Pedalheadia: Benoît Le Grand

Here’s a short post on a classic piece of machinery. A classic vehicle that has changed my life in many ways, my old Peugeot. Benoît the great, however, is not a car. No, this classic Frenchie is a bicycle, but please don’t look away. I was never into that sort of thing before either!
Without the bicycle though, we wouldn’t have the Car or even the Aeroplane, so there definitely is something in it. I promise.

Moving to University is a watershed moment that a lot of people associate with freedom. Freedom from overbearing parents, freedom to get catastrophically drunk, freedom to choose your own subjects and finally a chance to have your own place.
For myself though, it was very different. It felt like I was in fact losing a lot of the freedom I had only just gained 2 years prior, when I turned 17. Uni is rarely a suitable place for a car and that was such a disappointing blow for me. I was back to square one, relying on the intermittent and surprisingly expensive British public transport system that I worked so hard to escape from. Especially the dreaded bus!
Buses in Manchester are just pure crap. They rarely show up, and if you live far enough down Oxford Road like I did, then they’re already full and just drive away. Another big issue is that two companies ‘run’ most of the bus racket in Manchester (Stagecoach and First), meaning if you want a bus pass, you have to pick one and just hope your gamble was on the more reliable of the two. The buses are also smelly, slow and full of vomit/drunkards when you do finally manage to catch one and it was just really not for me. I needed personal transport again and the only real option was a bicycle.

As a Top Gear fanatic, it was all too easy to disregard bicycles and detest the cyclist.
But even as a child, cycling never really clicked with me; I either had one speed labour intensive BMXs or I had mountain bikes that had far too much wobbly suspension for the basic park tracks near my house. I much preferred my skateboard and, soon, my bikes rusted away in the graveyard of my parents shed.
But as a student with not very much money, I just needed to think of the bike as a tool purely to get me from A to B, not at all for fun.
I scoured Gumtree for suitable fixed frame bicycles that could be bought for less than Stagecoach’s £220 Unirider and it became clear there were a lot of old steel road bikes well within budget.
The forums said the Force was strong with Reynolds Steel Raleighs and Peugeots, so it was obvious to me which of the two brands I preferred.
The bike in question was bought from a University lecturer who was keen to get rid, now he’d been given a new carbon bike on a Cycle to Work scheme. I never knew then that it would become possibly the best £100 I ever spent.
It was only known on that day as an ’87 Peugeot Elite with a completely unknown mileage, but it didn’t take long to earn the nickname Benoît.

It’s true what they say about cycling: you really never forget but the first memory that came flooding back to me was the pain of whacking your shin with a pedal. Ouch!
Still, commuting on two wheels wasn’t all bad. I still feared the busy bus-filled roads, but luckily on a bicycle, side streets are viable options as well (as long as you know where the cul-de-sacs are).
I soon got into the swing of it, to the point where I started to enjoy the subtle quirks and personality of the old Peugeot in much the same way I would with a classic car. The down tube gear-selectors may not be as efficient as the more modern brake-lever shifters but when the motor is as unreliable and slow as me who cares!
They are a part of the classic look and I’ve grown a real liking to the older 60’s-80’s bicycle style, the paint schemes are far prettier than the lairy in your face schemes of modern bikes. The subtle style also translates better into my preferred ‘t-shirt and jeans’ clothing, I’m not about the ‘look at my genitalia’ Lycra one bit.
I soon started to really enjoy my trips out on the bicycle and, on the congested roads of Manchester, I was quicker than any Ferrari plus when I got to my destination I never had to look for parking. In fact often I could just bring Benoît inside with me.
Cycling soon became more than just a means of getting to and from a destination, more and more the bicycle became a method of escape from all of my exam stress. When you’re moving in and out of bus and poorly designed cycle lanes you have far more immediate problems to think about. Also, going out at night for a really good run was a particularly good way of helping me sleep through the difficult nights. Without Benoît I’m not sure I would have made it through the exam side of University.

Once I left University, my Pug found a new home in Rotherham and when I was searching for work the bike was still invaluable. I had no student loan for the buses and trains in South Yorkshire, so the bike took me everywhere via roads I’d never seen before in 20 odd years of living in my hometown.
Canal tow paths became my motorway but without the usual congestion and as I had gotten quite attached to the bike I soon decided to treat it to some upgrades.
The restomods included newer lighter wheels, puncture proof Kevlar tyres and a more modern chainset (keeping the tube shifters) but despite rejuvenating the old bike it still owes me no more than £250.

Benoît has been through it all. There were times when it shared duties with a car, times when it was my only means of transport and times where it just sat gathering dust under the stairs. But, no matter what, I always knew that with just a quick pump of the tyres my old steed would be good to go. The ease of maintenance is always a refreshing change from whatever I’m driving at the time.
An old bicycle holds its value as well as if not worse than a 90’s French executive saloon, so there’s no real point in getting one as an investment. Thats fine by me as a hobbyist. I’m not into the whole market trading thing anyway, I just like to enjoy the machinery. You could easily own a garage full of classic Triumphs, NSUs, Peugeots, Puchs, BSA’s, Bianchis (and sharpie it into Autobianchi) and still have change left from a grand. Restoration time for a wreck is measured in hours and not years, making these old relics a brilliant place to start learning mechanics. My Peugeot is the classic I have held on to for the longest now and I can never see it ever being worth enough to ever get rid. But even if it did, I’d never even entertain the idea of saying bye to Benoît. Every long journey we’ve been on together feels like an accomplishment, its a passage to different time in my life and finally its the only real form of exercise I can put up with.

Cycling, however, isn’t all great. Militant cyclists definitely ruin the relationship with other road users but the same too could be said for militant motorists. Being a car driver first meant, unlike a lot of the cyclists you see about in the city, I actually understood how junctions, crossings and everything else works. I rode with other people at uni who made all sorts of mistakes, even going through red lights (not just the pedestrian crossing ones either). When I first hit the roads in Manchester, I was always trying to think what the motorists around me were thinking and how I would react in their position. I always made it obvious what my intentions were when changing track or indicating and I really struggle with cyclists who expect motorists to be psychic. On the other hand though, being a part time cyclist has also made me a much more courteous and patient driver. I often find myself frustrated as a passenger when the driver asks why the cyclist in front is not closer to the kerb, go have a look for yourself!
The edge of the road is usually very steep, full of potholes and in the city often full of glass as well.
I think more time and space should be given to the more vulnerable on the road, as not everyone’s on a bike for fun and not everyone can afford a car. Impatient people should also really think before honking the horn as outside on a bike it’s far louder without the sound insulation and absolutely terrifying. Enough to make you lose concentration and potentially cause an accident.
I do, despite my new outlook, still take some exception on cycle racing. It’s pretty clear that racing is never a good idea on open roads. I understand that the aim is to follow the Highway Code at all times, but it is clear from some videos (like the one below) that some still put that all-important time over everything else.

Still, my bike has changed my perspective of our roads and transport in general. There definitely is room for everyone. Also, if more people put the car keys away (just for the really really short trips) there would be even more room and less pesky traffic jams for the people who sadly have no choice but to drive due to illness or disability.
There’s also a bike for every kind of person: off road bikes, hybrid bikes, electric bikes, recumbents, 3 wheelers, road racers, cruisers and even bikes that can fold into little bags. We have a brilliant cycle network in this country that is far better maintained and much quieter than our roadways (independently run by Sustrans). So maybe give it a go. You really don’t need to spend a lot of money and, you never know, you might even enjoy it.
You could even ride a Harley, license free!

Back to cars next, I swear!

Jack Wood

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