Confessions of a Cycling Journalist, Part Three: What Goes Around, Comes Around
July 10th, 2017
July 10th, 2017
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As the founder of Rouleur, who edited the Magazine for nine years and wrote bicycle reviews for 15 years, it's safe to say that Guy has learned a thing or two about bikes, but after retirement, he needed to buy a bike of his own. Simple eh? Well, apparently not. Hence we've broken Guy's pop at the industry into a whole series. Enjoy!
It was the winter of 1987. My brother, my bike and I were crammed into my canary-yellow Fiat 126 and driving the 60-odd miles from Leicester to Stoke-on-Trent. It’s a miserably cold and wet day and to add to the misery the car’s sunroof leaks and we’re paddling water in the footwells. If you’ve ever done a trip like this in a Fiat 126 (a car so small that it would fit into a Smart car’s ashtray) you’ll know that after two hours in it, you start to lose the will to live. At 50mph the radio was drowned out and you have to shout at one another to be heard above the din of the engine that’s under the seat behind you. Nevertheless, onwards we drove, into horizontal rain as the raindrops dripped through the roof and down my neck… The reason for this mission of motoring madness was Brian Rourke’s bike shop in Burslem. I had a sizing appointment with him and my old bike was coming along for the ride for him to have a look at. My brother has tagged along because he wanted to visit a nearby windsurfing shop, an activity for which the conditions inside the car would be absolutely perfect.
Brian Rourke has always been a very fit looking man and in those days he was still a ‘bit of a hitter’ as a recently retired professional racer with a grin like a cheshire cat, Brian also had reputation for building the bikes that many racers from the Midlands to the North West lusted after. Brian wasn’t a salesman though, (he didn’t need to be – his bikes sold themselves) but he was a very good bike fitter, he’d look at you and know pretty much what size frame you’d need. So much so that my old bike stayed in the car, handlebars poking out of the leaking roof whilst Brian set me up on a bike in the shop. He spent a good afternoon finessing my position; swapping out stems and saddles and talking pedals and crank lengths. Just as fitters do now.
This was the way it was then, the world over, you would buy a ’proper’ racing bike from a local builder who’d advise you on size and it would be finished and presented in a colour scheme you chose. The tube set would match your budget and a spot of chroming here and there would be an added treat. Of course, I went a bit mad and ordered a 531SL racing bike that would be fit for any professional racer and, after dropping half my student grant cheque, we squeezed back into my baked-bean-tin of a car for another soggy ordeal. We arrived back home at midnight.
Many, many months later the Rourke arrived. I’d had all the parts bought and kept them safe in a drawer. Occasionally I’d get them all out and line them all up in the order they’d attach to the bike – the wait had been agonising – I even learnt how to build my own wheels whilst I waited and to say I was excited was an understatement. The new flamboyant blue bike took shape in my Dad’s kitchen. It went together beautifully, as only great bikes do, Which was a first for me, previously my hacks were held together with the generosity of riding mates and old rusty donor bikes. But because there were no borrowed and old parts; everything was brand new and it worked like clockwork.
Once assembled I rode the bike straight to the start of a club 10 time trial. I spent so much time admiring it before the start that I missed my start time, I didn’t care. The bike was beautiful and it rode like a dream. I felt like a pro and for the first time in my life, I almost looked like one. My race time didn’t quite reflect my Tour de France ambitions for 1987, however; I was quicker than ever. Although as my brother helpfully pointed out to me most of my improvement was down to the fact that the bike was three sizes smaller than the last heap of crap I attempted to race on and this one actually fitted me… (brothers, hey?). I’d still say it was the best money I ever spent because it was my first real racing bike. I still remember the emotions on that first ride and that I smiled for a week after.
Together we smashed PBs on a weekly basis and I started to behave like a real racer too, but sadly it didn’t last. Two year’s later the Rourke got stacked in a road race sprint pile-up. The forks and head tube crumpled (as did I) and the bike was sent back for repair. Lying in the back of the ambulance a team mate broke the news of my bike’s demise, and after all the many rides and races we’d done together I was heartbroken. Once repaired it was never quite the same again, yet thanks to Brian Rourke the bike’s size and measurements are pretty much the ones I still use to this day. I phoned Rourkes a few months back. Brian’s son Jason now holds the reins to the frame building department and he’s taken on the workshop that’s experiencing something of a renaissance. Remarkably, thirty years on, they still have my sizing details on record and I’m tempted. Very tempted. Despite a part of the excitement and joy of ordering a new hand built custom frame being in the wait and the anticipation, this time around I’m in a hurry and the waiting list is just a little too long.
I’m a sucker for a new frame, so I should know better. Dario Pegoretti made me a track frame a few years ago, from placing the order to delivery was around two and a half years, I’ve ridden it twice, it’s lovely but racing track is a rarity these days so the wait didn’t dent my Olympic campaign. The inimitable Richard Sachs has a 2-year list of respective purchasers, I keep asking him and even if he wanted to, he can’t. The late, great, Ron Cooper was for decades one of the UK’s finest builders and the choice of many British professionals who wanted a frame to, retired a few times, but was still building bikes into his eighties… And that’s the problem with all good frame builders past and present: they are always so bloody busy.
Around a decade ago I was in Ernesto Colnago’s factory, looking at his carbon bikes and cooing over the collection of race winning bikes in the museum. In the factory there was a huge pile of steel Master frames under a tarpaulin, even though they’d been built years before, he said he was keeping them, because “they’ll be back, they’re too good.” At the time there was only carbon frames in his range, now he sells steel again.
There’s a renaissance happening for bike racers too, many club riders are riding steel and aluminium bikes again. Brands are popping up that combine building experience and material nouse to make some lovely frames. Steel bikes can be heavy, not aero and unlikely to out-stiff a carbon frame but (and even the toughest of tech geeks will agree) that they look so much prettier than an all-integrated aero carbon-stealth-bomber bike with full Di2, disc brakes and deep section wheels… although, have you seen one of those after a high speed crash?
The resurgence of hand built steel bikes I suspect is mostly down to a saturated market. Those ‘in the know’ prefer the fact that a hand built custom bike is unique to them. It may not be as light or as ‘fast’ as a carbon super bike, but it will be more comfortable, better handling and much lovelier to look at than a team issue workhorse. I just want a bike I can live with, that doesn’t cost a fortune and I can be riding on sometime during this decade.
Over the past few years the bikes at the Eurobike show have blended into one. New bike buyers loiter around the brand’s stands with a look of bewildered boredom and many experienced riders I speak with are fed up with mainstream pro bike manufacturers carbon offerings. It’s just bland.
Why can’t I find something a little different then? I’m still no closer to making a decision. I’ve decided to concentrate on geometry and getting a bike that fits. And the shortlist is very short…