My attention has turned to the bicycle. (It was the Vuelta a Espana that did it – or rather ITV’s excellent coverage thereof). Prior to, though, I’d tentatively bought myself a second bike, but of a different kind to that which I already owned. (Maybe it was the Tour de France that did that, ITV’s excellent coverage thereof, and the resounding success of a certain Mr Bradley Wiggins.)
I have been in possession of a bike of one form or another for over 10 years now, and it is the nature of my bipedal propulsion that has come up for review. Over time I have moved from mountain bike to single-speed – with a short sojourn using fixed-gear – and pondered the hybrid and cyclo-cross configurations in-between. But of late I have found myself poring over road/racing bikes, because I want to ride long and hard, and I want to know what it is to ride en masse, and to squabble in amongst the peloton, and somewhere along the way orchestrate a breakaway of sorts, and generally get some idea (it can be only some) of what it must be like to ride in a Grand Tour.
And so it was on the edge of Brentford I found myself, two months ago now, to see a man about a bike: a Raleigh Record Ace, dating back to approximately 1984, that had seen better days but had all the essentials apparently intact. I knew it was no bargain, but didn't think it was a rip-off either – fairly priced, one might say. The Man had probably bought it at a car-boot sale for next to nothing, but he seemed to know his stuff, and he’d saved me the bother. My instinct told me that it was of the correct proportions, and so I overlooked the light rust, the grubby sprocket and tired looking rims, paid him the money and cycled home in the rain.
The next two weeks were spent grappling with a terrible sense of regret which I could only abate by reminding myself that there was nothing stopping me from putting the thing back on Gumtree and offloading this ashen spectre I’d lumbered myself with onto some other all too eager soul. Not that there was anything really wrong with the bike, but it soon became obvious to me that if we were to have any sort of future together then I’d need to spend money on restoring it to its former splendour .
But the first thing was first: learning to ride a bike with drop handle-bars and down-tube mounted friction shifters. On my mountain bikes I’d been equipped with slightly risen flat handlebars and integrated handlebar-shifters; my fixed-gear/single-speed had completely flat handlebars and, obviously, no gears at all. The terrain that I inhabit is mostly flat, so I decided to leave the gears well alone – I was sure I could get used to them when the time decreed. The drop handlebars represented a completely different proposition. Having never ridden in the drops, the assumed position took some adjustment. In fact I eschewed this attitude at first, riding on the ramps leading down to the hoods instead. This I liked and it seemed to corroborate my imagined fondness for bullhorn handlebars, which I had previously considered applying to my single-speed bicycle. The only problem then was the operation of the brakes, finding it hard to induce the requisite pressure from this position. This in itself forced me to reach for the drops where I approached situations in which I felt I might be required to brake hard, obliging me to familiarise myself with the drops more promptly than I otherwise might have. Still, my default posture was very much on the ramps and hoods, and I soon found myself feeling very much at ease there.
A few shallow climbs and a couple of open roads down the line and I had become very comfortable with all the configurations a pair of drop handlebars allow, the drops actually proving very agreeable on any incline. And suddenly my decision to chance my arm on this ‘new’ bike was proving to be a little less reckless. And then the Vuelta a Espana hit our screens and I started riding the thing like a man possessed.
There were a number of issues that needed surmounting. I’d made the decision to change the bicycle’s strained gum-walls tyres, as The Man had prescribed was imminently necessary. The pair of Schwalbe Marathon tyres I ordered as replacements did not break the bank but, when they were delivered to me, appeared overly wide and endowed with excessive grip. (My failing entirely for I had placed disproportionate value on the ability to resist punctures.) I could live with this, but in removing the wheels to replace the tyres – and to give the bicycle a much needed clean – I then struggled to properly re-align the rear wheel, and thus the derailleur, encouraging it to kick a little at the back-end (if that's the correct way of putting it). The bike still rode fairly well, but it emphasised to me the need to make a decision one way or another: to re-sell or to take the bike somewhere for a re-spray and service. I made enquiries, found someone prepared to take the job on, balked at the price, and left it at that.
