The Restoration

 

 

Putting man and machine back on the road

 

I felt remarkably little pain.  Just a dull thud, which reverberated through my body.  Yet somehow I knew as soon as I hit the deck that the damage was significant.

Maybe, I reasoned, if I sat there for a moment to catch my breath, I'd find that the situation wasn't as bad as instinct suggested.  Fat chance.  As if auditioning for one of those viral "You won't BELIEVE what this joker does next" videos, I made several futile attempts to stand, then shuffled on my bum to a garden trellis and used its wobbly ladder of slats to haul myself upright.  In which position I was finally obliged to acknowledge that my left leg was useless.

Returning from a New Year's Eve potter in the lanes, I had lost the front wheel when braking to a halt at the end of my own drizzle-wet driveway.  At A&E, the staff were noncommittal.  Pressed on the possibilities, a junior trauma doctor conceded that, while it might be nothing more than bruising, the worst-case scenario was a fractured hip.  If that were confirmed, immediate surgical replacement would be the only option.

I knew full well it wasn't simply bruising.

Wide awake on a trolley, as evening turned to night and finally the first daylight of 2015 began to dilute the neon of my hospital corridor, I waited to be admitted to a ward.  And, while I waited, I pondered the grave issues before me.  Just what force of nature was holding up that fat porter's trousers?  Who was responsible for the apostrophe in that scribbled whiteboard notice about "X-Ray's"?  Did the fitting of ceramic bearings count as an upgrade, even if one wasn't a derailleur jockey wheel?  And, mainly, could I really be robbed of my chief pastime by such a laughably prosaic accident?  Nonchalantly recounting how your racing days were ended by a fifty-mile-an-hour crash while descending the Col d'Aspin ahead of the pack creates a certain aura.  Explaining that you had to stop doing club runs because you once toppled sideways off a near-stationary commuter bike in front of your own garage lacks a little something.

George Barker

 

A CT scan on New Year's Day thankfully revealed that it wasn't my hip that was fractured, but my pelvis.  And the fracture was stable, meaning no surgery unless the bone failed to knit.  A huge relief, therefore.  Nevertheless a diagnosis that implied no unaided walking for six to twelve weeks.  And no driving either.  The consultant didn't mention cycling, and I decided that perhaps I shouldn't bother him with the ideas forming in my head.  (He didn't look like the type who would know much about turbo trainers, anyway.)

I insisted on going home with Judy, and was soon being wheeled out through the foyer, clutching a plastic urinal bottle and a poly bag full of medication that I had no intention of using.

For the first few days back home, I led my entire life on a settee in the living room.  I worked there, ate there, slept there, washed there, used my NHS urinal bottle there.  And plotted my return to cycling there.

In the middle of my Settee Period, there was a seemingly unrelated development on the other side of Worcestershire.  Alan Weaver's wife sent her husband to tidy the loft.  I shall not speculate as to the good woman's motives.  Several hours later, Alan descended the ladder from a largely unaltered roof space, spitting cobwebs and excitedly waving a dusty folder of time trial result sheets from the eighties.  Which he naturally proceeded to share with his friends on Facebook, triggering a long exchange of reminiscences and photos.

 

Entitlement to have other people run your errands is one of the few perks of invalidity.  So I gladly dispatched a runner to fetch my one and only visual memento of a racing career almost as undistinguished as the writing career that was supposed to follow it: a grainy image of me pushing for the line on the long since defunct K24 course, sporting a skin hood (the latest aerodynamic innovation of the day) and seated astride my beloved short-wheelbase MKM Ultimate.

The MKM!  How I had cherished that bike!  What a pity that, for ages now, such a fine machine had been left to languish, largely dismantled and its parts scattered about the shelves and boxes of my rambling storage 'system'.

On my settee, feet up, swapping likes and jokes with Alan and others, the Bushmills having no more than a marginal influence on my decision-making, I knew that here was the project that was going to occupy me during my weeks off the road.

The MKM would be restored.

Now, before I go any further, I'd like to make it clear that I don't hold with the indiscriminate adoration of all things old-fashioned.  I regard that as an emotional refuge for people daunted by the modern world and/or grieving the loss of their youth.  (A group to which I belong only in the hours immediately following exposure to popular television.)  There's a reason why "they don't make 'em like they used to, lad."  The reason is that they've discovered ways to make 'em better.  Broadly speaking, modern bikes and modern cycling gear are lighter, stronger, more efficient, more reliable, more comfortable and easier to maintain than anything we had when I was young, never mind when some of my associates were in their pomp.  Just ask John Woodburn.

