Holier Than Thou

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Making holes in the pursuit of speed.

Like any devotion, climbing has developed its own praxis and dogma that seems obvious to its devotees and incredibly obtuse to those who fail to see its appeal. Take the story of Jacques Anquetil’s bidon, which has been elevated to the level of fable in cycling lore. It’s said that Anquetil would remove his bidon from its cage and tuck it in to a jersey pocket, his philosophy being that by having the bidon in his pocket, his bike would be lighter. As we all know, lighter bikes go uphill faster.

Like all good fables, the story of Anquetil’s bidon touches on a deeper understanding of human nature – that the feeling of making a difference is just as important as any genuine material gain. The bidon in the back pocket is the cycling equivalent of switching off the electricity outlet when there isn’t a plug in it.

Call it the placebo effect, call it superstition, or call it stupidity, but had Anquetil not put his bidon in his back pocket it would have weighed heavier on both his bike and his mind.

At some indeterminable point, some road racer stood over his bike with a drill with the intention of making a hole in his bike. It’s easy to imagine the idea for this infiltrating the person’s head halfway up a climb, their friend’s wheel disappearing off in to the distance, causing the rider to swear furiously and to imagine tearing unnecessary components from their frame. But what if your frame is already down to its bare functional bones? Then the mind turns to removing the frame itself.

So, at this indeterminable point, the drill penetrated the frame and the craze – and it is nothing short of crazy – of Drillium was born. Soon this practice became the hallmark of the serious racer, the ultimate expression of one’s savoir faire and the instinct necessary to push past boundaries in search of competitive edge.

Images ©www.classiclightweights.co.uk

The name itself, Drillium, is a joke that got out of hand, an offhand portmanteau that perfectly captures the illogic of the practice by giving a substantive name to a lack of substance.

There are reports that the French started drilling holes in their frames and components before the First World War, and by the era of high quality colour photographs its rules and expectations were clearly delineated. A survey of these photographs gives us an insight on these rules. Firstly, holes should be evenly spaced, symmetrical, and aligned, as if the rigour of their ordering and a level of meticulousness will make up for the insanity of the endeavour. Secondly, nothing is sacred. True devotees of Drillium will put holes in even the most integral components without even the slightest thought to the potential for catastrophic failure. Thirdly, every drilled hole offers the potential for embellishments. Contrasting paints lining the machined surface, clever countersinking to take an extra layer of material and smooth edges, or the arrangement of the holes to replicate your club’s emblem – Drillium is customisation, and stylistic flourishes are a requirement, not an afterthought.

Eddy Merckx was, for a short while, a proponent of Drillium. He paid his machinist extra to work solely on his bike, else his competitors enjoy the expertise. His rivals joked that Merckx had asked the machinist to drill holes in his femurs to make his bones lighter – half believable after a couple of beers.

Eddy Merckx
Image ©www.raydobbins.com / Cycle Sport America

It wasn’t just the climbers who got in on the act. Alf Engers, the legendary time traillist, did much of his own work, hand-drilling the irregular surfaces of his brake levers with the precision of a surgeon. There are photos of Engers, all quad muscles folded in to an impossible aero tuck, riding bikes that are more hole than steel. Of course, the current thinking is that these holes worked against Engers – air passing over the surface of his bike became unnecessarily turbulent, creating resistance, not to mention the power lost in the noodle-y bending of his bike under his enormous power. Still, it didn’t seem to hold the big man back.

High profile failures, a better understanding of aerodynamics and the bike industry’s adoption of lightweight manufacturing techniques put paid to the widespread practice of Drillium. It is still practised by re-enactment types, laudably preserving an obsolete skill, but most serious racers would rightly recoil in horror should you present them with a drill bit and a carbon fork.

The spirit of Drillium lives on, if you know where to look. Adam Hansen’s Obree-esque shoes are a notable example, and one that is surely to be replicated at a commercial level in the near future. Some may have noticed the fad five or six years ago of ProTour teams modding their sponsor’s helmets, lopping off the long tails and folding strips of plastic along the open trailing edge – again, it wasn’t long before manufacturers released short tail helmets, keen to protect their commercial reputations. The most striking recent example of the Drillium impulse might be found in Jake Pullar’s bike at the 2012 British National Hill Climb Championships. The bike was as light as it was dangerous, chopped and hacked until its lifespan between failures was just long enough for him to win the championship.

But Drillium as a widespread practice is dead. More than an attempt to make a bike faster or lighter, it was an aesthetic, a signal to the world that you intended to ride faster than anyone else. The ontological nothingness of drilling holes in your bike has given way to the maximalist principles of the aerodynamicist – extending kamm tails and smoothing surfaces. It may well be faster, but it’s not nearly as pretty.

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  • Mitch Keen

    As a young kid I was an avid reader of ‘Victor’ comic & I recall one particular strip character called ‘Alf Tupper the tough of the track’. One episode had him drilling holes in his bicycle to reduce weight, much to the derision of the comic strip ‘Toffs’ & my own mirth – all these years later I now realise it was actually based on truth! Needless to say he won – of course!

  • Matt Cartwright

    This is why I love Rapha, just fantastic!

  • MellowJohny

    It’s not totally dead…even in this day and age of lightweight parts there are still those armed with a Dremel tool looking to make things lighter…


  • Gary L Barton

    The ultimate would be drilling holes in Unobtanium!

    • Brian McGranahan

      YES!!! Yehuda would be proud.

  • Judy Cator

    Alf Tupper! what a hero. I oft-wondered if he lived in Melchester and also knew Roy

    (of the Rovers, who else?)