This week I finally collected the Flying Pigeon bicycle that has been waiting for me on a Brussels street since May of this year. The classic Chinese roadster, first built in 1950 and believed to be the biggest selling bike of all time and source of a precious memory.
It is a PA-06, the double top tube model, so really up market!
I wrote about my experiences of riding in China in this post published in January of this year. If you were not following my blog at the time then I encourage you to go and have a look, there is a link to a lovely film by China TV about the peak and decline of mass cycling in China.
At the bottom of that post I mentioned that my colleague Julian had a Flying Pigeon in Brussels. Well he upped ship and returned to Australia and I quickly put myself forward to become the custodian of the Pigeon because it was not going with him. I should pretend I really don’t know why I wanted it or why I am going to love it. It is a pig to ride because the long extended fork rake gives it an awful turning circle, it has no gears, it weighs a ton and rod brakes on steel rims were never the best braking solution.
But that is the point. It is as strong as anything, built to carry loads and people and to get the job done, not for fancy Dan shimmying all over the road and certainly not for weaving around cars. And it is wonderfully and distinctively a Chinese bike, just as much a utilitarian dream machine as the upright Dutch black bike or a Brompton. If nothing else I will have it for special events and occasions as a talking point.
It also takes me back to another of my Chinese experiences in 1985. We were in Shanghai sightseeing when we arrived outside the legendary Shanghai Number 1 Department Store. I am no shopper but an early Lonely Planet guide said it had to been seen for the huge variety of Chinese products. We were allowed in because we were tourists but only higher cadres of Communist Party members and public officials were allowed to shop there, many Chinese were being turned away at the door.
As we left we were approached cautiously by a young Chinese man who spoke to us in perfect American accented English. He asked if we would be willing to go into the store and buy a bicycle. He explained “I live in America and I have come back to visit my father. What he really wants is a bicycle. I have the money but the store won’t let me in because I am Chinese. They will let you in, I can give you the money.” We were absolutely thrown by this. He seemed genuine but we were very wary of being trapped by some sort of scam that would see us in trouble. This was very much the beginning of the opening of China to Westerners and we had already had some odd experiences, we certainly didn’t want another.
If I look back now I realise that this young man must have had some sort of second sight. He could have asked us for any other item of the thousands in Department Store Number 1 and we would have walked away. But let Geoff and Kevin Mayne look on the face of an old Chinese man who has dreamed of a bicycle and we were never going to say no. The deal was done and a Flying Pigeon was passed out the door to the welcoming smiles. You never forget your first bicycle, nor the gift of a first bike.
Unfortunately there is a catch with our Brussels Flying Pigeon. The only way to hand over the bike when Julian left was to leave it locked to a signpost by a friend at a pre-determined spot in Brussels, some miles from our office or a convenient station. However these bikes can be a bit of a handful to maintain if you have never come across old school features like rod brakes and I was told it wasn’t really rideable by that point so I couldn’t just go and ride it to a station and then home. And thus it sat on the street for five months, a real test of its indestructible reputation.
Last weekend I had some things to collect which meant I reluctantly took a car into Brussels and the Pigeon finally made it on to a roof rack to be shipped out to Lasne. Sorry Julian.
It is a testament to the paint job on these bikes that the frame has remained in excellent condition, however unfortunately that can’t be said for the accessories which have taken on a rusty hue and are certainly going to need some rubbing down and some judicious restructuring or replacement of that rear wheel.
However it is now safe in a dry barn with my other bikes and it is going to give me hours of pleasure when I finally get round to polishing it up.
Look out for a wobbly Englishman on a Flying Pigeon on the streets of Brussels sometime next year, maybe after I finish restoring my Freddie Grubb fixie.
More about Flying Pigeons on Wikipedia here