Monday, January 12, 2015

Loose Ends

With PBP looming again on the International long-distance event calendar - and with the recent demise of the 750M web site - it seems an appropriate moment to add a little to this page just to tie up some very  loose ends.  Not the least of these is a slight re-hash to the actual ride story that was previously up  on the web site.

True to his word, one member of the group, the intrepid rouler-deluxe Gavin Hinds, is returning to France this year to complete the course.  Although I don’t think that he really has that much to prove, I am anticipating a successful PBP campaign, and feeling a bit green not to be going along too.

There will be more about Gav and his build-up here over the next few months.    More about other projects and ideas can be found beginning to gather at push_button_shift...

In 2008 Scott Dickson, Gavin Hinds, and Craig Hoey came upon an idea to ride genuine 1930’s bikes at Paris-Brest-Paris in an effort to draw some attention to the 80th Anniversary of Sir Hubert Opperman’s deserved win in 1931. The aim in doing so was to experience at first hand something of Oppy’s effort in winning this historic event, take on the personal challenge that is PBP, and to raise funds for the Oncology Children’s Foundation ( now known as The Kids Cancer Project ).  Together we tackled the 2011 course with Andrew Johnson, another Tasmanian ( and old school friend ) who opted more sensibly to ride a modern steel-framed bike.

All did not go quite to plan in France.
We completed 1009Km before surrendering to the impacts of very poor weather and the physical demands of both the bikes and course.  Andrew proved his tough preparedness however, completing the ride just within 90 hours of his start time.  It is likely that Andrew would have met his own 84 hour goal had he not spent many hours calmly shepherding us across Western France...

What follows is a little of what unfolded on the road – written in a sweat a few weeks after the ride once safely back at home.  Through a bleary-eyed chronology, what follows are some impressions and thoughts about PBP 2011…

Not for the first time I caught myself looking down at the now grimy machine-grey frame beneath me and smiled at the thought that I was somewhere in the middle of rural France riding a Malvern Star made between  1931 and 1932.  Watching Craig roll smoothly along on a similarly aged machine, a Whatley Cycles ‘Cressy’, stylishly turned out in our retro-style jersey, it is almost possible ( with a heavy squint to ignore our multiple light setup, plastic event bidon, and my silver-grey mountain bike shoes ) to imagine that this could be Paris-Brest-Paris, 1931… 

Zigg-zagging between freshly turned and ( quite )pungent fields we were in reality riding out Paris-Brest-Paris 2011; closing in on Tinténiac, some hours behind the official control closing times.   And I would admit, feeling a little more relaxed as a consequence.  Gingerly rolling the tallest of our three gears, we were moving quickly with fellow Tasmanian and friend, Andrew, in a short pace line ( quick and pace being relative terms now ) and for the first time in quite a few hours I had to admit that I had enjoyed the day - both the course and the bike.    At this very moment, some sunny warmth was welcome and a strengthening tail wind kept pushing us toward Tinténiac and our evening goal of Fougéres.

But by this late afternoon of the third day, and at around the 800Km mark, the bikes and the previous days of appalling weather had taken their toll, and I am reluctant to admit that these factors would ultimately contribute to a shaky halt the next morning at just over 1000Km.

It was a shaky stop too.  Never have I felt so alarmed watching Craig speed wobble on a particularly steep little pitch.  Somehow he managed to sooth a gyrating front wheel at the last moment; I suspect with a healthy mix of instinct and resignation which caused his body to relax.  Stopped by the road side, a quick check of the bike revealed nothing visibly broken.  The Villaines checkpoint, only a few kilometers away, seemed a logical spot to stop, eat and check the bike again. 

Just outside this lovely little town, and easing along gently,  Andrew just out of sight ahead, I turned to check again on Craig and caught him holding his chin up with one hand whilst riding along.  By chance we arrived to find a bus picking up stragglers sitting ticking over right out front of the control point.  Having agreed that the sane thing to do was stop, and then negotiated a price with pantomime English and very little French, we hauled our bikes aboard with about twenty other shattered-looking participants, then slumped together a little dejected, but trying to hold on to some shred of dignity; determined not to fall immediately into a comatose state in our seats like everyone else.

Managing to make ‘phone contact with the lost member of our group, it was with some relief to hear an elaborate and amusing tale of care and assistance given so warmly by the French locals.  Gavin, the third conspirator in this plan to ride 1930’s bikes at PBP 2011, was aboard the TGV to Paris having succumbed to the painful and frightening effects of Shermers Neck just outside Loudeac.   Unable to pedal, brake, and look up to see where he was going, he had wisely called a stop and encouraged us to continue to the finish.  And in a moment of irrational decision making brought about by a lack of sleep we had agreed, leaving  Gavin to find his own way back to the control despite only just being physically capable of steering and stopping his bike.  Thankfully we would learn that some local cyclists had found him and guided him to a hotel, where the owners had fed him, loaned him clothes, provided a bed for the night and then assisted him to catch the train – all for the princely sum of $48 Euro.

