Standing in the kitchen and begging my father for $100.
He was not budging. His line was that this cycling thing would pass, like so many things pass in a teenager’s fancy, and he would be footing the bill for something that got abandoned and forgotten.
I knew he was wrong. I knew that this cycling thing wasn’t a fancy. Yes, it was a lot of money at the time, specially for something second-hand. But I knew that $100 was nothing to pay for a set of wings.
What I was pleading for were The Wheels.
Just before I got ‘The Gios’ I made a connection with a German Guy. He lived on the same street as Woody the drummer, so maybe he introduced me. Or it might have been the local paper. Remember those?
However it happened I found myself sitting in his house looking at a pair of wheels. All the wheels I had seen or ridden before had steel rims and big thick spokes - built to last, not built for fast. What the German Guy had in front of him was a pair or racing wheels. Campagnolo Hubs laced to Fiamme Red label tubular (‘sew up’) rims. The spokes looked like piano wire they were so thin.
I picked one up. I could scarcely believe it. My hand did that involuntary thing where it shot up because I was expecting something heavy. They seemed to be impossibly light, they must have been half the weight of the wheels on my Ten Speed - how could these things actually hold a person up?
Even by todays standards these things were light - a Campagnolo Record back hub was around 250g and the rims 330g. So I’m guessing a built up wheelset minus tyres and cogs would be in the 1.5kg territory. That would cost around a thousand pounds in today’s money.
Not only were they light they also spun forever. I am not one to drool over mechanical aesthetics but those hubs were smooth and very good looking. And they were made in Italy. In the real Europe. By Campagnolo. I am not going to do chapter and verse on ‘Campi’, but Tullio, the companies founder, was the one who invented the quick-release - something that hasn’t changed that much in nearing a hundred years. Campagnolo dominated the racing bicycle parts market for many decades, until the 80s when the Japanese started to want in on the act.
I told the German I didn’t have the money, couldn’t afford it. He wasn’t stupid, he understood. But you have to try them, he said. He pumped up the tyres and we went out and dropped them onto my bike, he adjusted the brakes and let me loose on them.
Riding down Otaki Street they felt weird. Because they were so much lighter than my current wheels they had less centrifugal energy and so the bike felt tippy and odd. Not a great start.
The magic happened when I turned around and rode back up.
When people say that it doesn’t really matter what you ride I think back to those five minutes spent climbing back up to the German’s house. These wheels made a huge difference. It was like someone had given me an anti-gravity halo that bent the time-space contiuum and had me riding up the hill 50% faster for no extra effort. Or like Mercury, the winged messenger, was just behind me, pushing me up the hill.
In cycling wheels matter. Two wheels turning and their accompanying gyroscopic force are the magic that make the whole thing work. And spokes - who thought of that? Who came up with this outrageous idea that 2kg of metal arranged in such a perfect way, can keep someone weighing 50 times as much off the ground at fifty miles an hour? It seems barely credible.
Beyond that minor miracle I have to say that which wheels you have matters too. An ordinary frame with extraordinary wheels is a much better bet than an extraordinary frame with ordinary wheels. People will spend £2000 on a bike with average wheels where they would be much better off buying a £1000 bike and spending the extra £1000 on some good wheels. But then image counts, and that £1000 bike with the good wheels doesn’t look as good as the £2000 bike, even though it will be quicker - people like to be seen to be in the know with their… what shall we call them? Preferences? Brand values? Biases? Snobbery?
Once you’ve been around bikes and cyclists a while you start to look at rider’s wheels, not their frames so much. A lot of riders will buy ‘factory’ wheels at various price points and some will spend the time to get wheels made for them, carefully selecting hubs and rims, going into detail about spoke counts and weights and rim widths, choosing a good builder and paying a little bit more for a custom set of hoops that suit their style of riding, their weight, their budget. Hand made wheels are the mark of someone who knows what they want to be doing, whether that it touring around the world or going as fast as possible for ten miles.
After burning back up the hill I got back to the German’s house winded but wildly ecstatic. I wanted these things very very badly. Not only were they fast they made you want to go faster. Can you become addicted to pure sensation? Of course you can, and these were cycling crack.
The German Wanted $100. That was $100 I didn’t have at the moment. That was many weeks of delivering papers.
So I went home to dad and begged. It was a lot of money for him too, not that he didn’t have money but he had a brutal financial plan - pay off the house as quickly as possible so that he could retire and go sailing.
In the end he made some complicated arrangement with Mum that I was never party too. I didn’t know at the time that Mum was paying ‘maintenance’ and, despite her lower wage, she was effectively paying for the majority of my upbringing, so really he didn’t have much of a leg to stand on if Mum thought it was ok.
She must have thought it was ok.
I got the wheels, and they formed the backbone of my racing cycling over the next couple of years. I had four different racing bikes through this period, and this set of wheels got popped into every one of them come race day.
So my father was wrong about cycling being a passing fad. To be fair he was right about tattoos and the future importance of computers, but The Wheels, while they may be abandoned are never forgotten. Though I haven’t seen them since 1994 I still have them. They are hidden right down the back of my father’s attic - an act of Oedipal revenge?
They will only have totemic value now as they have probably rotted and corroded to dust, but as far as things go the only objects I have owned which have had a bigger impact on my life was my first computer, and, much much later, a maisonette in London.
Next: Gios Negra