The resurgence of vintage road bikes

The resurgence of vintage road bikes

In the high-tech, gadget laden, lycra-clad world of modern day cycling, there’s an equal and opposite movement going on, prompted by the phenomenon that is L’Eroica.

In this parallel universe, the bicycles have steel frames, with their gearshifters on the downtubes and delicate tubing in (literally) heavy contrast to today’s lightweight alloy and carbon fibre. And the riders wear long shorts and caps, not helmets.

This new trend has been accelerated by the L’Eroica festivals, a series of increasingly popular cycling events around the world, the most recent of which was in Tuscany, for bikes of 1987 and earlier. It has helped to fuel a resurgence of interest in vintage road bikes that sees eBay and cycling forums buzzing, and a new generation of old-tech specialists.

Brian Reid of Golden Age Cycles

One of the most successful of these new vintage bicycle sellers is Brian Reid of Golden Age Cycles. He’s a technology teacher who realised that his passion for old bikes could lead to a new career. He’s just moved his stock of over 200 bikes to a new base at Bicester Heritage, the remarkable centre of classic car trade in the restored buildings of a former World War 2 RAF bomber base, the most original such facility in the UK.

‘I’m not sure whether this is a bike shop, an art gallery or a museum,’ says Brian as he unlocks the door to his unit in which three rooms are packed wall to wall with vintage bicycles. ‘I’m just a kind of dating agent, putting people in touch with the bikes they love.’

Collectible bikes

In many cases, the bikes ‘they’, Brian’s customers, love are the models that they owned as teenagers or that ‘the rich kid up the road owned’ back then. Others remember their dad’s bike – including Brian, whose dad never had a driving licence but cycled everywhere on a 1959 Bill Hurlow Condow (‘I caught the disease!’ says Brian). Many have jumped on the Bradley Wiggins-inspired cycling upsurge, and are now looking for something different, to supplement their modern road bikes.

There’s no shortage of such bikes, but there’s a big difference in simply an ‘old’ bicycle, and a bike that is worth restoring, cherishing and collecting. Fortunately, the price threshold of the collectible bikes is relatively low, and Brian reckons it’s possible to start at just £150-250 – though he recommends going in a bit higher if possible.

‘For anything below £200 prices are stable, but from £400-500 they’re really selling, and becoming very collectible,’ says Brian, who has seen prices double in the three years that he’s been trading. ‘At the lowest price levels you can buy a Raleigh, Carlton, Holdsworth or Claude Butler of the 1980s. They’re easy to find and you can still buy spares for them.

1920s to nineties bikes

‘Usually, though, I steer my customers towards a Mercian – they’ve always been a good make, still going, and they’re solid and reliable. My expertise was in 1960s to ‘90s bikes but as I’ve gained in confidence I’ve started to stock bikes from the 1920s-onwards. The older the bike the more interesting it is to ride, but until the 1960s they have a very limited range of gears, so the early bikes are really for the hardnut enthusiasts.

Brian digs out three very different bikes from his mind-boggling stock to demonstrate his point. First, an early 1980s white Raleigh Rapide, priced at just £150; mass-produced and now a little scruffy but still sporting Reynolds 531 tubing (a frame made from Reynolds 501 or, better, 531 should be the minimum starting point) and desirable Campagnolo gears. Next up, a green and yellow Dabro, one of just 12 bikes hand-made by the Davis Brothers in Chelmsford, Essex. ‘This will feel much lighter and tighter than the Raleigh,’ says Brian. He’s selling it for £650. The third is a Colnago Master Pui, an exquisite Italian bicycle priced at £1895. ‘If a Hetchings is the Rolls-Royce of bicycles, then this is the Ferrari,’ says Brian.

The ‘curly Hetchins’, Penny Farthing and Raleigh Choppers

Ah yes, the Hetchings. We’ve left these until last because for Brian they’re the holy grail – it’s telling that he chooses one for his portrait picture. They’re legendary British bike that have been built since the 1930s, and known for their high levels of craftsmanship. The most valuable are the ‘curly Hetchins’, named after the beautifully intricate stays and lugs that form the frame’s structure. They can easily fetch £2000 or more.This is where Brian’s heart lies, though his stock also includes a Penny Farthing, Raleigh Choppers (‘prices have gone crazy for Choppers again’) and he’s noted that early mountain bikes are now gaining in value.

As for L’Eroica, trends change every year. ‘Three years ago I was seeing a lot of black bikes of the 1940s and ‘50s,’ says Brian. ‘Last year it was Hetchins, and this year there were far more Italian models. A vintage bike isn’t a rational purchase – it’s all about emotion and nostalgia, and that’s what makes it so good.’

For more, visit L’Eroica. To see Brian’s stock visit Golden Age Cycle.

Writer: David Lillywhite