Ever wondered why your derailleur still won’t shift smoothly despite the best efforts of the last two mechanics you saw? Failed, even with copious prayers and swearing, to straighten a bent wheel? Can’t silence that creaking noise from your bottom bracket?
Meet Frank Clavis. Frank knows bikes better than anyone. Better, probably, than you know your Mum. He is what every cyclist is, at some point, desperately in need of: a veteran bike nut who can, with calmness and good humour, fix almost any problem on almost anything, even a penny farthing. He will describe, while he’s doing it, the genealogy of your ailing bike, its optimum gearing and tyre selection, and the merits of its frame material as opposed to, say, carbon fibre. And, if you ask him, he’ll recount for you select chunks of the history of the New Zealand bicycle industry.
I met Frank at the Cornerstone bicycle mechanics course in Newmarket. He’s the tutor, tasked with transforming an eclectic bunch of enthusiasts, including my wholly inexperienced self, into bona fide bike mechanics. Frank didn’t tell us how old he is, but he did say he’d had his Gold Card for a wee while now. He teaches this course, he says, because after more than 50 years in the bicycle industry, he wants to give something back. And because he loves bikes.
Frank, a successful track and road racer from the age of 14, first launched himself into the industry in 1961. Coaster brakes and Lucas dynamo sets ruled. The streets teemed with Raleighs, BSAs, Phillips; derailleurs were a novelty. He worked for Hope Gibbons, then NZ’s largest bicycle distributor, and completed what is now largely a mystery – an apprenticeship.
From there he did just about anything there is to do in the bike world here and, for a while, in the UK. Retail, distribution, manufacturing, you name it.
He was flogging bikes in the 1970’s when some kids walked into the store with a magazine and asked if anyone could make them a bike like the one in the picture. It was a BMX, and Frank was entranced. Yes, he could and would make them one.
“I took the frame measurements from the photo, built a bike, and the kids loved it,” he says. “Pretty soon there was a request for another one. Then another. Then more, lots more.” Frank went into business in Bunnythorpe making what became known as the Pantha BMX, 700 of them every month. Spotty teenagers everywhere were jumping off kerbs on them. It was a thing.
The thing, sadly, did not last. Roger Douglas came along and swept away the tariffs and import licences that had for so long protected local manufacturing. In the late 80’s the Pantha succumbed to a wave of cheap imports.
It’s economic reality, Frank concedes. He loves it that the BMX sub-culture has returned, but mourns the tradition and the skills that vanished with the local bike-building industry. That, and the withering of the apprenticeship system, has echoes today in bike shops up and down the country. “Bike mechanics are enthusiastic but, apart from those in specialist, boutique shops, they sometimes lack technical skills,” he volunteers. “Most of what they know they learned on the job.” His solution: professional training and NZQA-recognised qualifications.
Get such a qualification and your future is bright, he reckons. Cycling in NZ is on a burn. “Tourism is now our single biggest earner, and the fastest-growing segment of it is cycle tourism. Turn up to a ski town like Ohakune in summer and you’ll now see more trail riders than there are skiers in winter. There’s tons of opportunity in bike touring. Think about all these visitors from Japan and Europe who turn up here and can’t find a decent specialist touring bike – that’s a segment ready for someone to address.”
And not just touring. Electric bikes are ready for prime time, Frank says. “The technology has evolved. They’re ideal for Auckland and its hills. Just imagine the market for people who’d love to ride to work but can’t stomach the hills – electric bikes are their answer.”
Don’t be surprised if Frank has a go at the opportunity himself. He still has a hand in the industry, distributing Sturmey Archer hub gears and Panaracer tyres. He’s still active in the Bicycle Industry Association of NZ, too. And he still rides – 20km each way to and from his home in Massey on a 35-year-old custom-built steel-framed bike. If you see him out there on the Northwestern Cycleway, say g’day. He might even show you how to sort out your dodgy derailleur.
— Ross Inglis is a career PR and marketing animal who has escaped recently from the corporate world to get his hands dirty as a bike mechanic.