However, it doesn't follow that one shouldn't celebrate the engineering achievements of the past.  Particularly given that modern excellence is based mainly on high-tech materials and computer-controlled manufacturing processes, which have largely displaced the skill of the craftsman.  Craftsmanship is something that we are instinctively compelled to admire and value – that is the corollary of the innate urge to observe, emulate and improve, which underpins all human achievement.  A skilled craftsman's handiwork always demands our respect.

 

What's more, every era throws up its own aesthetic classics of design, which deserve preservation.  And the design classics of your youth are like the music of your youth.  No matter what comes along afterwards, what merits you rationally perceive it to possess, it will never touch your soul like the best things around when your eye was sharp and your ear was eager.

I now own bikes that are significantly better than the MKM.  But none that is closer to my heart.  How foolish that I neglected it so long.

Buoyed by the idea of returning my old favourite to its former glory, I googled 'MKM' and discovered a website created by Robin Hatherell.  If vast realms of social banality and personalised advertising are the internet's least uplifting contribution to modern life, sites like Robin's are its most inspiring gift.  Motivated simply by a desire to indulge and share his passion for these old bikes, and equipped with little more than enthusiasm and an admirably esoteric store of knowledge, Robin has set about creating an invaluable resource for the small band of people who own and love MKM frames.  The site offers a potted history of the Harrogate firm established in the early seventies by two former Carlton pros, Wes Mason and Arthur Metcalfe.  (The 'K' between their 'M's is for 'Kitching', famous parts wholesaler Ron having been lined up as a silent partner and, true to form, having taken up a strategically central position in the company name.)  There is also information about frame number chronology, details of MKMs still in use, and advice on renovation and resale.

 

From Robin's site, I learnt that my frame was one of the last made before the original firm went under in 1980.  It might even have been amongst the bankrupt stock seized by Kitching.  That wouldn't surprise me, recalling the keen eye for a bargain possessed by Doug and Terry Reed, from whose Bearwood Cycles shop I bought the frame for a bank-breaking £175 in late '83 (following a mature discussion of financial priorities with the woman I lived with at the time).

The frame is double-butted 531 tubing (Birmingham's only contribution to the project, sadly) and has three distinguishing features:
- A short-wheelbase geometry, achieved by joining the seat tube to the down tube forward of the bottom bracket, enabling the use of very short chain stays
- A lugless mainframe construction technique: every tube is perfectly shaped to meet its neighbours, welded directly to them and the joint finished to smooth perfection in what must have been an extraordinarily labour-intensive process; the frame therefore has the appearance of being not a set of individual tubes, but an organic whole, like a modern monocoque carbon frame
- Rear track ends with a gear hanger, making it suitable for riding fixed or gears, on the track or in road time trials

What attracted me to the MKM was its sleek elegance.  As a green youth, I'd never seen a lugless frame before; I'd never seen a frame with such geometry or such perfect, balanced proportions before.  Like a Supermarine Spitfire or an E-Type Jaguar, it was a consummate fusion of art and engineering, with a look that seemed beyond improvement.  Naturally, I also hoped its positivity would help me go faster.  And Goodness knows I needed all the help I could get.  It took me months to save up, always fearful that it would be sold before I got the money together.

More knowledgeable about my frame's origins than at any time during its regular use, I began to investigate the practicalities of restoration as soon as I was mobile enough to Zimmer back and forth between settee and bike room.  Initially fearful that the project might prove technically unfeasible or unaffordable due to the need for discontinued components, I made one happy discovery after another.

 

Decades of compulsive hoarding began to seem my worthiest accomplishment.  Did I still have those CX18-on-Record sprints I built in '85?  Yep, there behind the boiler.  And what about that Campag chainset with the 51 ring?  In the shoebox on the shelf.  A Concor saddle?  Sure, one of a row of retired specimens on top of the cupboard.  A Cinelli 1A quill stem?  That too.  And so it went on.  Combining original components with parts that, though bought later, were the same as those I used in the mid-eighties, I had an entire 'period' bike apart from toe clips and 'consumables' (tyres, cables, etc).  The consumables I keep in stock, so that left me needing to splash out the princely sum of £6.95 on the clips.

And the frame itself?  In its action days, it led a protected life, coming out only to race, and not even then if the weather was wet.  It subsequently spent many years attached to the turbo, front end swathed in plastic sweat sheeting.  And finally it got stored away under cover.  So no rust.  And no dents.  Just a grotty non-original paint job and a bottom bracket that hadn't been budged in a very long time.

