Master Wheel Builder and Top Rider Pete Matthews Gets PEZ’d!
Rider Interview: Pete Matthews is many things: Famous and innovative wheel builder, top amateur road man, a real character, comedian and a great bloke. Ed Hood was lucky enough to have a good chat with the man from Liverpool about his career on the bike and making them.
The late 60’s and early 70’s were a good period for British domestic cycling with the undoubted Heartland being Merseyside – Liverpool and the hinterland. Quality races across the UK and quality names on the start sheets; Dave Rollinson, Doug Dailey, Bill Nickson, Dave Vose, Willi Moore, Dave Mitchell and Pete Matthews all great riders and all hailing from around the River Mersey, they were always to be found at, or near the top on the result sheets of major British amateur road races. The last named, Pete Matthews was a sprinter and while many of his staggering 366 total of wins came from mass charges, he could also win from the break.
Pete didn’t win this one – In the middle
His palmarès read like this:
MAJOR RACE WINS:
1ST National Road Race ‘68 [twice bronze medallist, ’69 & ‘70]
1ST Star Trophy/Premier Calendar ‘69 & ‘70
STAR TROPHY / PREMIER CALENDAR WINS:
Deeside Grand Prix 1966
Frank Tidmarsh GP 1966
Tour Of The Peak 1966
Leyland GP 1967 / 1969
Harworth & District GP 1967
Worcester St Johns GP 1967 / 1969
Tour Of The Furness 1970
OTHER SIGNIFICANT WINS:
1ST Boardwalk GP – Atlantic City – USA
1ST Houston GP – Houston, Texas – USA
1ST Stage 1 – Tour Of Ireland (Yellow Jersey Wearer)
22 national veteran championships
366 wins in total.
England/GB national squad representations: 23
Impressive and prolific by any measure, high times we caught up with the man I remember Cycling Weekly magazine – our ‘bible’ of the day – describing as, ‘a cheeky chappie.’ Our long interview was full of anecdotes and asides, that’s for sure.
The start of a race in Liverpool
PEZ: How did you get into the sport, Pete?
Pete Matthews: I had a three wheeler when I was four or five years-old but it got wrecked and after that I just really wanted a bike. When I was 11 years-old and lying in bed in our house – which was on the same street as where Ringo Starr of the Beatles lived, he was plain Richard Starkey back then though – when my mum and dad shouted me down to see something. It was a little racer, with 24” wheels – I never looked back.
PEZ: Your first race?
I’d graduated up to a Raleigh Super Lenton, it was too big for me but my folks said; ‘you’ll grow into it,’ I was waiting on my Harry Quinn frame getting built – that’s what everyone rode in Liverpool back then – and I’d started to go out with the Liverpool Mercury club boys. The Lenton only had a single 49 ring with five gears and a 23 bottom sprocket; we’d go south into the Welsh hills on the runs, stopping at the ‘Sportsman’ Café but there would be big ‘sort outs’ on the climbs. One of the second category lads in the climb put the hammer down on a climb and when I looked around, I was the only one able to live with him – he was 20 year-old and I was just 15 years-old. I eventually got my Harry Quinn and one of the lads suggested I ride the Merseyside Junior Championship; it was back in the days before the British Cycling Federation, you had the NCU [National Cyclists Union] and ‘rebel’ BLRC [British League of Racing Cyclists] the race was promoted by the latter and it was a bit of an opera to get to ride with licence and minimum age hurdles to clear. I rode out to it, clung on for five laps before I was dropped then rode home – I did about 115 miles that day. My next race was in Manchester, we got the train to that one and I finished ninth. The next year, my second as a junior, I finished ninth in my first race of the year then won the next two; that was the start.
PEZ: Kenny Hill is the man you name as your inspiration and guiding light?
Kenny was the leading light of the club, we all looked up to him; he rode the legendary Peace Race and the Tour of Britain, Milk Race several times – where he won a stage, he also won the season-long Star Trophy and the Nationals Veterans Championship. When I was 18 years-old I lost my job; that was the way back then, when you turned 18 it cost your employer more money to employ you so they let you go. That meant I could go out training with Kenny, we’d ride climbs like the Trough of Bolland, a big pass in Lancashire and I’d hang on to him. Back then it was how you fared on the club training runs which qualified you for the races the club team entered. When I look back, I was probably training too hard. But Kenny wasn’t so much my coach; I used to read everything I could about the sport, Brian Robinson was the British star of the day on the continent and I’d devour everything I saw he said in the magazines – and also the words of the big continental stars like Jacques Anquetil. But I think that my biggest strength was that I could suffer like a dog.
PEZ: The National Championship win in 1968?
