Last summer, mountain bike royalty gathered in the French ski resort of Villard de Lans to celebrate the staging of the 1987 Championnat Du Monde VTT. This was the first ever mountain bike world championships. Gary Fisher, Joe Breeze, Hans Rey, Scot Nicol, Jacquie Phelan, and Ned Overend joined French riders from back-in-the-day, such as Jacques Devi, to ride the original course (a tough, high-level route long since closed to mountain bikers) and to attend a gala dinner. I was there for this reunion; I was there in 1987. Along with Peter Darke, a Sunderland bike shop owner, I had created the British Mountain Bike Team. Naturally, I picked myself to ride (I DNF’ed) but there were also real riders in the team, such as Jamie Carr and Orange founder Lester Noble. Here’s the story of the reunion, the 1987 event and the disappearance of the lovingly hand-made 1990 World Championship banner, thought to be long lost. It made a mysterious reappearance at the reunion. Who had shimmied up a pole, in a Durango storm, to cut down the banner? And where has it been for 22 years?
A touch to the left. Up a bit. Bit more. FTHWHACK!
I’ve done many stupid things in my life but quite why I stuck my fat head beneath an electrified fence to get a better shot of a bunch of riders will always be a mystery to me. It’s not as though I didn’t know the fence was electrified. Minutes before I had gingerly touched it to see if it was live. It was. I got a buzz, a quick tingle. When you flick an electric fence you’re expecting the buzz and, if you’re at all normal, you limit the exposure.
When you’re not expecting the shock, and it’s to the back of your head and you don’t know to flinch, things are a lot different. While crouching down low, and sticking my head and camera under the wire, I got a whomping whack of a shock. For a second I thought I’d been hit with a plank, assailant unknown.
I jumped, instinctively holding on to my camera with one hand, impulsively gripping the back of my head with the other.
Hank looked at me and, non-plussed, said: “I was waiting for that to happen.”
Thanks for the warning, Hank.
Hank is Hank Barlow. The Hank Barlow who, in 1984, founded Mountain Bike, the first glossy US mountain bike magazine. He now lives in France but he’s an American. (Despite living in France for 17 years his impeccable French is murdered by the most amazingly bad accent).
He was not being my guardian angel in a farmer’s field above the town of Villard de Lans, in the Vercors region of France. He, and I, were by a dirt track, taking photos. Sensibly, Hank had positioned himself well away from the electric fence.
I had been able to fire off a few low angle shots before the whack to the head. The shots were of a group of old French guys, with spectacular ‘taches, clad in bulging day-glo Lycra, riding 1980s mountain bikes and sporting facial daubs of fluoro sunscreen.
The jolt had given me a fright, it hadn’t summoned a flashback, this wasn’t my memory playing tricks with me. The garish Lycra, the ancient bikes, the neon face paint, it was all part of an anniversary weekend organised by Génération Mountain Bike, an MTB history organisation run by four enthusiastic French guys, still at school in the 1980s and who lusted after the high-end bikes of the day but couldn’t afford them. The 25 ans du 1er championnat du monde de VTT was Génération Mountain Bike’s celebration of the first ever mountain bike world championships. 26 years ago the ski town of Villard de Lans hosted hundreds of riders, on machines with cantilever brakes, no suspension forks, riding a severely technical course that involved almost as much carrying as riding.
The 1987 event was organised by Winning magazine. This was before the UCI got its sticky mitts on mountain biking. This was when there were still fag breaks during races, for some of the riders at least. Others were clearly starting to take it very seriously.
Mountain biking was growing up. But it was not yet professional, the sport was still in flux. In 1987 it was still possible to go on a bike holiday with your mates, call yourself the British Mountain Bike Team, and get away with it. And not just get away with it but blag loads of sponsorship, too. The team was headline sponsored by SunTour, with Rohan providing travel togs. Team jerseys were flock printed by Been Bag.
I was in Villard de Lans, partaking of impromptu electrotherapy to my scalp, because, back in the day, I had been the chief blagger. As the co-manager of the British Mountain Bike Team - the first such outfit - I had been able to pick myself to race alongside some of the top riders of the day. I also seeded the team with friends.
To my shame, I can’t remember the names of all on the team so don’t expect a full who’s who. Vince Edwards, I remember. He was the first placed bike rider in the 1987 Man v Horse v Bike races in Wales. Chris Hosking was a university mate of mine from Newcastle. He’s now the MTB trails specialist for the City of Prescott in Arizona and prior to that had worked on Mammoth Mountain in California, when the Kamikaze event was still being staged. Rob Orr was a baker. We’d met in Jesmond Dene, an urban woodland in Newcastle, surprising each other by seeing somebody else on a mountain bike: instant mates. Peter Darke was co-founder of the team. He had a bike shop in Sunderland; he still does, Darke Cycles. Shaun Rafferty was a mate of Peter’s. Jamie Carr was our youngest rider, and the most fearless, too. He now runs Ride the Alps, a mountain bike holiday company. Our best placed finisher (33rd or thereabouts) was Lester Noble. Yes, the Tushingham-riding windsurf champion who created the O-range of mountain bikes. Leaving his marque on the world he later ditched the hyphen.
In 1987 I was ostensibly at university but a religious studies degree wasn’t terribly taxing so I was also a full-time journalist, one of two people working on one of the three UK bicycle magazines then in existence, none of which specialised in mountain bikes. Bicycle Times was a tinpot title produced on Tyneside but it was available nationally in WH Smith’s. Publisher Peter Lumley introduced the world to Off Road Reid, my mountain bike stream of consciousness, a page that would be later transplanted into Bicycle Action, the mag owned by Muddy Fox (the original, market-shaping Muddy Fox), the mag that came before Mountain Biking UK.
(Off Road Reid’s bike testing reports were so bad they prompted John Stevenson, then working in Two Wheels Good of Leeds, to think “I could do better than that.” He could and he did. John was the tech editor of Tym Manley and Chris Turner’s MBUK, a magazine I feared would quickly flounder. Good at market predictions, me).
