I can’t have been much older than 10 years of age when I visited the bike shop. Stumbling past the endless rows of plain, uninspiring commuter bikes, the odd brightly coloured girls’ section and onwards to the boys’ department. I fell in love – there she was, lit up by a gleaming spotlight, standing proud amongst the crowd, wacky, different almost mind-blowing. Excuse me for getting carried away and waxing lyrical but this was radical, even for the 70’s. It must rate up there with flares, tank tops and of course the Bay City Rollers. It was the Raleigh Chopper and I was hooked.
For weeks I couldn’t sleep, fired up with anticipation at the approaching Christmas – would Santa grant my dream and fit a Chopper down my chimney? I still believe in Santa, because I actually saw him that Christmas Eve. It must have been very cold, as he seemed to be suffering from advanced hypothermia. His speech was slurred and he stumbled around the room occasionally falling down. I thought it was very unkind of my parents to be giggling outside the door instead of helping poor Santa who now appeared to have lost all circulation in his legs. When eventually the commotion died down and Santa had departed, or collapsed, I summoned the courage to switch the bedroom light on. I sat there in awe.
She was a flame orange colour, sparkling, magnificent, new, wow! You see, this was different, so completely different from what had gone before. Nature occasionally throws up aberrations, things that were never meant to be or something that would change the future completely. This was no different. I had the first Chopper in the neighbourhood and had a new found fame.
For the technically minded, she had a steel frame and fork, steel crank, 3-speed gearbox and steel rims and weighed the equivalent of a chieftain tank. I loved her more and more each day. The 70’s had arrived.
My first ride was a revelation, this design icon was exactly that – a design masterpiece, but a practical nightmare. The first problem was the weight. I developed the habit of pushing the bike up even the slightest incline (a habit I still retain today). It weighed a bloody ton! Every bike ride was a physical trial and I soon got used to being left behind. This must have been the original downhill bike. But I could forgive all this as she was gorgeous and like all women you have to take the rough with the smooth.
I started to build my thigh muscles up and grew more attracted to the rear knobbly tyre (rumour on the street had it that it was a real motorbike tyre). I still gaze endlessly at the rows of MTB tyres, weighing up the advantage of semi-slicks over big knobblies. It was the first time such a big, thick tyre had been used on such a bike, Combine this with a small front slick and riding became interesting. The very high rise bars, like a praying mantis, added to the superb straight-line handling but did little to get you round a corner.
It soon become apparent why it was called a ‘chopper’. My first experience of this was when I slammed into a wall, momentum thrusting my body forward towards that proud, rigid gearstick. I could hardly walk for a week – the original “Buster Gonad”
The highlight for me was the seat. Designed under the influence of LSD or by a genius well ahead of his time it was so different. Onlookers never failed to comment on its unusual style or practicality. It just begged to be sat upon. This temporarily solved the problem of being left behind. I managed 3 people sat in a row, exciting downhill and company to help you push everywhere else.
Throughout the years, many more cuts, bruises and damaged pride did nothing to dent my enthusiasm for this dinosaur. It was nothing short of miraculous that I survived at all. There was no such thing as body armour or helmets. But what it did do, was spark a life-long interest in bikes.
I still have to have that ultimate bike, the one that nobody else in the neighbourhood has. The bike at the cutting edge of technology, one that turn heads and friends drool upon, one designed without the use of drugs. I am now more discerning, putting build quality, frame weight and handling before sheer novelty. Although, I still think that if it looks right then it probably is- I did go on to buy a Sinclair C5 (that looked right) but that is another story.
I still get that juvenile sense of excitement and eager anticipation when entering a bike shop, gazing longingly over the Marins, Konas and Cannondales. I still hanker after those long summer days, sweat pouring from my brow as I pushed my Chopper around the streets, looking for a hill to ride down. I wish I still had it (one recently sold for £4000 at auction) but my one ended up on the scrap heap like so many others.
Mountain bikes are different. They stand out from the crowd, make grown men behave like kids again and bring countless hours of pleasure. I blame the Chopper for sparking my enthusiasm, for a bike company daring to do something radical and ultimately making me more discernible. Where would I be if I had not had the joy and pain of owning a 70’s classic.