Cycling is fast becoming the nation’s favourite sport after Tour de France 2012. SWXX speaks to Richard Gibbens, founder of Proud to Ride Classic, a bicycle refurbishment workshop based in Lancaster. He is also an accomplished photographer who documents the scenic landscapes along his cycling routes. Gibbens explains how he manages his passion and enjoy the best of both worlds.
SWXX: Cycling is now more than a cost-effective means to get from A to B. People cycle to become healthy, to socialise and enjoy the landscape while riding their beloved bikes. What is your approach to cycling as a recreational experience?
RG: As a cycle campaigner I’m passionate about cycling not least because of the additional benefits you mention: it’s a ‘win, win, win’ transport solution. And it can be just for fun. Picture the stream of bike-bedecked cars heading for mountain bike or road race venues. Those bikes are essentially just sports equipment, like so many golf clubs or tennis raquets.
I’m not overjoyed to see cycling generate car journeys, but they suggest we should probably add ‘sporting competition’ to your list. I recognise that the lightweight steel racing bikes I refurbish were themselves built for competitive sporting use, not A to B transport. Indeed much of their aesthetic appeal lies in their no-compromise, optimised-for-speed minimalism.
On the other hand, getting to the shops or to work you don’t necessarily want a line of dirty water up the back of your clothing, or to carry everything on your back. That’s why most of my customers have at least one other bike, with mudguards, a pannier rack and low gears to haul everyday loads.
So professionally my approach is to check with customers what they’re looking for. I won’t sell a lean, mean machine with zero mudguard clearances and racy gear ratios pretending it’s a bike for all-round transport. These are bikes to have fun on.
As for me, no way am I a competitive cyclist. With my wife Jennifer I enjoy café circuits locally or expeditions in Europe where it’s all about people and culture, not speed, for example last year’s Milestones Ride (See gallery here). The only events I participate in are occasional sportives, where I’m chuffed if I get back before the sweepers.
Yet for me a whizz round the lanes (or across London or Manchester) on a classic racing bike is utterly intoxicating. That’s my personal experience: non-competitive, yet joyful at the speed, the freedom, and the feel of a sharply tuned, responsive machine. It seems to amplify my physical energy and engages all my senses in a thrilling yet safe traversal of the landscape. I want to share this experience with as many people as possible.
SWXX: Proud to Ride Classic comes across as a creative enterprise that implements sustainable practice, such as bike refurbishment. What are the advantages and challenges that you face in order to do this?
RG: ‘A creative enterprise that implements sustainable practice’ – I like that description! Creative, yes, because the bikes I work with are hand built, many by identifiable artisans. And if we’re to ‘reduce, re-use, recycle’, then I’m re-using the fruits of their labour – surely a sustainable practice.
The advantages are many: There’s the thrill of road testing a newly refurbished bike that perhaps hasn’t been ridden for 20 years. This wonderful moment is often the culmination of many days’ problem solving and detective work, sourcing long-discontinued components to restore harmonious function. How much more challenging this quest would be without the Internet and sites like www.sheldonbrown.com, www.classicrendezvous.com and countless online forums like those at http://road.cc. So another advantage is the sense of belonging to an enthusiastic and generous community.
The social advantages don’t stop with online connections. I enjoy meeting my vendors, usually cyclists like myself who have tales to tell about happy days on the bicycles I’m buying. It can be poignant for them when I wheel away their companion of former years, especially if they’ve stopped cycling, but even if they’ve decamped to carbon fibre. So the encounter is not just commercial, but personal. It’s often important to a seller to know that their treasured bike will have an appreciative home and a new lease of life.
I’ve already hinted that there are challenges in turning a box of quarter-century old components and a frame into a sleek racing bike. If the bike came complete, there’s a chance I’ll only have to dismantle, clean and lubricate, knowing that everything belongs together.
More often than not, though, something is worn out, and then it can be a challenge finding a replacement that’s compatible with everything else. Often it’s a case of needing that ha’p’orth of tar before the ship will float: recently I found that a tiny component, the seat bolt that clamps the seat post into the frame, was missing. The bolt was a specific shape and size to fit a frame last manufactured 15 years ago. Without it, all the wheels, brakes, gears and other compatible components I’d painstakingly assembled were tinsel, as there was no way to secure the saddle so the bike could be ridden.
By sheer good fortune, I found in a box of bits a bolt that just happened to fit, and the bike was good to go. This illustrates not only the frustrations of refurbishment, but also the elegant minimalism of a machine where no part can be dispensed with.
SWXX: Do you enjoy discovering classic gems and restoring them to former glory?
