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” follows.

Part 2 of my guest post for DiscoveringBelgium.com “New Year’s Revolutions: The Best of Belgian Cycling for 2015″

Part 2 of my guest post for Denzil Walton’s www.discoveringbelgium.com has been published today.

Last week it was all about places for you to ride.

This week its “Watching cycling with the Belgians – beer, frites and the most passionate fans in the world” 

I have suggested some of the best cycling to watch this year including the Six Days of Ghent, the great settings for cyclocross races and  of course the road classics.

An extra bonus for 2015 is the Tour de France which comes to Wallonia in July.

www.dicoveringbelgium.com

For links to my own accounts of visiting the various races mentioned click the tabs at the bottom of the page.

Thanks again Denzil for the opportunity to spread the word and for the great ideas on your blog.

 

A song to be played while repairing bikes: – “Shipbuilding”.

Wheelbuilding

When I am working in my bike shed there is a song that sometimes comes suddenly when the music payer shuffles the tunes, then becomes an earworm that stays with me for the rest of the day. It is a special song anyway, but I give it a little cycling twist when I am working on my bikes.

It is the beautiful and moving 1983 song “Shipbuilding”, written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer and first recorded by English singer songwriter Robert Wyatt.

On first impressions this can be taken as a song of optimism. The words talk of possibilities from a new job

A new winter coat,

And shoes for the wife

And a bicycle

On the boy’s birthday

Of course, a bicycle for the boy, who couldn’t love that idea as a symbol of hope?

However the song has a dark side. Because the “Shipbuilding” in the title is the possible return of shipbuilding and repairing to the British shipyards of Scotland, Northern Ireland and the North East of England, places that had been hardest hit by recession in the 1970s and early 1980s. The rumour that there might be shipbuilding again came because Britain was sending a military task force to the Falkland Islands, a war that would be fought mostly at sea.

And it is those self-same suffering industrial areas that supplied the much of the British forces at the time. Woven through the lyrics are the pains of war,

They’ll be reopening the shipyard
And notifying the next of kin once again

So Costello had actually written a protest song that reflected the impact on the people who not valued by the Thatcher Government, but were now needed both to fight and rebuild the ships. A painful reminder of one of the most challenging periods of our not so distant past and one where I cannot help but be in sympathy with Costello’s words.

He says in interviews that he wasn’t being alarmist or morbid, but he also says they were possibly the best lyrics he ever wrote, reflecting the complexity and depth that he put into a short “pop” song. “Diving for dear life, when we could be diving for pearls….”

I have added below Youtube links to both versions, you can enjoy the sparseness of the Robert Wyatt version or the virtuoso jazz trumpet on Costello’s own recording that for me just adds to the poignancy. (Email readers may have to visit the original blog post on http://www.idonotdespair.com for these links to work)

I sing these words out loud when I am working, if nothing else because I can. But I do have my own special version that has emerged from the bike workshop. Last year when I was making my first attempt at removing and replacing a wheel rim when the song came on and almost without thinking I replaced the words “shipbuilding” with “wheelbuilding”.

Dropouts 3And I have carried the idea ever since that this song can become a true song of hope when old areas of industrial decline get a glimmer of optimism because they are re-opening old bicycle factories to satisfy the demands of a new society.

Listen, enjoy, reflect and maybe in your bike shed you will sing of wheelbuilding too. I hope so.

 

My guest post on discoveringbelgium.com has been published. “New Year’s Revolutions: The Best of Belgian Cycling for 2015″

This is quite fun, Late last year I was invited to contribute a guest post on cycling for the blog www.discoveringbelgium.com and the forst part has been published today.

Denzil Walton is a freelance wrote and author of some good books of walks in the towns around the Brussels area. He has an excellent blog which has a diverse range of Belgian content from walking to crafts, history and countryside.

He asked me for some ideas on cycling content and I suggested that I quite liked the idea of a New Year piece with some of the cycling things I want to do and see in 2015.

I suspect some of my Belgian cycling friends will rush to tell me about dozens of great rides that I missed, but this was written with a bit of a visitor’s perspective. There will be room for lots more stories on this blog – maybe you just need to invite me for more bike rides.

