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Dave Keeler, Mercian cycles and the Paris Roubaix gear

Posted: Wednesday 29th April 2020

Author: Peter Underwood

We are sorry to announce that Dave Keeler passed away on 25 July 2014. Dave was a childhood hero of mine, and is in no small way responsible for my being vegetarian to this day.  I met Dave a few years ago to talk about this article and he was a real gentleman.

Anyone who cycled in the 40s and 50s will surely be familiar with the name of Dave Keeler riding for the Vegetarian C & AC. When I was an admirer of Dave in those early years I always assumed that he was destined to become a short-distance specialist as he seemed regularly to win the 25 and 50 mile events and also did some pursuit events on the track.  He used to enter my own club’s event, the King’s Lynn CC Easter 25, each year from the late 40s on into the 50s: in those days the Easter time trials were some of the first of the season. I used to ride these events but was an also-ran way down in the field.  I was an absolute fan of Dave’s and even became a vegetarian, which I am to this day, but the bad news is that I still never won anything in spite of being fanatical about cycle sport. Recently I was lucky enough to meet Dave, who provided much of the detail for this story.

He started his racing amongst a group of friends at school in Letchworth in 1946. The school had no cycling club as such but one of the pupils had a racing cyclist in his family and knew enough to organise some unofficial time-trials amongst themselves.  D K had a run-of-the-mill Raleigh Sport at this time which cost £4 19s 6d with Sturmey Archer 3-speed gear.  He then moved on and started to enter some time-trials organised by his home town club, Letchworth C. C., and soon purchased a second-hand Hetchins which was fitted with fixed-wheel, as were virtually all lightweights of the period.

Soon after this Dave went to college in Nottingham to study for a science degree, in 1949 he represented England in the World Student Games in Budapest both on the track and the road events. He had joined the Yorkshire Section of the V C & AC, in those days the Club had sections in various parts of the country (as did the Clarion CC – but the Clarion story deserves an article on its own as it not only tells us about cycling in that era but gives a feel for the social and political conditions of the time – any volunteers?).  Dave’s parents were both vegetarians and consequentially he had been brought up in this life style so his choice of club came naturally to him.   The arrival of D K on the racing scene was to give the V C & AC a much needed boost in the austere post-war period.  He was already winning races on a regular basis and one day he cycled from the college at Nottingham to Derby to visit Mercian Cycles, as a result of which he was to ride on their machines for the rest of his competitive years.  Dave is well over 6” tall and all of his frames were built with a 25” seat tube and a 24” top tube – see image below showing measurements of his frame.   He also used the longest cranks he could find, starting with 7” Chater Lea but later on using some mighty 180mm TA cranks with 56/53 rings.

I recently studied some photographs of Dave on his Mercian track machine at the World Championships in Milan in 1951. He represented the UK in the 4000 metres pursuit event where he fought his way to the quarter-finals before being defeated by the ultimate gold-medal winner, the Italian De Rossi.  What is interesting is that all the other competitors were riding very close clearance track frames built around what we called 27” sprints but were in fact what we now know as 700cc.  (When 700 HP wheels first came to this country they were known as ‘Continental 27s’).  All of his opponents’ machines had minimal clearance but Dave’s bike was built in the true English tradition in that, although being ridden with sprints and tubs, it looked as if it was built for use with 27 HPs and possibly even had mudguard clearance.

This was the way most machines were designed in the UK, where even track bikes were ridden to the event probably using HP wheels and in the winter would be used with mudguards for training, riding to work, etc.  Shortly after the World Championships he was to beat Glorieux, the Silver medallist, in a 4000 metres revenge pursuit race at an international event held at Herne Hill. Also in 1951 he lowered the 25-mile trial record twice as well as taking the 30 mile record. He was the first rider to beat the hour in Wales and was Scottish 25 mile champion breaking the competition record at the same time. Another Celtic foray resulted in him breaking the Welsh 50 mile competition record. On the track he took the National (NCU) 4000 metres Pursuit Title at the Butts Stadium, Coventry.

In the early 50s Dave, like most of us, had read all he could about Fausto Coppi, a rider he admired greatly. Coppi won the Tour de France using a Paris-Roubaix gear and Dave felt that this set-up would be ideal for a time-triallist because on the fast courses one would probably only use the one gear out and perhaps a different gear back to take account of the wind conditions.  He was impressed by the fact that one could set a cam on the gear which would dictate the tension on the chain when the wheel was locked after a change and that this would give him the easy running drive which he favoured along with no drive-sapping pulley wheels.

Dave was cycle touring in Italy in 1954 when he managed to buy a Paris/Roubaix gear and what was more amazing managed to get it back into the country – anyone who travelled through customs controls in those days would know that this was quite an achievement in itself.   He was to get Mercian to build him a frame with the P-R ends  and they also decided to build a second frame to the same specification, as Tommy Crowther, the proprietor, managed to acquire a second Paris-Roubaix gear set to match the first.