RG: Yes, I certainly enjoy discovering classic gems in out of the way corners, like the early 1950s tandem near Knott End where a ferry crosses the Wyre Estuary to Fleetwood, or the Reynolds 531 Professional racer by the ice-fringed west shore of Windermere, overlooked by snowy mountains.
So the discovery is fun, as is the moment when a fine old racer takes to the road again. ‘Former glory’ may imply as-new restoration, which I don’t attempt. As a commercial proposition it adds disproportionate labour costs to all but the most exotically precious bikes.
A scarce Pinarello may warrant it, but if I were to apply the treatment to a modern classic like my red Harry Hall, it would become inaccessibly expensive and an objet d’art more than a vehicle. I’m in awe of the dedication and expertise of those who research and recreate classic bikes in every authentic detail, as here at www.classicrendezvous.com.
However my focus is on riding, which is unimpaired if the bike sports a patina of age or some non-original components. More on the philosophy of restoration here.
SWXX: I find that you have successfully combine the activity of cycling and the documenting landscape through photography successfully. As a townie I really envy looking through your Flickr photos! Which landscape do you find most fascinating, and what camera equipments do you bring while cycling normally?
RG: Thank you. It’s so rewarding to know my photos are appreciated, as photography is another lifelong passion! Before the internet, sharing and discussing others’ photos was much harder, whereas now photographers can participate in a kind of online photo salon. When you say ‘envy’, I hope I don’t come across as smug about my home region. The openness and wildness of northern hills and mountains are in my blood, but photographically have no more intrinsic merit than the fine London reportage I regularly enjoy on SWXX and zarinaholmes.org.
As a mountaineer, it’s self-evident that I love mountain landscapes, both to travel through and to photograph. I was fortunate to have quite a number of mountain landscapes appear in books by publishers and authors like Richard Gilbert, Peter Hodgkiss and Ken Wilson during the 1980s and 90s. Now I spend less time I in the mountains proper, but it’s still open, rugged spaces that attract me. I’ve discovered this whole new wilderness on my doorstep – the Forest of Bowland – and because it’s so little known this is the landscape I currently find most fascinating. Lacking the obvious drama of actual mountains, it’s all the more absorbing in requiring more creativity to make compositions work.
I pare down my equipment quite ruthlessly for cycling, as I don’t like putting camera gear in panniers, and on a fast road bike the only real luggage carrying capacity is on one’s back. So I generally use a standard zoom lens like the Canon 24-105 L or, if I need to be lighter laden still, I use the 17-40 L on my smaller APS-C body. I can’t bring myself to use a compact, especially not one with only an LCD screen that you have to hold at arm’s length.
There are many styles, approaches and subject matters in photography, and that the landscapes I photograph are not ‘superior’ to your more urban ones – each of us tries to capture the essence of where we live, and the people and streets are aesthetically no less valid than my upland scenery. I feel your blog illustrate this principle perfectly.
SWXX: What is Richard Gibbens’ favourite cycling route?
RG: My favourite ever cycling route is that from Guillestre in the Queyras alps in France to the 2,744 metre Col Agnel, which was used last year by the Tour de France. I did this with my wife Jennifer, and we made sure we could relish it by taking two days for the round trip. The view from the top of Monte Viso and the Ecrins was unforgettable.
Locally, my favourite ride is any or all of the route followed by www.le-terrier.co.uk, especially the remote, often high roads of the Forest of Bowland. For the cyclist who dislikes cars and doesn’t mind the fierce ascents, cattle grids and gates, this is a slice of heaven. It’s as cycling must have been in the 1950s.
SWXX: Any cycling tips for SWXX readers?
RG: It’s difficult to give universal tips, because people cycle for so many different reasons, in diverse settings. Perhaps the main tip is ‘just do it’! What cycling needs is lots of people visibly participating, occupying road space, so that through their very presence in numbers cyclists reclaim their right to the road and to feel comfortable and respected there.
Beyond that, I’d say value cycling enough in your own life to make sure it has a chance of being fun. I’m saddened to see people de-prioritise their cycling budget to the extent of buying the cheapest, heaviest, nastiest bike and failing to equip it properly. I’m thinking of the supermarket full-suspension fake mountain bike with no mudguards and no way of carrying luggage. How can pedalling such an inefficient, impractical beast seduce anyone into cycling? Especially when, all too soon, it breaks down and rusts away in the back yard.
So my other top tip is re-assess your priorities, spend enough at your local bike shop to get a good quality lightweight bike with the equipment needed for the usage you have in mind, and learn how to do basic maintenance. That way you’ll discover the joy of a responsive and durable steed that you’ll be looking for excuses to ride. Cycling should feel much more involving, and thus more empowering, than car ownership.
Thank you very much for this most enjoyable interview. I’ve valued the opportunity to think about my own values and future direction.