by Les Woodland
A friend of a friend was marooned by the roadside once with a flat tyre. It was the dark and windy night on a remote country road that the best tales are made of. Not a house in sight, a low wailing noise and maybe wisps of mist. You know the kind of thing.
Anyway, there he was doing his best to take off one wheel and fit the spare when a far larger car slowed as it passed and then reversed. The offside door opened and out stepped a chauffeur in a peaked cap. My friend of a friend heard a voice he knew but couldn’t place. It said: “I do hope the poor man is all right.”
It was only when the Samaritan reopened the door and my friend of a friend moved to apologise to the passenger for delaying her journey that he realised the voice belonged to the Queen of England. She had been on her way to her country house at Sandringham when she felt the urge to help one of her subjects in need. Or at any rate to send someone else into the night to help.
My friend wished he had a camera. There was no other way that anyone would believe him. Except that in time they did because the story made the papers.
Well, my own wish-I-had-a-camera moment last weekend was far less prestigious. But it still meant a lot to me.
We were in Paris, for an annual wingding of France’s most enthusiastic bike-travellers, and on a spare afternoon we’d gone out into the suburbs to a bike shop known for its care of cycle tourists.
That’s when I wish I had the camera. For there in the window was Heinz Stücke’s bike.
I didn’t have my camera with me then and I hadn’t had it two years earlier when I stood next to the man at the same big weekend.
Well, by now of course, you’re rightly wondering what the fuss is about. This isn’t, after all, some lean-limbed Spaniard with plastic bags in his blood. No, Heinz Stücke holds the record for the world’s longest bike tour. He set off in 1962and never stopped. He’s ridden 609,000km and visited 195 countries.
Except that now he has stopped. Rumour said he had called it a day and seeing his bike propped in the window at Randocycle rather confirmed it. I would have got a picture of it if I could.
I’d also have snapped the tandem Derny.
You’ll have seen a Derny if you’ve ever watched a six-day race. I love six-day races and I love the Derny competitions. Sleek stars snuggle up behind the rear fender of a bizarre motorbike that sounds like a drowsy bee yet has to be pedalled. Two brothers invented it just before the second world war. The idea was a pacing bike smaller than the monstrous motorcycles used before then and one, more importantly, that wouldn’t come to a world-stopping halt if the motor seized.
Once upon a time, I’m sure, Derny races were just show. Now they’re not. For one thing the Dernys’ owners are now independent agents and their contracts, like those of the riders, depend on their talent. Anyway, to quote Tony Doyle, a six-day star of the 1980s: “To fix a race at 70kmh, you have first to ride at 70kmh.”
None of the original Dernys is still in racing condition. They were slow for the job even in their heyday, when they paced riders in Bordeaux-Paris. What you see on the track now is a copy – because nobody has improved on the original – made by an ageing Belgian in a place called Neerpelt.
Most people want to be the rider behind one. Not me. I’ve always wanted to ride the Derny. I haven’t got the spinnaker belly that the best pacers have. And I hope I haven’t got the moronic expression. But, for a chance to be a six-day pacer, I’d grow fat and look as daft as I could.
There was never enough market for race Dernys, of course. That was why the original firm went out of business in 1957, having several times changed address in Paris. Roger Derny and his son tried other ideas but I’d never seen any. Someone wrote to tell me a tandem Derny was hanging on a café wall somewhere, but I lost the note and didn’t know where. And then this weekend I finally saw one, blue and battered, a bit rusty in parts and held against thieves by the sort of chain that secures oil tankers.
I’d like to tell you I was thrilled. But I wasn’t. It didn’t have any appeal at all. The idea of riding a tandem with a snarling engine between your knees is… Well, it’s neither one thing nor the other. It would go like a rocket, of course. But what’s the point? You could never ride one in a six-day race and that’s what I’d always wanted.
I left feeling pleased and disappointed. I’d seen Heinz’s bike but he wasn’t there, and I’d seen a Derny tandem and wondered why I’d bothered. And I didn’t have a camera for either of them.
To be honest, I think there are better bragging rights in getting your wheel changed by the Queen’s chauffeur. Don’t you?