The story of how the club had a frame it could lend to a promising youngster like me is not a happy one.
I didn’t know Mike Podmore that well, he was a couple of years older than me and, even though we had a common friend in Oli, Mike did the kind of training that us ‘colts’ didn’t need - long miles. He would regularly knock off the ‘Akas’ ride - a 100 mile loop through the lovely Akatarawa ranges. I was happier at 10 miles absolutely flat-out, 100 would have bored me to tears at that stage of my life - a weekly 50 was plenty for me.
Let me leave the telling of the story to Oli, off his blog:
“Mike was a lad from Island Bay with a single-minded determination to succeed in his sport, with a view to eventually heading to Belgium to try his fortunes on the big Euro stage. I accompanied him on many training rides as he trained hard towards this goal, and as he prepared to race the gruelling Dulux Tour of the North Island. Along with other good race performances over the year a gutsy performance as eventual Lanterne Rouge in the 1982 Dulux (won that year by Stephen Carton) convinced him he had what it took once he’d put in “more moiles, Oli, more moiles…” so off we rode around and around the Akas until I was in the form of my life and/or completely broken.
“Eventually it came time to farewell Poddy as he flew off to meet his destiny. Sadly, that destiny proved to be a cruel one. He was killed during his first pedal strokes on Belgian soil, while riding to meet up with his new club. In the middle of the afternoon he was hit head on by a drunk driver crossing over into the wrong side of the road, killing Mike instantly. His death hit the Wellington cycling community very hard and he was sorely missed for his Muttley snicker and great good humour.”
Being killed as you left the airport to pursue a dream - how brutal is that?
Oli’s sidelong reference to his ‘lantern rouge’ performance in the Dulux Tour of New Zealand shows that Mike had the stamina, but also kinda proves the adage that you get better at the kind of riding that you do. Seems obvious, but if the kind of riding you do is long slow distance and you never put in speed work then you are going to finish the race, but you are most likely to be last.
A season racing in Belgium would have fixed that for Mike. An acquaintance of mine who tried racing there many years later said it was blisteringly fast and that you only needed one gear - the biggest one you had. And this was a man who competed in the kilo time-trial at international level.
I’m ashamed to say it but Mike’s death didn’t really register with me at the time. Death seems like a distant and odd thing to a sixteen year old. Now, being a parent, I can’t imagine anything worse. Losing a son in the prime of his life would be an endless hell.
Somehow his parents found a place of generosity inside their grief and the gave Mike’s old kit to the club. This included an ALAN, rather conveniently in my size. Spurred on by the embarrassment of having me ride around on an utter piece of crap, the club decided I would be the first recipient.
ALAN were an innovative Italian cycling company who not only produced the first aluminium racing cycle (1972) but also the first carbon racing frame (1976). Depending on who you believe ALAN stands for ALuminium ANodised, or it’s an amalgam of the owner’s first children’s names - ALberto and ANnamaria.
In an age of steel bikes ALANs looked utterly gorgeous, like polished jewels. Now days we like our bikes stealthy and back in the eighties it was all about the glossy paint job on your steel bike, so the anodised shine of the the ALAN was distinct. Being made of aluminium they were a good pound lighter than a steel frame - very important for the club ‘lift-test’ at the beginning of club runs. They were constructed by using threaded aluminium tubes that were ‘screwed and glued’ into place using techniques borrowed from the aeronautical industry. It’s a method of manufacture that seems quaint in an age of 3d printing and carbon moulding, but at the time it was radical. A bike frame that was glued together? Next you’ll be telling me they can be made out of plastic!
However there was one serious drawback. Without going into the theory of metalullurgy you will have to trust me when I say that an alloy tube of a similar diameter wall-thickness to a steel tube is going to be more flexible. Even by using thickened tubes as ALAN did the frames still felt quite ‘soft’. There was so much deflection in the seat tube I could quite comfortably get the chain grinding on the front derailleur while riding up hill sitting down.
It probably wasn’t the best frame for a burly lad like myself, but the springy nature of the construction method never stopped Sean Kelly winning tons of races on his Vitus 979 (a french bike built on the same idea).
I swapped out all my parts onto the new frame (exactly the same parts, third frame) and had a shiny new bike. This happened a month or so after my medal-winning spree at the ‘halfway’ champs. I should have been set up nicely for the Centre champs, and then possibly the nationals. There were much stronger riders in the region (Antosh and Darien and Dan for example) but I might have edged into a team at fourth or fifth spot.
But by now I just didn’t care. As the races kept going by I was rapidly losing interest.
This is the only photo I have of me racing a bike in that final year. It’s a terrible shot. You can’t see the bike and it doesn’t even look like me. I remember the race, it was a criterium around Kent and Cambridge terrace - my kind of race, short, flat and very fast. I finished third or fourth, Darien won it.
Darien won it both because he really wanted to win it. He was gunning for regional selection - which he got and he went on to do very well for himself as a cyclist.
I didn’t want to win and when you don’t want to win what’s the point in racing? I’d had enough.
It was a crazy few months.
You know when people say they changed over night for apparent reason and you think ‘nah, people don’t change that much’. Well I changed out of recognition. I’m not sure if these things were always in me looking for a way out - I guess my parents would know that - but from the inside it felt like life took a large and unexpected right turn.