Befuddled, I thought I’d return to Gumtree and see what the marketplace had to offer: rubbish mostly, but with a certain level of intrigue in amongst it. Whilst this reassured me that I could certainly break-even on the Raleigh Record Ace, should I decide to sell, it underlined to me the need to remain vigilant at all times. There are people who either don’t know how to price a bicycle or have the time to push for all they can get. I have found plenty of bikes that are over-priced and almost none that are under, but I have stumbled upon some truly beautiful artefacts.
Diamant was a German company, since swallowed up by the American firm Trek in 2002. I’d never heard of Diamant until I found one of their bikes going for £420 on Gumtree. It really was a thing of beauty – not like those classic late 1970s, early 1980s road bikes, which normally appear to require too much attention for my liking, but of a slightly later vintage, issued at an unspecified point in time where steel was soon to be superseded by aluminium/alloy and carbon. Gumtree directed to me to small ‘boutique’ website representing a company that specialised in restoring old bicycles, most of them sourced from Belgium. On inspecting the dimensions of the bike in question the prognosis was that it was too small for me – comfortably so. But then, I’d been grappling with the idea that my Raleigh Record Ace was maybe slightly too big, which implied that maybe the Diamant Racer wasn't too small for me after all.
Sizing a bike is a headache in itself: I have tried many an on-line calculator; studied various photographs of people standing next to, and riding on, their bikes in order to gain a sense of relative scale; have focused very hard on my weight distribution whilst riding my 55 cm single-speed and my 22½ʺ Raleigh but have come up with nothing remotely conclusive regarding what sized bike I should be riding. It is an almost visceral science – which means it’s really not much of a science at all – so I contacted the guys at De Vlo London and asked for a few more measurements and maybe the opportunity to come and look at their wonderful bike 'in the metal', so to speak. Emails were thrown to and fro – with a complete disregard for health and safety – and just as common sense was beginning to prevail, having decided that a stand-over height of 74 cm was surely indicative of something way too small for my 180 cm frame, De Vlo flung another email in my direction – almost grazing my left temple – to tell me that they had got it wrong: the stand-over was in fact a grand 78 cm. The game was back on, so we arranged to meet on an industrial estate in East London.
On my way there I popped into Condor Cycles on the Gray’s Inn Road, sort of Clerkenwell way. The reasons for this were twofold: first, I liked the look of their bikes and, the Cycle to Work Scheme allowing, had not ruled out the possibility of going for broke and splashing out on one of their more modern steel offerings. Second, I figured they could give me an idea of what size of bike I should be considering.
56 cm seems to be about right for me but for some reason I've found 56 cm sized bikes hard to come by – or one designated as such, at least. With my Jamis Beatnik single-speed bike I’d erred on the size of small and settled for a 55 cm frame, as opposed to the 57 cm specification that is the next available size up. But Condor polarised matters even further. Here it would be toss-up between 55 cm and 58 cm, with nothing available in-between. I have always felt like my Jamis is just that little bit too small. The 22½ʺ of my Raleigh, on the other hand, works out at approximately 57 cm, and, like I said, I have an inkling that it’s just a little too big for me. Swap the handlebars over on these machines – which is not possible given that one stem is threaded and the other is not – and I would probably have two perfectly sized bikes, if not entirely fit for purpose. The Diamant was measured at 54 cm, but with drop handlebars – and thus a longer reach – I figured things might just work out.
And then the guy in Condor throws me yet further cause for optimism. He reckons I’d fit a 55 cm frame, no doubt about it, even if the 55 cm frame in the shop looks awfully small standing next to its 58 cm equivalent. He rides a 56 cm (obviously not a Condor, then) and he must be about 2 inches taller than me.
I exited Condor Cycles, called the guys at De Vlo to tell them I would be there in approximately 45 minutes – as I’d been asked to do – couldn't get through but made my way towards Stratford anyway. Got to Stratford, called again – still no answer. Decided to wander around Westfield – quite liked doing that. Was in the middle of writing a text when I received a returned call from De Vlo, was told they’d head over to the self-storage company, of which they had already given me the postcode, and would meet me there in approximately 50 minutes, once we’d rounded up to the nearest hour. Said that was fine, nipped across the road to Stratford’s old shopping centre to withdraw another £200, caught the DLR, arrived at Bow Church Station at approximately 13.30, received a text saying that they were still 40 minutes away – 10 minutes later than scheduled – went off in search of a café to kill this surfeit of time. Became anxious.
