L’Eroica on a £35 bike that went on to become a great winter hack – Part 1

Having enjoyed greatly the 2012 L’Eroica on my beautiful 1965 Hetchins, I decided to try a more modest approach in 2013. I needed a period bike – it had to be pre-1987 – but something that would not cause me to worry about the propensity of some baggage handlers to lose or damage my stuff. Along came a 1978 Falcon Westminster offered at £45 for which I finally parted with just £35.  The bike was described as having a 23 inch frame. However, it turned out to be nearer 24 inches – 60cm – centre-to-top of the seat tube, but I took a chance that I’d be able to ride it.

The Falcon Westminster in its original condition
The Falcon Westminster in its original condition

I did a little research. There’s not much about Falcon Westimsters online, except that they were modest machines with mid- to low-end components. However, they’re made from the rightly-revered Reynolds 531 tubing, so they’re not especially heavy. The bike looked a mess but having stripped and cleaned the headset and bottom bracket it was apparent that there was no discernible wear to either. In fact, when they were re-assembled the cranks spun freely, without the slightest wobble, and the chrome polished up well with some very fine wire wool and oil.

Now the confession. What started as £35 bike did end up costing me a bit more. I threw away the badly rusted steel wheels and replaced them with a second hand pair of wheels with Miche hubs laced to Mavic MA3 rims (£60). I replaced the saddle and seat post with parts from my junk box, and the original friction shifters with a used pair of Suntour Powershifters (£20). I then added a wide range 5-speed  freewheel (£25) – 15 to 32 teeth – to complement the original Stronglight double chainset, which has 48 and 36 chainrings. Period Bluemels mudguards (£50) were added after a very successful 75km L’Eroica ride in October to get the bike ready for winter.

The next step was to make it look a little more presentable. The bike was certainly not worth the cost of a professional restoration so I decided to see what could be done with some spray cans of car paint from Halfords – Americans call them “rattle cans” – very descriptive. Sanding, undercoating, painting and lacquering took 20 minutes a day for a week with the frame hanging from a tree in the garden so that I didn’t succumb to the paint fumes. It’s now Ford Monza Blue, and touch up paint is readily available.

The 'New Look' Falcon Westminster -  a faultless L'Eroica ride and joy to ride in winter
The ‘New Look’ Falcon Westminster – a faultless L’Eroica ride and joy to ride in winter

The end result is a very rideable and good looking bike that cost less than £250, including the parts that were replaced. It’s certainly a far better mount than you could buy new for £250 and has the unique character of a vintage bike.

The New Look head badge causes some confusion
The New Look head badge causes some confusion

The finishing touch was a new head badge found on eBay with the logo ‘New Look – all steel bicycle’. I can’t find any reference to New Look bicycles, so it may be that the badges are produced for refurbishments like mine. The puzzled faces of fellow cyclists trying to figure out the brand of bike are well worth the £1.95 it cost me.

Really good bikes need not cost the earth. The few other Falcon Westminsters I’ve seen online typically fetch arond £50, yet they’re make from top class materials and, where needed, replacement components from the 70s and 80s can be found at very modest prices. Another one to look out for is the Diavolo – an Italian road bike sold in the UK in the 1980s. Not a well known brand, so they don’t attract high prices, yet the frames are made from Columbus SL and they were often equipped with good quality parts.

Bike fitting: valuable service or fit up?

Last weekend I went along to the fabulous ‘Bespoked Bristol‘, the UK hand built bicycle show. The beauty and quality of many of the bikes on show was amazing and UK custom bike building enterprises seem to be growing well alongside the general increase in cycling. Even the BBC website now features this piece on the trend so the show’s PR team is doing a good job.

On a couple of the stands, I encountered the issue of bike fitting. One renowned custom frame builder insisted that I really did need a detailed fitting session before they could possibly consider building a bike for me. Another stand offered a 2-hour fitting session for £120 (about $180 US).

This got me thinking, not least because within my modest collection I have bikes of varying geometries with nominal frame sizes of 21 inches to 24 inches, measured from the centre of the bottom bracket to centre of the top tube. With a little experimentation with stems, seat posts and saddles, and the relative positions of each, I have yet to come across a bike that I can’t adapt to be comfortable, even for long rides.

