Saturday 16 June 2007

Le Cirque du Cyclisme: Part One

For the last decade there has been an event dedicated to classic lightweight bicycles: Le Cirque du Cyclisme in Greensboro, North Carolina. Starting as a swap meet hosted by the Cycles de Oro bicycle shop, the event has expanded to include guest speakers prominent in the hobby, a big bike show, a banquet, old parts for sale and, of course, the chance to go for a ride around Greensboro.

I was accompanied on this trip by Jeff Cook, he of, and he planned to cover the event for his blog and brought some amazing video equipment that while perhaps not yet classic was certainly lightweight. Our drive out of Washington on Friday was pretty slow as we were caught up in a wretched traffic slow down for the first thirty miles and then we were out on the open road. In Carson, Virginia, just past Petersburg, we stopped for gas and bought some of the excellent local peanuts. We soon realized that we had driven a bit too far and had missed our exit, but no matter: we were on holiday! We had a break at a nice rest area just inside the North Carolina boundary and enjoyed ice tea and our sandwiches, and then headed cross-country, eventually reaching I-85 and the route we had originally wanted to take. We easily found the Microtel in Greensboro, checked in and collapsed. But not before having some of those Carson peanuts and a bottle or two of Creemore Springs Lager.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

We packed up the car but before heading off to le Cirque we stopped for breakfast at the K&W Cafeteria located directly behind our hotel. I explained to Jeff that these kinds of places were a fixture in the South and I expected offerings from breakfast to be much better than in our hotel, which had the typical “Continental breakfast”–muffins and doughnuts on styrofoam–typical of budget accommodations. And sure enough, it was good at the K&W–fried eggs and grits and oatmeal and melon pieces and hot tea and toast and all sorts of things, a very good deal for $5.49.

Feeling well-fed, we drove down the highway to find the Cycles de Oro shop and the parking lot in front of it where the Saturday rides were scheduled to depart. I unpacked the Marinoni from the trunk and put the wheels on and almost immediately received comments from other riders. I had brought my Marinoni as this was a celebration of classic lightweight bikes and the Marinoni, with its lugged Columbus steel frame and Campagnolo parts, is pretty classic for a bicycle of the 1990s. I looked at the bikes the other riders had. It was a delightful assortment of rare marques: SOMEC, de Rosa, Hetchins, Richard Sachs, Masi.

We were offered either a 16 mile easy-paced ride around Greensboro, or a 30 mile “fast training ride” covering three counties. With some trepidation I chose the latter and we formed up into a peloton behind the ride leader, a young racer wearing a Cycles de Oro jersey and riding a Specialized Allez. Jeff introduced himself and shot footage of the group about to leave. Everyone seemed pretty excited about the possibility of being included on a video blog. The predominant look of the riders was more collector than racer and this was amply demonstrated as we came to the first hills and I found that I had to move up to the front or risk being stalled back behind slower riders. I looked down and was surprised to discover I was doing most of the climbs in the big ring (the Marinoni has a triple). I guess all those hours of high-intensity training in the gym have paid off.

We rode up and down the gently rolling hills around Greensboro, heading out into the suburbs and I rotated through with a few other riders, always staying among the first six. The leader of the group was very smooth but I had no difficulty maintaining his speed. I did notice that we were losing a lot of people as we made our way over the hills and after 20 miles or so we pulled off into a big parking lot at a local fire hall. We stood around and waited for the group to reassemble, and one of the riders had to find a spoke wrench and readjust the tension in his rear wheel. I chatted with someone riding a Hetchins, with the famous “curly stay” chainstay that were the trademark of this brand. Off to one side were two riders on Richard Sachs bikes chatting and someone told me that the rider with the black jersey was Richard Sachs himself.

Eventually–and I do mean eventually–everyone meandered in and we set off for the last part of the “fast training ride,” with some more little hills. I introduced myself to Richard Sachs, who recalled when I had written to him to include his link on my old Tin Donkey website and was interested to learn that I had a new blog.

The ride leader said that there would be no more stops until we returned to the bike shop so we took him at his word and opened it up a bit. I moved up to the front to set the pace for a while, holding a steady 34-36 km/h. The Marinoni is very comfortable for long, fast rides, particularly with no panniers and on this excellent day on smooth rides it felt in its element.

We passed a very nice golf course surrounded by elegant old houses and before we knew it we were riding back into the parking lot at the bike shop. I got my keys from Jeff Cook, who had been busy shooting video footage, and headed back quickly to the hotel, where I showered and got dressed, jumped back into the car and drove swiftly back to the bike shop or, more precisely, the empty building attached to the bike shop where the day’s seminars were being presented. I actually arrived in time to hear everything.

