Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A Teenage Dream Machine and a Stolen Bike.

My first cycling hero was Reg Harris, the World Sprint Champion who was a household name in Britain in the early fifties. In 1952 I went to the London Cycle Show where Dunlop were showing a movie of the ’52 cycling season. Harris was strongly represented in the movie but the rider that impressed me most was the winner of that year’s Tour de France, the great Italian Fausto Coppi. I went back about six times to see that movie and each time marveled at the power and style of Coppi in the Alps as he, it seemed, pedaled effortlessly away from his rivals. It wasn’t only Coppi that impressed me but also his wonderful, classy looking Bianchi bike equipped with the new Campagnolo Gran Sport derailleurs. I was determined that I was going to have a bike like Coppi’s. However Bianchis were unavailable in Britain as far as I knew and so I would have to settle for a locally made bike built in the style of the Bianchi.

Fausto Coppi on his Bianchi during the 1952 Tour de France

In 1953 at the age of fifteen I saved all my paper route money to buy a new bike. I had a custom frame built by local South London builder Stuart Purves and had it finished in Bianchi celeste with chrome lugs. I started to equip it with the best equipment that I could afford. Campagnolo had recently introduced their revolutionary Gran Sport derailleur and I was determined to set up my dream bike with one. The regular price on this derailleur was 3 pounds 12 shillings, which was about three times the price of the very popular Simplex Tour de France. However I managed to get a deal at Claud Butler’s shop. They had one that had the fancy drilled out pulleys removed and replaced with Simplex pulleys and sold it to me for two pounds. This new Campag derailleur was without doubt one of the finest pieces of bike equipment ever made and when I had fitted it to my celeste Purves I was the envy of all my club mates.
I used that derailleur on a succession of different frames over the next few years and eventually, when it got rather worn, replaced it with a later model Gran Sport. However, I kept that original one. It would now fetch quite a good price on ebay.
My fascination with Fausto Coppi never waned. I bought a Bianchi very similar to the one Fausto won the 1950 Paris-Roubaix on and always wanted to put together a replica of his 1952 Tour de France bike.

Fausto Coppi winning the 1950 Paris-Roubaix with Campag Paris-Roubaix equipped Bianchi

Many years later in the nineties I found an advertisement for the correct 1952 Bianchi frame in the British magazine Cycling, and had a good friend in England pick it up for me and bring it to Toronto on his next trip. I had the derailleurs and slowly managed to piece together all the other parts.
Eventually the bike was complete and I proudly displayed it in our Toronto store.
Then one night, I was woken by the alarm company. Someone had broken in. When I got to the shop the front window was smashed and two bikes were missing. One was the Bianchi. Whoever stole it probably had no idea what they had stolen as it was just one of the two bikes closest to the window. I let the other shops around town know about it and asked them to keep their eyes open.
About a month later a friend and mechanic at a downtown store called to say that he had what seemed to be the rear wheel of the Bianchi. I rushed to his shop and there was no doubt that it was the wheel. Someone had brought it in to have a new tubular fitted.
At that point I made the first of three mistakes in the stolen Bianchi saga. I called the police. Two very polite and pleasant constables arrived and waited around until the fellow that had brought the wheel in returned to pick it up. He was arrested and charged with steeling a bicycle wheel. They made no effort to see if he had the bike. If I had waited for the guy and offered him a few hundred bucks I’m sure that I would have had the bike back.
We all went to court and he gave a sob story that he had needed the wheel to get his bike going as he was out of work and had no other way to get to job interviews. He said that he paid fifty dollars for it to a guy on the street. Case dismissed.
Then I made the second mistake. I should have gone up to him outside the court and offered the few hundred bucks but I was so mad that I didn’t. I am sure that he had the complete bike.
That was all about ten years ago and I had given up all hope of ever seeing the Bianchi again. Then about two years ago a customer named Will came to our shop asking for celeste cable casing. He explained that his girl friend’s uncle had given him an old Bianchi that he had found by the side of the road in Oshawa. That is about fifty kms from where the bike was stolen. He described it and it sounded very much like my Bianchi.
That is when I made the third mistake. Instead of asking to buy it from him and driving to his house there and then I persuaded him that he should bring it to the shop and we would see if we could help him restore it. He agreed to this and for the next few weeks I anxiously awaited his arrival. He never came and I again gave up hope of ever seeing the Bianchi again.
Then a few days ago I got an e-mail from a fellow named Josh. He had just bought a fifties Bianchi from Craig’s list. He said that the serial number had been filed off so he felt sure it was a stolen bike. As our shop was the most likely in the Toronto area to have restored or dealt in such a bike he contacted me. He described the bike and immediately it became apparent that it was mine. He had paid four hundred dollars for it and refused my offer to pay him twice that to get it back. He insisted that I pay him only the four hundred dollars even though he knew that the rear derailleur alone was worth much more than that.