Off Road Reid in Bicycle Action had a cartoon strip by Jo Burt. Mint Sauce, the mountain biking sheep, had first appeared in the newsletter of the Mountain Bike Club. (Jo Burt’s name was on my page elsewhere too. The page had a list of mountain bike contacts, folks you could ring up to arrange a ride. Jo Burt, who I didn’t know for Adam, lived in the Norwich house recently vacated by my sister. Small world). The Mountain Bike Club was a NORBA-esque outfit run by journalist Max Glaskin and frame builder Jeremy Torr. In 1987 Torr hitched a ride in the Muddy Fox van and was one of the support crew at the first mountain bike world championships.
He remembers Villard de Lans, but wasn’t at the reunion (he now lives in Singapore). I didn’t remember the town, but was at the reunion. No amount of electrical stimulation could trigger recollections of Villard de Lans. Yet the course was memorable. So those that rode it second time around told me. I could only remember fragments of the 1987 trip.
Apparently, the British Mountain Bike Team flew to Geneva and hired a van. We rented a chalet. Don’t remember any of that. One evening Jamie Carr rode his bike down the concrete bobsleigh run. I took pictures of this feat, but have no memory of it.
In the race, I punctured. I had a flat before the race started and - I’ve since been told - it was a mad dash to get me ready for the off. I can imagine that - I fluster easily - but don’t remember it. I partially remember shredding a tyre on a downhill section and DNFing.
Thanks to my slide collection (kids, get your mum or dad, or grandparents even, to explain what transparencies are) I can see that I photographed Ned Overend as he held his trophy aloft. I don’t remember the Muddy Fox team being there. From photos displayed in the pop-up MTB museum at the 25 year reunion I could see that Andy Pegg and Julia King were at the event, racing for Muddy Fox. Records show they were the best placed Brits, beating all in the ‘official’ team.
I can remember plenty of stuff from the 1980s but the first world champs remains, largely, a blur. This is therefore a tale of loss. Memory loss. But it’s also a tale of recovery. A banner was found, and a long lost racer was tracked down.
You’d think it would be pretty hard to lose a 12-metre wide race banner. But the organisers of the 1990 MTB World Championships, held on Purgatory Mountain, above Durango, Colorado, managed it. With the help of a fierce storm, that is. A prankster stayed on the mountain while others fled, and cut down the start banner. It was strung between 15-metre high poles. Designed by local artist Metja Swift, the banner was hand-stitched and proudly proclaimed the event to be the first ever mountain bike world championships sanctioned by the UCI.
This retrospectively made the Villard de Lans 1987 event into an unofficial world championships, ditto for the events held elsewhere in the world in 1988 and 1989 (there were World Championships staged in both Europe and the US in these two years).
Ed Zink, owner of Mountain Bike Specialists, a Durango bike shop, and chairman of the race committee, was gutted about the theft, and kept alive hopes that the banner might one day reappear. Many attempts, over the years, were made to track down the thief and the banner, to no avail. The colourful, and historic, banner was, to all intents and purposes, lost.
Which is why its appearance in Villard de Lans in June 2012 was such a surprise. Gary Fisher, in town at the invitation of Génération Mountain Bike, tweeted that the 22 year mystery had been solved, the famous banner had reappeared.
The banner may have resurfaced, but the identity of the thief remained a mystery. Only Hans Rey could solve that. It was he who erected the banner at the reunion weekend, he who later spirited it away again as a gift, and he who knows the identity of the thief.
Hans wasn’t at the original event, but like Gary, he was a guest of Génération Mountain Bike. The retro loving French foursome also shipped in Joe Breeze, Scot Nichols, Ned Overend and Jacquie Phelan. Only Ned and Jacquie had been at the original event.
Hans knew Durango native Ned was on the invite list and he figured that the reunion for the first world championships would be an appropriate venue for the lost banner to reappear. It was presented to Ned by Hans at the reunion’s ceremonial dinner. Hans said the banner had been stored, under lock and key, in Southern California, close to his Los Angeles home. He knew the identity of the prankster who had shimmied up the poles to cut down the banner, in a snowstorm, but, in public, would name no names.
Later that night, as Ned and Hans folded the banner into its storage bag, out of earshot of all others, I asked Hans if the thief was well known. He had a twinkle in his eye, but kept schtum.
The other rediscovery at the reunion weekend was MaryLee Atkins. Like the banner she, too, had been lost for more than 20 years. Lost to mountain biking, that is. She rode on the Schwinn team in the mid 1980s, the same team as Ned Overend (before he switched to Specialized, his current sponsor). She was the winner of the women’s race at the 1987 event. She then dropped out of the scene, retiring on a high. Nothing more was heard of her until Jacquie Phelan tracked her down.
Jacquie is one of the key characters of early mountain biking, founder of WOMBATS (the Women’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society) and also, under her nom-de-plume of Alice B. Toeclips, a prolific writer. She’s married to Charlie Cunningham, the pioneering bike designer who championed aluminium long before the mainstream bike industry thought to do likewise. Charlie - co-founder of Wilderness Trail Bikes, WTB - also designed the iconic Roller Cam Brake and co-designed Specialized’s famous Ground Control MTB tyre. Jacquie used her hubby-designed bike and components to race as an equal with men. And horses: she was the first winner of the Man v Horse v Bike event of Llanwrtyd Wells.
Jacquie was second woman at the 1987 world championships. When Génération Mountain Bike invited her to the reunion she promised to track down MaryLee Atkins, the winner of the woman’s title in ’87.
Turning sleuth, she used old contacts books to track down friends of friends, before, finally, finding MaryLee’s bolt hole, in Eagle River, a small town in Alaska. She had been hard to track down because she had remarried and is now MaryLee Stiehrs. She and her carpenter husband run a bespoke wooden kitchen design business. For many years she didn’t ride. When girlfriends recently persuaded her to join them on a town loop on a borrowed beat up machine they couldn’t quite figure how she was so good and so fast. The first ever woman’s world champion mountain biker had kept her past to herself.
She’s now back in the saddle. She brought her original race-winning Schwinn to the reunion but for Alaskan trail riding she has a modern machine.
Durango has its banner back; MaryLee is riding again. I have my Kodachromes but I’m still waiting for my memories to kick in.
