Zen and the art of bicycle archaeology

It’s been a strange summer. I’ve been compelled to take a lot of time off work, immobilised by a knee injury. Physically, it’s probably been for the best. But psychologically, it’s been pretty horrible. Facing an uncertain future and a vague prognosis, I found myself gradually withdrawing. But I think there’s light at the end of the tunnel. And it’s partly thanks to bicycles.

Growing up, I never really got into fixing bikes. It was always Land Rovers, for me. Bikes were a mode of transport, not a way of life. Like every teenager trying to find their way, I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — loved it, too — but I was still not entirely sold on the philosophy of fixing-as-therapy.

I got into bikes as a student in Cambridge in the mid-Noughties. My bike was pinched, and after a few days of being more-than-usually late for lectures, I walked into the bike shop on Botolph Lane. The cheapest boneshaker in their display was still out of my budget. In desperation, I pointed to a bedraggled looking lump of steel, awaiting resuscitation in the corner. The green patina suggested a recent immersion in the River Cam. Beneath that, it was black, bore the optimistic legend ‘COURIER’, and was — the bewildered staff told me — “unrideable”.

I like a challenge. Besides, I kept a Land Rover running with baler twine, gaffer tape, and hammers. How hard could a bike be? I got it going, more by luck than judgement. I struggled badly that year. I don’t remember much about that time, but I do remember the bike. I spent the summer trying to find my feet again, digging by day and restoring the bike in the evenings. I sprayed it navy blue. I kitted it out with twist-grip shifters, a cartridge bottom bracket, mudguards. I returned to Cambridge in the autumn with a steed of which I could be proud.

I was bitten by the bug. The next summer I acquired a £25 eBay wreck. It turned out to be a 1961 Raleigh Gran Sport. I turned the kitchen into a bike workshop, stayed up deep into the nights watching the Beijing Olympics, then rode off into the sharp East Anglian dawns to dig.

I spent a lot of my final year at university buying, fixing, and riding bikes. In a dim-lit cavern under the car park, a corner of the college bike store became my unofficial stable. The blue Courier was loaned to Jack Barrett. I don’t know what happened to it after that. Maybe it’s still out there on the streets. Cambridge bikes never die: like salmon, they eventually return to the river from whence they came, until the police dredge it and the cycle begins again.

I still have the Gran Sport. The stable is smaller, these days. But the process is the same. An act of renewal: stripping something bare, holding it up to the light, and putting it together in a way that improves its function. Calculating, measuring, estimating, experimenting. Preferably with cricket on the radio.

So this summer, I’ve built my son his first pedal bike. Restored one of my old hacks to its former glory. Fixed my neighbour’s bike, and her son’s. Several colleagues’, too. Buckled wheels, broken spokes, stuck brakes, no brakes, clashing gears, rasping bearings. But I’ve been on the lookout for another bike for me. Something sensible and solid, but with character, on which I can gently recuperate. Walking remains painful and laborious, but on two wheels I am free from the plodding load of each footfall. And I wanted a steed which I — knight in grease-stained armour — could rescue, even whilst my own health is suffering. Mechanic, heal thyself. Or something.

A blurry advert for a Raleigh 10-speed took me to Bromsgrove. There I met Rod, a retired teacher. He bought this bike new — couldn’t remember when. A bit of bicycle archaeology yields a date: the serial number begins ‘NK3′: built in Nottingham, in July, in a year ending in 3.  Though the styling is achingly 70s, that assumption doesn’t fit the components: the cranks suggest early 80s. Corroborating evidence comes from an ’83’ stamp on the Maillard hubs. It’s a Raleigh Medale, a model to make vintage bike connoisseurs shudder. A ‘gas-pipe special’, made from clunky, heavy steel. It’s not fast, but it’s solid.

Deeply unfashionable even when new, it seems oddly out-of-time. That sense is compounded by the condition. It still has the original brake blocks, rubber set to concrete with the passage of 35 years. The tyres, too, are as they left the factory. Slung beneath the top tube is an alloy pump, a protective cardboard washer still snug around its waist. And perched proudly on the handlebars is an analogue ‘Huret’ speedometer, red needle at the foot of a dial that optimistically tops out at 40mph. Fitted from new, Rod tells me. The odometer in the centre reads 358.

Raleigh Medale 1983

358 miles in 35 years. It has lived longer than me, this machine, but averaged just 10 miles a year. In this case, the old adage is reversed: it’s not the mileage, it’s the years that have taken their toll. Grease has dried up, rubber perished, and chrome pitted. It’s not been serviced — I doubt it’s even been cleaned — since it rolled out of the Nottingham factory gates.

I take it down the road. It’s like riding an agitated spider. The rattles come from all the wrong places. It yaws and screeches and shudders like the hulk of an old ship in a hurricane. The headset wobbles. The bearings grumble. But I love it, this Medale. And it doesn’t take much to get it running smooth and true: strip, clean, grease, repeat. Some new rubber, and a bit of gentle fettling. Heavy, unfashionable, pedestrian, it nonetheless has a quiet dignity. “With care”, it seems to say, “I’ll keep pottering on for another 35 years yet”. And that solidity, right now, is comforting.

1983 Raleigh Medale

The 1983 Raleigh Medale, after a bit of TLC