In today’s Bikes of the Bunch we share the story of an Eddy Merckx frame belonging to Bikestyle Tours founder Lawrie Cranley. It’s a terrific story about meeting your hero, getting your dream bike, losing it, then getting it back again.
It was 1983. I was 23 and my new 21-year-old wife, Natalie, and I decided to go to to Europe and do the “Combi thing” around Europe, like young Aussies did back then. You would go to a street market near Australia House in London, buy a van there, go around Europe and then return to London and sell it at that market. We didn’t have a lot of money and ended up with an ex Danish Post Office van that had been fitted out as a camper. We headed off on a tour of Europe chasing bike races that I had read about in Cyclesport International.
Our first stop was Holland where we saw Phil Anderson win the Amstel Gold Race — the first Australian to win a classic. We then headed to the Dolomites to see the Giro d’Italia before returning to France to see the Tour de France start on the outskirts of Paris. We followed it up to the Belgian border where we sat in the stands of the Roubaix velodrome and saw the finish of the stage there. That was where Phil Anderson crashed on the final bend with a bunch of riders — he lost a lot of skin and I remember Marc Gomez broke his pelvis.
At this stage we were nearly out of money and needed to return to London to work. We decided to take the ferry from Oostend to Dover but on the way I took a little detour via the outskirts of Brussels where the Eddy Merckx bike factory was. Looking back, I’m amazed we found it. All we had was a map book of Europe that showed major roads but no detail of the little villages or minor roads.
We arrived at the front door of the factory to find a door and a doorbell with a small Eddy Merckx on it, no signage. I pressed the bell and a woman answered the door. Speaking neither Flemish nor French I said to her in English that I would like to buy a frame. She waved us inside and said someone would be with us shortly.
We were in a small showroom with Eddy Merckx bikes on display. Over to one side was Eddy’s office with glass walls and inside, up on display, were a line of trophies. When I looked I noticed they were Super Prestige Pernod trophies and I’m assuming the others would have been Tour and Giro trophies. I was already in heaven. Then, as I looked across the internal courtyard, I saw a man coming across and as he entered I realised it was Eddy. I couldn’t believe it. I was numb — my legs had gone to jelly. I assumed he would be at the Tour but there he was standing right in front of me.
I would be lying if I said I remembered how the conversation went. He measured me for my new frame by the tried and proven method of the day: by putting a broomstick horizontally between my legs and getting me to hold it firmly in my crotch. He measured to the ground, did a calculation and told me I could collect the frame in four weeks from a bike shop down the road. I asked him if he could sign a poster for me which he did. I still have it.
He saw us to the door and I stumbled out onto the street. Natalie said that I looked a bit dazed and I said to her that as a cyclist, I had just seen God on earth to which she quickly replied: “Well, all I saw was a fat, middle-aged man!”
We returned to the UK and sold the van at the market. Natalie started a job nursing and I found a bedsit over a fried chicken shop and got a job working at one of the better bicycle shops in London: FW Evans in The Cut at Waterloo. Four weeks later I took a hovercraft across the channel to collect the frame from the shop.
I felt really guilty (and possibly still do) that I had selfishly spent hard-earned money on a bike frame when we could have used that to continue touring around Europe, rather than having to cut the trip short to go back to London and work. I suppose in some ways I paid Natalie back when we created a successful cycle tourism business (Bikestyle Tours) that took us to Europe for six months of the year for 15 years.
As for the bike: it’s made of Columbus SL steel tubing which was the best you could buy. I fitted it out with Campagnolo Super Record, Mavic Rims, Cinelli bar and stem and a Super Turbo saddle. I purchased the Campagnolo from FW Evans while I worked there.
I remember that, to help finance all my purchases, I went around shops buying up jerseys and bits and pieces that I put in a tea-chest and sent home to sell for a profit when I got there. There was no DHL in those days — you sent stuff home by sea in a tea-chest.
When we returned to Australia, we moved from Rockhampton to Brisbane and I started working with a wholesale bike company, KWT Wholesalers. Run by Kevin Thompson, the company assembled race bikes to go out to shops. They were the importers of many of the big brands in the racing game at the time: Campagnolo, Daccordi frames, Clement tyres, Mavic rims. I was like a kid working in a lolly shop. We would build the bikes from scratch, including wheels.
