”. A chilly … Continue reading

When asked “what’s hot in sport?” never for one moment did I imagine the answer to be “bobble hats”. Makes sense really.

A small diversion away from cycling on my travels, and a tribute to my Nan’s knitwear output.

I have written numerous times about my visits to bike shows around the world, but this week I have taken a detour to one of to one of the world’s most important sporting goods shows, ISPO Sport in Munich.

I am actually here to attend meetings and events on the side of the show that have been extremely useful for learning about trends in health and physical activity and the business climate in which the global bike industry is working.

But of course I went for a walk around the show. It was enormous, bigger than all the bike shows except maybe Eurobike. There were no specific bike exhibits but lots of familiar outdoor brands and many of the companies that make outdoor and sports gear also cross over into cycling.

Photo by Kevin Mayne Photo by Kevin Mayne

But inevitably my eye is drawn to the unexpected. This is especially true of trade fairs where the major purpose of the show is to convince manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers to take a particular range, not really to reach the individual consumers.

Photo by Kevin MayneWhen I first went to Taipei Cycle Show I was drawn to the booths that just exhibited a single item like bells, or a huge display of carefully colour coded bolts, there so that assemblers could order just the right part to match their bicycle designs. No reason why they should not be there, but the care and attention to detail put in to displaying the humble washer just caught my imagination.

So what was it at ISPO?

Bobble hats.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Walls of bobble hats.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

Fields of bobble hats.

Photo by Kevin Mayne

 

Colour coordinated bobble hats.Photo by Kevin Mayne

The biggest bobble hat I have ever seen.Photo by Kevin Mayne

Who knew? If you want to convince the winter sports buying community that your product is the height of technical achievement you top off your display….with a bobble hat, lovingly designed and created by people who have invested a great deal of craft in their product.

Maybe it’s because I don’t come from a winter sports country, but somehow I was highly amused by the status given to the sort of clothing that represented the height of uncool in England because it was knitted by your grandmother in strange shapes and colours. The only exception was your football supporter’s hat that you wore on a Saturday.

Good luck to them all, if colour coded bolts matter to someone then why not bobble hats? My Nan would have seen it as a challenge to turn out another batch from her extraordinary selection of leftover wool.

Bike story: Cycling reminiscences provoked by the restoration of my fixed wheel friend Freddie Grubb 11773. (Chapter 2)

Photo Godric CC

Chapter 2 Roller Racing and Record Breaking

In Chapter 1 of the story of my restored Freddie Grubb I wrote about its life in the Godric Cycling Club, a small but successful cycling club based around the Suffolk towns of Bungay and Beccles, an area known as the Waveney Valley.

These are small towns in a rural area so the population catchment isn’t large and apart from the occasional footballer who has a trial with a professional team the area hasn’t turned out a line of sporting heroes to put it on the map. Therefore relative to its size the cycling club has been a bit of a standard bearer, turning out a regular crop of local champions and occasionally a national level competitor.

But in one field of cycling the Godric CC made an impression far beyond the reaches of the Waveney Valley, picking up not one but two world records. And my Freddie Grubb was part of at least one of those records, if not both.

That is entirely in keeping with the name that it carries, because Frederick Henry Grubb (b 1887) was one of the prolific record breakers of his era. www.nkilgariff.com lists 14 of his British records from 60 miles to 24 hours, mostly broken before he won two silver medals at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm and then turned professional. He did not take to professional racing so he turned to bike building to exploit his fame.

Which brings us back to the record breaking story of this Freddie Grubb.

In chapter 1 I wrote about grass track racing in East Anglia which helped sustain use of fixed wheel bikes for many years. The other branch of the sport that carried on in splendid isolation in a few clubs around the country was roller racing.

Today most bike racers and even some enthusiastic hard tourists will have a turbo trainer at home. One of the most unloved instruments of cycling torture imaginable, I was delighted the day I decided I would never do that again.

Prior to turbo trainers we used rollers for indoor training and you still see riders warming up on them before races.

Much less common are the sets of racing rollers where two or four bikes were put onto special rollers connected to a measuring clock.

Inevitably it falls to cycling author Carlton Reid, author of “Roads were not built for cars” (reviewed in December 2014) to provide a comprehensive history of indoor trainers since the 1880s on his web site. He says roller-racing really took off in the 1930s and its popularity as entertainment continued until the 1950s. The great draw for riders is that the lack of wind resistance means you can fit a huge gear to your bike and routinely do speeds well over 50 miles per hour, with a world record of over 130 miles per hour. Short sprints are very fast and very furious. Hard to imagine now but the most famous venue for roller racing in the 50s was the Royal Albert Hall, perhaps the most prestigious concert hall in London.