Now, you'd be surprised how many things you need your pelvis for.  One of them, it turns out, is shifting a stubborn bottom bracket.  For about a fortnight, the frame sat in the centre of my office mounted on a work stand, like a sculpture at Tate Modern.  I would slowly circle it on my Zimmer en route to the kettle or the printer, stopping here and there to incline my head and consider whether it took on new meaning when viewed from a fresh angle.  Whenever I was bored, I'd give the bracket a squib of WD40.  And, every couple of days, I'd pick up the spanner and put my shoulder to the task of extraction.  Then give up, because it hurt.

Until finally, one day, the cup began to turn.  Triumph!  The last issue that might have stopped me putting the bike back on the road was overcome.

 

 

While I'd worked out that the parts to go on the frame would cost me next to nothing, the same wasn't true of the frame's own refurbishment.  After all, a frame built by craftsmen had to be restored by craftsmen.

Stove enamelling is a dying art.  One of the few firms left where they really understand how to do it is Argos Racing Cycles in Bristol.  I followed up personal recommendations with a call to discuss the project, and was soon convinced that this was the place to go.  It was going to cost me more than I'd originally paid the Reeds for the frame, but it would be good… really good.

 

 

Via Robin's website, I got in contact with another of the compellingly enthusiastic specialists who make the world of cycling such an entertaining place to explore.  Nick at H Lloyd Cycles reproduces classic bike badges and logos for refurb projects and is the world's only certified supplier of Reynolds decals.  He's also very personable and service-oriented, creating excellent bespoke products as you speak, while also holding discussions through the window with his gardening wife and advising you about books you might enjoy.  After a ten-minute chat, I put down the phone, not only feeling as if I were dealing with an old friend, but also more excited than ever about the way the project was headed.

My frame had originally been gloss black, with chrome fork ends, a chrome drive-side chain stay and mirror-finish gold MKM decals.  My first thought was to restore it exactly as it had been when it hung in the window at Bearwood Cycles.  I asked Nick about the gold decals, and he replied, "No problem.  We produce these things to order, so we can more or less do you anything you want."

Anything I want?  That set me thinking.  Much as I'd loved the MKM, that combination of very shiny silver, gold and black had always been a wee bit 'blingy' for my taste.  For a while, I wavered between authenticity and refinement.  Finally I came down in favour of a set of minor departures from the original livery, which reflected my own preferences while retaining the essence of the old look.  I'd drop the chrome, I'd go for eggshell-finish enamel instead of gloss and I'd have the decals in a non-mirrored silver that complemented the polished alloy componentry.

The decals conveniently dropped through my letterbox shortly after I'd been cleared to drive.  Next day, I was off to Bristol with the MKM cosseted on the back seat.  On arrival, the frame was inspected and assessed with experienced eye and practised hand, in a way that reminded me more than a little of the unhurried yet supremely economical style of the consultant who had examined my own aging fabric a few weeks earlier.  The only significant difference I observed between Argos Racing Cycles and Worcester Royal Infirmary was that the bike shop appeared to have an efficient and methodical approach to paperwork.  After a twenty-minute diagnostic and having been judged to be holding up better than its owner, the MKM took its place in the prepping queue, next to a curly Hetchins.  And I headed for home, feeling slightly emotional.

Over the weeks since deciding to restore my old TT bike, I'd been painstakingly cleaning each of the parts I'd taken from storage.  I've never been noted for my post-ride diligence with hose and rag.  But this project was going to be different.  Every item had to be as close to pristine as its age would allow.  And, as I brushed and polished and greased, I also photographed, trying both to document what felt to me like an historic process and to communicate some of the beauty that I saw in the artistic lines and functional brilliance of classic cycle engineering from Italy and Japan.

 

It was to the New World, however, that I turned for a solution to a frustrating side issue thrown up by the restoration project.  Spotless, re‑greased Record pedals and Binda straps with brassoed buckles excite the eye and warm the heart, but their utility is somewhat diminished if all your shoes are made for modern snap‑in pedals.  An exhaustive hunt confirmed that even my collection of outmoded junk didn't include any shoes that predated the late-eighties revolution in pedal technology.  I could have bought some flat-soled touring shoes.  But, apart from that being a pricy solution, I was trying to recreate the look of an eighty-five time trial, not a Frank Patterson drawing.

Then I found Yellow Jersey Cycles of Arlington, Wisconsin.  Now, Yellow Jersey's website is… well, not quite as slick as Wiggle's.  I briefly wondered whether I was looking at an old page accidentally left on the server by a business with higher priorities than site admin.  But no.  Amid the lilac and lime-coloured text and the jumble of heavy-framed JPEGs in random sizes, it clearly said above a picture of some slotted cleats fashioned for modern shoes, "New 2015 model, in stock now!"