To arrive at the finish of this historic and immense event by bus was a crushing way to complete three years of dreaming, planning, training, fund-raising, and bike restoration - a rather uncomfortable situation that was not helped by the zealous bus driver who pulled up right across the finish chute with the intention of letting us off right there.  It took only a few seconds for a small army of very official looking Gendarmes to appear, forcefully gesticulating and indicating that the bus should move - and quickly - around toward the rear of the stadium where technical inspections had been undertaken.  The relief on my face and Craig’s would have made a priceless picture, as we gathered our bits and pieces together to slink the few kilometers to our hotel in Guyancourt, and a long anticipated shower…
As usual, however, I have jumped straight into the story and given away the ending.  The events leading up to our 2011 PBP ride really began eighty years ago.  By late 1928 Sir Hubert Opperman and Bruce ( and Frank ) Small had returned to Melbourne from an historic and successful season in France.   Having achieved critical acclaim, a 1000Km paced World record on the track, and the vote for European sportsman of the year, they had returned to distant Australia, ears ringing  with stories of an almost mythical and grueling endurance event,  Paris-Brest-Paris, planned to run again in September 1931 after a ten year gap.  In 2008, some 80 years distant, Craig, Gavin and I had struck upon the coincidence of dates leading up to the 17th running of Paris-Brest-Paris in August 2011.  This edition of PBP would fall on the 80th anniversary of Oppy’s win.  Not quite, but almost to the day. 

The realisation of this historic anniversary came about with the chance purchase of a locally made racing machine, an Aero-Flyer, built in the 1930’s.   I had found the bike hanging up at the local tip recovery  shop, drawn to the hand-painted lettering and swooping handlebar shape popular in the period.  This bike, so battered but wonderfully complete right down to the tatty cloth handlebar tape, rear light, and hub mounted  odometer, joined another 30’s project , a Whatley Cycles ‘Cressy’, never ridden and gathering dust in the corner of my shed, patiently waiting for the right bits to come along to make it road-worthy.  I’d never consciously set out to collect bikes from this or any other era.  Now it seemed I had two, and the glimmer of an idea began to take some shape.

The Aero-Flyer’s handlebars were of similar round rams-horn bend to the 1937 Malvern Star ‘Oppy’ presented by Warren Mead in his Retro Review column for RIDE cycling journal a few years ago - a replica of the machine ridden by Oppy to set his trans-continental record from Perth to Sydney.   In summarizing Oppy’s remarkable career Warren had mentioned Paris-Brest-Paris.  This reminder of Oppy’s career defining achievement  had sent me delving into boxes of twenty year old bike magazines to find a story that I’d read as a teenage cycling fanatic, recounting the exploits of a young Hubert Opperman at PBP.
That quiet Sunday afternoon, out in the shed, I had perched on a box of musty yellowing journals amongst spare wheels and old tyres, frames and forks, reliving an account of Paris-Brest-Paris 1931, looking from the grainy black and white images of a triumphant Oppy to the Aero-Flyer, then back again.  A quick surf of the web confirmed my ignorance, and the fact that PBP still exists as one of the oldest cycling events in the world, and that it would run again in about two and a half years…

1931-2011, eighty years almost to the day.  The romance of this co-incidence of dates was not lost on the three of us, and the accidental securing of a third antique bike, a 1931-32 Malvern Star; given to me along with a junk shop purchase of a 50’s Malvern Star frame, cemented the idea to attempt PBP using 1930’s technology.  Our admittedly rose-tinted aim would be to gain some tangible insight into Oppy’s effort in completing such an extraordinary ride, while attempting to garner some media recognition for Oppy’s exploits and celebrate such an historic anniversary. 

Having ridden the necessary Audax quota of miles and then the Super Randonneur series on our regular bikes, in February-April 2011 ( feeling fit and game from the perspective of a solid summer of riding ) we made the commitment to take the old machines to France, and a program of building and rebuilding began in earnest.   In mock-up form, meaning that two of the frames were still bare metal, we had completed the local Amy Gillet ride with the realization that the bikes rolled easily at acceptable averages.  To our amazement, we suffered little physical impact from this 100Km ride in spite of some compromises with fit and gear ratio, and simplistic steel-rimmed wheels with heavy block pattern tyres ( inflated to ‘hard’ ).

But not riding the actual bikes through the qualifying series was probably our first major mistake.  It was difficult to justify constantly hammering 80 year old bikes over Tasmania’s back roads.  Finding and then maintaining workable parts like bottom bracket spindles, headset parts, and particularly genuine 1930’s brake levers, had proven challenging enough.   Maintaining the bikes required constant dismantling, cleaning and reassembly.  One bike was hard work, three a full-time job. 

After some experimentation and road trials, a few lucky ebay purchases, fantastic support from Commuter Cycles and Abbottsford Cycles in Melbourne, and some ( very ) last minute pieces requested  in desperation from an intrigued and always helpful Warren Meade, the bikes were pedaled through a series of shake down training rides in May, June and July 2011, in order to bed the bikes in, maintain our fitness, and celebrate some of Sir Hubert Opperman’s exploits in Tasmania from the period.

