Rás stage winners bike
As recently retired pro cyclist Nico Roche looked down on Willie’s O’Brien’s BSA I wondered what he thought?
“How the hell was this bike cycled to a Rás stage victory at a speed of 25mph more than 70 years ago?”
Or maybe, “Wow Willie O’Brien was well respected, look at all the locals here today. I wonder what he was like?”
Nico definitely thought “If anybody here knew I’ll be dancing on Dancing with the Stars in a Month’s time they’d call me mad!”
Willie and Nico had more than one thing in common. Yes, they both had been Irish National Champion, Willie in 1954 and Nico in 2009 & 2016. They both were to busy themselves after their retirements in other pursuits – horses for Willie and dancing for Nico. Who knew! But there was a deeper connection, more so between family members, and it was lovely to have Anne, Willie’s widow, and daughters Mish and Trish, son Terence, spouses and grandchildren in attendance at the presentation to share this moment.
Following his cycling career, Willie O’Brien busied himself with horses, farming and family life. A new generation of cyclists had taken over the reins, young Gene Mangan amongst them, and the internecine strife of Irish cycling continued to divide the sport. Perhaps Willie became disinterested. His children don’t remember him talking about cycling all that much.
As sport eventually trumped politics in the late 70’s and early 80’s Willie must have renewed contact with the cycling community, as he decided to join a mixed group of NCA and CRE cyclists to see Seán Kelly win the World Championship in Villach in 1987. As we all know of course, that’s not what happened, and Nico’s father Stephen took the laurels. “I never thought I’d see an Irishman win the Word Championships in my lifetime” said Willie. Sadly Willie had been diagnosed with cancer.
Bearing witness to Ireland’s finest year of cycling success (to date, and we continue to hope) was the last chapter of Willie’s cycling life. This was a cycling life with innumerable grass track races and time trial events and point to point challenges. Had the Rás come any earlier, no doubt Willie would have won more than the two stages he won in the first long distance Rás in 1954. Willie won back to back stages in Armagh and Newry, while amongst his cycling regrets was that he just missed out on the Cork stage – so much closer to home. Earlier in the year he had won the NCA 100mile national championship. None other than Shay Elliott won the CRE equivalent.
It was nice to be able to share this with Nico at the presentation of Willie’s restored 1952 BSA Tour of Britain to his family at the opening of Roca Sports in Willie’s home village of Carrigtwohill, Co. Cork.
The bike came to OldVelos for restoration through Willie’s son-in-law and keen cyclist Mike O’Donoghue. The 70 years that had passed between the frame builders last braze and 2022 had taken their toll on the frame. As had Willie’s power and strength. As ever the first question was restoration or full rebuild, as well as, in my own mind, was what do we have here?
At the time I was unfamiliar with BSA’s sporting success in the early 50’s, so the frames unusual features like a boss for a Pennine Co2 cartridge suggested a racing pedigree, but I just couldn’t make sense of the Sturmey Archer style cable pulley boss on the seat stay. I wasn’t even 100% sure it was a BSA.
Pouring over grainy Youtube Tour of Britain videos and some archived black and white images, suggested that indeed this was a BSA and truly a good one at that. I started researching BSA Tour of Britain bikes and came across something different but similar on e-bay. I contacted the seller for more information. The response was instantaneous, helpful and a little bit karmic. His uncle had worked in the BSA factory in the 50’s and knew of these bikes. When he helped me locate the serial number – an extremely short ‘6 98’ (bear in mind BSA’s previous 80 year history) I wasn’t surprised that he asked if the frame was for sale. Despite my ‘negative’ reply, he very kindly sent me copies of the brochure that identified Willie O’Brien’s frame as a 1952 BSA Tour of Britain. It’ probably not surprising the frames ‘Tour of Britain’ decal was missing, this bike had been raced in the Rás of the Republican leaning NCA.
In fact the bike had at some point in its life been resprayed, but sympathetically in the original colour of the famous BSA Amaranthe. Sadly the same could not have been said about the gloss paint, with drips, on the headtube, nor the 1980’s silver sticker that would have covered the beige panel on the seat tube.
Once Mike and I decided would keep the original paint job, as a tribute to Willie’s strength and sweat, we enlisted the help of Midleton’s Barry Williams, who kindly put up with my requests to first paint in the panel, and then subsequently the headtube, I just couldn’t live with those gloss drips. In removing the head badge for this job, we discovered the bikes original rainbow stripes. Every bike has its secrets! Using decals from H Lloyd cycles, the frame resembled an old but original BSA.
The bike came with period correct wheels, with Dunlop 27” rims and Harden large flange hubs. The handlebars, though aged, were original, but nothing else from Willie’s reign remained. Studying photos and Youtube footage this bike would have been equipped with early derailleur gears, most likely cyclo, using a close ratio block and double cottered chain ring. The conundrum was the front mech. Eventually I found a photo showing that the Team issue bikes used a cyclo bar end lever to operate a ‘pull-up’ front mech, and a downtube lever for the rear mech. Our budget would have been cleared out by an original front mech – if we even could find such a thing amongst the hen’s teeth and rocking horse droppings – but thankfully by adapting a Suntour derailleur and using a Campagnolo bar end lever, we were able to replicate the mechanism and colour scheme. To my horror though, a Sturmey Archer 3 speed pulley would not fit the cyclo boss. Where on earth would I find such a thing? Then I remembered my Uncle’s Meccano kit!
To finish off the bike, nothing but a Brooks saddle would do, white wall tyres and red cotton tape set off the livery, and Weinmann short reach brakes attended to the needs of the 27” wheels.
At the presentation, which Nico kindly officiated, I told the audience how Gene Mangan spoke of Willie as being the father figure to the next generation and how he quipped, that at a certain grass track race, he the young buck, found ‘there was great shelter in Big Willie O’Brien’. Such was Willie’s strength, I found what had otherwise been reputed, that the fixed cup had had to be welded into place.
All these details are of great interest to us restorers and lovers of the bicycle, but for love to beheld, was to witness how the community honoured Willie O’Brien this day in Carrigtwhohill. How his family minded their mother Anne, who has sadly since passed away, but on this day, when she focussed her gaze and said with certainty to her clan “that’s Willie’s bike”.