“I was not in perfect shape [at the first world championships]. The doctor checked me out the day before and told me not to race. But I entered anyhow. And came third. My friend MaryLee Atkins won. It was her very last race ever. She was a woodworker and wanted to return to a normal life. Her first husband, Jeff Norman, got her into racing. He said ‘you don’t wanna just watch me race. Get some sponsorship.’ She immediately began winning.
“For me it was a time of not being at the top of my game and that’s when I created the Woman’s Mountain Bike and Tea Society so I could enjoy riding with people who weren’t hammers, and introduce women to a really fun and safe thing to do in the woods. There are no cars. You can get off and walk if you want to.
“I re-framed mountain biking for women, with the usual lace, flowers, cheap perfume, and pearls.”
I was riding for Schwinn back [in 1987]. I was 33 and I was on the team that had Ned Overend in it. I remember parts of the course, especially the scary bit where it’s a cliff. I don’t remember it being so technical but it’s the same course. We were younger then, invincible. It was my last event. I had other interests to pursue. Mountain biking wasn’t a big pull for me at that time. I was a reluctant racer. Although I did well, and I enjoyed it, I didn’t like being forced to train. I didn’t want to take the fun out of mountain biking by continuing to race. Ned used to give me a hard time about not training. I didn’t want to take anything away from the sport that they’re so into so I went off in a different direction. I got a divorce and boogied out of the country, and got a job in Antarctica. It was there that I met the love of my life. He was a carpenter too. I’ve been a carpenter all my life. It’s what I was doing in Antarctica: helping set up the bases for the National Science Foundation. We would make the camps all warm and cosy before the scientists got there, fixing things up for them. When they were done for the season we’d go back in and either tear the camp down or winterise it. It was a real fun experience.
“I ended up moving to Alaska, where my husband lived.
“I was born and raised in Durango, Colorado. I like it in Alaska now. My husband and I have our own business. We do kitchens, kitchen cabinets, curved stairs. I ride my mountain bike maybe once a week, for fun, on the weekend, with my girlfriends. They don’t know about my mountain bike history. I haven’t shared that with them. When I started riding with them I showed up on an old clunker bike. They were on couple of thousand dollar high-tech bikes. They looked at my bike and weren’t sure I’d be able to ride these trails they wanted to go on. I said ‘let’s take off, I’ll do what I can.’ They were surprised I could keep up. It’s kind of fun to be anonymous.
“Back in the day I bought a mountain bike because it looked like fun and I met my husband of that day [Jeff Norman, a racer on the Schwinn team]. I would travel to races with Jeff and I started racing too. Jeff got me some sponsorship with Schwinn. My history before that was as a cross country skier. I had a pretty solid base for training. I raced mountain bikes for maybe three or four years. I started riding in 1983 and raced for Schwinn in 1985, 1986 and 1987.
“I had quit racing before the [Villard de Lans world championship] race. I was no longer officially riding for Schwinn, but Winning magazine paid for me to come. Cindy Whitehead was their first choice but she didn’t want to travel so they asked me. I don’t think they realised I wasn’t racing at the time. But when they called I said ‘sure, I’ll go to France.’
“I think the reason I won was because I wasn’t real serious about it. I trained for the event but I wasn’t nervous, I did it for fun.”
“We started on a football field. There were two hundred men in the open category. I remember it was a mad dash because everyone was on the front line. I remember the trails were rocky.
“The course was one big loop, with long stretches of narrow, single track. I remember one exposed single track section had netting rigged up below the trail to keep riders from falling down a cliff, if they should happen to ride off the trail on the downhill side. I won the race, Joe Murray was second and Jacques Devi was third. I think the winning margin was only a minute and a half. I had to be careful on the last descent, I didn’t want to puncture. In those days I rode with high tyre pressures, 48 pounds. The course was super technical.
“But they wouldn’t have that much pushing in events today. The riders would rebel against it. But in the early days it was the vision of promotors to make the events real hard. Riders always wanted the courses to be more rideable. I don’t remember pushing all that much [at the 1987 event] but that’s probably because it was just so common in those days.
“Back in the day it was common to have long laps and long climbs. That played to my strengths. Now races are an hour and a half long and courses are mandated to five or six kilometres so there tend to be shorter, punchier climbs, more like cyclo-cross courses. Scarier courses were good for me.
During today’s ride I rode toe clips and straps for the first eight kilometres and I was in danger of falling over because you’re used to getting out [of the pedals] so much faster. I started out on an 1988 bike and then switched to a modern one. 26 inch wheel bikes are going to become very rare, for cross country.
“I was impressed with the guys who rode the whole course on the old bikes. But they were struggling on their 26 inch bikes. Absolutely. It was way easier rolling over the technical rocks on 29 wheels. And with suspension I wasn’t being punished on the descents; I had more control. We may have been riding the same speed at times but those guys definitely had less control. And the longer they rode the less control they had as they got tired. It’s now a much more enjoyable experience, and faster.”
“I live near Grenoble. I’m here because I married a French woman, the counsel for San Merino; she has been for 32 years. We met when I came to do a story on the Roc d’Azur mountain bike event 20 years ago.
“In 1984 I started Mountain Bike magazine. It wasn’t the first mountain biking magazine. Charlie Kelly had his Fat Tire Flyer. My background was skiing. I worked as a ski instructor, I owned a ski shop and I used to write for ski magazines. I started doing bike articles for Cycling magazine and with almost zero background in it whatsoever I decided to publish a magazine. The first issue was built around Moab. No-one even know Moab existed. There were no mountain bikers in Moab. Visually, I knew Moab would be stunning. You’ve got red rocks, blue sky, and the biking is just crazy on the slick rock.
“We were so underfunded it was ridiculous. We were always scrambling. We later got a cash injection but there were strings attached, the magazine had to be developed to sell. Bicycling wanted to buy it. I was in a fix. I still managed to sell it to ‘em for way more than they could have bought it for. People said it was never the same afterwards. My magazine was all about photos and going to places to ride. Finding cool places and great trails. Racing was never my thing. For me, mountain biking was all about riding in beautiful places. It still is.”
“We came [to Villard de Lans] as the only national team. We turned up as a bunch of people on holiday and called ourselves the British team. We weren’t the best riders in the world, but we were the best dressed.”
This article first appeared in Privateer magazine. More pix can be found on Flickr.