At risk of side-tracking for a moment, a little lunch-time reading and research had brought to light some local events that contributed to Oppy’s preparation for the 1931 road season.  Oppy completed a series of rides in Tasmania in 1930 – road and track events and record setting runs – prior to sailing for Europe.  In August of that year he set a 400Km record time riding from Hobart to Launceston and return, just weeks after the first Malvern Star showroom was opened in Hobart ( and it would be nice to imagine that my Malvern Star was enthusiastically purchased during this period – perhaps as a result of the publicity gained ).  Oppy followed this with the classic Launceston to Hobart handicap, and then a win in the inaugural three day Tour of Tasmania in November of that year ( a race that included two visiting French professionals ), before returning once more for the Christmas carnivals over December and January.  In February 1931, Oppy sailed for Europe and his second season abroad, with the specific goals of completing the Tour de France, and winning Paris-Brest-Paris.

Of course Oppy rode many events throughout Victoria and NSW as part of his preparation; notably his 1929 24 hour road record and Sydney to Melbourne record, but it made a nice connection for us as Tasmanian cycling enthusiasts to know that specific events in Tasmania contributed to Oppy’s preparation and final conditioning.  In acknowledgement of his rides, we completed our own Launceston to Hobart ( 200 ), Hobart-Launceston-Hobart ( 400 ), and retraced the route of the 1930 Tour of Tasmania ( 400 ) as a way of maintaining our fitness , and drawing some attention in the media to Sir Hubert Opperman’s achievements and our own fund raising goals.  These rides were not without their teething problems; highlighting the lost knowledge of cottered crank set-up and Sturmey-Archer hub maintenance, fine tuning gear ratio’s and chain line, finalising brake lever pivot position and caliper set-up,  and experimentation with rim and tyre combinations.

The closest we got to the track was a session on the historic ( and quite flat ) Newtown asphalt bowl for some photographs, and a morning spent sweating on rollers at the Salamanca Market which netted a remarkable $1000 dollars in donations for the Oncology Children’s Foundation.  The bikes drew much attention, now complete in PBP trim, with actual paint on frames, working front and rear brakes, and our event wheels… 

Having decided to work with what we had found rather than recreate a period specification from modern parts, the basis of our bikes centred on genuine 1930’s steel frame and forks.  The Aero-Flyer had come equipped with a 1939 Sturmey-Archer Hub and ‘Philco’ brakes.  It was this arrangement that inspired the final pattern for all three bikes.  Though both road bikes, the Malvern Star and Cressy were originally fitted with a single fixed gear and no brakes - clutches banned in Tasmanian road racing until around 1934 – and both bikes required the sourcing of many small parts to emulate the Aero-Flyer’s setup. 
Each headset was carefully rebuilt with new ball bearings ( 30 individual balls top and bottom – then take one out ).  New old stock bottom bracket cups and bearings were sourced and fitted, although both the Aero-Flyer  and ‘Cressy’ refused to relinquish their 80 year old drive side cups, and so completed the event with the original parts in place.  These fittings were matched to new old stock spindles, and 46-tooth single chain rings bolted to period cottered cranks ( Utility and Williams ).  This process proved more difficult than it sounds, a number of spindles were tried before chancing on a combination that would provide clearance to frame and bottom-bracket cup.

To this base we added front and rear period ‘Philco’ brake calipers, the fronts clamping neatly around the fork blades.  Koolstop pads were trimmed and squeezed into the original pad holders, their orange/red colour nicely highlighting paint schemes.  Slender and bare steel brake levers pull basic modern stainless cables, with the cable end terminated to custom length using a spoke nipple soldered in place and locked with two small collets.
For wheels we settled on 700C size ( rather than the original 28 inch ) for availability of spares while on the road in France.  This also would have matched Oppy’s equipment choice of racing singles.  Gav and Craig opted for very lovely Velo-Orange PBP polished clincher rims, while I sourced a pair of CB-Italia timber rims in the correct 40/32 spoke drilling.  The modern/European size choice proved a wise move as Gav’s front hub succumbed to the atrocious wet weather with a bearing collapse at Loudeac ( on the way out ) requiring the purchase of a new wheel to continue – which slotted in perfectly with no brake adjustments necessary.    

Back wheels were laced with Sturmey-Archer AW series  3-speed hubs ( designed in 1934 ).  On the road, we found that a 46/18 chain ring/sprocket combination offered  a flexible mid-range of roughly 68 gear inches for general running, a little lighter than Oppy’s 72 inch setup.  The internally geared hub would then provide the luxury of a low(er) gear in deference to our forty-odd year old legs, and a high for downhill and tail wind running.  While the guys would settle on 35mm Vittoria clinchers for puncture resistance, I relearned the subtle and quite frustrating art of mounting glue-on singles – very smooth running Challenge Parigi-Roubaix’s - and constructed flint catchers to brush front and rear tyre, bent from an old coat hanger.

The bikes were completed with steel seat posts, Brooks and Selle Anatomica saddles, Velo Orange steel stems and matching V.O. randonneur handlebars to give us fatigue-worry -free leverage with some extra width.  Courtesy of my racy wheels, the Malvern Star was transformed from an ugly grey tractor to a rather slender and graceful 12.2 Kg racer; the Cressy weighing in at a stylish 12.8Kg’s; and Aero at 13.4Kgs, including lights and handlebar mounted aluminium bidon’s.  The Aero’s extra heft was attributed to a very long seat post and stem to accommodate Gav’s height , heavier wire-bead tyres and larger light/battery setup.

