A Nation of Collectors
Dai collects old racing bikes. I know this because he rides to my local pub for a lunchtime pint every Sunday on a different machine. Each week, one or another of the great marques of classic British, hand built, ‘lightweight’ bicycles – Hetchins, Hobbs, Holdsworth, Claud Butler, Rotrax and Mercian to name just a few – is leaning against the oak door.
Recently, I confronted Dai with a question: ‘How many bicycles do you own?’
‘Do you mean complete bicycles or just frames?’ he said, removing his glasses to clean them on his wool jersey.
‘I’ve had a big sort out. I’ve sold some.’
‘Dai, you haven’t answered the question. How many?’
‘Well, there are a lot in the attic, and it’s been a time since I got to the very back up there and counted them.’
It wasn’t exactly Jeremy Paxman on Michael Howard, but I persisted. In the end Dai coughed the figure up. He owns 84 bicycle frames. Many of them are complete bikes.
We are a nation of collectors. You only have to get stuck in motorway traffic on a bank holiday Monday in May to appreciate the full extent of this national mania: half the population seems to be towing steam engines, vintage cars, dolls houses or crates of used comics to and from collectors’ conventions. We avidly collect anything from stamps, diecast models and punk band t-shirts to Toby jugs, watering cans, china thimbles, Scalextric and soap bars. In fact, there appears to be no end to the eccentric items we’re happy to fill our leisure time gathering into piles, apparently without purpose.
I did dabble briefly as a kid, with coins. But I’ve steadfastly refrained from collecting anything since. I do own nine bicycles, but it’s not a ‘collection’. It’s more of an accumulation. There’s no coherency or theme to the bikes. They all have a purpose: they all get ridden.
Dai and I have always tiptoed round each other, acknowledging the others passion for bicycles while recognising how polar our interests are. So he was just as dumbfounded as I was when one Sunday recently, a couple of pints down, I asked if he’d sell me a frame. And I was no less stunned than he was when he agreed.
A week later, Dai sent me a package. Enclosed was a note on the frame he’s selling me – one A.S. Gillott 1951 Continental, ‘originally commissioned and built for Ken Newholt of Sidmouth’. Also enclosed were several ‘frame colour pattern planners’ as Dai calls them – outline frames on blank paper for me to colour in, as an aid to choosing the colours the frame will eventually be painted – and details of the company that make the original ‘decals’ or frame transfers. Also, there was a map with instructions on how to find the specialist paint shop near my home, a page of ‘Instructions on gear calculations’ and, significantly if you’re a proper collector, a long, handwritten inventory of ‘proposed equipment’ – parts that will help me build the bike up into an authentic retro machine. Finally, there was a list of bike jumble sales where I might acquire them.
Since the package arrived, I’ve joined the V-CC, the Veteran Cycle Club. I’ve filled in the colour planners and chosen the frame colours. The frame is stripped of paint and rust protected, and I’m preparing for my first jumble sale.
‘What on earth am I doing?’ I keep wondering. Maybe I’m sliding into the grey underbelly of cycling before my time. Or maybe I’m gently entering the next of the seven ages of being a cyclist. Either way, if you see me at a jumble sale haggling over the price of a Campagnolo Gran Sport rear mech, please don’t laugh too hard, and certainly don’t bid against me.