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Bike Collections No.3: Richard Williamson

Jordan Gibbons
28 Mar 2017

With a nose for a bargain (and a very large garage) Richard Williamson has created an Aladdin’s Cave of vintage steel bikes

Collecting comes in many forms. For some it’s a near-full time pursuit that involves hours, days and weeks trawling through catalogues and websites to find that one elusive item that is their Holy Grail.

For others it’s very much part time – a distraction from stresses of daily life that, after 30 years of ‘a bit here and there’, manifests itself as a collection so vast and untamed that it becomes difficult to manage. 

For the third collector in our series, however – the first two covered the collections of Kadir Guirey and Rohan Dubash and – the motivating force is far simpler and more practical: Richard Williamson collects bicycles so he can ride them.

‘I’ve been collecting for about 14 years now,’ Williamson tells Cyclist as he leads us to his impressively large garage at his home in Surrey, where he has retired after a lucrative career in the printing industry.

‘I raced as a young lad and then I was out of the sport for a long time while I had a stint in motor racing.

‘I got back into cycling when I was about 55 and as I approached retirement I began collecting because I had a lot of time on my hands. It’s just a hobby, but I don’t just collect them, I ride them all. Not as frequently as I’d like, but I do.’

At first Williamson looked to acquire some true vintage bikes, but practicality made him change focus: ‘I had some bikes from the 1920s but I just couldn’t get on with them.

‘I mean I’m 70 now, so whether it’s an age thing or I’m just a bit nervous riding old machinery, I’ve sort of settled on my earliest rideable bike being a Freddie Grubb from 1931.

‘I can ride that quite comfortably as it’s a single-speed freewheel and it actually fits me quite nicely. Also some of the 1920s bikes have plunger brakes where the metal comes down on top of the tyre, which is quite a crazy design really as they don’t work well at all.

‘With a fixed wheel it’s sort of OK but if you don’t use it fixed it’s quite lethal. Also when these bikes were made I suppose there weren’t many obstacles in the road, or traffic lights for that matter.’

Getting out and riding the bikes is also the reason that Williamson doesn’t insist on attaining the exact period spec for some of his collection.

‘Some of these bikes aren’t perfect in their period correctness because you can’t always get the things you need at the right time.

‘Also, to do that the amount you’d have to invest in them would be off the scale, especially for things such as chains that are both rare and a consumable part.

‘I’m not trying to achieve anything in particular. People have asked me why I don’t just concentrate on one or two brands, but I just get interested by anything. It’s a visual thing initially.’

They can also be an investment. ‘Many of these bikes have gone up in value while I’ve owned them. More importantly, though, I’m having fun with them. Stocks and shares aren’t fun, are they?’

Secret source

Most collectors struggle to explain where individual items come from, and Williamson is no different.

It’s not that they’re reluctant to reveal their sources: it’s more that (aside from eBay) few items in any collection ever come from the same place, and each has its own unique story.

‘I bought this frame on eBay the other day… God, I must sound like I’m on eBay all the time. I probably am. They don’t all come from there. What I don’t get from eBay comes from cycle jumbles.

‘I use Hilary Stone [another collector and seller] quite a bit too because, although he’s a rather quirky individual, he’s incredibly knowledgeable and has often got difficult-to-find components.

‘Also I look on eBay a lot in different countries. Italian eBay is fantastic for Campagnolo, for instance. It seems obvious but most people don’t think to try it. France is good for Stronglight chainsets.

‘It’s funny how you come by them. I went up to [custom bike painter] Colour-Tech the other week to pick up a frame he was respraying for me and I said, “Have you got anything for sale?” I ended up buying a Ron Cooper.

I think it’s from around 2006 so it’s fairly modern. It’s never been built up. I used to race on a Gillott when I was a youngster.

I had two that I’ve kept and it was Ron who built those too. They’re the most fabulous frames – they just ride so well and the quality of his workmanship is beautiful.’ 

While Williamson might not be able to place where all his bikes come from, he’s sure of one thing – his passion for Italian bikes. 

‘I just love Colnagos, so often when I see one I feel like I have to buy it. Every one that I’ve had has just ridden so well and the paintwork is always fantastic.

‘I really fell in love with them when I had a C40 built as my race bike. Then I started collecting other carbon Colnagos and that branched out into the steel ones as well.

‘The C40 is great because it bridges two genres of bikes. It’s got that look of the Master but with some modern touches.

‘I’m not keen on bikes with big chunky tubing, but I guess that’s because that isn’t what I grew up with. This era of Colnagos is still fantastic. Modern Pinarellos are terrible.’

Growing pains

Williamson is one collector who has not been constrained by space. Most build their collections like goldfish – they grow until they fill their tank and then stop – but Williamson simply built another tank, or rather an extension onto his garage.

‘The builder did say I could make it even bigger but the worry is I’d fill it. I used to go into Cycles Dauphin on Box Hill [in Surrey] to buy an inner tube and I’d come out with a new bike.

‘I don’t really know how to organise it all. I started with Colnagos there [pointing to a corner of the room], and I’m quite fond of Hetchins too, so I put them over the other side.

‘Then after that I tried to keep the Italian bikes down this side, but a few ended up spilling out over here too.’

Williamson’s craving for n+1 is something many riders can empathise with. Having the money and space to indulge the habit helps, but mainly it requires a mindset that combines inquisitiveness with mild obsession. 

Others in the league of collectors include a former manager of Frankie Goes To Hollywood who has a ‘rather modest collection of just 26’.

We’ve heard of one who’s collected tubular tyres for 15 years. Then there’s that Wiggins chap – he’s said to be building a fairly tasty collection of his own. 

If Cyclist could persuade him to show us around his garage, perhaps Wiggins could answer the biggest question for collectors: how do you know when you’ve got enough?

The answer, we suspect, is never.

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