Preparing the bike

“Old age is always 15 years older than I am.” Bernard M. Baruch

Six days to go. My excitement is only matched by the feeling of being unprepared, despite nearly a year of preparation.

There have been a few minor concessions to modernity as I’ve prepared the bike  for the trip – all 800 to 900 miles of it, depending how much I get lost. Here’s the technical stuff.

When I bought the Thanet Silverlight it had a single, fixed gear, as originally manufactured. The maker, Les Cassell, used to recommend that the bike was supplied with a single fixed sprocket, like mine, or a 4-speed Sturmey Archer hub. Over the last year, I’ve had a couple of wheels built up with Sturmey Archer hubs, one with an FC close ration hub and the other a wide-ratio FW type. By putting a larger sprocket (22-tooth) onto the 1949 FW, to complement the original Williams 48-tooth chain ring, I’ve managed to have the gearing lowered to match the capabilities of 60-year old knees. At about 20 mph the cranks are spinning freely but, apart from when coasting downhills, I don’t want to ride any faster than that. Having lower gears for the big climbs is more important on this trip. I don’t need to get anywhere fast, but I do need to get back.

Ben Abbots checks out a 1949 Sturmey Archer hub for the Thanet in John’s Bikes, Bath – not a trace of carbon fibre in sight!

I’ve changed the stem for a longer one (a Nitto) because the original was too short and the weight distribution on the bike meant it had a tendency to shimmy. (If you’ve never experienced shimmy, take a look at this. It’s always frightening, and can be fatal!) The longer stem improved the situation and adding a small handlebar bag, plus a small Carradice bag fixed to the seat post, seems to have made the bike much more stable.

The only other modifications were to replace the brake blocks with longer mountain bike versions, the addition of lightweight pedals and strapless toeclips (a friend’s recent accident has made me wary of being strapped onto pedals – the leg break was very nasty!), and the use of relatively modern luggage, plus a Garmin Edge 200 GPS – just for tracking mileage and average speed.

Throughout the year of bike preparation, the help and advice I’ve had from Ben Abbots, a music student and qualified bike mechanic who works part time at John’s Bikes in Bath, has been invaluable. As a young bloke, Ben’s knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, vintage bikes is astonishing and he’s tackled every task on the Thanet with real commitment. I’m not sure this trip would be possible at all if it had not been for his help.

The challenge

 “Inside every older person is a younger person – wondering what the hell happened.”
Cora Harvey Armstrong

Seven days from now, at 7:30am on April 1st, 2012, I’ll set out from the centre of Barcelona, Spain. I’ll start my journey from the old cathedral square, to cycle to Bristol, UK. I have to be home, near Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, by midday on 14th April because my wife’s parents are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary with a party at our home. It’s a party I can’t miss.

The 1950 Thanet Silverlight, as I purchased it in 2011 with a single-speed, fixed wheel

The journey is unexceptional by cycling enthusiast standards. At least it would be if it weren’t for the fact that I am 60 years old on April 1st, and the bicycle upon which I’m undertaking the journey is about 18 months older, having first been sold on 22nd October 1950 to someone by the name of ‘Miriam’ residing in Liverpool.

Both the bicycle and I are going back to the place of our birth. The Thanet Silverlight road bike was made at 50 Elmdale Road, Bedminster, Bristol. The address is now a private house and I doubt very much that the present residents know about its place in cycling history. I was born 5.8 miles away in Southmead Hospital, Bristol.

I thought that the first ride of my 60th year should be something a little different. Taking one of only a hundred or so Thanet Silverlight’s known to exist back to where it was created gives the journey a purpose of sorts. It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. The word ‘Pyrenees’ looms large in my mind!

About the bicycle

 “It’s sad to grow old, but nice to ripen.” Brigitte Bardot

For most of what I know about Thanet bicycles, I have to thank Hilary Stone. Hilary, who lives in Bristol, and was a cycling journalist. I don’t know if he still writes about cycling but his book ‘Ease with Elegance’ subtitled ‘The Story of Thanet Cycles’ (ISBN 0 9512026 0 X) charts the history of the Thanet marque.

Hilary Stone’s little booklet traces the history of the Thanet marque.
Produced as a limited edition of 1000, he still has a few copies for sale (£8.50).

When I met him, he confirmed that Thanet was the only bicycle manufacturer in Bristol in the early 1950s and it was he who told me that my Thanet, frame number 1533, was originally produced with a half-chrome, half-paint finish. The full chrome frame that it sports today was clearly part of refurbishment at some time in its history, probably more than 30 years ago.

Having discovered the existence of Thanet cycles, and the Silverlight model in particular, the next task was to find one. Hilary Stone had sold one just a few months before I started my search in May 2011. I thought that I may be able to buy it from the new owner but was dismayed to find it had been shipped to Australia, so the chances of that were very slim. It was very fortuitous that one appeared for sale on eBay just 2 weeks later. With 3 days of the auction to go, there were no bids. I contacted the seller, Bob Johnson, drove to Shepperton to see the bike and bought it on the spot.

Bob explained that the bicycle had previously been owned by his business partner, Jake Riviera (real name Andrew Jakeman), one time owner of world-famous Hetchins cycles, and perhaps best known as the co-founder of Stiff Records. Having stared making frames in 1934, Hetchins is still in the bicycle business today. On other aspects of the Thanet’s history, Bob was rather more vague. I got the impression that he had little interest in the bike, other than selling it for a good price, but for me it was a remarkable piece of luck to have found it. Only one other has appeared on eBay in the last year, and it didn’t look nearly as pretty, which matters.