Anyway here it is, in the first of two parts, with Blue Bikes, city rides, the Limburg Fietsparadijs, Pays de Famenne, and the Forêt de Soignes/Zoniënwoud.

discoveringbelgium.com

Riding The Ronquières Inclined Plane. One of the world’s largest canal-boat lifts – by bike – from the inside!

Wednesday’s bike ride was enjoyable enough because of the cycling.

But there was one other feature that made the day memorable, not least because it came upon me completely by surprise and gave me unprecedented access to a Belgian transport landmark.

I was cycling along the Charleroi-Brussels Canal that makes up Ravel 1, one of the longest off-road cycle routes in Belgium. It was deserted and a thick mist had come down so there was a sense of riding along a narrow closed corridor.

Photo Kevin Mayne

I got my first surprise when I realised I had started cycling out onto a huge viaduct with the ground disappearing away to the mist on my side. As someone who sometimes suffers from vertigo this was more than a little un-nerving but the infrastructure was big and wide so I was quite relaxed.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Then out of the mist came the shape of a lock gate so I cycled up to the edge for a look, but the view made me stop in amazement. There was no lock gate. In fact there was not even a canal. Below me there was a something resembling a huge railway yard sloping into the distance, with not a drop of water in sight.

Then I realised that projecting down the hill was a boat sitting in a massive tank of water. The tank was on wheels and it was waiting to descend the slope.

Photo Kevin Mayne

I had stumbled onto The Ronquières Inclined Plane, a boat lift that can carry up to 5600 tonnes of water and boats between the two levels of the canal almost 70 metres apart in height. It is a notable local landmark and visitor attraction but I hadn’t paid enough attention to the maps to realise that it was on this section. Taking 8 years to build in 1968 it replaced 18 lock gates and is still the largest boat lift of its kind in the world.

After a few minutes taking in the view of the long slope disappearing in to the mist I rolled my bike down only obvious route out, a steep ramp down the side of the structure. To my amazement I popped out almost under the giant tin bath carrying the boat, right beside the huge cables that pulled and lowered them down the ramp.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Photo Kevin Mayne

It was canal infrastructure on an enormous scale, made all the more impressive by realising the weight of water that was above me. I was having a close encounter with one impressive piece of engineering.

I was a little surprised to discover the cycle route ran right down by the works but I enjoyed the descent, it was amazing.

Photo Kevin Mayne

I now know that it is over 1400 metres long, which is why I could hardly see the end in the mist. However there was a shock at the bottom when I found it came to a complete dead end against a huge wall and some locked gates. Ooops, I had the dawning feeling I was not meant to be there and I had come into a part of the works that was really not for visitors. And now I had to climb back up the 1400 metres of steep incline, although it did give me a spectacular and imposing sight view of 5000 tonnes of boat and water creeping down from above me.

Photo Kevin Mayne

I puffed my way almost back to the top when I noticed a side gate where I was pleased to throw my bike over the top and get out on to a service road and back to ground level. From there I was able to ride round the sides of the embankment and reappear at the bottom and look back up to the top shrouded in mist once again, only this time from the right side of the fences. And in all that time I never saw a human being and I was never challenged by a security guard or anything. A remarkably laid arrangement that gave me a privileged access.

Photo Kevin Mayne

In the summer it is possible to ride a cruise boat up and down the lifts and to go into a panoramic tower that looks down over the spectacular works and the surrounding countryside but I rather enjoyed the way this monster came to me out of the winter mist. I may not have had a railway set as a child, but I am a bit of a sucker for spectacular engineering and by chance I had a very special view of Le plan incliné de Ronquières.

Now I know it is there I may well go back, but I very much doubt I will get anywhere near the workings. As well as my dull and misty photos the incline has its own supporters association with some spectacular photos and a fuller history, I shall read up on it properly before I go next time!

Sampling three types of Belgian long distance cycle touring routes in one January day.

Gallery

This gallery contains 14 photos.

I promised myself at least one long touring ride over the Christmas break and yesterday was “the day”. It didn’t start out with a blog post in mind, but it turned into an interesting taste of Belgium’s long distance cycling … Continue reading