Prior to this I had wanted to be a scientist. I was good at math and geography. I took economics and physics rather than art history and french. Then something strange happened. I took a series of after-school drama classes run by a Theatre in education group called ‘The Town and Country Players’.
It was like someone had thrown a switch. I simply stepped out of one life and into another and remained there for ten fun, chaotic, stressful and very poor years.
I had always had a performative streak, but in those days that kind of thing was generally considered to be ‘showing off’ and I had even been told at primary school that I needed to get it out of my system. And fuck you too Mrs Martin. But here were a bunch of feisty misfits and gloriously artistic oddballs swanning around doing trust exercises, wearing dungarees and having a ball.
Hold on. This was not about suffering. This was about, you know, being happy and joyful.
To say that I forgot about cycling is an understatement. I dropped it from my life in an instant and didn’t even notice it was gone. Cycling seemed one-dimensional in comparison, a shadow of a real experience. In theatre you connect with people - it is the basic proposition. In cycle racing the aim is to separate yourself from the crowd - that’s what winning is. I was stronger. I was better. I am different.
I’d had enough of that.
I started going to the Public library after school and listening to records at the listening booths six at a time, randomly sampling everything from Bach to American minimalism to free jazz to punk. Upstairs, in the beautiful New Zealand room, under the scowling regard of the librarian there I started to read the back catalogue of Kiwi poets and novelists and discover that New Zealand has amazing artists and writers. It was also occurring to me for the first time that New Zealand was culturally distinct. It was it’s own force.
So there in the New Zealand room, in amongst the art books and monographs, I started to discover the rich alternative seam of ‘not kiwi males’, those who had forged an identity based on art; the Sargensons and McCahons and Baxters and Curnows. Those were the big names at the time, but there were plenty more and I started to recognise them as ‘my men’. Men who were happy to push beneath the surface, look at the myths and ask questions.
I gave up tough and took up flexible and expressive instead. I started writing a journal. I started writing writing.
That was the bomb that was going off in me - culture - and in the theatre I got to take part in it. I had found a place where you were allowed to be happy and sad and difficult and provocative and arty. Where you could be all of your selves at once. This was particularly useful for someone like me who was at the time (and remain perpetually) a bit shattered. The easy thing to say here is that multiple divorces and step-fathers and all that are not a great recipe for settled personalities but I would also have to say that I am by temperament and most likely genetic lottery a person without solid borders. I seem to feel things more acutely than most others, for better and worse. The ‘artistic temperament’ I guess.
Looking back on it I can see that cycling had been an important part of my transition out of a suburban mindset. We were culturally isolated for sure, but cycling was a first bridge to an wider culture. There were connections between reading Camus and knowing what a peloton was, between learning about futurism and riding an Italian racing bike and knowing that Kraftwerk were absolute bike nuts.
I am not going to be going on about theatre in this series - this is meant to be about bikes after all - but there is a shift in emphasis I need to put to you here. From this point on I have only ever entered three races in 30 years, so if you are into road racing and the suffering and the glory well maybe you should go and read Froome’s autobiography. If you are interested in what place a bicycle can have in a life that is also about many other things, then please stay with me because there is plenty of that to come.
I have written about eight bikes so far. There’s around 25 still to do. They range from utter pieces of crap bought to save money on bus fares through to full-suspension mountain bikes through to Titanium tourers, carbon road bikes and steel fixies. We’ve got a lot of commuting to do, tons of mountain biking, a stint as a cycle courier, some touring and then, finally, a heap of Audax (long-distance road-riding). We’ve even got a bit of trials to do and some riding in skateboard bowls. My cycling history is nothing if not varied.
We’ve also got two new countries to live in, a good few ‘careers’, bouts of depression and anxiety to cope with, strange diets, many years of the glorious stupidity of youth, a bit of maturing to do and a lot of cycles I could never afford to buy to obsess over.
And the ALAN? Someone noticed that I wasn’t turning up for races and wanted the thing back. Fair enough. So suddenly I didn’t have a bike, instead I had a box of those same components I had used to put together the Pink Gios a few years previous. They probably ended up in a parts bin or on a mate’s training bike somewhere, I can’t remember now.
I saw an ALAN in the street just the other day, chained to a pole. Of course since the hipsters ‘discovered’ 80s bikes it’s nothing to see a bearded man riding a Rossin or Guercotti road frame with the stupid narrow bars on, but here was an ALAN with a old Campagnolo groupset and Cinelli drop bars on it. It could have been the very bike that I last rode in 1984.
This was the same day I was beginning to write this post - chance surely? I stood for a while gazing at it, the smokers nearby looking at me like I was mad. Still a lovely thing to look at, a proper jewel of a bike, one where the frame itself captures the spirit of engineering excellence and elegance that all bikes are but few really show.
I certainly didn’t appreciate the bike enough at the time I had it - I didn’t know it would be the nicest bike I would own for decades - nor did feel the loss of Mike nearly enough.
So, a very belated thank you to my Club and Mike’s parents now, and a quick silent prayer (what else to call it?) for Mike as I stand on the site of busy London street near enough to 35 years later.
And with that we will leave road racing behind, and take up the bicycle in a myriad of other forms. I hope you want to continue on the journey with me.
Next: Girl’s bike dandy