I’ve always had a fascination with cycling images from the past. In the early rise of the internet, I collected photos on a hard-drive and posted them on a Tumblr account. This lead to online conversations with many people from all over the cycling world. I still like scouring the web for images of cycling past. I am fascinated by the history of club rides and personal stories and how the bike plays a roll in the lives of so many people. Some of the best tales and rides are done by those who wouldn’t even declare themselves athletes!
I introduced myself to Felix on Flickr, after finding some of his photos from his tours around Ireland in the mid-1980s. I sent him a message, introducing myself and asked if I could do a Q&A to publish on this Journal. The result of our conversations is below.
Many thanks to Felix for being so generous with his time and for allowing me to publish his great photos here.
Click on photos to enlarge
What is your most memorable moment on the bike or involved with cycling?
That's a tricky one when one hasn't really achieved any great cycling heights and no ride or tour really stands out. Perhaps it was plucking up courage after a phone call [to inquire whether his entry in Richard's Bicycle Book was still valid] to go and visit Major Nichols to discuss ordering a hand-made bike. Most of my CTC group were riding Ephgrave, Condor or Hobbs cycles and I needed something a little exotic.
I can still see myself cycling up Raglan Road in Cape Hill on my mass-produced Claud Butler and spending what seemed like hours in his shop listening to the master talk about components and racing cyclists I'd never heard off, nodding vigorously, hoping he'd make me a bike. He was 68 at that time. He did and I'm still riding that one. He built me a couple more frames after that as he seemed to like me [not universal].
He died 14 years ago at an advanced age but his frames still live on.
I noticed you spent 7 years cycling returning to Ireland to ride. Can you tell us a bit more about that. What was it that drew you to Ireland?
I'd already done a few tours in Mid and South Wales - the former was a really wild expanse and I can't remember what interested me about Ireland - living at the time near Heathrow Airport, it was really easy in those days to ride to the departure hall, put your prepared bike in a big plastic bag, bring all your tools into the cabin as hand luggage and be out on the bike within a couple of hours. Easier than going to Scotland in fact, yet one was using a different currency. I've never been interested in France and have only spent two days there in my life. The West of Ireland was really wild and rugged but you were never far from a village with a shop or hostel. If something went wrong, you were never far from help ... like when my bottom bracket spindle broke at Gougane Barra right at the end of a tour and I had to bribe a bus driver to get me back to Cork from Macroom, the cycle shop there having chosen not to open that day.
Northern Ireland was also intriguing in the late 80s. No English people were touring there so it was an odd but rewarding experience. Photography was not easy, e.g. once taking a photo of an old building in full cycling kit, I was surrounded by humorless RUC officers with peaked caps pulled down over their eyes asking what I was doing. That was rather scary. All the people in the North were very welcoming, you just had to read the situation in the Guest Houses and act accordingly. They'd tell you where to go and tell the pub, or whatever, who had sent you.
I forgot to mention that my mother had ancestors from Mayo [Ballintubber] who came over to England like many others at the time into Lancashire. So I was also curious to visit - in fact, Mayo became my favorite part of Ireland for cycling. I have no desire to return to the country now.
How about the Hungary trip? How did that one come about?
It was only the fourth time I left England and Wales. I'd organized a YHA trip to South Central Finland with some friends the previous year and wanted to go somewhere a bit more exotic. Perhaps I was thinking of the tenuous relationship between the Finnish and Hungarian languages. I think I wanted to go where few others went.
At an Essex CTC dinner the previous year I was talking to an elderly rider called Charlie Merritt who amazed me with tales of cycling in Czechoslovakia in previous decades. In those days we had to inform our managers at work if we traveled to Eastern Europe "because of the dangers...". The Essex club members were treated to an annual slide show given by the likes of Neville Chanin, but they never went behind the Iron Curtain, which was shortly to fall 18 months after our visit to Hungary. It also had a nice mixture of flatlands and mountain nothing much over 1000m.
I planned a trip to communist Czechoslovakia the next year, again before the "change" but nearly died during an attack of viral pneumonia shortly beforehand and the others went without me.
You mentioned in our first exchange that you had a love for older, more traditional framed bicycles. Why is this?
Frames hadn't changed much between 1950 and the mid-1980s, so that was what everyone was riding, brake cables, toe-clips and straps. Just like Eddy Merckx or Bernard Hinault in fact. And don't they still look great on them in those pictures? I never moved into the present, not wanting to learn additional maintenance skills. I used to tour abroad on steel cranks and cotter pins, since one could always borrow a hammer [as I once had to in East Germany to remove a broken fixed bottom bracket cup] if need be.
What is your favorite piece of cycling kit (from the past or present)?
I picked up a pair of pink wool mixture cycling jerseys in Denmark of which I still have one That was fairly outrageous in pre-pre-Rapha times. I lent a good friend one and we rode as the pink composite team in a 2-up time trial. I was useless as usual.
The only components I can't do without are TA cranks and rings and Mafac polycarbonate-hooded levers which are paired on most of my bikes. Major liked the latter. Unfortunately, the growth of Eroica style events has pushed up the second-hand prices. Cycling shops tend not to stock much for me - tires and inner tubes, perhaps, but even they are giving way to tubeless. Nothing much from the present really interests me, although I do fit modern lights. Just think, we used to ride through the night with cardboard EverReady 800s twin-packs front and back.
Oh, and a Brooks leather saddle [mainly but not exclusively Professional] is indispensable.
I want to ask you a question about your interest in locomotives as your photography tells me you're a bit of a spotter?
It was pretty normal to have such interests back in the 60s. As schoolboys, some of us would go up to London and ride around the North London line to Willesden Junction in empty carriages through stations covered in weeds - it has all changed now.
In 1991 I did some touring in East Germany with a friend who was also interested in trains so we could divert to stations or railway lines when other cyclists would have been bored or not interested. That was a great tour. I'd also become fascinated by trams and trolleybuses through my latter jaunts into Eastern Europe, having missed them in the UK. The Czech Republic is probably the best country for a cycle tour based around those modes of urban transport, not that I ever cycled there - public transport was so cheap back then.
All images by Felix Ormerod