Read the rest of "The first ever MTB world championships & the mystery of a banner, thought lost"...
Mark Cavendish’s victory in yesterday’s world road race championships put him - partially - on the front covers of the Guardian, the Telegraph and the Times. And the BBC asked Could cycling become the UK’s second-favourite sport, after football. Were he to follow up his Copenhagen sprint with a similar burst of speed at the London Olympics his place in the pantheon of British mainstream sporting greats will be for ever secure.
In 1893, an American sprinter was lauded for the same talent: A.A. ‘Zimmy’ Zimmerman had an explosive kick that saw off his rivals for most of his short career (1889-1896). He won the first ever ‘official’ road world championships and did so upon a Raleigh bicycle.
Zimmerman was one of the earliest professional sports stars. When he started riding for Raleigh, he wasn’t a pro, as - technically - this wasn’t allowed; he was a “maker’s amateur”, which amounted to the same thing. Raleigh owner Frank Bowden paid Zimmerman in diamonds, complained the National Cyclists’ Union, a racing organisation opposed to the payment of riders. Zimmerman had a huge following in the US and Europe. By 1894 he was openly a professional for Raleigh, was paid a fortune and made even more money from prizes and appearance fees. He also became one of the first athletes to license his name: there were Zimmy cycling shoes, Zimmy toe-clips and Zimmy clothes.
Raleigh sponsored him because speed sells. A famous poster of Zimmerman shows him astride his bike, in front of a sign listing his career wins to date, and watched by two cyclists in the touring garb of the day.
Frank Bowden - like Pope Manufacturing’s Colonel Albert A. Pope in the US - recognised that to sell bicycles to the masses, you have to stress speed.
Raleigh was still stressing speed in 1932, even when selling utility bikes to women.
Speed is still important. But not in the sweat-fest sort of way, all head down and Lycra. One of cycling’s key advertised advantages, from the 1890s to today, is the ability to go door to door, swiftly. Cycle routes which steer away from the fastest A to B routes may direct cyclists away from busy, motorised traffic but it’s not just sport cyclists who want to follow ‘desire lines’, the shortest and more desirable routes.
In the UK, dedicated cycle routes are often circuitous, interrupted by junctions where cyclists do not have priority. They can add precious time to journeys. For cycle paths to be effective, they must be not only made safe for hesitant cyclists, they must be made fast. By fast, read direct.
Copenhagen does this well. Traffic lights propel cyclists on a ‘Green wave’: pedal at 20kmh and you hit green for much of your journey. The green wave is set to work best towards the city centre in the morning rush hour; and away from the city centre at 12 to 6pm.
Those who use their bikes to get to work want to arrive in the least time possible. If bike paths are provided, they need to be very wide, and well designed. In 1996, the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, writing about bike paths, said:
“The fast cycle commuter must not be driven off the highway onto a route that is designed for a 12-year-old or a novice on a leisure trip, because if that happens, the whole attempt to enlarge the use of the bicycle will have failed.”
The ‘fast cycle commuter’ does not just mean a sports cyclist on a carbon road bike. Dutch roadsters can be pedalled fast, and so can Boris Bikes. Any well serviced bike with correctly inflated tyres - even dual-suss Bicycle Shaped Objects – can reach giddy speeds, especially downhill. For some people, bicycles may be ‘aids to walking’ but if bikes travelled no faster than pedestrians, why cycle at all?
At Interbike, I met up with Joe Breeze, one of the founding fathers of mountain biking. We talked about cycling and speed. He may have built the first designed-for-the-job clunker (it was Gary Fisher who helped popularise the name ‘mountain bike’) but Breeze got into the bike biz to spread his love of utility cycling, cycling from town to town. His father built race cars in California, but rode to work on a bicycle. Breeze Jnr started racing bikes to prove what Bowden, Pope, Zimmerman and others had been promoting: that bicycles are fast.
“In the 1970s, I saw road racing as a stepping stone. Bicycles in America were seen as a children’s sidewalk toy, for riding round your neighbourhood only. I saw cycling, through my father, as a way to get somewhere. And through racing you could show people how quickly you can get from A to B. Maybe there’d be a little squib in the newspaper about it the next day and people would go ‘oh, you can get from A to B in a short amount of time.’”
In ‘The Art and Pastime of Cycling’ of 1893, journalists R.J. Mecredy and A.J. Wilson wrote:
“The faculty for enjoying rapid locomotion is one which is implanted in the human breast from earliest childhood, and the fact of one’s unaided efforts being the active cause of this locomotion enhances the pleasures derived from it.”
In 1878, Gerard Cobb, president of the Bicycle Union and a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, wrote that cycling was “primarily of commercial importance” but was also of practical benefit:
“…the ease with which a bicycle can be driven, the distance it enables its riders to cover, its speed…added to its durability and comparative cheapness, render it by far the best form of road-locomotion for all to whom economy, whether of time or money, is object. As such its use is daily extending among professional men of all classes [and] working men are getting more and more to use them for their daily transit to and from work.”
Speed - to and from work - remains important. A survey of Copenhagen bicycle users found that the number one reason people ride is because it’s faster than any other mode of transport. Fifty-five percent of Copenhagen riders said they bike because it’s fast. Only 9 percent of Copenhagen bicycle users ride because it’s deemed good for the environment.
So, when pushing for dedicated bicycle infrastructure we must always bear in mind that today, and in the past, speed has always gone hand in hand with convenience. Make cycling slow and it loses a big part of its appeal.
I have certainly borne this in mind with the latest version of the Bike To Work Book (112 pages of bicycling goodness, available below or for iPads, free). This has lots of advice on why cycling doesn’t have to be a sweaty affair and to beat cars in major cities you don’t have to get hot under the collar: cars often crawl along, whereas bikes sail past the jams. The section on commuter challenges points out you don’t have to stress out to beat cars in town. Speediness does not equate to excessive perspiration (sweating is cited by many people as a reason not to cycle).
But I beefed up the cover lines, adding: “You can get around town QUICKER by bike.”
Click on the page to read in full-screen, and hit left or right arrows to navigate through the book.
Back in the dim mists of time (OK, mid-1980s) I started to write for Bicycle Times magazine. I was still at uni but was pretty much editing it within a month or two. When I left for Bicycle Action, then owned by Muddy Fox, I was given a two-page spread: Off Road Reid.
