I might look like a tired old replica of Bernard Hinault's 1985 Tour de France winning bike, but there is more to me than meets the eye.
I realised I had to say something last Thursday when a strangely familiar man, gaunt for his years, walked into my shop in Gravesend where I have been hung all these years and asked for Paul. He didn't seem like a cyclist - more like a tax inspector. Even young Toby sensed that the man wanted something more pressing than a puncture repair and shouted down to the boss in the basement.
"Yes, sir, what can I do to..." Paul, breathing heavily from hauling his paunch up the stairs had barely even looked up before speaking, but his voice tailed away quickly on seeing the man in the raincoat stood in the middle of the store. "Mickey? What do you want?" A flick of his head signalled Toby to leave them.
"I've come for the bike. Bernie wants his bike back." Mean eyes glanced in my direction as he paused. "He don't want the money no more either." Paul also glanced up at me briefly; he looked like he'd seen a ghost.
"Why does he want it back?"
"He just does - that's it. I'll come with a van next week."
That was it. Now, I knew I wasn't the only replica that came from Bernie's workshop because a few of us had been made at the same time and some of the customers had mentioned they'd seen frames like me in other shops in Kent, but I never thought we'd actually be going back after all these years.
You see, it all started in the Spring of 1984 when a man called Kenny went to Bernie's place on Brocket Lane in Hainault. Bernie had been a bike frame builder for years and had a big house with a garden that backed onto the forested grounds of Alder house. He also rented a workshop in Stratford where his lads assembled the bikes, but he liked to work alone in his workshop at the end of the garden. Carmel and the kids knew to keep away from him there and only his young boy, Mickey, ever took any interest in what Dad got up to.
The result of that meeting with Kenny was a delivery late the following evening. A Transit reversed up the side of the house and the driver and Bernie hauled the contents to the back of the shed and covered it up with tarpaulin. I never saw Kenny again or the Transit. Me and the others were made from that pile of metal. It took Bernie the best part of a year and a half, but by the end he had produced fifteen beautiful replicas of Bernard Hinault's winning bike - the one he won the '85 Tour with. Spraying us all with silver paint like Hinault's made him chuckle. We were then mounted on wall boards and clearly marked as for display only - he further ensured we would never be ridden by making the bottom bracket tube from a solid billeted piece of metal.
Now, making replica bike frames may not sound like such an odd thing for a bicycle frame builder to do, but you have to be aware that the material that he was working with wasn't his usual stuff. We replicas weren't made from common or garden Reynolds 531 or 753 steel with the double butted tubes; we weren't made from the nasty aluminium stuff that was becoming popular at the time; we certainly weren't made like them monocoque carbon fibre frames that everyone rides nowadays and which is regarded as the best material ever invented. No, we was made from something far more valuable; material that has been worshipped for thousands of years as the most beautiful metal ever pulled from the ground; the Egyptians buried their pharaohs with us and the great nations of the world hide us away in huge vaults as a mark of their countries' value. We are gold. We were made from solid bricks of stolen gold that Bernie melted down in the back of his shed and formed into lengths of tubing. He then cut lugs from thin sheets of same gold bricks to hold us together and then, during the hot August of 1985 , he carefully soldered us into the most beautiful frames - before hastily daubing us with dull grey-blue primer. Once this was applied we were no longer hidden away in the back of the shed; we were then hung in the windows where we could watch his kids play rough in the garden and Carmel by the pool in her bikini.
After we was finished we hung around for a few weeks and the remaining bricks at the back of the shed under the tarpaulin slowly disappeared. There were about 120 bricks in all and we each took a brick to make....so we was heavy for a bike frame. Everything was done by Bernie alone; most evenings he'd slip a couple of bricks in his rucksack just before he took the two dobermans, Jonny and Matt for a walk in the forest out the back. After their walk he'd wash his hands in the shed before going indoors for tea with Carmel and the kids. Bernie was a creature of good habits.
At the time it didn't occur to me that Bernie's house was that big, but years later I overheard a muffled conversation about him in the shop between Paul and another man who'd said he was a policeman but neither looked nor sounded like one.
"Alright Paul - how's things?" He sounded more Essex than Kent.
"Good, good - shouldn't moan."
"Seen Bernie recently?"
"Nah - not for a few years."
"Oh - I saw him down the lodge the other week - seems to be keeping well. Life done him OK I think."
"Yeah - after the start he had you wouldn't have thought it possible."
"What, you mean when he was a lad with Kenny and they was sent to borstal - they was a right handful those two - you know they was done for stealing bikes?"
"Yeah - and then he ended up making them! Who'd have thought it."
"Well, that's what it looked like - most of his dosh came from other jobs, you know." Paul smirked.
"Yeah, I know." There was regret in his voice as if he wished he'd gone that way too. The bike shop he took over in the late seventies from his father gave him a good living but he'd never be rich man. Not like Kenny or Bernie.
Not long after the '85 Tour, a man called Rob came to see us hanging up in Bernie's shed.
"So what do you want me to do with these then Bernie?" Rob was a rep from a bike accessory company who had sold Bernie's frames to shops in the past.
"Well, I want you to give them to shops, you know - as sort of adverts for my frames. I want them hung in all the best bike shops in Essex and Kent. Oh yes, and I want them to pay for them too. They're going to pay me every month just to have them." Robert looked in amazement at Bernie before looking a little more closely at me, in particular, as if looking for a faults in Bernie's work. There weren't any.
"Why would they pay for them Bernie?" He didn't seem to understand. There was a pause as Bernie collected himself.
"Cos you're going to tell them that I said they have to - and you're going to get a cut of the money." Rob seemed lost. "Listen, Robert, come here. I know you're young and quite new at this, but I guarantee that when you go and see them, they'll willingly take them OK? Know what I mean?" I'm not sure that Robert did, but he nodded all the same.
"What do I tell the boss?"
"You don't tell him anything!" After his mauling, Rob left us. Then, one by one over the next few weeks, we were picked up by him and taken away to a shop. I was the last to leave.
I don't know what will happen next - I guess we'll be melted down and put back into bricks. Then we'll probably ended up in another vault again. I've liked being in the shop and people looking at me over the years, but I wish I could have been a proper bike. I have felt a bit of a fraud.