Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Eric Clapton - Bicycles and Rock & Roll

I was listening to Disraeli Gears by Cream the other day and it got me thinking about bicycles.

Bicycles? Really?


Granted, lots of things get me thinking about bicycles, but it's probably already well known among us old bicycle enthusiasts (or maybe not) that Eric Clapton has been a huge fan of bicycles -- especially classic Cinellis -- going back to his youth. So was the band's drummer, Ginger Baker, for that matter. Their mutual love for racing bicycles, and a roadie's malapropism, led to the title of that iconic 1967 album.

The story goes that Baker and Clapton were talking about bikes one time in the back of a car, and according to Baker, "Mick Turner was one of the roadies who'd been with me a long time, and he was driving along and Eric was talking about getting a racing bicycle." Apparently, Turner commented about the bike having "disraeli gears," as opposed to derailleur gears. (The actual Disraeli was a British Prime Minister during the Victorian era). "We all just fell over," said Baker. "We said that's got to be the album title." (disraeligears.co.uk)

I first heard about Clapton's passion for bicycles when I saw this picture in one of the bike mags back in the 80s"
That's Eric Clapton taking delivery of a new Cinelli Supercorsa from Antonio Colombo in 1987. Colombo is the owner of Columbus tubing, and has been the owner of Cinelli since 1978.
Clapton's love for classic Cinelli bikes has been well documented over the years, and he has apparently owned more than a few, from different vintages. In fact, here's another picture from the 80s, which one can find on the Cinelli website.

I've heard and read from numerous sources, including former British framebuilder Dave Moulton, that Clapton used to race a bit in his teens, probably time-trials mostly (like most British racers in those days), and that bikes and guitars were the competing interests in his life. Guitars and music of course took the lead, but he never really let go of the bike bug.

Clapton used to have a blog (it appears to be defunct at this time) where he would occasionally post some thoughts, and sometimes pictures, of his passions. Sometimes, his bikes would make the blog, like this vintage track bike:
Photo from Eric Clapton's now-defunct blog. Great old components
would sometimes make the blog, too.
In 2010, Clapton was pictured on the cover of a Japanese fashion magazine (with an English-language title -- Free & Easy. Gotta love it!) posing with what looks to be a '60s-vintage Cinelli.

Clapton mentioned bikes a few times in his 2007 autobiography, too. In one passage, he talks about getting one of his first bicycles. In another he describes a visit to Japan, and meeting with designer Hiroshi Fujiwara. He writes, "Hiroshi came over to the hotel with his new Cinelli track bike. He is still a leading pioneer in street culture, hence the Cinelli. . . I have caught the obsession of course. He is very infectious, and I have begun buying vintage road bikes, not to ride but because I have always loved the equipment of cycling, especially bikes and accessories from the sixties."

Legendary drummer, Ginger Baker,
looking ironic in the 60s
(from gingerbaker.com)
As mentioned previously, drummer Ginger Baker, who collaborated with Clapton both with Cream and with Blind Faith, was also once an avid cyclist and aspiring racer. In Baker's own website, under the history archives, there is a quote from a 1967 press article: "Ginger Baker was doing very well as a professional bicycle racer when he was fifteen. He had already discovered and enjoyed listening to the music of jazzman Dizzy Gillespie. One day he sat down at a drum set and found he could play . . . He's been a drummer ever since."

Something tells me that the description of the 15-yr old Baker as a "professional bicycle racer" is a slight exaggeration, but numerous sources mention his early ambitions to race bicycles. In a 2009 Rolling Stone interview, it was said that an accident on the bike with a taxi left him with a busted bicycle, ending the dream. Another source says that the accident broke his leg, and it was during that time while he was recuperating that he started playing the drums. In any case, the drums quickly changed the direction of his life.

It's fun to imagine these two legends of rock -- one of the greatest guitarists, and one of the greatest drummers -- chatting between gigs, or out on tour, swapping stories of riding, racing, and the bikes they loved.


  1. I recall reading that W. B. Hurlow built bikes for Clapton and Mick Jagger.

    1. I'd like to know more about that. Mick Jagger, too? Fantastic!

  2. I wonder whether the rhythm of one's playing helps with the rhythm of one's riding, or vice-versa.

  3. In the mid 70s Cycling ran a feature on a very ornate Condor ordered by Clapton.
    BTW, I was a roadie for Cream for a while.

    1. That's very cool -- I wonder if there's a scan somewhere out there of the article you mention. I'd like to see that.

  4. Amongst my (all) Italian frames are Colnago's Carbitubo, BiTitan & Master-BiTitan. Along with my picture of him with a Cinelli I could imagine such of those frames being with him?

  5. May I add a historical note, regarding the term 'Disraeli gears': it is often attributed to one of Cream's roadies Mick Turner discussing with Ginger Baker how he fancied a bike with Derailleur gears. He may well have called them Disraeli gears but he wasn’t the first; we were using the expression at school (in Kingston) a good six years before Cream got together in 1966 and that Album in 1967. Given that Eric Clapton went to school in Kingston at the same time, and Ginger Baker was a South London boy, it’s likely the roadie was as well, and had picked up the expression from schooldays.

  6. Fantastic ! did not know about Disraeli Gears …
    thanks Antonio c