The three-speed gear

‘I do not believe in the three-speed gear at all.’ the Sergeant was saying, ‘it is a new-fangled instrument, it crucifies the legs, the half of the accidents are due to it.’

‘It is a power for the hills,’ said Gilhaney, ‘as good as a second pair of pins or a diminutive petrol motor.’

Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (1967)

This page is less concerned with books and writing than with bikes and components and things I have in the shed. Mostly, they are presented with an eye on aesthetics and what Susan Sontag refers to as the unnerving pathos of nostalgia that is actively promoted by the elegaic art of photography.

Track bike

The bicycle itself seemed to have some peculiar quality of shape or personality which gave it distinction and importance far beyond that usually possessed by such machines. It was extremely well-kept with a pleasing lustre on its dark green bars and oil bath with a clean sparkle on the rustless spokes and rims. Resting before me like a tame domestic pony, it seemed unduly small and low in relation to the Sergeant yet when I measured its height against myself I found it was bigger than any other bicycle that I knew. This was possibly due to the perfect proportion of its parts which combined merely to create a thing of surpassing grace and elegance, transcending all standards of size and reality and existing only in the absolute validity of its own unexceptionable dimensions.

Flann O’Brien, The Third Policeman (1967)

Alright, the description is of MacCruiskeen’s bike, not mine. But I think anyone who has owned a genuinely beautiful bike (probably steel) will know what he’s on about. My son Sam and I built up this track bike over about eighteen months after my old steel Paconi road bike was stolen from Melbourne’s CBD. You’ll see from the front brake that I occasionally ride it on the road, but it’s mostly a thing of beauty to look at.

Rear stays

Rear stays

The frame is Reynolds 531 and most likely English judging from the unusual wrap-over were the rear stays join the seat tube. It was branded Sugoi when the guy I bought it from got it, but the branding was not original. He had it stripped and beautifully painted by Kookie bikes in Sydney before selling it on. I’m currently running Campag Record hubs laced to Mavic Open Pro rims and have fitted Campag cranks (165), headset and seat post and a Cinelli stem and track bars.  And a nice Phil Woods bottom bracket. The frame and components are mid to late eighties but the bars are older steel bars rather than alloy and slightly smaller in diameter, which meant we had to fiddle around fitting a shim. At the moment, the forks are cheap road forks which serve the purpose for the time being. It’s a joy to ride.

Phil Wood

Retro Velo

Madone 6.9

Speaking of beautiful bikes: I got to hold Lance Armstrong’s Trek Madone 6.9 that he rode for his comeback to professional racing at this year’s Tour Down Under. There is no doubting that it’s a beautiful bike (my current race bike is a Trek), but for absolute elegance and style, it was hard to go past the beautiful old steel frame bikes that Retro Velo had on display in the foyer of the Adelaide Hilton.

1945 Hetchins

1945 Hetchins

Malvern Star 5

Malvern Star 5


Pogliani 27

Malvern Star Headset and track stem detail

Malvern Star Headset and track stem


Perhaps not in the same league, but here’s a picture of Sam (aged two or three) doing some work on my old Paconi in the early nineties.

Sam with Paconi


Reynolds 531. Custom made by Kevin Wigham through Harold at Frankston bikes. I later had it re-sprayed and the ‘Paconi Blue’ you see in this shot came out as a sort of baby powder blue. Note the toe clips and down tube friction shifters. I can still remember my first ride on it and feeling it twitching like a thoroughbred beneath me.

Liam 1988

Paconi, 1988 (photo: Warrick Wynne)

Here it is in northeast Victoria in 1988. Woolen leggings; no helmet; Ariostea / de Rosa jersey; and those sunglasses . . .

The little things

It’s funny, but it’s often the small details about a bike that serve as the real attraction: like the Merckx pantographing on this quill stem I found in the shed. Unfortunately, it was a tiny bit short for Sam’s Merckx Strada so he replaced it with a nice Cinelli stem.

Or these Campag crank bolts I searched for and bought to replace the perfectly functional bolts on my track bike that were . . . not Campag!