I don’t know Bow very well at all. I know Hackney a little and have been known to grace Mile End with my presence. But I was out of my comfort zone and had £450 in my pocket. I established the whereabouts of Wick Lane using my hand-drawn map, walked back down Fairfield Road to look for a café of some description. I made towards Bromley but quickly retreated again. I walked west down Bow Road, found a café, but it was busy and there were no seats. My thirst was immense so I settled on a bottle of cheap pop from a newsagent on Fairfield Road, did a right down Wrexham Road believing I could pick up Wick Lane from there. Construction works prevented me from doing so. Retreated back down Wrexham Road, made my way north up Fairfield Avenue, did a right down Blondin Street and found an entrance to Wick Lane. I turned right down Wick Lane towards the thwarted junction with Wrexham Avenue, which bore no fruit. I walked back up Wick Lane and then realised that Wick Lane continued on the other side of A12, although it briefly mutates into Tredegar Road as it does so. I bridged the A12 and saw a self-storage company of sorts, although was unsure as to whether it was the right one. The numbers of buildings are hard to find on industrial estates, but – the roar of the A12 now behind me, the racket of construction to my right, and a dull, greying white mass of sky above my head – I calculated that the distance I’d travelled along Wick Lane was consistent with the address I had been given. Still no word from my suitors, I found the entrance to said self-storage establishment, and a roadside café selling polystyrene mugs of coffee for a pound. I ordered one, texted the guys at De Vlo to tell them that I was sat opposite Screwfix, and held tight.
15 minutes later – and now 30 minutes later than scheduled – I received a call asking me where Screwfix was, and besides, they were presently standing outside the self-storage company – the Big Yellow Self Storage Company. Never mind, I knew it couldn't be far, and it wasn't. And then I saw it – that Diamant bike – for the first time.
The bicycle did look a bit small, but it looked long, too. One of the dimensions I requested, when we were busy chucking emails at each other, was the wheelbase. Wheelbase doesn't really give much indication as to whether a bike is right for you or not, but it does, if you know the sort of bike you’re dealing with, give some hint as to how it might handle. The wheelbase in this instance was somewhere in-between that of the Jamis and the Raleigh. I had no idea what I was on about.
The girl from Belgium took me across to a strip of sculpted land – some sort of pastoral abyss amongst this mess of industrial clamour – so I could ride up and down a bit and get a feel for the vehicle. I put the seat up first, and fell in love as I did so (with the bike, not the girl). The bike was every bit as beautiful as it had looked on the excellently composed photographs on De Vlo's website, taken with the right sort of lens so as not to distort the angles. The small surface abrasions that they had drawn the viewers’ attention to really were the only surface abrasions of any merit. The paintwork was as vivid, the detail as pleasing and the mechanics as clean. I knew straight away that these guys weren't looking to rip anybody off.
Unfortunately, no matter how many times I raised the seat, I couldn't get past the fact that this bike was patently too small for me. But I had not been wrong to see it for myself; the stem was unusually stretched out, which meant the reach was actually sufficient. If I could have raised the stem another 6 inches then I might have been able to make it work. The height of the bottom bracket seemed fairly low, though, and the forward slung riding position meant my knees were almost eating into my chest. It could have been a track bike, or a touring bike for someone with inordinately short legs. Whatever it was, it was a very pretty bicycle indeed.
The guys from De Vlo – the Belgian girl now joined by her English partner – were entirely sympathetic. As they ate their lunch, whilst I rode up and down that pleasant little stretch of land, I felt rather guilty for dragging them away from whatever it was they had been doing that day. But they were insistent that I’d every right to do so, that it was part of their business model and that they’d be happy to meet me here again if another bike of theirs ever took my fancy. So we parted company and I was satisfied that the journey had been worthwhile, despite the bike being too small for me and my migration from west London to east being really quite a long one, and that the weather had threatened to dissolve into a mess of melancholy at any given moment.
I stopped by the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank, as I had done so on my walk from Waterloo to Condor Cycles before the weather had closed in, drank another cup of coffee, sweated with hunger, and then went home to think some more about what to do about my need for a particular kind of bicycle.