Drew Lawson, publisher of Bicycle Action and co-founder of Muddy Fox, asked me whether the market was ready for a full-on mountain bike magazine. I said ‘no’.
Mountain Biking UK launched soon thereafter, and it’s still thriving today, showing you how much I can be counted on for predictions. I started writing for MBUK from issue two. Living in the North East of England, I knew road- and touring-bike builder Dave Yates of M Steel Cycles. Teaming up, he built me some bikes, and I got commissions to feature the bikes - and the building of them - in MBUK
In the mid-1980s Dave built me a number of custom bikes, including the pig-heavy Pink Thing, which was pink. It was heavy because it had welded steel racks front and rear. I used that bike for a month long tour of Morocco during my uni vacation.
Tiring of heavy, touring MTBs, I suggested we build - and write-about - a fast, skinny-tyre MTB made from Reynolds 753, road bike tubing. And the pix above and below show the result. The M Steel’s paint crew even hand-painted our faces on to the bike (it’s Dave with the beard and the widow’s peak; I’m wearing original Oakley Factory Pilots and have yet to develop my own widow’s peak).
Years before Ridgeback popularised the fast hybrid MTB, I was riding one in Newcastle. It’s now gently rusting away in my dad’s garage. It’s no longer safe to ride: the seat post is fused into the seat tube. One day I’ll clean the thing and hang it up as a reminder of some great days.
Like-shit-off-a-shovel was one of Dave’s favourite sayings. That and Dog’s Bollox, I suppose.
Read the rest of "My handbuilt Dave Yates like-sh*t-off-a-shovel MTB, circa 1987"...
If you’re currently riding through the UK’s snowpocalypse, you’ll be intimately aware that non-arterial roads are uneven, rutted with compacted snow and solidified slush. They’re hard to traverse: bumpy, pock-marked and liable to throw the rider at any moment. There are no road markings visible, and pedestrians meander in the middle of the carriageway, unmolested by motors.
A lot like roads used to be, then.
The hard, flat road surfaces we today take for granted are relatively new. Asphalt surfaces weren’t widespread until the 1930s. So, we have motorists to thank for this smoothness?
No. The improvement of roads was first lobbied for - and paid for - by cycling organisations.
In fact, cyclists lobbied for better road surfaces for a full 30 years before motoring organisations did the same.
Cyclists were ahead of their time.
When railways took off from the 1840s, the coaching trade died, leaving roads almost unused and badly repaired. Cyclists were the first vehicle operators in a generation to go on long journeys, town to town. Cyclists helped save many roads from being grubbed up.
Roads in towns were sometimes well surfaced. Poor areas were cobbled; more upscale areas were covered in granite setts (what many localities call cobbles, but they ain’t - cobbles are bulbous river stones, think Shambles of York).
Pretty much every other road was left unsurfaced and would be the colour of the local stone. Many 19th Century authors waxed lyrical about the varied and beautiful colours of British roads.
Cyclist organisations such as Cyclists’ Touring Club in the UK and League of American Wheelmen in the US, lobbied county surveyors and politicians to build better roads. The US ‘Good Roads’ movement, set up by LAW, was highly influential. LAW once had the then US president turn up at its AGM.
The CTC individual in charge of the UK-version of the Good Roads movement - William Rees Jeffreys - organised asphalt trials before cars became common. He took the reins of the Roads Improvement Association in 1890, while working for the CTC.
He later became an arch motorist and the RIA morphed into a motoring organisation. Rees Jeffreys called for motorways in Britain 50 years prior to their introduction. But he never forgot his roots. In a 1949 book, Rees Jeffreys - described by Lloyd George as “the greatest authority on roads in the United Kingdom and one of the greatest in the whole world” - wrote that cyclists paved the way, as it were, for motorists. Without the efforts of cyclists, he said, motorists would not have had as many roads to drive on. Lots of other authors in the early days of motoring said the same but this debt owed to cyclists by motorists is long forgotten.
Now motorists tell us to get off “their” roads. Hmmm.
I’m resurrecting this forgotten history in a book. The working title is Asphalt: A Love Story. It might sound dull but I’ve dug up loads of what I hope are entertaining anecdotes, quotes and facts.
I’ve been researching the book on and off for some months. I started on the history of the CTC on Monday. I spent two days in the CTC archive at the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick. I ploughed through the very first ‘Gazettes’ of the Bicycle Touring Club (founded 1878), which became the CTC. Members of the nascent CTC were obsessed with road surfaces. There were many editorials about the subject and many letters, too.
Along with the National Cyclists’ Union, the CTC created the Roads Improvement Association in 1885 and, in 1886, organised the first ever Roads Conference in Britain. With patronage - and cash - from aristocrats and Royals, the CTC published influential pamphlets on road design and how to create better road surfaces. In some areas, county surveyors took this on board (some were CTC members) and started to improve their local roads.
Even though it was started and paid for by cyclists, the Roads Improvement Association stressed from its foundation that it was lobbying for better roads to be used by all, not just cyclists.
However, in 1896 everything changed. Motoring big-wigs lobbied for the Locomotives Amendment Act to be repealed (this act made a driver of a road locomotive drive very, very slowly and the vehicle had to be preceded by a man waving a red flag). When the act was jettisoned, speeds increased, automobilists demanded better road surfaces to go even faster on, and ’scorchers’ and ‘road hogs’ (terms first used against cyclists) took over the roads.
By the early 1900s most motorists had forgotten about the debt they owed to prehistoric track builders, the Romans, turnpike trusts, John McAdam, Thomas Telford and bicyclists. Before even one road had been built with motorcars in mind (this wasn’t to happen until the 1930s), motorists assumed the mantle of overlords of the road.
A satirical verse in Punch magazine of 1907 summed up this attitude from some drivers:
The roads were made for me; years ago they were made. Wise rulers saw me coming and made roads. Now that I am come they go on making roads – making them up. For I break things. Roads I break and Rules of the Road. Statutory limits were made for me. I break them. I break the dull silence of the country. Sometimes I break down, and thousands flock round me, so that I dislocate the traffic. But I am the Traffic.