When I started to get sore knees on one trip, I did consult the oracle – YouTube – and quickly resolved the issue by shifting the saddle a little. A search this evening on YouTube turned up this video from Performance Cycling, which has had nearly 1 million views:

It’s very comprehensive but just six minutes and ten seconds long. There are plenty of similar ones and a whole stack of online advice about bike fitting in the forums.

Of course, the right fit is a very individual thing and depends on a number of factors, not least the kind of bike you want to ride and the kind of cycling you’re going to do. Head down on the drops is not ideal if you’re a commuter that needs to attempt 180 degree vision at all times! But whatever shape and size we are, some basic judgements on the frame and a little experimentation should be sufficient to ensure that cycling is a pleasure rather than a pain.

So next time someone tries to sell me a £120, 2-hour bike fitting session, I think I should politely suggest they “take a ride” – don’t you?

What to do with a ‘perfect’ vintage bike?

Last year I bought a 1982 Merican custom racing bike from its original owner. The man was a perfectionist, having even sent the metal bottle cage over to Mercian to get it sprayed to match the frame. The original (bum cleaving) saddle, which is not the one in the photograph, even came boxed with the bike. The appearance of the bike, which boasts a first generation Dura-Ace EX drive chain, is as near to perfection as you’re likely the find in a 30 year-old, unrestored machine. Why so? Well, the owner rode it two or three times, covering “less than 100 miles” and then decided it was too nice a bicycle to get chipped or worn out, so he kept it indoors for 30 years. I was the lucky beneficiary of his caution.

Mercian custom road bike
This 30-year old Mercian is almost like new. Now I don’t know whether to ride it or keep it that way.

I can’t decide whether to ride it regularly or keep it in its present superb condition – it would be a real challenge to do both, even if I restrict its use to summer riding. Of course, it would make a great bike for L’Eroica in October. (I registered for this year’s ride earlier today.) But should I risk such a lovely bike to baggage handlers at Bristol and Pisa airports?

My instinct is to ride it, and maybe use it for the classic ride in Italy. I don’t want to damage it – and if anything will make parts fall off, the strada bianche of L’Eroica will do the job nicely – but I can’t help thinking about the craftsman that made the frame, and perhaps assembled the bike too. Would he have wanted it to languish in a garage or shed, or would he have wanted the results of his labours to be tested, exploited and enjoyed? I think the latter, don’t you?

Classic bike ride in Italy, L’Eroica, changes entry rules – be sure to register in time

The timing of applications and entry rules for one of Europe’s classic and most popular cycling events, L’Eroica, have changed this year. Instead of applications opening during March on a first-come, first-served basis, the applications open on January 21st and initially close on March 3rd when a draw will be held to select participants for this year’s vintage bike extravaganza. It takes place in Tuscany, Italy, over the weekend of 5th and 6th October, the rides being on the 6th. It’s a phenomenal event and I’ll be heading over for the 75km ride this year, having staggered around the 205km one in 2012.

I arrive relieved and exhausted at the end of the L'Eroica 205km ride in 2012. Gary Smith from Yorkshire in the background checking he has all the stamps on his card. Thanks to Gary's brother for the photo - not at my best!
I arrive relieved and exhausted at the end of the L’Eroica 205km ride in 2012. Gary Smith from Yorkshire in the background checking he has all the stamps on his card. Thanks to Gary’s brother for the photo – not at my best!

It’s really not worth taking on the challenges of the long rides unless you want to prove something to yourself (or others) because the shorter rides leave you with a lot more time to soak up the atmosphere and go shopping for bikes and bits. You can download this year’s rules here. The notable exceptions to the entry draw are that anyone over 60 is guaranteed a place, as are “women of any age”. Sounds like a Silvio Berlusconi party!

Check out some of the videos on YouTube to get an idea of the charisma and charm of this event – there really is nothing else like it.

December 2012: two British giants of bicycle design and manufacture died this month

December 2012 has been a sad month for those who admire great bicycle design and manufacturing. Dr. Alex Moulton passed away on December 9th at the age of 92. The Moulton Bicycle Company that he built is in Bradford-on-Avon, Wilthshire, less than 3 miles from where I live. The company’s success is based on the revolutionary small-wheel, full suspension Moulton bicycle. Originally a rather utilitarian design popularised in the 1960s, a Moulton AM7 model was ridden to a speed of 51.29 mph over 200m at the 3rd International HPV Scientific Symposium in 1986 – a new World Unpaced Cycling Record. Moulton bicycles still enjoy an enthusiastic following throughout the world and the top model costs over £14,000.

