Study the photo below for a minute. That is Alf Engers, time-trial superstar and enfant terrible of the UK scene in the 1960s and ’70s.
He was the first man to break the 50-minute barrier for 25 miles. He constantly battled the authorities, receiving lengthy bans for trumped-up transgressions that kept him out of the sport for years at a time.
He had, despite evidence to the contrary from Bernard Thompson’s photograph, a decent understanding of aerodynamics ahead of his time, and raced in a position many of us would struggle to hold for even a minute, his nose millimetres from the stem.
And yet, as Engers readily admitted to me, there was one area of aerodynamics where he got it wholly wrong—earlier in his glittering racing career, at least. His beautifully gleaming chromed Shorter machine, you will notice, is equipped with components drilled to within an inch of their life.
Chainrings, rear mechs, brake levers, even handlebars: all were fair game for the drillers and machinists back then. And Engers, being the fastest tester on two wheels at the time, was the man we all looked to for inspiration.
Drilled components equals less weight, equals more speed, right? If Alf can average 30mph for 25 miles, maybe we can too…
We couldn’t, it transpired, drilling or no drilling. But that didn’t stop us trying.
It was the late ’70s when Engers cottoned on to the fact that drag and turbulence caused by air passing over hundreds of holes in his bike were actually slowing his progress, not aiding it.
His bikes transformed: smooth surfaces; front brake mounted behind the fork; minimal braze-ons; brake levers mounted behind the bars in a barely usable position.
One man who did get it right was, unsurprisingly, Eddy Merckx. His 1972 Hour Record machine, built by Ernesto Colnago, featured milled and re-profiled cranks and chainrings, but no holes. The notoriously finicky Belgian shaved every possible gram from the weight of his machine to good effect. Campagnolo components of the time were massively over-engineered, allowing a fair amount of material to be removed without risking structural failure.
Meanwhile, over in California, bike builders who had seen the work on Merckx’s Hour machine, and were aware of Engers and the UK time-trial scene’s penchant for making Campag’s nest resemble cheese graters, were doing their own thing.
“It was pretty big in California: guys like Peter Johnson and Frank Spivey were super-talented machinists,” said Drillium Revival’s Jon Williams, a talented machinist himself – who has sadly died since this article was first published in Rouleur magazine in 2016.
“Southern California has a huge defence industry, so a lot of these guys were just doing it as a hobby, and they did fantastic work. Most of the backyard stuff you see from the ’70s is pretty awful—it’s guys going at it with their drills—but some of these other guys really elevated it.”
Williams’ path to the art of drilling components came from a love of tinkering around with cars and motorbikes. A rider in the ’70s, when he returned to cycling in the ’90s, he had a hankering for the dream machines of his youth.
“The vintage bike thing really started picking up towards the end of the last century. I borrowed a vertical mill and started doing work for myself, and lots of other guys wanted it too, so I started doing it for them. I was doing a lot of repair work and restoring nishes on old Campy hubs and that sort of thing—it cleans up so nice.
“I did a Gios Super Record, which was a bike I really wanted when I was a kid.”
The very thought of taking a drill to a vintage Super Record rear mech makes me shudder. How do you even start on a nerve-wracking project like that? Practice makes perfect, confirmed Williams – whose work appears in these pictures.
“I’d find old Campy derailleurs that were too far gone to renovate, so I would practise on them. It was a few years before I felt comfortable working on new-old stock and stu that was in good shape.”
An anecdote from my youth which I related to Williams: watching a club-mate bike checking at a road race and rejecting one bike presented to him on the grounds that he didn’t think its seatpin, which had more holes than a Swiss cheese, would last the distance of the race.
“I would never drill a seatpost,” Williams replied, much to my relief. “Aesthetically, it’s ugly. I really try and do stuff that will not alter the integrity. Most of this stuff, the older parts, was really overbuilt.
“I have people send me modern stuff now and you can’t work on it. A computer has figured out exactly how light you can make it before it breaks.”
The work Williams would do on a seatpost would go unseen, he explained. Milling from the inside is where the weight can be shaved off.
“An older Campagnolo Record post, you could take a whole lot of material out of that and it would still be absolutely fine.”
But the question remains: what is the point?
“To some guys, the bike is just a tool, and I get that,” Williams explained.
“But for others, anything they have—their car, their hi-fi, camera—they are really involved with, and they want them to be cool.
“The whole weight-saving thing is really implied. It’s more of a psychological thing. It’s cool. You wanted to show up at the race looking good. It was intimidation, a mind-game.”
Take another look at that photo of Alf Engers. He looks great. His bike looks amazing. It was intimidation. It was a mind-game. And it was, most definitely, cool.
This article was originally published in Rouler 62