Carton’s history matches my understanding because the founding generation of the Godric CC were all familiar with the roller races they had seen in the fifties, but quite quickly it had almost died out, not least because the equipment was very scarce. However (and I have no idea why) the Godric were a club that kept a roller tradition. In 1968 the club broke the world 12 hour roller relay record and in the early 70s a Bungay Modern School team from the club set a national schools record at 12 hours too.

Godric CC World record Roller racing team 1968

I am not sure, and I really must ask Lindsay Wigby, whether the star of this story was used in the 1968 attempt, but Lindsay was in the team so it seems quite possible that my Freddie Grubb was a world record breaker in 1968.

The roller tradition suited these fixed wheel bikes well. Just like the grass track racing the bikes were only a tweak away from being ready to ride at all times. There were many lightweight narrow fixed wheels with racing tyres around because the bikes had been used for time trialling. The single front brakes could be slipped off and the bike was about ready, apart from the fact you had to turn your handlebars up.

Why? Well one might say “because everyone else did”. Like so many things in cycling this habit was part of roller riding lore and was mixed in practicality and probable bull dung. One reason given was that “it opens up your chest and you breath better”. Given that people were doing phenomenal speeds on the road bent like hair pins without apparently suffering from breath problems this seems about as likely as a sticky plaster on your nose helping you play football better. Much more realistically the upright position kept your weight firmly on the rear drive of the rollers. Because you tended to bounce about at high pedal rates this made sure every pedal stroke counted and kept you stable.

However roller riding did test the mechanical creativity of the riders in one way. If you want to ride steadily at over 50 miles an hour you need pretty enormous gears, and even then a high cadence is needed. In those days 11 tooth sprockets were not even available on geared bikes, a 13 was very daring indeed and the smallest fixed sprockets were occasional 14s. But because the Godric were a roller club there was a secret squirrel store of relevant bits, including the near mythological 8 tooth rear sprocket. Old roller riders had abtained huge chainwheels, usually made by TA of France, that could go up to 64 teeth. When combined with a 14 sprocket suitable gears could be reached.

The 8 tooth sprocket was a near myth because whenever it was discussed there was always some doubt about who had it last time and quite where it had come from. I was always told that it was a lawnmower sprocket that had been filed down to the correct width for a bike chain and then welded to the side of a conventional sprocket so it could be fitted. With this baby even a normal 54 tooth road chainset gave enormous gears. In legend it could be combined with one of the giant chainsets to reach record breaking speeds but only heroic men with thighs like tree trunks could get it moving. When I saw it you could only describe it as one of the ugliest and most functional pieces of equipment ever put on a bike.

Both Freddie Grubb and the 8 tooth sprocket definitely found their way to to a Guinness World Record in 1977.

A team of four young guys from Bungay High School were set up to go for the schools’ record held by our clubmates. However we had a secret weapon. The club had been fundraising and bought a set of the newest, smoothest rollers ever made with bearings and drives of incredible quality from Cambridge firm Barelli.

Barelli almost deserve a blog entry in their own right. In the 1970s a high quality engineering firm based just outside Cambridge, England decided to make possibly the finest engineered pedals made in England, perhaps in the world at the time. They came with a lifetime guarantee and retailed from an amazing £50. But cyclists wouldn’t believe that a product was top quality unless it was continental, preferably Italian. So a nondescript industrial estate out on the Huntingdon Road gave its name to a special product. Bar Hill became “Barelli”.

But owner Geoff Chapman was also convinced that there was a place in cycling for the revival of rollers if they could be built to the same outstanding quality as his pedals. The very first prototype even featured electronic counting instead of a mechanical drive, a revolutionary concept that preceded the modern cycle computer by a good five years, but unfortunately couldn’t be made to run reliably. How do we know that? Because it was the set of Barelli prototype rollers that the Godric CC bought. Until a few weeks before the record attempt we had a lot of failures so Chapman replaced the electronics with a nylon drive cable in an oil bath, a design that still put the Barelli rollers low resistance into a different class to all the old sets.

They were, very, very quick as our trials had already proven. However we also had another secret weapon in the older club riders who had been there before and actually knew exactly how to plan a record schedule, especially ride manager John Pugh. I was actually number 5 in the squad in terms of ability and got in because my mate Dale blew up in the trial, but I got my chance from there.

I rode Freddie of course, and during the run up to the event the magical 8 sprocket was rediscovered and probably because I was the last choice for the squad the other guys had the huge chainsets and I had the 8 tooth. And here we are!

Photo Godric CC

So in a village hall near Bungay we set out as four 16 and 17 year olds to break the world record for adults, not just the school distance. And the rest, as you might say is history, as my Guinness World Record certificate will attest. 657 miles, a shade under 55 miles per hour for the whole 12 hours.