New Series Double Pylon Moulton
Perhaps the pinnacle of Dr. Alex’s Moulton’s bicycle design genius: the New Series Double Pylon

Alex Moulton was first and foremost a brilliant engineer whose collaboration with Sir Alec Issigonis led to the development of Moulton suspension, including ‘Hydrolastic’ and ‘Hydragas’ systems that were adopted for several British cars, perhaps most famously the original Mini. Here’s the BBC New video reporting Alex Moulton’s passing.

Just 3 days after Alex Moulton’s death, Ron Cooper, master bicycle frame builder died. Born in 1932, Cooper, who raced bicycles in his youth, originally built frames for A.S. Gillott but left the firm in 1967 and started building frames under his own name.

Ron Cooper bike
This touring bike may have been based on the the last frame built under Ron Cooper’s direction, according to the eBay advertiser selling it in December 2012

He believed that free hand brazing, done without the use of a jig, produces a better frame and his reputation for making great frames spread far and wide. By 1979 over half of Ron Cooper’s frames were sold to customers in the US. His workshop was most recently located in Deptford (S.E.London).

Looking back at 2012: turning 60, turning pedals and Bradley winning the tour

At the start of my 60th year I was determined to have a good year’s cycling. I’m not a racer, and not even fast, but I do seem to have the stamina to stay in the saddle for up to 15 hours in a day without feeling totally wrecked at the end of the experience. That opens up opportunities to have fun on a bike, and in 2012 I did. To give you some idea of just how badly I’ve contracted the cycling bug, here’s a  short summary of my five most interesting and challenging rides during the year:

April 1st (my 60th birthday), I set out from Barcelona to ride my 61 year-old Thanet Silverlight back to the place where it was built – Elmdale Road, Bristol. The story is recorded here in my blog of the event. The journey is about the same distance as Lands End to John O’Groats, but sounds further, and the weather is usually better.

Thanet Silverlight
This Thanet Silverlight bike was made in Bristol and first sold on 22nd October 1950

Bike Bath on 24th and 25th June – 100 miles in the Mendips followed by 100 miles in the Cotswolds. Lesson learned: don’t take a road bike on routes planned by a mountain biker! However, it was seriously well organised and great fun. Details of next year’s event are here. I did these rides on my ‘best bike’  –  a Rourke steel frame with Campagnolo components.

Cycling, Cheddar Gorge
Nearing the top of the Cheddar Gorge in Somerset during the Bike Bath Gladiator Challenge, 24th June 2012

July 22nd was forecast to be a glorious sunny day. The other forecast was that Bradley Wiggins would win the Tour de France. He duly obliged of course, becoming the first Englishman ever to do so. I didn’t watch the last stage of the race but instead took the opportunity to have my own little ‘Tour de Wiltshire”, a wonderful ride around my home county on the Wiltshire Cycleway. Usually quoted as somewhere between 160 and 165 miles, I clocked up 173 miles including detours, my longest ever solo one-day ride. Only during the Vatternrundan 13 years earlier had I ridden further in a day, and then there was a lot of support around. The weather was glorious, as is Wiltshire. Try the ride…but take time to savour the sights over 2 or 3 days, that’s what I’ll be doing in 2013.

My last big cycling event of 2012 was L’Eroica. I took my 1965 Hetchins Magnum Opus bike for this classic challenge but in deference to my knees, made up a compact double chain set from TA parts so I could manage most, but not all, of the amazing climbs on the 205km ride, thanks to the lower gearing available. The weather was overcast and reasonably cool for Tuscany, there was even the odd light shower – ideal cycling conditions. The atmosphere was amazing with around 5479 cyclists participating in the event. They were mostly Italians but included 1450 ‘foreigners’ from 33 other countries. Here’s a great blog post about the 2012 event from Wade Wallace (Melbourne, Australia).

I’ve already arranged travel for the 2013 event……