There’s something about vintage bikes – with their delightful names, upright seats and cute bells – that can transform an ordinary journey into an adventure.
Forget sports drinks and lycra, we’re talking about 20th-century classics that evoke summer romance, whether you’re pedalling down a country lane with a picnic in your basket, gliding through the city with your tea dress floating in the breeze or looking effortlessly chic while pushing what has become today’s latest fashion accessory.
We meet three people whose passion for old bikes has wheeled them across continents and into extraordinary business ventures…
According to Megan Williams O’Mara, a 25-year-old cycling enthusiast who started hiring out and selling vintage bikes in Hastings two years ago, ‘Vintage bikes make you remember just how glamorous cycling is.’
‘I’ve always had a lot of old bikes,’ says Megan, who is currently riding a Prophete, a French bike from the late 1970s. ‘I consider them works of art as well as modes of transport. A lot of imagination has been put into them. We tend to think of cycling as masculine and dominated by sports, but we forget that bikes and cycling is actually very beautiful.’
Determined to share her passion with others, on finishing university Megan moved to Hastings and opened up shop in 18th-century premises in the old part of town. Today Bell’s Bicycles has an ever-changing selection of machines, from 1940s super fast, fixed-wheel track bikes to ultra-elegant 1920s Dutch loop frame examples and simple retro town bikes from the 1970s and 1980s.
‘Each bicycle is different and each has its own place in the history of British cycling,’ she says. ‘I’ve been restoring them for years but it’s been quite a learning curve fixing them to sell on – I’m constantly scouring car boot sales and tips.’
Word of Megan’s interest has got around fast, however. ‘People have started bringing bikes to me, too,’ she says. ‘One man brought in a bike he had owned from new and kept in his shed for 40 years. There are a lot of people who don’t know what to do with their old bikes and they’re too good to throw away. They sell them to me knowing they’re going to be looked after and brought back to life again.’
For those customers hiring rather than buying a bike, Megan packs them off to the delicatessen next door to pick up a picnic – bottles of ginger beer a must. Then, they pedal happily off along Hastings promenade towards Bexhill with the wind in their hair.
‘I think there’s something incredibly romantic about cycling in summer,’ Megan smiles. ‘I love the feeling of nostalgia too. Vintage bikes conjure up this lovely feeling of pleasure and the pursuit of pleasure.’
If you’ve been in London lately, you may have seen a troupe of cyclists pedalling sedately down The Mall astride new Pashleys. At their helm, dressed in brogues, flatcap and tweed breeks, is Jack Harris. Noticing how more and more Londoners were getting around the capital on two wheels (not least thanks to the ‘Boris bike’ scheme, the Mayor of London’s cycle initiative), Jack drew on his experience as a city tour guide and launched his cycle tours in March 2011.
‘I like things that are a bit vintage and quirky and there wasn’t a really British cycle tour,’ says Jack. ‘There’s no more entertaining way of seeing London than on a stylish British-made bicycle. We like to dress up and make it an experience.’ Jack’s tours, which last three to four hours, start at Lower Marsh Street behind the London Eye, where he has his base. One tour takes riders down to Lambeth Bridge, through the back streets behind Westminster Abbey and up to St James’s Park. ‘Depending on the time of day, we try to catch the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace,’ says Jack. ‘We then go down The Mall to see Trafalgar Square, across through Covent Garden and back along Waterloo Bridge to finish.’
‘There’s nothing strenuous in the cycling but it’s a good way to tie up some of the key London sites and learn about the history behind them in a fun and quirky way. Depending on the group we have with us, we try to give facts about the history and important figures and draw out some of the more unusual stories behind the locations.’
On the way, interesting features, such as the tiny stone model of the Duke of Wellington’s nose under Admiralty Arch, are also pointed out.
For Jack, his unconventional get-up is all part of the fun. ‘The style element of cycling is being rediscovered. You don’t need big knobbly tyres and lycra, you can ride these bikes in smart clothes – one of our guides even manages in high heels!’ he says. Clients are inspired to follow suit and Jack has teamed up with nearby vintage shops Radio Daze and What the Butler Wore so they can pick up necessary accessories – a top hat, say – before they head out.
‘It’s not about racing with your head down or being aggressive with the traffic but about getting from A to B in a comfortable and stylish manner, taking your time and enjoying the view,’ says Jack.
On seeing a penny farthing for sale in 1977, Glynn Stockdale bought it on a whim and was instantly hooked. After a bumpy few weeks teaching himself to ride it, he has gone on to collect hundreds of early bicycles, founding the 10-yearly Knutsford Great Race for vintage bike enthusiasts in 1980 (the next is scheduled for 2020).
In 1989 he opened the Penny Farthing Museum in Knutsford in 1989, which now has a well-edited collection of 70 velocipedes.
‘I’d always been fascinated by the big wheel,’ says Glynn. ‘Penny farthings were only made for 20 years, from 1871 to 1891, but young Victorians developed a cult following for them and even when they realised the chain-driven bikes were faster, they continued to ride their penny farthings well past their sell-by-date.’
Following in the footsteps of two men who, proving the vast distances the penny farthing could cover, rode from Land’s End to John O’Groats in 1880, Glynn completed the same journey in 1984. Sadly, he suffered a terrible accident in 1988 while training for the National Penny Farthing Championships in northern Tasmania. He recovered and went on to make his comeback – much to his wife’s dismay – in 1995, cycling across the United States in 45 days over a whopping 3,358 miles.
‘I love the exercise,’ says Glynn. ‘You’re using all kinds of muscles and, because you’re so high up, you see all sorts of things you’re not supposed to!’
Glynn has noticed a significant spike in popularity for these intriguing machines, with more and more people mastering the skills to ride them and his race in Knutsford attracting riders from around the world. ‘In my youth everybody rode everywhere but I never saw a penny farthing – you do now. They’re all coming out of the woodwork.’
‘Once people learn, they can’t put it down. You do have to watch out for all kinds of things such as loose tyres and uneven road surfaces, though, but that’s all part of the fun.’
Knutsford Penny Farthing Museum. 01565 653974
Where to buy vintage bikes:
A brand based in Cambridgeshire which sells sit-up-and-beg bikes manufactured in Belgium with delightful names such as ‘Bella’, ‘Betty’ and ‘Bertie’ in just as beautifully named colours. Also sells picnic rugs, flasks, satchels and a ‘cutie coolbox’ for your bottles of elderflower cordial.
01223 655222; begbicycles.com
Megan Williams O’Mara hires out and sells vintage and vintage-style bikes from her pretty 18th-century panelled shop in the old part of Hastings.
01424 443033; bellsbicycles.co.uk
This London boutique sells Pashleys, Gazelles, Globes and other makes from Europe in a rainbow of colours and styles along with baskets, stylish helmets and more.
Danish manufacturer of bespoke Dutch-style bikes called such names as ‘Victoria’ for the ladies and ‘Churchill’ for the chaps, featuring neither stickers nor plastic but an elegantly embossed aluminium lion crest.