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Being the youngest of four children, hand-me-downs were a fact of life – not that any of my siblings ever got a new bike either. Uncle Ted would scour the local tip for abandoned frames and wheels, take them back to his workshop and somehow fashion usable machines from piles of junk. His creations were invariably painted in the same disgusting shade of green paint liberated from his workplace, sported Sturmey Archer three-speed hubs and weighed more than dad’s Mini, but they did the job.
Until I joined a cycling club, that is. Then it became abundantly clear that Uncle Ted’s clunker would have to go and be replaced by something racier. Much parental badgering ensued – threats issued, tantrums thrown – until they relented and allowed the princely sum of £50 to be withdrawn from my savings. Cash in pocket, I headed for the nearest decent cycle emporium in the glittering metropolis that is Swindon.
A host of gleaming lightweights awaited, mostly too big or too costly for a 13-year-old, but the smattering of machines within my price range looked adequate. Falcons, Raleighs and Carltons vied for my attention. They were all distinct possibilities. But the moment I saw it, I knew it was the one.
The shade of Molteni orange paint used for its 19-inch frame is a colour that remains deep in my affections. Steel-rimmed 26-inch wheels didn’t so much spin as grind their way round, but Weinmann centre-pulls were a step up from the stopping capabilities of my old clunker. It had those curious ‘mudguards’ – lengths of dull silver metal extending a few inches either side of the brakes that deflected no road muck but rattled incessantly. Five gears, courtesy of French company Huret, seemed plenty to me.
But none of these things informed my choice. What counted – more than the wheels, more than the gears, more than those infernal chrome guards – was the picture on the headtube: a diamond-shaped sticker, framed by World Championship bands, containing a portrait of the greatest rider in the World, the impossibly handsome Eddy Merckx. The sticker repeated on the downtube for good measure.
It was hardly what you would describe as ‘lightweight’, but Eddy and me travelled far and wide on increasingly lengthy club runs, into the hills of Somerset or the Cotswolds, and we got on just fine. Youth Hostelling excursions into Wales or Dorset were a regular feature once proper mudguards, rack and saddle-bag were added. We tackled five-mile time trials every Wednesday evening, recording PB’s week after week. Come the winter, the gears were stripped off and a donated fixed wheel with 40 spokes and no chrome whatsoever (it appeared to have spent several years at the bottom of the River Avon) was fitted. Not once were we defeated by a climb, although one snowy descent at Easter saw us flying into the hedgerow at speed.
But Eddy was with me. We were fine.
My legs were growing ever longer and skinnier. The seat post had reached its limit before long. Me and Eddy would have to part company.
It was years later I discovered my bike was made under licence by Falcon Cycles in England and had no input whatsoever from the great Belgian, apart from his picture on the frame. Not that the news clouded my feelings about my first racing bike. Me and Eddy had something special.
Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike by William Fotheringham is published by Yellow Jersey.
Bespoked Bristol the handmade bike show, runs from Friday, March 23 to Sunday, March 25.
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