Guiness World Record Roller Cycle Racing

I have to admit I had a bit of a personal bad day. Nerves, a touch of asthma, I have no idea why but I had a shocker. I did my part for the whole day but I am very grateful that my much stronger team mates were absolutely on top of their game that day so we had a good margin over the old record.

We held it for about two years until a team of top adult riders from Hounslow Wheelers took it, but to be fair they didn’t smash our time into oblivion. We probably still hold the schools’ record because the discipline has become so rare, maybe one of the modern promoters could encourage a hopeful team to give it a proper thrashing now.

Freddie Grubb is a world record breaking bike. Not the celebrity of the bikes that have broken the world hour record on the track or the Fausto Coppi world championship Bianchi I saw at the Padua bike show in 2013, but there cannot be so many bikes out there that have this claim to fame. And like the first part of the story it is one wrapped up in the club life of the Godric.

Roller racing Godric CC early 1980s

I carried on track and roller racing for another year or two (above in green) until I left for university at the age of 19, making it a part of cycling I too left behind. It has taken this restoration project to bring it all back.

Roller racing too has made a bit of a comeback too thanks to the public relations skills of companies like Rollapaluza and Goldsprint, they have really modernised with the right mix of noise, lights and music. if you get a chance to go to a roller night I recommend it.

Chapters 3 and 4 “Decline and restoration” here.

Bike story: cycling reminiscences provoked by the restoration of my fixed wheel friend Freddie Grubb 11773. (Prologue and Chapter 1)

Photo Kevin Mayne

Prologue

Late last summer a small ceremony took place at our house. Photographs were taken and an old friend took to the roads.

I dressed for the occasion. Traditional striped cycling jersey, matched with black shorts, white socks and a pair of old-school leather cycling racing shoes polished up for the event.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Freddie Grubb Fixie in Godric CC colours

I then rode on a circuit especially selected for the occasion, mainly flat but with sweeping undulations that encouraged my legs to spin the pedals smoothly. It should have been Suffolk, England, but the lanes of rural Wallonia made an excellent substitute.

Lanes of Lasne Belgium

This was the christening ride for my restored 1963/4 classic English fixed wheel bike, made by renowned London cycle maker Holdsworthy under the brand Freddie Grubb.

Some readers of idonotdespair.com may recall occasional mentions of my long term project to restore the bike, indeed one of my followers even contacted me to offer help finding the missing parts, he seemed quite frustrated that it was taking so long. Well I can tell you now Chikashi  that it is done.

Now I also feel the time is right to tell you the story of Freddie Grubb 11773 and to explain why this machine could no longer languish as a scruffy wreck at the back of my bike shed. A bike so ill-treated that one of my college mates renamed him “Grubbie Fred”, a nickname that stuck for years.

Freddie Grubb original

At the same time that I am writing this post I am reading the excellent “It’s all about the bike” by Robert Penn. Conceptually he is searching the world to build the perfect bike, his dream bike. That could be an incredibly boring except for bike fanatics, but in the hands of a good author it is a chance to weave together an entertaining collection of stories about the people and places from the history of cycling technologies, from the hoax Leonardo da Vinci bicycle to the founding fathers of mountain biking in Marin County California. And I realised that this is what I want to do with the Freddie Grubb.

The restoration has also made me think about a whole series of cycling places and memories that should be shared. That doesn’t mean a piece by piece breakdown of all the parts on the bike, rather it means spreading Freddie’s story over a few pieces that capture some of cycling’s past, and my own. Because this bike does have a story to tell and perhaps that is why I gradually became guiltier about its decline under my stewardship.

This bike has spent its life in one cycling club, and mostly in one small area. It is a representation of a certain time and place, the fading tradition of fixed wheel bikes in East Anglian cycling. And it is one of a tiny number of bikes on the planet that can claim to be a Guinness World Record breaker – and that does make it special.

Chapter 1. Godric CC and grass track racing.

In my mind this bike represents Godric Cycling Club, my club, the one I grew up with and formed my cycling experiences. (I wrote about the Godric earlier this year here)

I bought the frame sometime around 1973 or 1974 when I had become a gangly teenager and grown out of whatever previous fixie Dad had knocked up for me, and I had a little bit of money saved from my paper round.

I bought it from older club colleague Ross Mullenger, who I think was selling some bits because he had drifted away from regular club riding. It probably cost about £15. I learned later that it was already a club hand-me down from Lindsay Wigby, long standing family friend and club member. It was only when researching the provenance of the bike for the restoration that I identified it as a Freddie Grubb Comet probably made in 1963 or 1964. The brilliant www.nkilgariff.com has a complete history of the Holdsworth and Freddie Grubb marques and even has a catalogue of the 1964 Comet on line.

