A mint example of English hand-built steel built for export. Made by a respected marque that, soon after, would be sold and its factory shut. Our Service Manager Jon Knight been busy building a special bike for his Eroica Britannia ride.
There’s Nuovo Record, C Record and Super Record parts and also an entire Croce D’Aune gruppo from 1988. Shiny vintage metal individually and carefully wrapped in newspaper and some in cloth. All organized and packed methodically, in a small cardboard box, like precious cycling relics. And there are other identical boxes containing similar treasures racked neatly on plain steel shelving. Looking around, the low walls glitter with vintage 70’s, 80’s and 90’s English, Italian and Belgian steel frames. Closer inspection reveals period thoroughbreds from Holdsworth, Vicini and Eddy Merckx. All around there’s a smell of leather mixed with butyl rubber and tub glue. It’s a balmy Friday night and through the open window, down below, comes the noise of the East end. I’m at my friend Jan’s Brick Lane workshop and flat, and I’m here to build my special Eroica Britannia bike.
Jan is a tailor who works on Saville Row. He grew up in the old Czechoslovakia and in his teens, alongside his dad, rode for the local cycling club. Apparently in those days the few posh Italian imports that made it into stock at local bike shops were snapped up quick. Sought after and unobtainable Campagnolo parts and Vittoria tubulars (clearly superior to Eastern bloc alternatives) only helped to make them all the more desirable.
Not content as a metal presser in the local factory Jan moved to London and successfully retrained in fashion. And after a stint at the Royal College he moved into menswear and tailoring.
My frame was bought from a private seller in New Zealand. It’s a 1980/81 Carlton built Raleigh Competition in 531c tube. The fork crown and BB shell are unmarked generic units. The dropouts are Vitus badged. The BB threads had to be chased through to remove surplus paint. Combine that with the fact the dropouts showed absolutely no scratching or signs of use, we realized the truth – this frame had never been built up or ridden! After a bit of looking around online, using the frame number as reference, we know it was one of the last to be built at the Carlton factory in Worksop especially for export. Shortly after all high-end production switched to the famous factory in Illkeston (which housed the Raleigh Special products division). Identical frames were built and sprayed in the colours of the Tour winning Ti Raleigh team and were sold in the UK. Further research revealed the wonderful evocative name given to this particular colour option – “Mink Blue”.
Problems we overcame along the way? Bike hardware was not standardised in the way it is today and this showed. Firstly ferrules. The tiny brake eyelets on the top tube were completely incompatible with anything we had. Such a small thing could have halted everything. I’m going to need brakes right? No problem – Jan got out his little bench lathe and machined down some custom stepped ferrules. Next the wheel clearance – it’s generous. So much so the bike would end up needing the slightly longer drop Nuovo Record calipers. Jan just reached up for the appropriate box from his shelf and produced the ones we needed. Springs, blocks and hardware would need to be transferred from the shorter reach set. But as Campag parts from this era can be completely dismantled this was resolved using a 10mm spanner. Whether the bike was built to receive winter wheels and mudguards, or even 27-inch wheels (still in use at this time) is unclear. Up front it came with a Tange headset. Even though I was keen to fit a period Nuovo Record replacement, it transpires the forksteerer was cut too short.
So after two long Friday night sessions, head scratching and some inspired expertly executed solutions from Jan (not forgetting lashings of Nastro Azzuro and Moretti to keep us both calm) the bike is ready to ride. Things I particularly love about it – after some short rides on the Nuovo Record gruppo I now know it rides smooth. Super smooth! Its certainly comparable to top flite modern componentry. The wheels are tied and soldered; 36 hole front and (super rare…) 40-hole rear. Lastly the matching tan Brooks Swift and custom leather bar tape (hand cut and wrapped by Jan) looks fabulous.
We’ll do a special 80-mile training ride before we go to check for mechanical problems. But Eroica Brittania is my new bikes first proper big outing. Saturday, at the event, it will be on display in our (Vulpine) tent before being ridden on the 100-mile route on the Sunday. Jan will be riding with me on his orange 1978 Holdsworth Professional. I have a special 1981 style moustache that I will shave in to properly complete my Eroica “hero” look too.