Centrum Ronde van Vlaanderen – Oudenaarde, Belgium

I had the good fortune to be in Belgium and northern France for the Spring Classics earlier this year (2010) and caught both the Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen) and Paris-Roubaix, both of which were won convincingly by Fabian Cancellara.

Cancellara - Paris-Roubaix 2010

Apart from visiting some of the holy sites of cycling (the Koppenberg, the Kapelmuur, Foret d’Arenberg, Carrefour de l’Arbre and the Roubaix velodrome), I spent time at the Centrum RVV in Oudenaarde where they had some beautiful classic bikes on display from past Tours of Flanders and the signature Flandria support car from the 1960s complete with race maps and numbers scattered on the back seat. It so happened that Freddy Maertens was giving a guided tour to a group of Belgians at  the time. While it was great to be in the room, everything he said was in Flemish and I didn’t understand a word of it.

Merckx's bike RVV



Boonen and Breschel on the Koppenberg

Roubaix velodrome

Belgian Sports Performance Drink

Roubaix bar

Oppy Museum, Rochester Victoria

Last month (December 2011) I spent a few nights up on the Murray River at Echuca. On the way home, we pulled in at the small town of Rochester where there’s a statue of Oppy (Sir Hubert Opperman OBE) riding his bike and a museum in his honour at the local railway station.

Oppy was born in Rochester in 1904 and went on to achieve international acclaim, particularly in France, for endurance cycling during the 1920’s and 30’s. He was a member of the first ever ‘Australian’ team (and NZ) in the Tour de France in 1928 and raced it again in 1931 when he finished 12th. He won Paris-Brest-Paris in the same year with a record time of 49h 23m. In 1935 he set the 24-hour record with 461.75 miles and went on to achieve the fastest time in the Melbourne to Warrnambool classic three times.

We parked the car out the front of the railway station only to find that the museum was shut. A sign said to ask for the key at the VicRail office opposite, in much the same way as one asks for the key to the reliquary or medieval church in small towns throughout France and Italy. The stationmaster  took three dollars entry from us then walked across, unlocked the door and let us in. ‘Just let me know when you’re finished,’ she said.

Inside, three musty smelling rooms housed the most comprehensive, personal and immediately accessible collection of Oppy memorabilia one could have imagined. Black and white photographs curled liked leaves with faded copperplate inscriptions on their backs. Oppy in Paris, Oppy in London, Oppy in Warrnambool, Oppy with the members of the first Australian Tour deFrance Team, Oppy with his arm around the shoulders of Gary Neiwand. Oppy with his beloved wife Mavys, without whom he claimed he could not have lived. And Oppy in his later years as a politician with Robert Menzies, Harold Holt and dignitaries from around the world.

There were maps and trophies, medals and jerseys, his famous beret, his pocket watch, wreaths and palmares from various races and Audax events, page after page of clippings from newspapers from around the world.


Oppy's beret and watch

But the highlight for me, and the thing my eye was immediately drawn to, was Oppy’s BSA road bike leaning casually against the wall as though he’d just stepped off it. Even without its history, it is a thing of rare beauty. Beautifully proportioned, it commands the attention of anyone  who has ever ridden a bike. I expected it to be secured to the wall or floor, but no. If you wished, you could wheel it outside and take it for a lap of Rochester. It was surprisingly light for its age and when I threw my leg across it and rested my hands where Oppy had rested his, it felt sort of right and wrong in equal measure. A perfect fit, but how could I presume?

Oppys bike

Riding Oppy's bike

Oppys BSA

Oppy's BSA, Rochester

His old Malvern Star touring bike was there as well. Aged ninety, he had taken it for one last lap of Rochester before donating it to the museum. In the back room, was a nice track bike he’d ridden in Europe and probably the saddest and least expected thing in the whole museum: the clunky old stationary exercise bike on which the great man had died in Wantirna in 1996, pedaling to the very end.

There were postcards you could buy and a visitors’ book to sign. We closed the door quietly behind us, as though we were leaving a church, thanked the stationmaster, and continued on our way.

2 responses to “The three-speed gear

  1. Frankie

    You’ve caught the moment beautifully.

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