Urbane Europeans can be a bit sniffy about certain aspects of America's Midwest culture.  But stubborn prairie self-sufficiency has its merits.  One being the attitude that says, if them darn I‑talians ain't gonna make stuff for folks with real pedals no more, folks jus' gotta go make stuff their selves.  HMRC's Border Force showed what they thought of small businesses showing a little initiative by impounding my package for VAT irregularities and charging me a silly sum to have it released.  So the grand total paid to get hold of the cleats was hard to reconcile with the two little bits of blue plastic I finally held in my hand.  But I was another step closer to riding the MKM.

 

 

Enamelling took longer than expected because of an issue with one of the delicate decals, but the delay worked out well in the end, because it meant that reassembly took place in road test-friendly spring weather, instead of cold and showery late March.  Argos had made an excellent job of the paintwork, cleaned up all the threads, redone the bottle bosses, tidied up the seat clamp and pressed the headset races.  As a result, refitting the cleaned and polished parts was perhaps the most straightforward build I've ever done.  Having invested in a proper work stand a few months earlier (albeit thirty years too late), I even managed to avoid repeating the favourite trick of my youth, i.e. dropping a spanner on the bike and chipping the paint before I'd even ridden it.  And, much as I like having thirty-three indexed gears, it was a joy to rediscover how little faff is involved in setting up the shifting with a single ring and a single friction lever.

 

 

I spent almost three months out of road cycling – the longest I'd been away for nearly forty years.  Fortunately, there is nowadays the turbo trainer.  Being able to reduce the resistance to almost nothing and being spared anything that might interfere with an ultra-deliberate and careful pedalling action meant that I could get back on a bike long before I could walk unaided.  Okay, the first ride was just two virtual kilometres, which took me ten minutes (yes, a super-impressive 12kph) and it was the middle of February before I was breaking sweat, but the turbo was a godsend in the first quarter of 2015.  It kept my circulation going and, just as importantly, it kept me believing that I was still a cyclist.

Unlike the human body, a machine needs no acclimatisation to the rigours of use.  So, on the same day it was reassembled – a fabulous April day when only the damson blossom, cowslips and new-broken leaf buds said it wasn't already summer – I loaded my immaculate bike into an incongruously dog-hairy car and headed for a nice loop of undulating lanes west of Worcester.  And there the MKM took to the road again after an absence of decades.

Its cotton tubulars sang; its stainless spokes danced.  Its steel frame anticipated every movement.

And life felt good.

 

 

 

Parts list

The following parts are the originals, as fitted to the MKM in its racing period (1983-1989):

- Campag Record chainset with single 51T ring (fluted straight-crank design)

- Campag Super Record Piste cage pedals with ball bearings

- Alfredo Binda leather toe straps with chromed buckles

- Dia Compe Aero Compe-G brake stirrups

- Shimano Dura-Ace rear derailleur

- SunTour bar-end shifter with ratchet-assisted friction mechanism

- Wheels:
Hand-built with Campag Record hubs (with ball bearings, adjustable cones and oil hole) on Mavic CX18 rims, using Alpina stainless plain-gauge 2mm spokes and brass nipples
Front: small-flange 28-hole, laced two-cross
Rear: large-flange 36-hole, laced three-cross (built as a spare; the MKM's original racing rear wheel was 32h small-flange, but hasn't survived)

- Cinelli 1A stem, 130mm

- Concor saddle

- Campag Chorus seat post

The following parts were used on other bikes in the eighties and nineties, but are identical or very similar to what was fitted to the MKM in its racing period:

- Campag Chorus square-taper bottom bracket with ball bearings

- Cinelli handlebars

- Shimano 105 brake levers (the MKM originally had Modolo Kronos levers, which haven't survived)

- Maillard seven-speed screw-on freewheel block, 13-24 (the original was six-speed, 13-21)

The following parts were new for the restoration project, but are identical or very similar to what was fitted to the MKM in its racing period:

- Vittoria Evo CS tubular tyres (similar to the Wolber Record Piste tubs used in the eighties)

- Tange Levin threaded alloy 1" headset with ball bearings (identical to the original)

- MKS chromed steel toe clips (not quite as sexy as the Campag toe clips originally fitted, but essentially the same)

- KMC X9 silver chain (visually similar to the original, but narrower)

- Campag outer brake and gear cables

- Clarks inner brake and gear cables

- Jagwire alloy downtube cable stop (very like the original Campag stop)

- Velox cotton handlebar tape

In use, the refurbished MKM has three non-authentic items of finishing kit, all of which are readily removable, so that it can be quickly returned to authentic condition:

- BBB Aerocage bottle cage

- Deda Dog Fang chain catcher

- Garmin 500 GPS-enabled computer

 

 

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