The Day I Lost A Priceless Tour de France Bike
The Shame and a Thirteen Year Silence
What follows is a tale so distressing and so humiliating that it has taken me 13 years to even to attempt to get it down on paper. Essentially it is an ensemble drama devoid of any satisfying, punishable villain or for that matter any character of any redeeming value. Even now I find it stifling to think about and contemplate, like waking up in a Kafka novel. It was a time when fate intervened to make sure that of all the options available the one we defaulted to was the prisoner’s dilemma ‘worst-worst’ one. The horror.
And It Was All Going So Well
It is 2001 and I moonlight as a scribe with good friend and snapper Gerard (Ned) Brown. We have the contract to write about and photograph beautiful bikes for Cycle Sport Magazine. The magazine is very pro-peloton and therefore so are the bikes that we feature. It works very well; we enjoy each other’s company, see things the same way and enjoy our work, and Cycle Sport keep extending the contract. Life is good.
Armstrong, Ullich & Olano's Bikes. And Underlying Fear
Then the editor comes up with the idea that we feature, ride and review three Tour de France contender’s TT bikes for that year – Lance Armstrong, Abraham Olano and Jan Ullrich. One of those names still makes me shudder. I digress.
The bikes came in and only one worries me. The others were replicas or spare bikes, but one belongs to Manolo Saiz, controversial and vaguely menacing Directeur Sportif of Team Once. This was an actual Abraham Olano team bike he had ridden in the 2000 Giro d’Italia amongst others. It was therefore priceless and sat above Manolo’s desk in his own private museum. He had lent it to us under very strict conditions where the worst thing he could contemplate was a puncture or a scratch and that would be enough to unleash the forces of hell. We were thus already operating in a very narrow tolerance band-width. I stopped being myself and started being Woody Allen the very moment Olano/Manolo’s bike came in through the doors. Had I managed to retain my typical: slightly chaotic, calm, optimistic and post-hippy persona maybe none of this would have happened?
But it was Woody who locked the doors to the shop and gathered all the staff in a huddle upstairs in the office. And it was Woody who twitched and fretted through a breathless lecture about the value of ‘The Olano Bike’ and how nothing mattered more in our tiny universe except putting this rare object safely back in a box at the end of the two-week test. James (featured), Dean (mechanic), HR (ahem), Sam (LMNH), Warrick (yes him) and even Jules sensed my borderline clinical disquiet and demurred appropriately.
The very presence of TOB as we shall now refer spooked me ceaselessly and everyone was in on the joke when I checked and re-checked its presence every 15 minutes. I had become Lady Macbeth.
Breaking Rule One. And Premature Relief
The test went well and of the three bikes we tested TOB fitted me ‘best’ (i.e. not at all - see later) and hence was most tempting to ride in a club team TT I had agreed to ride on that very weekend with Warrick Spence and Guy Andrews (featured). I bet at this point you are thinking that I rode the bike, punctured, crashed, scratched it and that is the point of this story? Yes I rode it, yes I double-flatted it in a hail-storm around the back of the course when we were going like stink and on for a big finish, but you are so woefully short if you think that constitutes horror? Prepare to recalibrate your ‘horror’ quotient.
Riding the TOB was against Manolo’s clearly stated rules and puncturing his rare ‘silks’ was going to get me in trouble but hell it was worth it. Dean cleaned the bike and serviced it ready to box to be picked up later in the day. I paced around back on twitching duty while the bike was boxed at the front of the shop awaiting the courier. I eventually relaxed when it had finally left the building and was safely on its way back to Manolo with only a pair of different tubs to show for its English vacation.
It only went Vincent Price when a courier turned up the next day announcing he was there to “pick up a box for Spain”. Time stopped, body fluids drained, mind alternately ran fast and slow until language failed to express what deduction had already made clear. We (I) had lost The Olano Bike. It had gone and nobody knew how, when or where.
We closed the shop for the rest of the day and the phone rang unanswered. We all sat in a circle upstairs trying to forensically re-construct all our and recent movements. Hours and hours went with every plausible scenario being played over and over again until we distilled into these options:
1. Courier firm made a mistake and did have the bike that had been picked up but no paper-work signed?
2. The box containing TOB had been opportunistically stolen from the front of the shop?
3. A benign explanation not yet considered - that would result in imminent return of TOB – i.e another courier or customer, or, or?
4. It had been thrown out as rubbish, by a staff member, probably HR as he will now be known?
Options 2 and 4 stand out for obvious reasons linked to finality. And while option 2 is horrendous it is at its essence someone horrible executing a selfish callous act upon us.