I’d had a few problems that year, I was on the Olympic team short list for Mexico but was dropped, however I always rode well towards the end of the season, August, September and even October. I’d ridden the Tour of Ireland before the Nationals – which were in September that year – and had a third place the week previous so I knew I was coming to form. I didn’t realise it at the time but I had ‘tapered’ into that race, training less than usual in the week prior and was in good condition. The race was on an eight-and-a-half mile circuit at Market Harborough in Leicester, over 13 laps to give 110 miles. I went away early on the day, with Les West, I went to change up a gear but was already in top gear, we came back but I knew then that I had good legs. My team mate, Dave Rollinson and West were away later in the day but Les punctured and they came back. But Les was so strong that day, he went again and Dave Rollinson shouted, ‘Peter!’ to warn me that Les had gone. It took me half-a-mile to catch him but I got up to him, we stayed away and I beat him easily in the sprint.
PEZ: So not just a, ‘sit-in sprinter?’
I did win big gallops yes but I won nine Star Trophy races on the way to winning the overall competition twice – that was the season-long series to establish the best all-round roadman in the UK – and every one of those races I won from a break. But as I once heard Ray Barker say to someone; “it’s not my fault you can’t drop me before the sprint!”
PEZ: 366 wins?
Yes, and I named a frame after that number, it had race geometry but 5 mm more clearance to take mudguards so you could train on it too. When I got to 360 wins I knew I was getting over the hill, when I got to 365, one for each day of the year, I was going to quit but then I remembered leap years so after I won the Veteran’s Road Race Championships at 72 years-of-age, I called, ‘time’ on 366 victories.
PEZ: You used to get ‘stick’ from some quarters for being a full time amateur bike rider?
As I said earlier, I was paid off by my employer when I turned 18 years-old but I used to do a lot of driving jobs, including taxi work as stop gaps. I remember in 1965 I took a week’s holiday and rode the Tour of the South West; then I got selected for the Milk Race and needed another two weeks off. I asked the boss and he said, ‘yes’ but the second week would be unpaid, you only got two weeks paid holidays in those days. The Manx International race came after the Milk Race so I sneaked two days off to ride. I snapped a crank so didn’t get a result but that incident was reported in the press and my boss read it. When I came back to work he asked if I was feeling better and I said that I was, he then told me that one of his customers had seen me on the Isle of Man. I said that he must be mistaken; on Friday, when I got my wages, I also got my cards – paid off! In ’67 and ’68 I drove taxis in the morning and evening, putting in 40/50 hour weeks and did my training during the day.
PEZ: All those wins but you never turned pro?
After I won the National in ’68 I was offered a ride with Falcon but the wage was only going to be £4.50/week. Later, the famous Liverpool coaching guru, Eddie Soens – who used to give me advice in my young days but was more into the track and time trial aspects of the sport – said to me; ‘Two business men have approached me and want me to put a professional team together, the wage would be £15.00/week but you have to ride your own bikes’ – which was no problem. It fell through because Eddie was Kirkby CC to the core and when we suggested that the team would fare better with riders from my club, Kirkby’s bitter rivals the Liverpool Mercury his face said it all; that was that. When Bantel started their pro team I was offered a contract with them but in those days you might be racing in Torquay on the south coast of England on Saturday then Newcastle in the north east the next day – you were going to spend half your time driving around England.
PEZ: What about Pete Matthews Cycles and those 16 spoke wheels you built?
When Jim Soens retired I bought his shop, I didn’t tell anyone I was going to do it and all the other bike shops in Liverpool fell out with me, even Harry Quinn’s where I used to help out with frame building. ‘What do you know about bikes?’ they all said. I had to live in that shop because the windows kept getting smashed in, I slept ate there, slept there and when I was out on the bike, my dad would look after it. I’d lost so many opportunities in races with badly built wheels that I started building them myself. Then I began to experiment with non-traditional methods, missing out a spoke hole on the traditional British 32 front, 40 rear combination to give 16/20. I took them to Gerald O’Donovan – who was the man behind the frames built for the Raleigh pro team riders at Ilkeston – he ran the Special Bicycle Developments Unit (SBDU) from 1974 to 1989. They had a test rig which simulated the worst cobbles and they could test wheels to destruction.
A Royce front hub
He said; ‘I have bad news and good news – they broke; but it took an hour of punishment and they only broke at the empty spoke holes.’ I went to Mavic to see is they’d make rims for me but viewed me as too small to take seriously – so I went to Italy and got 16, 18 and 20 hole rims made. The British ‘Royce’ company had just started to make high quality hubs and they agreed to make hubs to match for me. When the late John Woodburn broke the Land’s End to John O’Groats record on a pair of my 20 spoke wheels, people really began to take notice. Robert Millar rode my wheels to victory in Tour de France stages and in the British Professional Road Race Championship. Apart from minimal spoking, I was one of the first to have carbon rimmed wheels, aero spokes and to actually balance wheels so they roll smoother.
Isle of Man crit
You can say, “I should have won this or that” but I had a good career, ran the shop for 35 years and met a lot of lovely people – and I met my wife through the sport, so no complaints.
# A big thanks to Pete for his stories and photos. #