July 25th, 2018
On a warm evening in July, vintage bike enthusiast and Cicli Artigianali club member Bob Johnson joined us at the shop. He brought along a few of his favourite bikes from the 1930s to the 1980s and talked about his love of Campagnolo through a history of the derailleur. Bike geek heaven.
“I came across Bob about 7 or 8 years ago,” explains Richard, by way of introduction. “We’d been out riding a few times when I was invited round to see his workshop. I was absolutely blown away. From the outside it looks like a single car garage, but you go inside and it feels ten times bigger. It’s like the Bat Cave. And it’s all in perfect order. I really must get our mechanics to have a look…”
We’ve had one or two of Bob’s bikes displayed in the shop since we opened and are often asked about them so decided it was time to get Bob in to tell all.
“I rode bikes when I was a kid and I used to build bikes for other kids at school,” says Bob. “I’d make grass track bikes and we’d race them – with no brakes obviously – on the track behind our playing fields. I built and rode bikes until I was 16. At which point you buy a Lambretta and get a girlfriend and you don’t ride any more.”
He took up riding again in his 40s when his friend and business partner bought Hetchins Cycles. “We had an office in South Kensington and I turned the downstairs garage into a bike store. We had maybe 60 or 70. We must have had 50 Hetchins down there. I started riding again and renewed my interest in Italian bikes.”
Hence the beautiful display of celeste Bianchis we had before us. Starting with the 1938 Bovet model complete with the same equipment as ridden to victory in the Tour de France by Gino Bartali. “Up until 1937 no gears were allowed in the Tour. That’s the first gear that was allowed in. It’s a Vittoria Margherita gear, it’s three speed, and it’s completely rubbish to operate,” he laughs.
In 1927 an Italian racer called Tullio Campagnolo (you might have heard of him) came up with an idea that was a true game changer. “In those days you didn’t have derailleurs. You had a cog on each side of the back wheel, large and small. The wheel was held in the frame by wing nuts. Larger cog (lower gear) for climbing and you would have to turn the wheel around at the top of a hill to descend and ride the flatter sections,” explains Bob. “One day it was so cold that Tullio couldn’t undo his wing nuts. He got overtaken and lost the race. So he went back to his workshop and invented the quick release hub.” The story goes that he travelled around Italy with a bag of them, selling them to racers and fitting them himself. The design was patented in 1930 and by 1933 he had also patented the Cambio Corsa. Which leads us neatly to Bob’s next bike.
“This was made in 1946, we’ve moved up to 4 gears here. That’s the Cambio Corsa that Campagnolo came up with incorporating his quick release system,” he says, showing how the rear wheel moves forward or backwards in the drop-outs as the axle and drop-outs have teeth to keep the wheel aligned. “Your weight tensions the chain as you go along so it won’t work if you’re not sitting on it. And as soon as you’ve got the next gear you have to lock the quick release again otherwise the wheel’s going to fall out,” he explains, adding, “I’ve not ridden this one yet..!”
In 1949 Campagnolo continued to refine his invention, making it more streamlined by giving it one lever and an internal spring. “I built this bike,” says Bob of the 1951 Bianchi in his display, “and I’ve tried 50 times to change gear on it. Never managed it. I’ve actually had the wheel come out as I’ve back pedaled. I’ve fallen off withthe wheel.”
Fortunately Fausto Coppi had more luck changing gear than Bob. He rode it at Paris Roubaix in 1950, he won and they renamed it the Paris Roubaix gear after that.
As we move along to his 1953 Bianchi Campione del Mondo, Bob gets animated. “Ta dah! This is the gear. This is the one. In 1950 Campagnolo invented the parallelogram derailleur, the Gran Sport. Every derailleur on every bike ever since, every bike in this building, and every bike you see on the road is based on this idea.
“Everybody used it. The whole of the peloton used it. It was revolutionary. In 1953 Coppi won the Tour de France on it, he won the Giro d’Italia on it, he won just about everything on it. It was just fantastic.”
Next up in the collection is his 1963 Bianchi Competizione fitted with the last of the chromed bronze derailleurs by Campagnolo, which came out in 1963 and ran until the early 1970s.
Then we come to the first Super Record rear derailleur. “This Bianchi Specialissima is exactly like the bike Felice Gimondi won the 1976 Giro on. This gear is what Merckx used in his 1972 and ’74 Tour wins. This bike is a fantastic piece of kit. In the 1970s this was top of the range. A very modern looking frame. It’s got almost straight forks, a short wheel base, very responsive, very light. Out of all of these, that’s the most ridable bike.”
Lastly, we move on to a 1986 Bianchi X4 Argentin which is fitted with the last group set before indexing was introduced. “I like this one, this is the Campagnolo Corsa Record aero group set. The cranks are shaped, the mechs are both shaped. Everything’s made aero. It’s become about the most expensive piece of Campag kit you can get.”
So which of these classic beauties does Bob actually ride? He points to the ’63 Competizione “Our club just rode La Mitica in Italy on these bikes. It’s a ride celebrating Fausto Coppi’s life, starting and finishing at his memorial in his home village of Castellania. If you ride one of these old Bianchis you get free beer. It’s a fantastic event. Unfortunately he lived at the top of a hill…”
See more of Bob’s classic bikes at http://www.cicliartigianali.co.uk