Option 4 is an act that is so incalculably stupid and careless that harm, loss, waste and shame will ripple out for years to come.
So option 4 it was then. We threw The Olano Bike away into the back of a London rubbish truck. And here I agree with James Fairbank’s (now Rapha Brand Manager) recent retrospective assessment:
“Such was the magnitude of the fuck-up it sort of transcended who did it…”
The Pre-Polished Road to Ruin
In truth it was my fault of course. My own neurosis had pre-polished the road to ruin. Like countless Best Men at countless weddings the more I fiddled and handled and re-checked the presence of the damn ring the more certain it’s eventual loss through my clumsy, sweaty fingertips.
The following days were frantic and depressing trying to piece together just what would have happened after the box was plopped into the back of the crusher. How much damage would be done? Where would it be now? And was it possible to recover what was left? Predictably every call was waste of effort shot through with obvious insensitive humour on behalf of incumbent waste-disposal engineers. I ran around town for a while visiting landfills and ironically called recycling centres until my horizon became filled with the obvious. It was not coming back and we had broken something beautiful and valuable it and it was now mangled on some unspecified heap.
The Silence of Manolo
Ned told Manolo Saiz who apparently said nothing. He just hung up which made the disgrace complete. Our paths would cross maybe and it wouldn’t go so well for me. That is what I heard in that silence. Quite right too.
I didn’t recover. We didn’t recover. The company was disgraced and I had lost my confidence. It went on for weeks without any glimmer of positivity.
A Strange Turn
Until a month or so after the incident and we took a peculiar call from someone at Yellow Jersey in Camden with a very strange story to tell. A scruffy individual had wobbled in on a very aggressive yellow and black TT bike that they said they had bought from a mate, or somesuch. Suspicions aroused Yellow Jersey arranged a price (£120) and asked for the individual to return the next day. They knew through the grape-vine that we had lost such a bike and we all hoped it was TOB. At the allotted hour James Fairbanks went north to Camden in a cab with instructions to pay the man if it was our bike and ask no questions.
The World in Colour And An Unlikely Saviour
The call from James telling me that it was indeed Olano’s bike it felt like the world existed in Technicolor again after a month of washed out grey. But to see the Olano bike in the flesh back in the shop was truly emotional for all of us. It was dirty and dishevelled and sporting a pair of BMX pedals but otherwise unharmed.
The honest story seems to have been that a homeless person raked through our ‘rubbish’ and found a bike that they sold to our vendor; who tried to commute on it for a couple of weeks before finding the position a little ‘challenging’. No crime, nothing untoward, we had just been lucky that our nameless Good Samaritan rifled our rubbish only minutes before it was due to be collected and crushed.
Me and Jules are reminded of this calamity every day because HR kindly imprinted his initials in pavement outside.
In case you are interested at last contact HR was an estate agent.
James Fairbanks Recollection of Olano-Gate:
“Life is punctuated by a few incidents that are indelibly seared into one's mind due to the sheer magnitude of their fist-in-mouth, marching round in a circle waving arms, crushing fuckwittedness. Remember the reaction when you pelted a football at a greenhouse and time seems to morph, slowing to a crawl as you try to halt the ball smashing the glass? That kind of thing.
Apart from an incident that still makes me flinch with embarrassment when I recall it, throwing that Giant out is top of the list. The sense of relief when, staggeringly, it returned almost made losing it worthwhile…"
Pro Position Analysis
Thirteen is also long enough to witness a revolution in bike-fitting. Many teams were flirting with it but it was still largely an after thought. What is good for the pro's is of course good for us, so when I contemplated racing Olano's bike I was blind to several factors:
1. The saddle was fixed and could not be adjusted in any plane. So unless me and Olano were twins separated at birth it would therefore have to be wrong (I never even measured it)
2. It was fitted with 180mm cranks. A bit like long skis being "pro" in the 80's & 90's so long cranks were (quite wrongly) de-rigour in pro cycling.
3. Olano was famous for having the most aggressive TT position in the pro bunch. The bars were over 25cms below the saddle! What made me think I could squeeze into his virtual skinsuit, so to speak?
One More Guilty Confession
But I did race it and you know what it was great. largely fuelled by guilt, adrenalin and a body still young and conditioned enough to be 'macro-absorbing'.
Now things are very different for both pro's and amateurs. Nothing is left unexamined by science and rigorous thinking, as typified by Cyclefit Sports Scientist James Hewitts recent article explaining process of how we work with Trek Factory Racing at World Tour level.
Does the maverick in me miss the freedom of a racing life unexamined and a body young enough to absorb its consequences? I would have to say yes a little. But it is a different era and I and of course Cyclefit stand for something else now.