At the time, the CTC had little inkling cyclists would soon be usurped. An editorial in the CTC Gazette of July 1896 admitted the “horseless carriage movement will make an irresistible advance” and asked members whether motorists should be admitted to membership. Such a move was declined by members but cyclists were later instrumental in the foundation of the Automobile Association, an organisation created to foil police speed traps.
* Think the A1 was built for cars? Think again, much of it was built for Centurions (Romans, not tanks).
* Asphalt is not a new building material; it was widely used in antiquity, including by the Babylonians. And the Egyptians used the stuff in their death rituals: the Egyptian word for ‘mummification’ is derived from ‘asphaltos’.
* John Loudon McAdam perfected road metalling in the 1820s. His McAdamized roads were built from lots of small stones packed into place by cart traffic. Only much later was tar spread on these roads to create ‘tarmac’. McAdam never thought to bind his roads with tar, despite owning a tar factory.
At the weekend I learned I’d been successful in landing a grant for some research on the history of roads. I’ve been doing an awful lot of snooping around for iPayRoadTax.com, especially on the contribution cyclists made to get better roads from the 1880s onwards.
During my picture research I came across a whole load of sheet music covers from the 1890s. These include rhapsodies to the US ‘Good Roads’ movement, organised the League of American Wheelmen. The sheet music also includes songs and dances featuring scorching and bloomers. I’ve created an e-book with some of these images, and commissioned my kids’ piano teacher to resurrect ‘The Scorcher’ from 1897.
Greg Johnston did a great, foot-tapping job. An MP3 of ‘The Scorcher’ is embedded into the clicky-flicky version on the ebook below, and is also available via my iTunes podcast feed.
Thanks to volcanic explosions in Iceland, much of Europe has been an aviation-free zone for nearly a week, showing what ash can do to transport.
A larger volcanic episode in 1815 might also have had an impact on transport: it might have been the impetus for the creation of the bicycle.
In 1815, the ash from the eruption of Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia, led to a change in global weather. 1816 was ‘the year without summer’ in which severe summer climate abnormalities destroyed crops in Northern Europe and North America.
The shortage of oats meant less food for horses. In Germany, Baron Karl von Drais started his search for a form of transport that didn’t rely on oats. By the following year he had created a horse-substitute, one that did not rely on oats. His Draisine ‘running machine’ was the start of the modern bicycle. It morphed into the ‘hobby horse’ which took another fifty years for pedals, brakes and a diamond steel frame to evolve into what we would recognise as a bicycle. But, without Mount Tambora’s ash, Baron von Drais might have got his oats and kept to an equestrian mount.
Read the rest of "2010: Volcanic ash grounds European flights 1817: Volcanic ash helped create the bicycle"...
Today we tend to think of the Automobile Association as a roadside rescue organisation with a penchant for pro-car PR. However, for much of its early history it was a radical campaigning organisation, a thorn in the side of the Government. It was founded with the express aim of defeating police speed traps and used cyclists as the ’scouts’.
A glimpse into the early history of the AA is shown in the wonderfully evocative video below from the AA’s archives. The video is fronted by Sir Stenson Cooke who was the AA’s Secretary from 1905 until his death in 1942. He was knighted in 1933 but by this time the AA was embedded into society – now a car-owning society – and the AA was nowhere near as radical as when it was founded.
Cycling shares some history with the AA. In effect, the organisation was helped into existence by cyclists. In March 1905 a motorist called Walter Gibbons wrote to Autocar magazine suggesting a Motorists’ Protection Association for the Prevention of Police Traps. Two other motorists replied saying arrangements had been made to patrol the Brighton road to warn motorists of said police traps. The first patrols went out in April 1905. Guess what they used as patrol vehicles? Yep, bicycles.
Within months, this informal arrangement of a “special staff of cyclists” was formalised into an organisation and it appointed a full-time secretary, Stenson Cooke. This organisation was called the Automobile Association.
The AA relied on cycle scouts for some years. According to the AA, the organisation’s famous badge was “introduced simply to help the scouts identify AA members.”
Early AA cycle scouts used their own bicycles, for which they were paid an allowance. Before the introduction of uniforms in 1909, the scouts had to provide their own clothing too.
By 1912 there were 950 AA cycle scouts across the UK. The motorcycle patrols, known as Road Service Outfits or ‘RSOs’, weren’t created until 1919. By 1923 there were 274 AA motorbike patrols but still 376 cyclists.
The video above shows how cyclists were paid to be speed-trap spotters. It also shows how, before motoring became mainstream, it was a loathed activity: rich motorists were guilty of raising dust and damaging roads. I’m currently researching the history of British road improvements, especially in the years 1910-1937. This was the span of the Road Fund, the pot of cash raised from motorists from when a ‘road tax’ existed. Only a small fraction of this fund helped pay for Britain’s roads, something I explore on my campaigning website iPayRoadTax.com.
It’s worth pointing out that Professor Edmund King, today’s president of the AA, is an active cyclist.
And the AA has a team of cycle-based breakdown patrols to tackle traffic chaos at big events such as Wimbledon or Glastonbury.
Read the rest of "AA founded as ’speed trap’ foiler; spotters were cyclists"...
“Once allow us to be put on separate roads and there will be an increasing outcry to keep us to those roads and to forbid us access to the ordinary roads of the country.”
Who said that? When did he say it and what was he referring to?
Opposition from a president of the CTC in 1878 to compulsory cycle paths, perhaps? Wrong.
A complaint from the Self Propelled Traffic Association of 1895? Nope.
Mind-blowingly, it’s by William Joynson-Hicks, writing in the Motor Union’s Journal in 1909. Joynson-Hicks, a Conservative MP petrolhead was Minister for Health, 1923-4 and Home Secretary, 1924-29.
It’s amazing to realise that motorists once had the same fears as cyclists today; that they’d be shunted off to a hinterland, segregated from other road users.
The Joynson-Hicks quote - and many other little nuggets of history - has come from my researches for iPayRoadTax.com. I’m working on a timeline of road funding, starting with the Roads Improvement Association, an organisation founded in 1886 by the Cyclists’ Touring Club and the National Cyclists’ Union.