Anyone who knows Kevin knows that he has definite ideas on bike sizing and he told me that my beloved Eddy was a size too big for me. It was a 58 and he said I needed a 57. He was actually right. Eddy was no doubt a great bike rider but not great with a tape measure … but who was I to argue at the time?! So I sold the Eddy to finance the purchase of a new Daccordi.
That would have been in 1985. The Eddy Merckx was still in mint condition — not a scratch on it. I knew its value to me and I had treasured it and loved it but it had to go as I didn’t have the money for two good bikes. So I sold it to a young guy in Rockhampton who I had helped get started in cycling. He got some good use out of it, even taking it to Belgium where he raced for a few seasons as an amateur.
Many years passed and I often regretted selling that bike. Every time I told the story of the bike to someone, they generally reminded me of how dumb I had been to get rid of it.
When the owner contacted me in December of 2012 to see if I was interested in buying it back, I initially said no. But when I got off the phone and told Natalie that the bike was for sale, she told me straight away to buy it. Now I owe her twice.
I called the owner back and said I would buy it, sight unseen. I was lead to believe it was a complete bike and I guessed it might still have some of the original components. So when I went to collect it, I was a pretty shocked. It hadn’t been treated well and didn’t have wheels. It had certainly been round the block a few times!
The owner had trashed the forks and replaced them with a set of off the hook Tange forks, “upgraded” the frame with internal brake cables and had it repainted (poorly). It looked to have bubbling chrome on the rear stays (which means rust) and he had put later-generation Eddy Merckx decals on it. It was a mess. It was going to be a big job to restore it.
I thought about it for a while and decided that if I was going to restore it, it had to be top notch — 100% back to original.
I had a big shopping list. The frame needed a new top tube, a set of forks, a full Super Record ensemble (preferably new), new bar and stem, new wheels and tyres. It was a complete build from scratch.
I asked Darrell McCulloch from Llewellyn (who I had grown up racing with) if he would do the frame for me. He said he couldn’t but he suggested a guy called Tarn Mott of Primate Frames. That was a great recommendation. Tarn did an amazing job restoring the frame.
I found a set of Eddy Merckx forks with the aero crown that mine had, in Budapest. Problem was the steerer was too short but Tarn took the old one out and fitted a longer one. I got the correct decals for it and Tarn had someone paint it for me. I had found the original pearl white colour and sent him photos. I crossed my fingers that it would be right.
The frame was with Tarn for about 18 months but I was in no rush. The day I finally received it, I opened the box and I couldn’t believe it. It would be fair to say I nearly cried. The frame was perfect — it was just like the day I got it from Eddy, with one exception that Tarn had discussed with me. The original forks were chrome and these were pearl white with chrome tips. Quality framebuilders won’t chrome a frame these days — it’s far too corrosive and will rust a frame out from the inside.
Waiting for the frame gave me a chance to search the globe for all the bits to make Eddy new again. There was one thing I had saved from the original bike: the seat post. I managed to get onto a good contact in the U.S. who had a lot of what I needed, at reasonable prices. I got a new set of brakes (still in the box), new headset, a set of very slightly used cranks and I purchased a set of wheels with new Ambrosio Nemesis tubular rims and DT spokes built onto a set of low-flange Campagnolo hubs. They weren’t new hubs but they were in very good condition.
It turned out that I had the correct Campagnolo bottom bracket. Cinelli still make the same bars and stems from that era so I got those and found a new Rolls saddle at a local bike shop. The last piece in the puzzle was tyres. I settled on Vittoria Corsa 28mm.
One of the nice little touches is a new and original Campagnolo alloy freehub that I had in my stash since we had a bike shop in the 1980s and ‘90s. No one could afford it back then and then it went out of favour so I ended up with it and wondered if I would ever put it to use.
I took my time putting the bike back together. Fortunately, I had many of the old tools to assemble it and having been in bikes all my life I was able to do the whole assembly myself. It went together without drama and now sits in my garage.
I’m now not sure what to do with it exactly. I still haven’t ridden it and may never ride it. I think it deserves pride of place somewhere but I’ve yet to find the right place. I think it would be nice as a piece of art on a wall in our house but I don’t really have the wall space. And, at any rate, I may be pushing my luck suggesting it come into our house as a piece of art.