A great bicycle

One of my best ever touring bicycles was never intended for touring at all. After a couple of years with very little success I suddenly found some ability in cyclocross events, but I was having problems on muddy courses. Unlike professionals and leading amateur internationals I was unable to change bikes at the end at each lap. Instead I would be poking the mud out with a stick. It was necessary to take drastic action if I was to compete with the very best, and I was convince a new bicycle frame was required with lots of clearance to replace my close clearance criterium frame that only just had enough space for cyclocross tubs to spin freely in clean conditions.

At that time I was living in London and was very friendly with Roger Pearson, and it was perhaps for that reason I went to his shop to see if they could build me a frame. Pearsons had a claim to be the oldest cycle makers in the world, and they were about to sponsor a cyclocross team.  These were the people, I felt, that had the sort of experience to build me the frame I wanted.

The new frame arrived in lots of time for the new season. Much of my equipment was transferred from the old bike, and based upon what I had seen in that year’s world cyclocross Championships, and with a few new parts, I was able to created a wonderful cyclocross bike. It was simple concept, and quite different from what it became later.  For the brakes, the long armed Mafac Tandem, there were the normal brazed on fittings except on the top tube, which had only one stop.  The bare wire ran through a steel tube brazed into the steel seat pillar of a Unica nylon plastic saddle at the rear, and at the front through a specially made steel handlebar stem that acted as the cable stop.  There were only five gears, a Campag arm and a Regina 13 – 28 block.  The chainset was a Stronglight 49d with TA44t cyclocross ring.  Despite having a bike that was perfect for the sort of events I used to ride in, oddly, if I now look back and base my performance on top five finishes, I seem to have done just as well, and perhaps better on the old bike!

During one year in London I had both my touring cycle and my criterium cycle stolen. In the 1970s and 1980s each year I took students who had selected the cycle-camping option for their Duke of Edinburgh’s Gold Award, away for assessment. Without my touring cycle I had to take drastic action, and by quickly bolting on front and rear carrier onto the Pearson I was able to produce a make-shift touring bike.

Over many years an evolution took place, and this once cyclocross bike was transformed, step-by-step, into a touring bicycle. By the end of the 1970s I had given up cylocross racing and was spending much more time touring.  The only competitive cycling I did was to ride in an ever-increasing number of triathlons in the ‘80s. With a change of wheels, the Pearson became both a touring and a triathlon bike. The brakes now had conventional braze fittings; the cranks were still Stronglight but with TA double rings, and perhaps most importantly of all, after loads of experiments the plastic saddle, OK for the one-hour plus a lap of a cyclocross event, was gone forever.  Eventually, I ended up with what I started cycling with, a Brooks. By the end of the 1980s when I was working in Papua New Guinea, I used the bike for triathlons and touring, first on a trip around the Atherton Tablelands of Australia, and then around both islands of New Zealand.

On leaving my post in New Guinea, I set off down the East Coast of Australia, before catching a flight to the Philippines. After an enjoyable ride around Luzon I flew to Singapore. From Singapore I headed north and caught the plane back to the UK from Bangkok.  In Butterworth, a small coastal town opposite the island of Pinang in Malaysian, a fellow guest in the hotel where I was staying was so impressed with my U-shaped lock, that he picked up my bicycle to demonstrate to me how strong he thought it was, and for some reason before I could stop him, shook the bicycle up and down. The deep dents on the top tube were not repaired until I got home. However, it demonstrates that a steel bicycle can be repaired, even if a top tube has to be replaced.

 Between 1990 and ‘92 I was teaching at a place called Kang in the centre of the Kalahari desert. During the holidays I managed to cycle quite extensively between Cape Town and Nairobi. African roads were quite different from anything I’d experienced before. Sometimes they were excellent at other times much worse than I had ever experienced in a cyclocross race. In Zambia, on a day’s ride of 250 km, mostly in one hell of a thunderstorm, unable to see the potholes under the water, parts of my rear hub broke away from the spokes with the shock of the bumps, leaving a wheel that wobbled very badly. At other times, on extremely stony surfaces, I experienced pinch punchers. Some new thinking was required. Wider tyres were a must.

Me at Gt Zimbabwe

I managed to build a ‘new’ wheel by using the single butted spokes from the broken one, and mountain bike hub bought in a local shop, and the old rim. My sister sent me some tyres from the UK, they were called Michelin World Tour, which sounded OK and capable of a long ride. A short ride of about 1000 km in Zimbabwe was used to test out, on mainly good roads, these new tyres. They seemed fine, riding the bumps better with their bigger section. My plan to ride back to the UK by crossing Africa through Zaire to the west coast failed when it proved impossible to get a Visa for Zaire. This grand plan to ride home from Africa would have to wait. Instead I took a flight to India.

 India’s roads were very different from those in Africa. They were mostly tarmac, but  it was laid by hand. This gave a surface that was quite easy to ride on but seemed to wear the tires out very quickly. At first I wasn’t too concerned, but by the time I had ridden down to the south tip of India, then north almost to the border with Pakistan, and then back to Delhi, the large bundle of tyres strap to the front carrier had gone and the last one on the rear wheel was threadbare. The front tyre had lasted the full 5000 km plus, with only a slight wear on the right-hand side from the camber of the road. These tyres were much too soft for this kind of riding, especially on the back wheel.

 I next took and ill-advised post at a military college in Abu Dhabi. The place would shut down at odd times for an unexpected breaks leaving me the opportunity to revisit some places in Southeast Asia and visit, for me, new countries such as Indonesia. During this period I experimented with different tyres from the UK and found Continental Top Touring to be the best suited for my kind of touring.   They were tough, durable, smooth running, and virtually puncture free.

 Once back home again, I felt it was time to replace some of the well-worn parts on the bike. I bought a Campag triple-chainset, built new wheels with Campag 8-speed cassette  hubs. My new gears were all Campag.  I even replaced my wonderful Mafac Tandem Brakes with a short-lived Campag mountain bike brake. Then, I saw for the first time, a Campag brake and gear lever combination being used in the Tour de France, and ordered one. When eventually it arrived, unlike today, there was only one level of specification available and that was the Super Record, and it was enormously expensive.   I must say I like it a lot, and was constantly changing through the 24 gears available to me whenever I rode in hilly countryside. This was a massive change from the original five-speed. However, opinions can change almost as fast as gears. On one occasion, by a roadside near Medan in Sumatra, I had to replace the cable on the brake/gear lever. This would have been an easy job at home, but with sweat pouring down my face and into my eyes, it proved unpleasant and difficult. Once I got back home I returned the bike to the standard gearlever and separate brakes of the time - at least they would simple to fix if I was ever in trouble again. 

Near Passau

 In the mid-1990s, when the frame was taken in for re-spraying, a small amount of corrosion was found on the seat tube and I had a new frame, based upon my experience with the Pearson, built by Sondec. From the late 1990s onwards the Pearson was no longer my preferred bike for long journeys, however, on fine days (it hasn’t had mudguards on for some time), I take it on my almost daily 42 km ride around my favourite local route. Every three or four years, I ride it down to Budapest and back on my favourite route in Europe.  It’s still one hell of a good bike.

 Since the 1970s an evolution in cycle design has taken place. Materials, particularly those used for racing cycles, have transformed a bicycle’s performance. However, for the cycle camper this has made little difference. For the cycle tourist a good steel well-constructed frame performs just as well as one built of the more exotic modern materials, and it has the advantages of comfort, durability and ease of repair. As I ride this very special old bike, the question I ask myself is: how many bicycles built today will be here giving pleasure in over 40 years time