Freddie Grubb Comet catelogue on http://www.nkilgariff.com

I then went back to Lindsay to ask if he had got it as an original because he was riding with club then.

He filled in the gaps by telling me the original owner was Pete Gilding, one of the few Godric names I didn’t know, but someone who had been actively racing with the club at that time. A quick dip into the published club history and I found a picture of Pete with my Dad after they won the impressive Norwich CU grass track team pursuit shield in 1958.Images by Godric CC

Too early for my bike to have been one of the winning steeds, but a great link to the origins of the Freddie Grubb because they would all have been using grass track bikes like mine, perhaps handed round in just the same way.

But I now knew that this is a one-club bike which throughout its life has carried the green colours of the Godric CC. Hence my selection of the green, yellow and red banded Godric cycling shirt for the christening ride. And here we are, a photo of another Godric ride and in the middle is that sprouting teenager in blue stripy bobble hat with the green bike. It must be around the time I bought the frame and first fitted it out. Previous owner Lindsay is three places to the right in black.

Photo Godric Cycling Club

Elsewhere a teenager buying a fixed wheel bike in 1974 might raise a few eyebrows, but it really would not be a surprise for anyone who was in Norfolk or Suffolk club cycling. Many riders round there had a “fixed” or “track bike” set up for road riding despite the fact that their use as club riding bikes had almost died out across the rest of the country. (We never called them “fixies”, that is an entirely modern phrase).

Because no, the couriers and hipsters did not take fixies straight from track racing to the road in the last 10 years. In British cycling the racing scene excluded mass start road racing until the late 50s and cyclists in most racing clubs thrived on a mixture of time trialling and club riding with occasional diversions into grass track racing and roller racing. Most time trialling was done on fixed wheel bikes that could be converted from one use to another with a change of wheels. These were not the steep angled, aerodynamic track machines used on today’s velodromes, these were machines that could fit mudguards one day and race the next.

Godric CC on fixies 1950s

I think this tradition carried on much longer in Suffolk and Norfolk than almost anywhere else for a number of reasons, not least of which could be that it is one of the flattest places in the country so a simple single gear is really not a handicap for spinning around the countryside. Almost the first “proper” bike Dad put me on was a fixed wheel, not least because it would be ”good for my pedalling.” They were also a lot simpler to maintain and a lot less prone to problems on mucky roads so they were popular winter road bikes, often referred to as the “hack bike”.

Another possible reason fixies stayed on in our area was that we still had opportunities to race on fixed bikes while other parts of the country converted almost completely to road riding using 10 speed derailleurs. In particular there was grass track racing which only survived in a handful of places across the UK. East Anglia was one of the hotbeds and as a child in the 60s I can remember being taken to a whole series of carnivals and rallies where the cycling crowd would come together.  I probably rode my first bike race in the kiddies’ handicap events at a grass track meeting. The adults would pull out another pair of wheels with rubber studded tyres, put them in their fixed bike and race round a single white line painted on the field, sometimes with fields of 20-30 riders. Hopefully it was a nice cricket ground or school sports field, at worse it could be like riding in slow motion across a lumpy paddock.

By the time I bought the Freddie Grubb in 1974 many of the meets had died out, but we could still expect to race several times a year on grass and we would train every Wednesday on our club track at the Ditchingham Meadow sports grounds. So it was essential that I had a track bike of my own.

Photo Beccles and Bungay Journal

This photo is one of my favourite cycling pictures, taken by the local paper at one of our regular races in Bungay, probably our club championship in about 1976/77. I love the sense of competition and motion in the two riders at the front. Andy Warne being shadowed by Richard Avery, probably about to try and pounce for the win. I am the white helmet in third and that’s about as far forward as I got in most races.

Brian Harper Godric CC winning grass track race 1960sActually Freddie and I did sneak an Area Championship win once with some highly tactical riding. In the short one-lap race I got the perfect draw for the final, number 1 on the inside. I then asked canny track star Brian Harper (right) to be my pusher off, the builder with the strongest arms in cycling. As we waited on the start line Brian whispered in my ear “I am going to push on the whistle, don’t wait for the gun”.

Spectators would have observed a metaphorical greyhound race where the rabbit shot out ahead of the dogs before they even moved. Somehow the judges neglected to call it a false start, just as Brian had guessed. Jet propelled by Brian’s shove I had a ten yard head start at the first corner which was reduced to the width of a tyre as four of us hit the finish line 400 yards later, but I held on for a very rare win.

All I can say is “track craft”. Anything goes in grass track racing.

Chapter 2 “Roller Racing and record Breaking” here

Chapters 3 and 4 “Decline and Restoration” here