The RIA wanted Britain’s dusty roads to be sealed with tarmac. The organisation pamphleted MPs and presented a strong case from “cads on casters” (the Lycra Lout equivalent of the late 19 Century, a reference to cyclists coined by uppercrust horse-riders) but the issue wasn’t taken seriously until adopted by the nascent ‘automobilism’ lobby.
Part of this lobby was the Self Propelled Traffic Association. It wasn’t self propelled in the sense we know today, it was in the sense of propelled by an engine, not a horse. A prominent cyclist sat on the SPTA’s council: E. R Shipton, secretary of the Cyclists’ Touring Club.
The SPTA was one of the organisations later to merge into the Automobile Association (AA), founded in 1905.
Cycling also shares some history with the AA. In effect, the organisation was helped into existence by cyclists. In March 1905 a fellow called Walter Gibbons wrote to Autocar magazine suggesting a Motorists’ Protection Association for the Prevention of Police Traps. Two other motorists replied saying arrangements had been made to patrol the Brighton road to warn motorists of said police traps. The first patrols went out in April 1905. Guess what they used as patrol vehicles? Yep, bicycles.
Within months, this informal arrangement of a “special staff of cyclists” was formalised into an organisation and it appointed a full-time secretary: it was called the Automobile Association.
The winter of 2009/10 has been cold, icy and packed with snow. OK, it hasn’t exactly been Iditabike conditions but plenty of hardcore Brit cyclists spent much of late December and early January on indoor trainers.
I don’t blame them. Without my spike tyres, I wouldn’t have ventured out much either. I have other winter product favourites but, first, the tyres that have kept me riding, and upright.
STUD U LIKE When the first few days of snow hit just after Christmas I wondered whether I should fit my spike tyres. They’ve been in storage for years. And for good reason: they’re a faff to fit and make a startling clattering noise on ice-free tarmac.
I studied the weather forecast and was convinced there would be enough black-ice around - about three day’s worth, predicted the Met Office - to make the switch. As it turns out they’re still fitted to the Xtracycle and it’s been my winter workhorse. There’s been a thaw, but black-ice is still an issue and, at the weekend, we got another dump of snow. The spikes stay.
My history with Nokian carbide-studded tyres goes back a long way. I first encountered them in the mid-1980s. Geoff Apps - the ‘father of English mountain biking’ - had been using Nokia 2-inch 650B snow tyres on his early mountain bikes, including the Range Rider. Geoff invited me to stay with him for one of his ‘Wendover Bashes’, some of the very first MTB events in the UK.
This was 1986. I’d spent the previous year touring some of the deserts of the Middle East on a Dawes Ranger. Geoff Apps’ Range Rider - fitted with gripshifts long before SRAM came along - was a much better climber than the Dawes Ranger, partly because of its tyres. By using thick Nokia inner tubes, Geoff was able to run at stupidly low pressures and could climb through mud with a sure footedness I knew I had to have too.
I’ve had Nokia tyres ever since (known as Nokian tyres since the 1990s). They’ve proved strong, and trust-worthy. Heavy, of course, and so the rolling resistance is a severe drawback but, on hard-packed snow, this is a minor consideration.
Over the last few weeks I’ve gone out of my way to find stretches of unsalted road and have confused motorists who’ve assumed as they’re stuck, I should be too. I’ve amused pedestrians who’ve been descending slopes holding on to hand-rails: it shouldn’t be possible to ascend slopes covered with sheet-ice but, taken carefully with no silly sudden moves, it’s been my spiked bike party trick.
According to the latest CTC magazine, UK suppliers of studded tyres have seen sales go through the roof (I shan’t say there was a spike in demand), with Schwalbe and Continental shipping in extra supplies from Germany. If you want to get spiked up, Peter White Cycles of the US has the definitive advice page on ice tyres, including blowing away all the myths about stud ejections and tarmac shredding.
OIL HAVE SOME OF THAT An awful lot of bike lubes can’t hack winter crud; Chain L can. It’s super gloopy. So sticky, in fact, that when applying, it strings out in a most pleasing fashion.
Technically, it’s a mixture of extreme pressure lubricants in a high film-strength mineral oil base. It also contains rust inhibitors and other additives to improve its longevity and wet-weather performance.
In use, it’s simply amazing. I picked up a sample at Interbike last year and started using it this winter when normal lubes weren’t coping with the extreme weather (extreme for the UK, that is).
There’s a time and a place for dry lubes: winter ain’t the time and NE England ain’t the place. If you ride through foul weather, I can recommend Chain L.
WASHED OUT I’m a huge fan of Nikwax products. They’re green and keep me dry.
My breathable shell layers get washed with Techwash, a non-detergent cleanser, and then re-activated with TX.10. I also waterproof my fleece garments with another Nikwax product and, when I’ve got a (stinky) full load of base-layers, wash them in Basewash.
Synthetic shell-, mid- and base-layers work partly because of textile tech but also because of a variety of treatments. Shell garments, for instance, often have Durable Water Repellent (DWR) coatings. These chemical enhancements wear off with every wash because detergents, being surfactants, pull the treatments away from the fabrics. Surfactants do the same job with dirt, loosening bonds and pulling it away from the fabric.
If you don’t re-treat your tech garments, they lose their effectiveness. Washing waterproof jackets in standard detergent is a great way to make them not waterproof. Detergent residue starts pulling water through the fabric.
Nikwax stuff appears expensive, but it’s worth it.
BUZZED UP OK, so I’m now stable on black-ice, well-lubed, and cossetted from the vagaries of the British weather but I’m going nowhere if I’m not caffeinated to the eyeballs. I have to start the day with an espresso. Just have to.
A mid-morning long black tastes great in a handlebar-mounted Soma Fabrications’ Morning Rush insulated coffee mug, available in the UK from Fine-Adc (the same guys who now do Action Wipes). Rather conveniently, the Morning Rush mount is the H-27 from CatEye, so you can switch over to an LED at night.
I may have taken the pic outside a snowy Starbucks, but I’m not fuelled by the Great Coffee Satan, my espresso bean of choice is Daterra’s Bruzzi of Brazil, roasted by Pumphrey’s Coffee, a Newcastle fixture since 1750.
That’s 1750 the year, not the hour.
Read the rest of "Grippy, gloopy, dry and buzzin’: riding through the cold snap"...
