My cycling journey
by Richard Byatt, 6 September 2017
Contact on twitter @richardbyatt
Richard Byatt's story isn’t unusual but it’s the only one he can tell - and it is reassuringly human and not about anything except the joy of bike riding: starting with a Coventry Eagle and ending in the high Alps.
On 27th May, about ten days after my 59th birthday, I finally finished riding up one of the most iconic climbs in cycling and stood at the top for the obligatory photo.
The road to the top of the Alpe d’Huez had been a long one. It began in 1967, the Summer of Love. I was nine and the object of my love was the bike owned by a boy who lived in our block of flats in central London. I followed him around the playground begging to be allowed a ride. He finally relented and I finally experienced the joy of wobbling along on two wheels.
It would be a few years before I got a bike of my own - a Coventry Eagle I recall, gold with flat handlebars and a chainguard. I have no idea what happened to it. A succession of cycles followed, mostly sturdy touring models - I didn’t know cycling clubs or bike racing existed.
We moved to south-east London and with my older brother I explored the roads out into the countryside of Kent, although we didn’t get much further than the “edge of the known world” aka Biggin Hill. I went to school just a mile or so from the famous Herne Hill Velodrome but was only dimly aware of its existence.
There was a brief flirtation with a moped, the infamous Yamaha FS1E, but it didn’t really stick. I went off to university with a Sturmey Archer 3-speeder and clocked up a few miles on the roads around Dundee and across the Tay in Fife.
in 1981 and back in London it was the first of three bikes to be stolen. It disappeared from the hallway of my Hampstead flatshare. Its replacement was a beautiful bright red one from the London Bicycle Company on Long Acre - that was nicked from the top floor of an old banana warehouse in Covent Garden where I was working in my second job.
I borrowed my partner’s bike and left it outside a chip shop in Islington for just a few seconds too long. Back to the shop and time for another new bike - a 1984 Claud Butler Special, 5-speed with downtube shifters - and a D-lock.
We moved out to Kent in 1986. Apart from commuting for a few years I didn’t use the bike that much. Once a year I tackled the London to Brighton bike for the British Heart Foundation and pushed it up Ditchling Beacon before speeding down to the sea. The rest of the time the Claud Butler languished in the garden shed, a home to spiders and rust.
Fast forward to 2012 and I had just come through a rather nasty redundancy. My confidence had taken a hit and I was suffering from anxiety attacks. The doctor asked if I did much physical exercise. I mentioned that I used to cycle and he said I should get back on the bike.
I looked up cycling clubs and came across San Fairy Ann CC, founded in 1922 and one of the oldest in the country. I joined a Saturday club ride and found myself in a group pedalling around the lanes of the Weald trying to understand strange hand signals and wondering why riders kept shouting “Oil Up!” whenever a car went by.
It felt very cliquey and I wasn’t sure if it was for me but I stuck with it and gradually cycling worked its magic. Kent is criss-crossed by lanes and our ride leaders managed to find the most obscure ones. I had no idea where we were going but we always emerged at a café somewhere. We were a disparate bunch, united by a love of getting out in the country under our own power. There was no bike snobbery and we rarely talked about what people did for a living. For many I suspect the Saturday club run was a weekly refuge from daily life - it certainly helped me.
After a while I realised I needed a “better” bike. I hadn’t bought one for 30 years and had no idea what to get so sought advice from any and every quarter. I certainly knew I didn’t want one of those fancy carbon-framed models. I liked the look of a silver 9-speed Cannondale I saw in Evans at Victoria. It had cantilever brakes which I was sure were the best you could get! I took a quick spin down Vauxhall Bridge Road to the river and along the Embankment, trying to figure how to change gear without veering wildly off course. Later that day I went back, bought the bike and took it proudly home to Kent on the train.
A few weeks later someone said, I see you bought a cyclocross bike then - I had no idea!
I moved “up” a group at the club and started to lead rides, making good friends in the process. We entered local sportives, often in support of charities and I started to realise why some riders love hills.
I mentioned the Claud Butler to Andy Brown (one of the founders of Just Ride the Bike). He’d given me good advice and encouragement on my entry back into cycling. Andy said I should hang onto it, maybe do it up.
I stripped the bike down, taking photographs of everything along the way. The bottom bracket eventually came out but was destroyed in the process. It took a blow torch to get the seat tube out. After some online research I sent the frame off to Argos Racing Cycles in Bristol. They did a beautiful job - respray in metallic blue and all the “original” decals replaced.
Apart from a new sealed BB, seat post, head set, cables and bar tape, everything went back on. It was fun to be working with my brother, who has an engineer’s brain and a mechanic’s hands. When we finished rebuilding it, the annoying squeak from the frame was still there.
Climbing the lanes and tracks of the Peak District had been hard, I needed a lighter bike with more gears. After much research I spent more than I thought it was possible to spend on a new bicycle - a carbon Scott Solace with fearsome disc brakes. How did this happen?
A new bike needed a new challenge. I spotted a post on Facebook for a company running cycling breaks in France. Their USP is that your bike travels in a customised trailer. Five of us signed up to ride in the Dordogne for a week with La Vie en Velo.
The cycling bug
I’d clearly caught the cycling bug and began exploring some of the many variations. I joined a club track session at the Olympic Velodrome, starting on the flat thinking, “I’ll never be able to ride on that incline”, to speeding round the top of the banking thinking, “I’ll never be able to stop this bike without falling off.”
I nipped over to Paris to see the finish of the Tour de France and did my first 100 mile ride. I organised visits to watch cycling films; to see Ned Boulting’s excellent one-man show, Bikeology; and to a clever theatre production portraying the rivalry of Lance Amstrong and Marco Pantani on the slopes of Mont Ventoux. I put the ‘100 Greatest Climbs’ app on my phone.
We booked up again with La Vie en Velo, this time for the Alps, with very little idea of what we were letting ourselves in for. We knew we had to do some training and managed to keep this going, just about, through the winter. Those normally averse to climbing hills started logging regular 2,000 ft ascents on Strava. A few of us tackled the Surrey Hills and I finally rode up Ditchling Beacon.
None of us had done anything like this before and we were the first group La Vie en Velo had taken to the Alps, so it would be a new experience for everyone. As the departure date loomed the worries grew. Would we manage ANY of the climbs? Did we have the right gear … and gears? What about the altitude and the weather?
We did manage it. It was great and you can read about the trip, and some others, in 'Where to Ride'.
For now it’s back to the regular club rides. The bikes (and the riders) come in all shapes and sizes. Some people have been riding all their lives, others have taken it up recently, switched from other sports or are recovering from injury.
No-one’s left behind and we help each other out. We have fractured conversations over several miles, picked up when it’s safe to ride side by side again. I’ve made some great friends through cycling and learned so much from them.
Because ultimately it’s not about hubs, Strava, aero socks, the Vuelta, diet or marginal gains. It’s about the people and it’s about getting out there. It’s about recapturing that innocent pleasure I experienced fifty years ago when I first got on a bike and rode off into the future.
Meanwhile … we’ve just booked another trip. The Giant of Provence, Mont Ventoux, awaits.
Richard Byatt is a former B2B magazine and website editor now working freelance but spending too much time riding bikes. He will be posting more reports from his trips abroad and attempts to bag the 100 greatest climbs. Watch this space for more.