As we assembled the bikes out of our travel cases at the Residhome Hotel in Guyancourt, Paris,  it became immediately obvious that we had been viewing PBP through somewhat romantically tinted glasses, and had become swept away by an idea rather than preparing single-mindedly for a deceptively tough 1200Km endurance event.  As we sat in the humid warmth, alternately sipping from our bottles of water and fiddling bikes back together, the most amazing array of carbon fibre, titanium and alloy machinery paraded back and forth as riders made last minute adjustments or set off for the technical inspection.  We were watching very serious machinery being wheeled about by serious long-distance cyclists, and noticed remarkably few ‘touring’ type machines and only two other steel frames.  

The Italian contingent ( making up the majority of the Hotel’s guests ) were doing a fair bit of head shaking as we progressed with each bike, good-natured muttering and finger pointing stopping abruptly as my timber-rimmed wheels came out of their respective bags.
The technical inspection proved nothing to fear, all eyes glued, like my tyres, to the timber rims.  I was not even asked to demonstrate my lights, just inundated with questions about dates and yes, those wheels.  

And so as we stood in the pre-dawn darkness at the start line, we committed major mistake number two in attempting the event in the 84 hour group, thinking that this would minimize our night riding time while following a realistic schedule of average speeds.  A light shower of rain drizzled as some bloke yelled a booming  ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie’ that thankfully fell flat with no response and the cultural rebuff of silence, even though we were chatting with some other Australian riders in the group.  In these nervous moments my thoughts returned to Oppy’s story and his early morning start under rain clouds and the ‘dripping trees’ of the Parisian suburb of St Cloud.  It began to look as though we would have similar weather for the beginning of our own adventure.

What followed was a dark and slippery steeple chase through the outer outskirts of Paris.   Round-a-bouts and then narrow lanes choked with kerbs, speed humps and inset pavers quickly reminded us that our braking capability in the wet required big(ger) gaps to riders ahead.  At one point I slithered into the back of Gav as we miss-judged traffic at a junction ( looking the wrong way ) which later required some gear cable adjustment to Gav’s hub.  In these early hours I was to also discover the temperamental character of my own ancient gearbox, which exhibited an obstinate tendency to jump out of low after a few minutes.  No amount of bleary logic at control stops could persuade the hub to behave, so my only resort was to ride hills holding the shift switch with my finger if I really needed low gear.  Later that same first morning I rode into the back of Craig and Andrew, again as we misjudged traffic at an intersection.  I was beginning to get a reputation, and was thankful not to have caused any harm.

Narrow streets through Medieval towns, patches of forest and expanses of pasture began to crinkle up into a succession of rolling hills as we approached the first official time control at Villaines.  Cool and still conditions had proven perfect, but we could see intense dark clouds gathering ahead.  Whilst standing under a tree in a laneway for a natural break, the first heavy drops of rain began to fall, and I distinctly recall Andrew saying with rather dry optimism that ‘it’s just a cloud burst’.  What followed amounted to six or seven hours of some of the heaviest rain and intense electrical storm that I have ever ridden through.  The rain was so heavy at times that water actually ran in sheets down the inside of the school hall walls at Villaines control as we gratefully shoveled in our second hot meal of the day ( loaded trays carried to our table by the local school kids ) and tried to stop shivering.  That evening at Fougéres we waited inside at the control for a particularly intense rain squall to pass, then found our soggy bikes in the dark under thunderous rolling walls of weather, and followed a GPS trail to our hotel and major mistake number three.

The day had proven mostly frightening to me.  Heavy rain, timber rims and cork composite brake pads definitely do not mix, and I had spent much of the day in the drops desperately squeezing brake levers down to the tape in an effort to control the bike on unfamiliar downhill runs.  But our mistake came in planning a stop at Fougéres after only 320Km.  We should have scheduled our stop further toward Brest.  We were, however, extremely happy to find my wife Caitlin at the Hotel Balzac, and a very warm and understanding Madame who didn’t seem to mind us traipsing in all bedraggled - who even set up a pot of coffee and sliced tea cake for our departure at midnight.  We had time for a shower and one hour of sleep before dressing in new warm and dry kit ( thank you so very much Caity ) and departing for Tinténiac.

The Tinténiac control was almost closed by our arrival.  We made it with about 20 minutes to spare but were disappointed to find the cafe closed.  Hot coffee and ham baguettes from a marquee outside raised our spirits a little and then we set off again into the rain and dark.  Most amazingly, the fastest of the 80Hr starters were coming back through toward Paris and called encouragement to us as they flew past in small groups at incredible speed.  I realized fully in that moment that PBP is actually still very much a race, regardless of claims otherwise.  Predawn brought drooping eyelids and a need for caffeine-laced gel shots.  Eventually we gave in and took a ten minute nap on the wet roadside, which made a remarkable difference, and with daylight we settled again into the rhythm of the day.
Climbing from Loudeac was beautiful in soft, misty rain, but hard work.  The climb of La Roc proved to be longer and a bit steeper than expected ( and windy ) but fantastic watching all of the returning 90Hr starters - a couple of faired recumbents thrumming past  lines of riders at high speed like small, low cars.  And then looping around into Brest proved a frustrating relief; shock at having to deal with late afternoon traffic  capped with disappointment/disbelief at the control.  