Dave also says that even when using fixed-wheel in competitions he always had a slightly slack chain so as to reduce friction.  Such is the detail of a champion.  When he wanted to use fixed-wheel on the P-R Mercian he merely removed the geared wheel, with its teeth on the axle, and replaced it with a double-fixed wheel with flats filed on the axle and so was able to leave the gear in situ.

As was the fashion in those days Dave trained by doing very high mileages which included several very long tours around the UK and on the Continent.   Having got such distances under his belt, by the mid-50s he moved up to compete at 100 miles and 12 hours culminating in his first of five 24 hour events, the 1956 Wessex 24 when he was in the winning V C & AC team.  In 1957 he would win the first of his two consecutive victories in the North Road 24-hour event.

Dave Keeler in the1958 North Road 24-hour event riding his Mercian equipped with Paris-Roubaix gear

This was obviously boy’s stuff for Dave as in 1958 he started to think about the Land’s End to John o’ Groats record, which had stood for some 20 years and was held by Sid Ferris (also a vegetarian). In April of that year Dave had moved to live in Paris where he was working for a French high-tech company: he was to stay there until 1963 working on an international defence project.   During this time he was commuting by air from Paris to London to compete in events in the UK. Between April and the start of his attempt on the End-to-End he did two week-end rides of about 200 miles and also attacked the standard time for the 300 mile SRRA London-Southampton-Dover-London, setting a time of 15 hours 38 minutes which stands until this day. During his Christmas break in 1957 Dave decided to reconnoitre some of the End-to-End route so he rode from Land’s End to Gloucester where he met a friendly lorry driver who took him with his bike up to Penrith, so giving him some idea of what was in store.  He then rode home from Penrith to Letchworth.

Subsequently the attack on the ultimate record started from Land’s End on May 29th and Dave was still using his Mercian equipped with the trusty Paris/Roubaix gear with a 52 tooth Chater ring and 15-17-19-21-23 sprockets giving a range of gears from 61” to 94”. He had two machines built to the same specification with one as a spare on the following car.  Another unusual feature of this record-breaking ride was that Dave never slept at all throughout the attempt.  Most previous holders had opted to have a few short naps during the two days plus of the ride but Dave ploughed on for the whole of the 869 miles to beat the record by 3 hours 24 minutes, a total of 2 days 3 hours and 9 minutes. I am sure that this must be the only time that anyone dared to use the Paris/Roubaix gear for such a ride.

There is a very readable, well illustrated, report on the ride written by J. B. Wadley in the August 1958 edition of Cycle Coureur.

When Dave returned to France he also competed in several massed-start road races with some success but did very little racing after 1962.   He feels that his peak performances were done in the 1951/52 seasons.  He returned to racing again as a Vet. from 1967-1980 and managed to finish high up in the Vets’ BAR most years.Then he had another short break until 1988 when he had offered his services as a marshal for a Vets 12-hour race – just before event he felt fit enough to ride and so started off another 10 year spell of racing before hanging up his wheels in 1998.

Dave Keeler in the Icknield Road Club 12-hour event in 1992. Riding his Mercian with Campag gears

During his racing career Dave won approximately one hundred open events and was under the hour in 25-mile events about fifty times. He was amongst the first to break the hour in a medium gear 72” event – this entails pedalling at about 118 rpm for nearly an hour.  This was in an era when to get under the hour was worthy of headlines in Cycling Weekly.     In 1951 he finished 3rd in the National 50-mile Championship using a ‘Constrictor’ replica gear which he had machined and built for himself.

Dave finally finished working in early June of this year (2006) and has started to ride again after an eight year break, he doesn’t plan to train for  racing again but is now cycling for the pure pleasure of it.   I have restored one of his 25” 1954 Mercians which had been equipped with the Paris-Roubaix ends for the End-to-End, sadly these were changed to conventional Campag ends some time later.   I restored it to the specification it would have been when the ends were changed, with Campag gears, Stronglight cranks etc. plus Titan stem and bars.    Another of his machines, a slightly later 1957 Mercian has been restored with the Paris/Roubaix gear to the specification used when this machine was ridden by Dave to the ‘End to End’ record in 1958. The 1954 Mercian was the spare bike for this ride.

In the late 1940’s Dave Keeler helped to fire an upsurge of  interest in University cycling.  Whilst taking a degree at Nottingham he formed a cycling club there and went on to win a trophy at the World Student Games.  He later donated this trophy to the Universities for their 25-mile Championship.  Dave went on to become President of the Nottingham University CC. This renewed interest resulted in the formation of the British Universities’ Cycling Union and eventually to the recognition of the sport by awarding ‘Blues’ to successful riders. (Sporting Cyclist – April 1963)

Thanks for reading

Posted: Wednesday 29th April 2020

Author: Peter Underwood

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