A good bike - a good steel bike - is like a house.
Over time it’s loved and lived in, yet ultimately the owner is but a caretaker, adoring it and looking after it well enough so that it can be ultimately passed on, enjoyed and maintained by another who plays their part in this cycle of steel life.
Authentic vintage steel bikes were arguably designed and built equally for beauty as they were for performance. We’re talking to Mitch Roberts from Life on Wheels, who has had a passion for these steel beauties since they were, well, not actually classed as vintage.
It began with a drive to work, when Mitch decided en route that would be his final day in the office
So, it was two years ago Mitch was on his daily grind 45-minute car commute heading into work when the thought hit him like a lightning bolt. He didn’t like this life. It wasn’t for him. This day would be his final day working here.
It’s the stuff you read about in books but Mitch lived it, and sure enough he didn’t go back to his role as Technical Manager the next day.
Instead, he went and bought a bike shop.
Rewind back to when this all really began
Back to the days when these timeless vintage beauties were but freshly brazed babies?
So back to the Halcyon days of the steel frame, when Eddie Merckx and Colnago became an indomitable powerhouse; when Dutch pro team TI-Raleigh took out the Tour de France; when Reynolds was a household name; when some of us were kids chewing gum and thinking of emulating Kevin Bacon as he ripped it up in Quicksilver as the coolest cyclist messenger in the history of postal deliveries. These were the days when steel cycling reigned supreme, and this was when Mitch’s biking flame was lit.
Mitch had always had a fascination for bikes, and as his career path steered him towards engineering that passion didn’t wane. Some things in life fade with time but for Mitch, the bike always remained a strong pull. He didn’t get his driver’s licence until he was 25 - the bike was ample. Mitch’s passion was as much for the cycling as it was for the bike, and as the years went by he bought, meticulously restored, rode, sold and delighted in caretaking for one steel beauty after the next.
Three decades went by and all of a sudden, these babes of bikes had become classed vintage.
With time comes wisdom. And networks.
He had no idea of course, but all this time spent scouring here, there and everywhere for classic, steel bikes had built for Mitch an enviable network of contacts, of like-minded aficionados the world around who just wanted to preserve and promote the passion of cycling on steel. It set him up beautifully for walking into a bike shop and, well, buying it.
So how does the vintage wheel turn?
One thing is for sure, vintage doesn’t happen overnight.
Nothing made now can truly be classed vintage. An authentic steel vintage bike has to hail from the 80s, 70s, and even earlier to truly claim the right to such a title. Which begs the question - how does the vintage bike world sustain itself?
Occasionally, Mitch will come across the classics as a result of bikes inherited by family members as relatives have found themselves in possession of one, if not many, steel steeds sitting patiently for their next custodian to come and realise what magnificence they behold
Then there are the owners clubs - vintage cycling clubs such as the TI Raleigh Vintage Cycling Club GB of which Mitch is Member 11. These peeps know their steel and keep their nose to the ground. If there is a steel frame or bike on this planet that’s available, members of these clubs are likely to have sniffed it out well before the rest of us.
In fact, it was the TI Raleigh V.C.C. that recently held an esteemed gathering, honoured to have many past Raleigh professional riders attending, such as Jacques Hanegraaf (pictured below), who rode one of Mitch’s original 1979 Raleigh SBDU Team bikes. It’s gatherings like this that have helped reignite the magic of steel bikes. Look no further than Eroica Italy and Eroica UK and the impact these events have had on vintage cycling culture. Riding your steel beauty, dressed in your woollen weave kit, stopping to sip local wine and sample regional produce… It’s the kind of romantic cycling that would have many of us go weak at the knees.
The just don’t make them like they used to
There is 100% a place for the latest carbon weave and the most magnificent paint job, but vintage steel frames come from a time when everything was handmade, and not by anyone less than a specialist. Indeed, once-upon-a-time there were very few experienced enough to build, for example, a frame in Reynolds 753. Craftsmen had to take yearly technical exams to prove they were still up to scratch.
Such workmanship is increasingly rare and increasingly admired and valued, not just in the cycling industry, but for trades across the board whose craft has slowly become overshadowed by faster, bigger, more homogenised production.
Bikes like these are not just a nod to possibly more pure days, but for many of us they’re a pedal back in time. Like Mitch says, customers often buy these bikes because they simply couldn’t afford them as kids, so they’re buying a childhood dream and making it a reality.