Arriving just an hour or so before the official closing time, we felt let down by a complete lack of food, other than a remnant dry baguette ( no filling ) and some soft drink.  To stay within time required a departure in just over an hour, meaning 600Km plus with only two hours maximum of sleep.  As we discussed our options Craig changed a weeping front tube, and we gnawed at our dry baguettes.  Thankfully, our sense of self-preservation prevailed as we imagined more night riding in wet conditions with poor braking.  We agreed on three hours rest at our hotel with the aim to complete the course within 90 hours, albeit outside the official time limit at each subsequent control.

Early morning baguettes ( secured from the Brest Subway the night before ) by the road side near the summit of La Roc, more dry baguettes and sweet strawberry jam and water found in a village marquee ( along with a couple of sleeping riders ) and a beautiful dawn marked by the fatigue failure of my light bracket, are moments  second only to a fabulous and authentic coffee and pastry breakfast in a local patisserie, and then the reception we received at the control in Loudeac.  Amongst a rousing cheer and hearty, sincere applause we had food and drinks pressed into our hands and our route cards stamped as a gesture of encouragement.  The welcome grew more vocal as the locals actually noticed what we were riding.  More beer and wine was offered in salute.  It was a wonderful uplifting few minutes as we tried to answer questions while staggering about filling water bottles and eating the offered fare.

Shortly after, a roadside stop concluded with a misjudged farewell to Gav ( we should have accompanied him back to the control ), a keystone-cops routine ( by me ) that resulted in a swap of back wheels so that I could have three reliable gears, and a rapid run along sleepy rural back lanes.

At Tinténiac, we arrived as the sun set and the control point was literally being packed into the back of a couple of cars.  Immediately the bikes were noticed and we were asked if we would share a drink with the local club members.  We declined their kind offer, thinking only of rest, but agreed to raise a proffered bottle of coke with them in honour of Oppy, and then left them with very wide smiles, headed for Fougéres and our last opportunity to sleep before the finish.

The climb into Fougéres seemed an endless false flat ridden at over 30Km/Hr because we were just so sick of it by then.  A negotiated four hours sleep preceded more pre-dawn hours on the road ( so much for limiting night-time riding ) and a 4am coffee with a spectator who had set up a table in his downstairs garage.  We chatted as much as we could, downed cups of scalding coffee, had our picture taken, and then set off for Villaines and the final 200 kilometers.  Along the way we were overtaken by a pair of old gents ( officials ) in a Renault wagon checking the route signage.  Another pantomime of examining the bikes, pushing and pulling all the brake and gear levers and pointing to dates printed on our jerseys reinforced major mistake number four in that we should have had cards prepared in French and printed with some images to hand out to people, as our painful ignorance of the host language made conveying the idea almost impossible at times.  We came away from this encounter with some route signs fished from the back of the station wagon – wonderful mementos of this enthusiastic meeting.

Some few hours later, and following our wobbly downhill moment, we were aboard a bus heading for Guyancourt, while Andrew, who had gone on ahead on the climbs and could not be raised by ‘phone, continued alone in his amazing effort to finish inside 90 hours.

Paris-Brest-Paris is an extraordinary, challenging, picturesque, sometimes tedious, intensely cultural, and potentially dangerous experience.  I am more than a little thankful that we all came home still firm friends and without any serious or lasting injuries.  Adjusting to not completing the course has proven the most difficult – and in fact still sits a little raw and unresolved.  Gavin is determined to return and complete the event, but on a modern machine.  I completely understand this desire, and will try to help with the qualifying process again.  But I feel that the significance for both Craig and I is now past.  The confluence of dates, machinery, personal fitness and family circumstance may never marry again so completely. 

To all who have completed PBP we would like to sincerely congratulate you – it is such an extra-ordinary thing to have accomplished, far beyond the normal realms of enthusiast bike riding – and in 2011 will be remembered historically as the year that Cadel won the TdF too.  To those who may have retired along the route, I bet like me you still wake having dreamt about what transpired on the road.  Bon Route if you take up the challenge again.
Of all the participants, setting aside the astounding Mr Drew Buck and his 1900 Peugeot, Gavin, Craig and I can say that we truly have some insight into the conditions and equipment that Oppy grappled so successfully with in 1931.  In so many ways we experienced PBP in the way that we set out to.  I would also admit to being a little proud that, without really focusing enough on the idea of fund-raising,  together we gathered a little over $5,000 on behalf of the OCF thanks to generous donations from family, friends and very kind strangers. 

