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As I mentioned in a post on Moving Target, Nelson Vails made me proud to be a bicycle courier (or messenger, if you prefer). Even though I was never even as quarter as good of a bike rider as Nelson, he was what I aspired to be, he was an inspiration. He was part of the mystique of the NYC bicycle messenger scene, along with the comic Messenger 29, and the Independent Courier Association, which beat the evil Mayor Koch and his 1987 mid-town bike ban.

If you don't know, Nelson Vails was a New Yorker who could ride a bike really fast. Really, really fast. He rode the Trexlertown track, winning races, and worked as a bicycle messenger. In 1984 he won the silver medal in the Olympic Match Sprint. He went to be a keirin racer in Japan. (If you don't know what keirin racing is, it's similar to greyhound racing, in that it's a series of circuit races staged for the express purpose of gambling. For more information, see the excellent primer at Keirin, Berlin).

So it was with some delight that I read earlier on today that someone is making a documentary about Nelson Vails. But it's not fully funded yet. The film-makers are asking for $25000 in additional funding. Never mind watching the DVD of Monstertrack XVII or Line of Sight, why not pony up $5 to help get what should be a spine-tingling film onto the screen. For $25, you get a limited edition signed photo of Nelson Vails himself. That is a real piece of authentic New York City bicycle messenger history.

 

Beanbag photo shoot from Moving Target, 1989

Rob Penn writing in the Observer magazine today about the development of cycle fashion – rearranging the words 1980s Rapha Vulpine lycra lurid MAMIL stylish successful – has the following line: 'the “heroin-chic” cycle messenger sub-culture in the late 80s'.

Not really sure what he means. I thought heroin-chic was invented in 1990s, and that the 1980s was the era of power-dressing and busty super-models. Bicycle couriers or cycle messsengers are generally pretty skinny, although not always. Maybe I'm over-thinking this.

Perhaps he was an assiduous reader of Moving Target back then, and he is referring to occasional fashion shoots that Charlie Bayliss like to put in? Anyway, no further prompting needed – here's a Beanbag shoot from a 1989 issue of Moving Target. Ah, Beanbag.

A more innocent age, dear reader – before anyone had conceived of fakengers, hipsters, before most people had heard of fixies. The usual cliché is 'halcyon days', isn't it?

 


My neighbour recently had her bike stolen.  She wisely decided to replace it with a 2nd hand bike (there are more bicycles than people in the UK, and most of those are in people’s sheds or garages).  Her only criterion was that the bike should be red.  Being Hackney born and bred, she did not wish to purchase another stolen bike, thus rewarding a thief for theft, so she went to Bike Works in Bethnal Green.

Bike Works sold her this beauty for the absolutely astonishing price of £295.  Not only did the lady get a piece of British bicycle history, she also got a bike which was in perfect working order.  Bike Works only sell bicycles which they have first refurbished.  In this case, that meant new tyres, tubes and cables and not a great deal else apart from a lot of love.  I suspect that this bike must have been kept somewhere warm and dry for the past 40 years, given the condition of the gear mechanisms, which are more than serviceable.

The frame wasn’t made by Claud Butler himself, it was made by Holdsworth (who bought the name in 1960) sometime between 1965 and 1976. The frame is branded ‘Electron’, and according to this excellent page on Claud Butler frames and bicycles, this model was only offered between these years.

The Claud Butler name still has some residual glamour associated to it, even though the man whose stardust rubbed off is long dead, and the exact nature of his remarkable exploits are hazy at best even for confirmed bikies under the age of 60.  Reg Harris was the first British racing cyclist to capture the public imagination, and was a household name more than a decade before Tom Simpson.  Despite not achieving the goals expected of him, 3 Olympic gold medals, he was nevertheless an immensely popular figure,  occasionally eclipsing even the football stars of the day.
Reg rode a Claud Butler, and for this reason the CB head-badge features the Olympic rings, decades after Reg won his two silver medals at the 1948 Olympics.  Even at a distance of 60 years, his lustre is still bright.  He is very much from the golden era of cycle sport, the late 40s and 50s, the era of Bobet, Coppi and later Anquetil, when the sometimes brutal heroism of the black-smiths’ and farmers’ sons of the early years of the sport gave way to the burnished charisma of the motion picture era.  Reg was a real star.  I don’t know whether he kept a comb in his jersey pocket like Koblet, or wiped his face with a cologne-scented handkerchief like Bobet, but he certainly looked every bit as polished.

My favourite of all of his exploits is his come-back at the age of 54 to win the National Match Sprint Championship.  I read somewhere that he only did it to graphically illustrate his disgust at the contemporary state of British match-sprinting.  It doesn’t really say much for the competition that they could be beaten by a man 20 years past his best, no matter whether he had been the best in the world.

Reg Harris’ obituary.