Proceedings began with some comments from Dale Brown, the Motivating Force behind the whole Cirque du Cyclisme. He talked about the charity auction that had been held on Friday night, where more than $12,000 had been collected. Then he introduced the first speaker, Darrell Llewellyn McCulloch, who had come to Greensboro all the way from Brisbane, Australia. He builds bicycles which he markets under the Llewellyn name and on the stage was one of the most gorgeous bikes I have ever seen. Fitted out with all-Campagnolo Record parts, it featured a steel frame, in candy apple red, with stainless steel lugs, including a lugged stem.

Darrell has worked as a racing mechanic for teams in Europe and for the Australian national training centre but it is clear that his first love is building gorgeous bikes. He showed slides of his workshop, located under his house and quite well-equipped, and talked about his clientele, which was seeking a modern-looking steel bicycle rather than a reinterpretation of an old Italian or English racing bike. He had taught himself how to use CAD/CAM to prepared lugs suitable for a bicycle with a 6 degree dropped top tube and had the lugs cast in Taiwan. This whole aspect of the operation already sounded like a painstaking adventure. He hopes to sell these lugs to other custom framebuilders and recover some of the costs involved.

His painstaking work was reflected in the bicycle in front of him, which he said took 180 hours to build, before the painting. He had built it for himself and it had never been ridden yet. In fact, he hoped not to have to bring it back to Australia but to sell it during the show. I was mentally measuring it out for myself (as was probably everyone in the audience), although luckily Darrell is a bit shorter than I am so it would probably not fit!

Hilary Stone

After Darrell, the next speaker was Hilary Stone from England, who writes the monthly article on vintage lightweights for Cycling Plus magazine. He spoke about the history of lugged English bikes. This was pretty obscure but interesting as there was a great variety of lugwork featured by celebrated English firms, most of which were located in South London, as well as particular individuals who worked for different companies. Of course, Hetchins was one of the best-known and Hilary noted that the owner of the firm and the chief builder were not shy about self-promotion.

Deconstruct-able Rene Herse

1938 Claud Butler

There was a brief break for sandwiches, and we had a chance to mill around and chat and look at a number of interesting bikes. There was a great 1938 Claud Butler track bike, with an adjustable “Major Taylor” stem (named after the African-American cycling world champion) and wooden rims. Someone demonstrated an obscure shifting system on an old bike and I admired a whole collection of gorgeous bikes–several Mariposas, a Legnano and a Gardin with Campy Delta brakes with a matching Gardin faceplate–that had been brought by Mike Barry, a well-known framebuilder from Toronto, and father of T-Mobile team pro Michael Barry. There was a particularly beautiful old Masi, pale blue with yellow handlebar tape, and a 1983 Rene Herse touring bike, with the shifters under the seat and quick releases on the frame so you could take it all apart for a trip. Bicycle Quarterly has a nice illustration showing how it works here. I saw the Hetchins that had been out on the road earlier and a range of other terrific bikes.

Hetchins, with the "curly stays'

Here is the Wikipedia entry for Hetchins:

Hetchins is a make of bicycle. It takes its name from the founder of the firm, Hyman Hetchin, who had a shop in Seven Sisters Road in South Tottenham, north London, UK. The frame builder was Jack Denny. Hetchin was active in supporting cycle racing and won the World's and Olympic Championships in 1936. After Hyman's death in 1961, the firm continued under the son, Alf Hetchin, moving to Southend-On-Sea, Essex in the 1970s. Hetchins frames are known for two things: their distinctive "curly" stays (patented in 1936), and elaborate lugs. The firm is still in production in 2007, under the control of the former Southend shop manager David Miller.

Sacha White

The next speaker was Sacha White, proprietor of Vanilla Bicycles, and someone who looked about fifteen years old. He had come into the framebuilding business from being a bike messenger, with a vision of providing great bikes for anyone who wanted one. Commercial realities are somewhat different, however, and he has a three year waiting list now, in spite of having five people working with him to handle various aspects of the business. He was unhappy about this as he did not wish to be committed to building the same bicycles as today three years from now. Someone in the audience suggested that he just raise his prices but he said that every time he did this, more customers signed on and the wait list became even longer!

Alexander von Tutshek

The last speaker also came from England, in spite of having the rather un-British name of Alexander von Tutshek, and he spoke animatedly about the passion of bicycle collecting. He was extremely entertaining and very knowledgeable as he described trekking throughout England to find rarities. There is no question that the most important attribute of the collector is tenacity, and we were regaled with his attempt to get a particular English bike out of a museum. It had been donated by a gentleman and when, unexpectedly, the museum went broke and was shut down, the donated items were returned to the original giver and Alexander was able to get it then. He also obtained the time trial of his boyhood hero who had ridden it 100 miles on open roads in 4 1/2 hours. His particular challenge is that he is very tall, so finding the right size frame was not so easy. He also enjoys riding his bikes and his wife Sharron, who had accompanied him to Greensboro, also participates in their two-wheeled excursions.

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