24 Mar 2011

Secondhand bicycle madness

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To Holland last week to collect more Dutch bikes. Our man Johann is a good four hour drive from Calais and Ted and I rolled up at midday Saturday. We haggled a little over the price of thirty bikes and then jammed them all into the van. After that we sat and smoked cigarettes in the sun.

It was hard work finding this guy and so many well-priced bikes. The buying process now seems remarkably straightforward and doesn’t really compare to our earlier more shambolic efforts.

In fact those early trips were a pleasure and much more like road trips in their range and drift. Driving around Benelux, searching for secondhand bikes from town to town, was really the best sort of travel: we had only a loosely-defined objective but this led us into the very heart of Dutch and Belgian towns. And so their societies. Such is the part that cycling plays in the function of these places.

We were often frustrated on these early trips – we struggled to fill a car on our first venture – but it was revealing to meet the people in the shops. We asked about bikes from Brussels to Spa and the German border, cruising around in the Skoda and racking up the miles. Only once did we find what we were after, inveigling our way into an attic and a horde of old stock and parts.

This felt a little devious, depriving a nation of its heritage somehow. But then the old guy was happy to get rid of what he saw a junk. Part of me was ashamed at the material thrill of all this. But then this treasure hunting, this sense of getting something for little or nothing is in some ways a capitalist fundamental. Our paltry adventure had the same basic shape as most foreign trade ventures of the past. You look for rare commodities to buy cheaply and you sell them on at a profit. We were simple middlemen rewarded in part for the adventure of our travel, and for the sake of trade.

So we were joking with those handy women at Lock 7 last week about the potential of our trip this time around. They wanted to know the whereabouts of a sale we were headed to in Holland and I was precious in not disclosing the details.

We can’t go around giving up our contacts: this is one of the only real values our business. There aren’t that many vintage road bikes out there anymore and if we have a decent source of these we have to be a little bit precious in protecting it.

The sale itself was an anticlimax in part because it was busy with people doing the same thing as us. The drive from Eindhoven was the best part of the day, sixty miles of wet fields, cattle and turbines in a very Dutch pastoral.

We found the bike fair in a suburban-feeling Dutch village – what other sort is there? On entering the village hall we found a sort of bicycle Crufts with lots of people parading their favourite and best restored vintage machines, men crooning over the finish on a re-chromed Masi, men taking suggestive photos of bikes from very cunning angles.

Each to their own. But it was pretty odd in some respects after the wholesale of the previous day with Johann. Such a flagrant display of bikes as things: materialist, fetishist, perfectionist, abstract – expensive nostalgia tinged with a feint eroticism.

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