Will the Malvern Star return ?  It has probably earned a gentle second retirement hanging up again on the shed wall.  It is, however quite a sprightly old thing out on the road, and could be improved with some further tweaking.   I also loved seeing the battered and scarred Aero-Flyer out on the road, its black, white and red hand painted detailing so evocative of that bygone era.  Craig is lovingly collecting parts to properly restore the Whatley, and I’m patiently excited to see that bike complete again.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank the RACT and Murdoch Clarke for their very generous support, Commuter Cycles, Abbottsford Cycles and Warren Meade specifically for their enthusiasm, understanding, and always friendly assistance.  Mention must be made of Pip Aitken, Events and Challenges Fundraising Coordinator at OCF,  for making the technicalities of fundraising so very simple to manage and very user friendly.  We’d also like to make special mention of Petrina Quinn at Aussie Butt Cream who provided her fantastic and highly recommended product through her generous association with OCF – Thankyou  Petrina, without any doubt your ‘gear’ really kept us comfortable in the saddle through the worst conditions imaginable.  I won’t describe in detail the beginnings of some chafing after the first day that actually started to heal during the ride due to Petrina’s magic crème.

We would be more than happy to answer any questions about the bikes or our experiences in preparing for and riding PBP.  Please email us at

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Coming Back

August seems to be coming up very quickly - one year on, and we are still immersed in the agonies of PBP.

Thanks to a friendly connection with Brooks England - we have been reliving the whole project once again.

But this time with a new plan in mind.

In the coming months the web site and this page will take on a new look - maybe even a new name - aiming at a futher adventure which is LEJOG in 2014.

I'll leave you with that for now.  Please keep coming back to see what we get up to in the coming year.

Bon Chance.


Monday, October 10, 2011

Paris and Versailles

I've been stalling a bit - trying to get the story and details straight in my own mind.  Funny how the chronology of things gets a little out of kilter through lack of sleep ( and note taking ).

The heading image above was taken at the hotel - packed to the rafters with Italians, some Israelis, Japanese, Thai, Americans and an Alaskan.  The deck was situated right outside the breakfast room, and a bit of a buzz started as our bikes started to come out of their cases...

While I packed away the last of the tools, Andrew ( the silent partner and powerhouse ) took a photograph for posterity, and Gav and Craig went in search of baguettes for lunch.  Then it was into the wilds around Versaille in the afternoon for a trial ride and shakedown.

( after checking out the Versaille palace gardens) We made it back to the hotel without getting lost or crashing and I ended up staying out at Guyancourt, rather than stressing and catching the train back into Paris.

There are very few images from the actual ride.  I carried a camera the whole way, and didn't fish it out once.  I only took this one at the technical inspection with my 'phone, and everyone had moved away from closely inspecting the Malvern Star by the time the camera had sorted itself to take the image.

Not a bad contrast though - titanium Litespeed in front of an 80 year old Malvern Star with wooden rims.  You may also notice the dude in the dark blue jersey - a wollen Molteni number and real woollen knickers !

To say that the tech inspectors were distracted by the wooden rims would be something of an understatement.  They didn't even bother to look at my lighting - they just wanted to know if the rims were real wood, and then turned to call over other officials for a closer look.  Nice to get some more compliments...

The next day, an afternoon train ride to drop gear with Cait in Paris, turned into a mild stress as we found ourselves a little starnded, unable to sight a taxi or the right bus stop to get from Versaille back to our hotel after dinner.  Finally the right number bus pulled up and we gratefully scampered aboard - back to the hotel by about 9 Pm, just in time to receive a txt from Andrew stating the obvious that we should be in bed ( how did he know we weren't ) - only backpack packing and a radio talkback segment to do...

Here we are downing a fruit cake, coke and water, a small pile of spare parts on the floor in the foreground waiting to be packed, waiting for Adam Spencer to call.  By 10.30 he did - mispronounced my name live on air - and it was a good lark to make jokes about our impending pain levels and the logic of riding 30's bikes across France.  A nice experience - but it meant that we were finally to bed by 11 Pm, to be up at 3.45 Am to get to Andrew by 4.45 and into the startline stadium...

Kit and Caboodle

In case you are wondering about our snazzy kit ;

 Jerseys are by Champion Systems to our own design and very nice they are too.  These really are quality items, and the guys at Champion really came up with the best price under a tight timeline - and were extremely friendly and helpful about it too - thank you so very much for delivering a few days before the promised date- that really took the stress out of the last few days at home.

We have become something of a trio of Rapha-philes of late.  The seat in their bibs is plush to say the least and little details like the pocket in the back really do speak of a quality product.  ( the chamy cream is also pretty exotically pine scented and effective, wafting scandinavian freshness into nether regions ).  Their arm and leg warmers also rate something of a mention as they are deeply fleecy warm and I needed a medium size in both - amazing given the diamater of my stick arms and legs - thanks Rapha, I feel like a bit of a muscle, with guns and thighs.  Usually size smalls are sliding down at the first opportunity.

I can't speak highly enough of the Rapha merino socks.  I made do without overshoes during the most apocalyptic weather I have ever ridden in.  My feet spent literally hours completely soaked - I squelched them out of shoes in Fougeres and they were all white and wrinkled.  But they had been warm and comfortable all day.  The socks are something like $50 for 4.  Quite reasonable and literally the best socks I've ever ridden in.