On December 17th, 1903, at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, Orville Wright completed the world’s first successful powered, heavier-than-air flight. The 12-second 120-foot journey was an history changing event, blazing a trail for military aircraft, commercial airliners and space travel. How was it funded? By a bicycle business.
On May 30th 1899, Wilbur Wright wrote to the Smithsonian Institution, asking for papers on man’s attempt to fly. He paid for the papers from his and his brother’s bicycle business. The accounts for the Wright Cycle Co. includes an 1899 entry of $5.50 “for books on flying.”
“I am an enthusiast but not a crank in the sense that I have some pet theories as to the proper construction of a flying machine,” he wrote to the Smithsonian, revealing he was “about to begin a systematic study of the subject in preparation for practical work to which I expect to devote what time I can spare from my regular business.”
He and his brother would take turns to man their bicycle store as they tested first a kite prototype and then larger scale gliders in 1900, 1901 and 1902. Their first powered aeroplane in 1903 used bicycle chains and sprockets to link the propellors. Their aeroplane frames were made up of bicycle-type double-triangles. Wilbur’s visionary ‘wing warping’ technique of controlling an aircraft’s pitch, roll and yaw was developed in 1899 after twisting an empty bicycle tube box with the ends removed. Wing warping is still used today, albeit with ailerons.
The Wright Brothers had used one of their bicycles to work out their ideal wing shape. The brothers took turns pedalling their converted machine in Dayton. A handlebar-mounted wheel (see inset pic above) was fitted with two metal plates, one flat, one curved, ninety degrees apart. Orville and Wilbur used the device to measure air resistance.
“The results obtained with the rough apparatus…gave evidence of such possibility of exactness,” wrote Wilbur.
By riding along and generating some wind flow, the brothers were able to disprove earlier theories on lift.
The brothers later invented the wind tunnel to fine tune their early experiments in aerodynamics. This was a box six feet long and sixteen inches square on the inside. They mounted a fan attached to a sheet metal hood to one side and replaced a panel on the top of the box with a pane of glass so they could see inside. The fan moved the air through the tunnel at 27 miles per hour and the brothers tested hundreds of small sections of wings and wing shapes. High-tech wind tunnels would, of course, be later used to fine-tune the best aerodynamic shapes for bicycles…
By 1903, the brothers had achieved their goal of constructing a practical flying machine capable of remaining in the air for extended periods of time and operating under the full control of the pilot.
The earlier, smaller machines had been built and tested in the Wright’s bicycle store, in full view of customers.
In a later patent infringement case, the Wright brothers had to recall these early experiements to prove their patents.
Orville remembered spending long hours at the bicycle shop, waiting on customers, performing repairs, and constructing his kite.
“I was not able to be present when the structure was flown as a kite, but I operated the machine in our store before it was taken out to be flown,” Orville told the court.
Bike buff boffins
The brothers were cycling enthusiasts. In 1892, Orville bought a new Columbia safety bicycle for $160. In the same year, Wilbur purchased a used Eagle safety bicycle for $80. Orville entered bicycle races put on by the YMCA Wheelmen. Wilbur liked to ride more slowly, taking in the passing scenery and, importantly, watching birds fly.
It’s therefore entirely possible that powered flight was conceived from the saddle.
The Wrights designed and built their Van Cleve and St. Clair custom bikes, starting in 1896. Their top-end bikes were priced around $100, which would be worth $2150 today, although they also had $30 models.
Originally small-town publishers and jobbing printers, the Wrights were inspired by their new found passion for bicycles to open a bicycle sales and repair shop called the Wright Cycle Exchange at 1005 West Third Street in Dayton, Ohio in 1892.
As their business grew, the Wright brothers moved their bicycle shop six times and changed the name to the Wright Cycle Co. in 1894.
In April 1896, the Wrights introduced their first in-house bike, the Van Cleve. Catharine Benham Van Cleve Thompson, the Wright brother’s great, great grandmother, had been among Dayton’s first settlers. Later in the year, the Wrights introduced a second, less expensive model called the St. Clair. Again, the name was drawn from local history; Arthur St. Clair had been the first president of the Northwest Territory, which later became Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
The St. Clair was built up from parts that were available from sources such as the Davis Sewing Machine Company of Dayton, Ohio, which later became the Huffy Corporation.
The Wright brothers introduced two innovations on their bicycles. The Van Cleve came with a special “self-oiling hub” and, in 1900, the Wright’s announced a “bicycle pedal that can’t come unscrewed.”
Wilbur and Orville used right-hand threads on one pedal and left-hand threads on the other so the pedalling action tended to tighten both pedals.
Up until then most pedals had right-hand threads, leading to pedal drop-offs.
Their bicycle business was profitable for many years. In 1897, their best year, they made $3000 between them at a time when the average American worker was doing well to make $500 per year. The profits funded their aviation experiments.
By the turn of the century, however, the US market was flooded with $10 mass-produced bicycles and the manufacturing side to Wright Cycle Co. became less and less profitable.
The Wright’s stopped producing own-label bikes in 1904. The bike store continued to sell branded bikes and P&A but was converted to a machine shop in 1909 when the Wright Company, an aircraft manufacturing business, started producing bicycle-inspired parts for aeroplane engines.
Bells are not necessary…
The Van Cleve was first advertised in Snap Shots, a weekly Dayton newspaper printed and published by the industrious Wright brothers. The last ever edition of the publication carried this self-promotion:
“For a number of months Wright Cycle Co. have been making preparations to manufacture bicycles. After more delay than we expected, we are at last ready to announce that we will have several samples out in a week or ten days and will be ready to fill orders before the middle of next month. The WRIGHT SPECIAL will contain nothing but high grade material throughout, although we shall put it on the market at the exceedingly low price of $60…and we will guarantee it in the most unqualified manner.”
And in an earlier editorial in Snap Shots, one of the Wright brothers showed his contempt for an issue that will tickle British bike shop owners because of the Department for Transport regulation that all bicycles now have to come fitted with bells:
“The Board of City Affairs will find that it is monkeying with a buzz saw, if it does not look out. The bicycle riders of this city are too numerous to be tramped on with impunity. Bells and lanterns are the biggest frauds ever invented