Laurie Morgan, from Perth (the good Perth, in Scotland), was beguiled by the TI Raleigh bike when he first witnessed one in action in 1981. His “love” has not dimmed in the intervening years. Now, since Laurie returned from a difficult tour of Afghanistan as part of the RAF Regiment in 2012, he has pioneered a group of vintage Raleigh bike enthusiasts which has 770 members and counting. He obtained permission from the original TI Raleigh company to create a group who are able to race while wearing the original kit and ride the vintage bicycles.
“It’s passion,” Laurie summarises simply when I ask him what defines his relationship with the stylish retro Raleigh bike. No contemporary alternative could excite him as much as his own 1978 TI 753 edition which is still going strong. The 753 refers to the high quality steel tubing used for the bike’s frame, a combination of lightness and toughness that has stood the test of time, and can give many modern bikes a run for their money.
To him it is more than a bike. “Being a member of the club enables me to keep years of history and tradition alive,” said Laurie. “I am particularly proud of the fact that many of the members of the great Dutch TI Raleigh racing team of the 70’s and 80’s are members of the club.”
These physical “monsters” achieved similar feats to today’s cycling exemplars of athleticism and endurance while contending with heavier equipment, rougher road surfaces, longer daily distances and a more limited gearing system.
They also operated during an era in which a more laid-back attitude prevailed. In today’s rather serious arena of professional cycling (and sport in general) there is far more money at stake for far more people: such is the way in which sport has grown into a global and multi-faceted economic phenomenon.
When Laurie was a youngster, inspired by the Raleigh riders as they raced through his hometown in 1981, there were no Team Sky chartered planes or equipment and expertise to ensure that every marginal gain was achieved. These men were simply incredibly tough and passionate about what they were doing, and there is something admirable about that more robust sporting era which has remained appealing. Laurie says that he tries to impress upon any youngsters just how admirable these athletes were and his enthusiasm when he speaks of being able to wear the very same kit or ride the very same contraption is patently clear.
The club is naturally entirely comprised of middle-aged members. “None” was the response when I asked Laurie how many youngsters are members. Some, therefore, might ask why this this particular middle-aged hobby matters. People are fascinated by all manner of esoteric pastimes and are allowed to get on with them. It is important because, while wishing to avoid hyperbole, respect for and reverence of tradition and past charms is surely of value whether sport is involved or not. Affection for retro bicycles or for any other traditional pastime or object provides necessary balance, not only in the world of cycling and sport but in wider life. When such passion is shared with so many others, Laurie agrees, it is all the more edifying.
Sport is sometimes a microcosm of wider life, which is advancing extremely quickly. Too quickly for some. laurie jokingly wonders whether bikes will even exist in thirty years’ time. The world evolves as it must, and with the digital, technological and other advancements, society benefits. Such rapid progress has left the world a very different place than it was even a few decades ago.
Sport has reaped the benefits as well. Increased expertise and resources allow cyclists to ride faster, more efficiently and more comfortably. Of course, cycling (and sport) is as popular as ever while Laurie acknowledges that the modern honed carbon fibre offerings facilitate performances that break new ground even for cyclists below professional level. “There are guys cracking 10 miles in under 23 minutes,” he says, an impractical feat for a rider of any Raleigh bike.
However, maximal speed or efficiency is not always the be all and end all, not for Laurie or thousands of other lovers of vintage bicycles beyond his own TI Raleigh Club. One of the main expressions of this took place only last weekend in the Tuscan hills around Sienna. ‘L’Eroica’, the annual vintage cycling spectacle, now in its 21st year, is ridden over gruelling gravel roads in these hills. More than 7000 ‘heroic’ riders from all over the world attended the event, all on steel bicycles of similar vintage to Morgan’s Raleigh, and some even older, their aim being “to rediscover the beauty of fatigue and the taste of accomplishment”.
For them it is not about speed as the all-day event is emphatically not a race. It is, instead, about less absolute qualities such as authenticity, style and values. They are not mere cyclists but, as the Eroica founder, Giancarlo Brocci, puts it with Italian grandiloquence, “hunters of feelings and emotions”.
Laurie’s passion, and that of his club-mates and other retro enthusiasts, shows that there is and must be room for the traditional to co-exist along with the new. Some passions are too strong to easily succumb to contemporary alternatives, however effective, such is their nostalgic value. We would be poorer if this were not the case and the kindle was not offset by the occasional hardback or the frenetic Twenty20 format by a little Test Match Special. This sentiment can be observed across most facets of life – in fashion, artistic taste or, of course, cycling equipment. It is welcome that people such as Laurie Morgan are able to share their passion for the traditional, providing an ever-important link with what came before, a balance between a satisfying past and a quickly moving present.