One grizzle with Rapha gear, however, is the shape of the cycling cap.  Sorry guys, but you just didn't get that one quite right.  In-situ, it looks like a small boys private school cap, pin-headed and mean ( the cap, not the boys ), without the full-bodied float of a proper Euro cotton cap.  You need to study up on a few pics of Big Mig from the early 90's, you'll get what I'm trying to say.

While on the subject of merino, I also used a Smitten underlayer with some smug snugness.  This is a really nice item, well worth taking a look at.  Thanks Carl - for a quality Tasmanian product.

I would have to remark on the rather remarkable $40 DHB rain jacket.  Scotch-guarded nylon and semi-transparent, weird large neck opening, but we stayed largely core dry and warm through heavy, heavy, heavy rain.  If folds up into a light, neat package, what more do you need ?  It completely exceeded my rather minimal expectations - I hate wearing a cape, they are generally horrible - but I was thankfull to have it along and it worked very well.

No, I didn't wear double knicks - just lathers and lathers of anti-chafing cream - re-applied at intervals through each day ( even at the side of the road ).

I only wore double socks on the last day because I was getting sore under the balls of the feet, and I wanted some extra padding.

I didn't need to wear two jerseys, and was comfortable at all points except mid-afternoon on the way to Fougeres where I think I was close to hypothermic ( because of the heavy dousing from showers ) without realising it.  I seemed warm, but my hands were losing feeling.  Double gloves and a dry cap solved that problem and I recovered with a hot meal at the next control.

Even on the night stages, I didn't wear my merino beany. 

I guess at least we looked the part...

Before the Off

But what happened on the ride ?

Final tweaks to bikes took place on Sunday the 14th of August, and a test ride into town confirmed that all seemed to be working smoothly as it should.  Importantly, Gav felt that the Aero was running the best it had to date - reassured by a swap to a NOS Philco front brake caliper and flashy Velo Orange steel stem - finally giving him some much-needed reach, without looking outlandish.

Craig also seemed calm and satisfied after some front brake cable tweaking, while my timber wheels got their first real road airing.  These little specials caused quite a stir the night before as Gav held each completed bike on the scales and found that the Malvern Star had turned from Tank ( with a capital T ) to svelte swan at the lightest mark of 12.2 Kg's.  The Whatley measured in at 12.8 and the Aero 13.8 much to Gav's good-natured dismay - the extra heft explainable by about 20cm of extra steel seat post, heavy tyres, bigger light unit and a much longer steel stem.

Together and rolling...

Allow me a moment here to recap the detail ;

1939 Sturmey Archer rear hub in the Malvern Star.  Timber rims from CBItalia ( excellent value at a shade over $200/pair landed in Tas after a 10 day wait ) and Challenge Parigi Roubaix tyres - 27mm of lightweight hand-made and sturdy feeling tubular tyre glued to each rim carefully with layers of Continental rim/tyre cement.  The Challenge tyres are the modern incarnation of Clement - in another age the last word in racing singles.  The appropriately named Parigi's had, by chance, removable valves allowing the insertion of liquid latex to give some self-sealing capability ( thanks Mick ). 

The best available option for brake pads turned out to be relatively inexpensive BBB carbon pads in a campag cartridge shape, pad holders squeezed gently to snugly fit the new items.  Lovely period brake levers came from Warren Meade ( thanks Warren ) and finished off the bike's aesthetic beautifully.  Warren also came up with a NOS nickel plated top race clamp for the headset and a packet of new ball bearings - which transformed the handling and took a lot of worry away from the preparation, as the original item had been suffering visible stress after pervious rides.

The Gear ratio was knocked down a touch to 46x18, or 69 gear inches - a little lower than Oppy's 72 single.  Low gear and high offering the legs some alternative.  Wing nuts on the front hub only - period English Hub Company low flange item at 32 spokes.  Brand spanking Roselli 18 tooth track cog screwed onto the SA hub ( after quite a wrestle to remove the worn 30's original, an operation completed using a paint stripper for warmth and a claw hammer for leverage ). NOS TDC bottom bracket cups, new ball bearings, NOS Bayliss Wiley #15 spindle and a battered but true pair of 'Utility' crank arms ( about 167.5mm in metric ).

Handlebars are Velo Orange items - the closest we could get to the original swooping steel shape - new bars swapped in to remove any concerns with metal fatigue.  I wrapped a strip of Specialized bar phat tape ( 3mm ) under some leatherette from Fizik for extra cushioning.  I contine to use ( and really recommend ) the Selle Anatomica Titanico 'leather' saddle - something like a Brooks but with significant cutouts, a synthetic leather that does stretch but doesn't need care, and offering total adjustability with a 6mm allen key- you can alter the entire feel of the saddle quickly while out riding, which is fantastic after a day out when a different pressure point is needed to ease a sore posterior.