The Bianchi as I received it back from Josh.

And so I have the Bianchi back. It is almost complete except that the Campag. ‘bar end levers had been removed and replaced by a fine pair of Shimano SIS stem shifters.

I'm not sure what Fausto would have thought of these.

It came back with a rather nasty rear wheel but I have the original which was returned to me by the police after the court case.
That may have been the end of the story but the day after I got the bike back I got a call from Will, the guy that had been in the shop two years ago. It was he that had sold the bike on Craig’s list. He heard from Josh that it was a stolen bike and that it belonged to me. He insisted that he return to me the four hundred dollars that he had received for it. He said that he didn't want to make money from stolen property.
What a couple of great guys these two turned out to be. Josh knew that he had a valuable bike and that he could easily have sold all of its components for a substantial profit on e-bay. Will didn’t realize the bikes value but was certainly under no obligation to return the money he had received for it. The 1952 Campag Gran Sport Extra derailleur. The missing bits came back in a plastic bag.


For me the bike is irreplaceable as I put it together with a childhood vision, dream, and hard work. Like an old song that reminds you of your teenage years the bike brings back emotion and a million memories for me. It is not only a bike but also a piece of my youth.
Now that bike will be restored again. It has suffered a bit over the years but there is nothing that a little TLC will not fix.

It does need a bit of sprucing up but overall it is in pretty good shape.


It would be nice if the bike could talk and could fill in the missing gaps in the last ten years.

13 comments:

Michael S said...

That's a great story with an even greater ending!

richard b said...

What michael s said. it is a great story. sorry i missed you guys in valkenburg. i'm sure you had a great time, and i'm glad you're back behind the keyboard.

dbrk said...

Now if you decide to remove those splendid Shimano stem shifters be sure to offer them to me first unless you have an eye for their true value on eBay!

Great story, Mike. Thanks for taking the time and making the effort to post it for us all.

Taliah said...

That's a beautiful story,
I'm so glad you got your bike back

Badger said...

Full circle, in this day and age you don't get to many stories like this floating about. Well done to both Josh and Will.

Michael said...

What a great story! I hope the bike is in a secure location now!

johnb said...

What a great story, Mike! The truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction. Nobody could have made that up if they tried.

People build and collect vintage bikes for many reasons. However, building up a bike from one's youth is the best reason as far as I'm concerned. My first "real" bike, when I was a young teenager in the UK was a 1953 Claud Butler "New Allrounder". Over the years I've always regretted not bringing it with me when my family emigrated to Canada. Last year I found a 1951 New Allrounder frame on eBay and snagged it for $100 plus $150 shipping. I've been accumulating bits for it over the months and one day I'll have it painted up the same colour as my original Claud.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mike.
Will and Josh are great guys. I'm glad you shared that story. I have been hearing bits and pieces of it over the past few weeks.

Peter Leiss said...

So it finally came back. You know we have been keeping an eye out for it years, I guess we can now stop looking at every Bianchi we see.

Brock May said...

Great ending to a beautifully told story Mike.
Can't wait to see your restoration.

Cheers,
Brock, Vancouver, BC

http://ithinkbikes.com said...

True love will never die.

Don said...

It's sad but true. The USA has more violent crime, but Canada has 2x the petty thefts of America, on a per-capita basis, and an overall higher crime rate.

JMP said...

A well-told tale and one that I'm glad ended happily for you, Mike.

I raced against your son when we were Juniors, and had the pleasure of nipping him on the line for 1st at the Tour of Somerville in 1993.

While I may have beaten him in that one race, he certainly eclipsed me and I'm sure you must be proud of the rider and person he's become.