A long way from Nottingham
Red is a good colour for a winning team: Manchester United and Liverpool, the Chicago Bulls and the Cincinnati Reds.
Cycling has had a fair share of successful squadre rosse too – Saeco, Flandria and Faema, to name but a few. Yet there was none bigger than the Dutch red train, Peter Post’s all-conquering super squad of the ’70s: TI-Raleigh. You see, I was from the East Midlands, so in the 1980s it was an obvious choice to buy a Raleigh. The fact that it was a local brand made us feel like it was our team.
The Nottingham giants and the boys in red – Joop Zoetemelk, Jan Raas, Gerrie Knetemann, Hennie Kuiper et al – had my undivided attention. What was odd was that the riders in these red jerseys weren’t UK riders at all – they were big, strong, Dutch flatlanders with barely pronounceable names.
So after the reign of Eddy Merckx came the dominance of the Dutch and, ironically, in the national colours of their bitter Belgian rivals. Post picked not one local lad from the UK, which may have been their undoing.
The TV-shaped spectacles of Jan Raas were a familiar sight during the classics of the ’70s and early ’80s. Raas was a beast of a man who won just about everything and anything that didn’t involve a hill. But despite coming from the days of big legs and even bigger gears, he was more than just brawn, often out-foxing classier riders than himself and thus making a formidable directeur sportif when he packed up.
But Ti Raleigh weren’t just after the flat races. Step up Joop Zoetemelk – wiry, cunning, explosive and a true all-rounder. He won the Tour in 1980, on a Raleigh bike – the only British win at the Tour.
I am biased, for sure, but the team was complete in every detail, from their team time trial ability to their perfectly equipped Raleigh bikes and matching team strip. Unrivalled in quality, the bikes were all designed by Gerald O’Donovan and made by his special projects team at Ikeston.
The 753 Team Professional frames were in high demand, complete with their signature Prugnat lugs, Campagnolo dropouts and sloping Vagner fork crown – I still get goose bumps looking at them now, and they still demand high prices. Red, it seems, is a good colour for a bike, too.
This was to be the halcyon decade for Raleigh sponsorship. At the time, TI (Tube Industries, its parent company) had fingers in many pies, including Creda washing machines, Sturmey Archer gears and most notably Reynolds, that classic brand in cycle racing history.
It is as big a name as Campagnolo and Columbus – and to this day, it is the winningest frame tubeset of the Tour de France. And yet this was TI’s and Raleigh’s only foray into big-time team sponsorship.
Like many of the names in conservative British cycle manufacturing, they never pushed the boundaries of commercial sponsorship. Why? The arguments still rage on to this day. The lack of UK interest, the decrease in market share, but in short, they just never shouted about it.
The ’80s drifted and so did Raleigh, away from the pro peloton. TI sold Raleigh off and they all took their eye off the ball. So Raleigh stepped down from the limelight and lost touch with that enigmatic association, that nod of quality, reserved only for the professional team supplier.
It’s unlikely that we will say that again. The bike brands that now litter the pro peloton are a long way away from Nottingham.