Gav and Craig's spec remained largely as previously described.  Both changed to a very bling and lovely Velo Orange steel stem.  Gav's Aero received a NOS 'Utility' brand crank set and never-previously-used 46 chain ring, to match his NOS bottom bracket and 1/8 ball bearings and NOS Bayliss Wiley #23 spindle which solved the crank hitting the chain stay mystery.   Craig made do with his slightly longer 172.5mm Solida cranks but with a 46 ring also mounted to a NOS TDC #4 spindle, and mated to NOS bearing cups and bearings.  In both cases the result was of the oiled glass variety, despite Mick ( from The Bike Shop in Derwent Park Road ) and I failing miserably to dislodge the right hand cups from each of these frames.  Each bike has its original 80+ year old item.  I still feel a bit guilty about your B/B tool Mick - I couldn't believe that the cups could withstand the force being applied.Both Craig and Gav swapped their tyres to Vittoria Randonneurs, Craig opting for the Ultimo version with a folding bead at 32mm and Schwalbe tubes with removable valves.  I did manage to piece together a nicer front brake lever for Craig, and adjusted Gav's front lever for reach after getting better stopping results with his new Philco.  Sorry Grand Bois, we loved your tyres until we came away from 3 flats in one session on wet roads.
Both Gav and Craig used a Brooks Professional saddle.  Craig's was a new item, contorted by use to suit his anatomy.  Gav used a 1950's item from my treasured items box and found it acceptable even on the longer days.  Aluminium bottles complete the aesthetic - but proved so annoying in practice that we gave them away at Loudeac and bummed some plastic ones to use to stop the rattling.

The following day, Gav assisted to pack the bikes into our swanky hard case travel boxes, and whisked them away for transfer to the airport in the back of the trusty Commodore.  All that remained was to triple check the piles of gear spread all over the lounge room floor before cramming it into a travel pack, suitecase and two day packs.

France, here we come.

A Little More Than Co-incidence

Our Tour of Tasmania ride was covered on Annie Warburton's eveneing program just before flying, so I won't recount the tales of rain, punctures, more rain, excellent Latrobe bakery, heavier rain, more punctures, 1 minute of fame on the evening television news and a flying tail wind for the home run on the midlands...

A big thankyou to John and Faye Bloomfield again for giving up a Saturday afternoon to assist in supporting us along the coast, it was very reassuring to know that you were there along the road if we needed you, and for looking after Caity also.

The story of that ride though is really with another elderly gentelman, 82 year old 'Barney' Dunham.  Barney had secured my number through the RACT and called, hoping to learn a little more about the Aero bike - one of our trio of machines and ridden ably by Gav.  Barney explained that his father cycled and made frames in the 30's and that he had a picture of one of the bikes with the lettering Aero-Star painted on the down tube.

Some co-incidence ?

Barney offered to mail photograpghs to me, but fearing that they may get lost or damaged, I asked where he lived.  Ulverstone on the coast road to Penguin.  Would you believe that our Tour of Tasmania route would take us almost literally past his front door just four days later ?

Standing dripping wet in his carport in a momentary patch of sunshine was a really nice moment as we chatted quietly and with smiles, enjoying the three images spread out on a towel on the boot of Barney' car.  We had declined going inside as we were wet through and would have made a terrible mess in his kitchen or lounge.

Peering out of the small black and white grainy prints was a cheerful, lively looking fellow in his thirties, one astride his own racing bike, another alongside a coached rider behind the track racer with the similar name.  Although tiny, it was possible to read the Aero name, and the font ( probably typically fashionable at the time ) seemed very similar to the remaining lettering on Gav's mount. 

Barney nervously agreed to be photographed with our Aero, and I'd like to think that, for a few minutes, he held in his hand - a bike made by his father at a time when he was a small child and his father an active and industious young man.  Barney was very young when his father died, and so had no real memories of him other than those held and treasured in the photographs before us.

Thank you for calling Barney, it was a real pleasure to spend a few minutes with you.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Wheel Men

Before I really get down to the riding, French countryside, baguettes and electrical storms...

Quite a few nice things have happened along the way - rewarding in a way that PBP will never be.

The image attached is of a silver lapel badge sent to my by a 72 year old gentleman by the name of Bill Luke.  Bill had been tuned into the ABC afternoon show and listened with some interest to the 15 minutes spent talking with Richard Stubbs ( also a very generous soul who responded to our idea positively and gave us air time to plug the OCF to the Victorian audience ).  This was just a week or so before leaving for France.

Bill called the ABC studio following the interview and asked that his details be sent to me with the request that I call, as he had an old cycling medal that he would like to give to me... 

Deep in the throws of finishing up the bikes, and a little distracted, I typically took a couple of days to call - which I regret, as he struck me immediately as a very thoughtful and generous person.  He was quick to point out that he expected no payment - just thought that I might appreciate the significance of the item. 

This is as the date suggests, a membership badge of the League of Victorian Wheelmen from 1896-97.  The Wheelmen formed as the governing body for professional cyclists just a few years earlier in Victoria - and Oppy would have been a registered member on turning Professional.

When I asked, Bill exclaimed that ' it had been rattling about in a tin for about 50 years, and that his grandchildren wouldn't know what it was anyway - better to go to someone who will appreciate it...'

To say I was moved would be something of an understatement, and a little lost for the right words.

Due to my initial tardiness, the medal did not arrive by post in time to accompany us on the actual ride - however, the timing has proven quite appropriate for my current state of mind. 

What a lovely little gift to come home to following all that has happened in the last couple of weeks.  Bill, your thought and action means more to me at this point than PBP. 

I owe you a return letter Bill, and will get to it...