Ride Velo has never been to Romford before and, an hour into the journey, we were seriously considering why we were enduring the traffic jams to get across London to a place that we’ve successfully managed to avoid for several decades without worrying about it. If we’d known what an Aladdin’s cave we were about to enter we would never have questioned the sanity of spending a beautiful spring Sunday afternoon stuck in the car negotiating the dubious driving skills of the inhabitants of Essex, rather than enjoying the country lanes of the Kent Alps on a road bike.
We were there to meet Liam Riley who we managed to tear away from the Ireland – Italy rugby match on the telly. Liam is your typical salt of the earth Romford type, wife and 2 kids, end of terrace Victorian house, mechanical engineer and all round good bloke. Only there’s more to Liam than meets the eye. He spends his time in between jobs shooting off to Italy to source and ship vintage Italian road bikes to good old Blighty.
With Eroica Britannia in mind, we’d been scanning eBay, pre-loved and steel vintage for a pair of suitable steeds to carry us across the hills of Derbyshire when we head up there in June, and had come across some likely contenders that Liam was selling. It was the promise of a 1970s Bianchi that looked in pretty good nick that stopped us from doing a U turn on the Mile End Road and head back home to get some actual riding in on such a sunny, glorious day. That, and the Leftfield album that’s been helping us through tricky moments in the car since its release last autumn.
Liam explained that he flies out to Milan every few weeks or so where he hooks up with an old mate from his school days who’s fluent in Italian. They have a few contacts there now who help them find some Italian beauties (bikes, that is) to sell back here in England. Tough life, eh? He even has to conduct business meetings at 9am over a glass of Chianti although he has to endure a bit of a ribbing over his rugby player's, rather than cyclist's physique, from the snake-hipped locals. They’re not overly happy about seeing these Italian-made bikes leave their country of origin, either. But such is the demand in Britain for these machines.
Anyway, the bikes: Liam led us to the bottom of his garden to a rather unremarkable shed and, I have to say that, by now, my hopes and aspirations for what we might find were on the low side, to say the least. But on opening the door there appeared a veritable treasure trove of Italian bikeware to get any Eroica enthusiast drooling for some time. What’s more, Liam has been lucky, or clever, enough to buy frames that actually match the average sized Brit, rather than the more diminutive Italian.
Among a dozen or so bikes, there were at least three that I would have bought there and then without taking a proper look, all mid-late 70’s or early 80’s models: a Coppi, a Moser and a Bianchi. Needless to say I took all three out for a test ride.
They were all lovely, but it came down to a tough choice between the Moser and the Bianchi. As Liam confirmed, the Moser is probably a better bike. The detail on the frame, lugs and crank were fantastic and it felt great to ride. He explained how an Italian would rate a Moser far higher than a Bianchi and, even though all of these had Campagnolo chainsets, breaks and wheels, our Italian friends would rate Shimano componentry just as highly. It’s just us romantic Brits that get carried away with all that guff then, and, oh my God, that Celeste Green! And I’m afraid that I have to include myself among those soppy, romantic types, because it was the Bianchi that stole my heart, while my head was telling me to go for the Moser.
So, what do I love about my new/old Bianchi? The only flaw I can find is that the stem should be shiny steel rather than black, so I’ll replace that. But just about everything else looks original – even the bottle cage. I love the elegant, thin Reynolds tubing; the detail moulded into the Campagnolo gear levers; the graceful sweep of the fork; those little holes on the brake levers that look like the ventilation holes on a pair of vintage cycling gloves; I’ve even fallen in love with suede saddle that looks like a Labrador’s snout. And its colour of course. Never understood anyone who bought a Bianchi that wasn’t Celeste Green!
So: a few tweeks to make here and there like a new chain, tyres and stem. I think I may even persevere with the Labrador saddle that feels as if I’m sitting across the chunky bough of an oak tree. All this for half the price of what a well-establised shop in East London is selling an almost identical bike for. All I need now are a pair of those REW Reynolds racing shoes that someone promised me a few weeks a go. The black ones with the red stitching. Remember how much I liked those, David?! Size 9. Anyway, Eroica, here we come!
For tips on what to look for when buying a vintage bike, and where to find your dream machine, eBay has a good guide - link here. We found Liam on eBay and can throughly recommend him as an honest and knowledgable dealer if you're looking for an Italian bike from the 1970s. His phone number is: 07974 764227 and he's about to take delivery of a Merckx, and Alan and Atala as well as three more Bianchis - belissimo!