Black Widows

Here’s a recent bargain find from a vide grenier, a pair of classic leather cycling shoes, often nicknamed ‘Black Widows’.

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My Loano lace up black widows

To the untrained eye, they might look like Jazz dance shoes; lightweight, perforated and thin soled. They are designed to be used with toe clips and straps, which have been replaced on all but period replica bikes by automatic clipless pedals. Unlike steel tubes, downtube shifters and 5 speed freewheels, this is a throwback that I don’t really agree with. As toe clip and straps hold the feet in the pedals until the strap buckle is pulled by hand, they make unexpected dismounts trickier and as such are potentially dangerous. I therefore do not agree with period sportives and races banning the use of clipless pedals.

The bare soles - note the dark line worn in by the pedals.

The bare soles – note the dark line worn in by the pedals.

These are the kind of shoes worn by Coppi, Merckx, and Kelly, with their design varying little from the 1900s to the 1980s, when synthetic materials appeared, and then clipless pedals replaced toe clips. They were used with ‘trench’ cleats – cleats with a groove running along them that engaged the back plate of the pedal. A rider would generally ride them new for a few rides without cleats, after which time a mark from the pedal would be worn into the sole of the shoe, indicating where to place the cleats. The cleats were then nailed in by a bike shop or cobbler, and were not adjustable. Unlike modern pedals and cleats they did not allow any float (rotation of the feet on a vertical axis), potentially leading to knee problems.

Jacques Anquetil and Rik van Looy wearing black widows. (Wikipedia)

While the cleats may have been superseded, the style has not. There has been a spate of modern shoes designed with laces and perforated uppers, reminiscent of the glory days of cycling. The Giro Empire is one such example, which arguably kicked off the trend in the mainstream. They have been worn by Bradley Wiggins and Taylor Phinney, among others. While they are certainly stylish, bike tech supremo Lennard Zinn believes that laces are far less effective than velcro or ratchet straps at holding the foot in a comfortable, efficient position for any amount of time.

Giro Empire modern lace up shoes (

My pair didn’t come with cleats fitted (they never have been) and I don’t intend on fitting them. That way even if I use clips and straps I will be able to pull my foot out of the pedal. I will lose a small amount of power transfer this way, but in addition to being safer on the bike, they will be much easier to walk in this way too.

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Modern trench cleats for use with three bolt road shoes. (a bit of a silly idea if you ask me!)

The shoes were a great find, in great condition at a bargain price. Importantly, they are size 45 (UK10, US11) which is rather rare. Cycling is a sport that until recently was largely the reserve of 5 foot 6 Southern Europeans who weighed 120 lbs – finding vintage cycling shoes any larger than 42 is exceptional. Loano is actually a French brand, but with a definite Italian flavour to their shoes. Although these shoes have a fifties/sixties feel to them, they’re more likely a seventies or eighties low end model. I was in two minds whether to sell these of keep them, but I think I’ve become rather attached to them. They’ll come in handy for riding bikes with cranksets for French threaded pedals, which I can’t fit clipless pedals to.


Cycling Widow

Calling the wife or girlfriend of a keen rider a cycling widow is a common joke in cycling circles.

A friend of mine recently became a rather more literal cycling widow. Her husband, in his 70s, died suddenly last year. She’s been slowly clearing out his things over the past few months, and when she found out I was into cycling, decided to give me any bike bits she came across. The bike itself went to his son, but as he’s not ‘into’ bikes, wouldn’t want a box of bits or memorabilia.

It started so matter of factly in our local café one friday “you’re into bikes?…I’ve got a signed poster of Eddy Merckx you can have”. What could I say?



This poster was once hanging in a restaurant in Spain. One day Eddy came in, and of course was asked to sign the poster. Years later my friends visited the restaurant a number of times while on holiday, and became friendly with the owner, who gave them the poster.

After the poster, came the bike box. Any true bike nut will have at least one box filled with random bits; tools; components; tyres.

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The box of tricks

The jewels in the crown were some classic Campagnolo tools, known as peanut butter wrenches (I’ve not been able to find a satisfactory explanation for that!) As I’ve got a full complement of wrenches in my tool box already, I think I’ll frame these one day.

"Peanut Butter" wrenches

“Peanut Butter” wrenches

I felt a range of emotions going through this stuff – above all, a strong connection through a shared passion with a man I had hardly known in life. I hope that when I’m done with it, my box of bike bits is passed on to someone, be they a friend, family member or stranger, it doesn’t matter, as long as it’s someone who shares my passion and who will value it as I do.

Team Kit

I’ve been looking at upgrading my cycling wardrobe for a while. Especially with winter in full tilt, you simply can not be wearing enough clothing sometimes.

As you may have guessed from this blog, I like retro – besides, I’d look ridiculous riding an old steel frame in modern kit.

Last year I got a few cash/voucher gifts from friends and family, and after a bargain find at a Vide Grenier, I’ve been putting together Mecatone Uno team kit to wear. Through Etsy, Ebay and vide greniers I’ve got hold of; short sleeved jersey and bib shorts, fleece winter jersey and bib tights, and a cotton cap.

I'll spare you a photo of me wearing them...

I’ll spare you a photo of me wearing them…

Mercatone Uno were an Italian team of the 1990s/2000s, many Italian riders of note from that period wore their colours – Michele Bartoli, Francesco Cassegrande and Mario Cippolini to name but a few, but the team is most closely associated with Marco Pantani. It was with Mercatone Uno that Pantani won the Giro and Tour, and became the sometime bain of Ullrich and Armstrong.

Pantani is a divisive rider. Almost certainly an EPO cheat, his life and career were beset by drama and accident, culminating in his death from a cocaine overdose in 2004. He is still however widely loved in Italy and the world over. Back home, he is up there with Fausto Coppi as an all time great. Even Greg Lemond, who rarely has a good word to say about a doper, says he was the best of his generation. Like Coppi before him, perhaps it was his untimely death that secured his legend status as much as his actions in life – much like British rider Tom Simpson.

‘Panta’ in his glory days (Wikipedia)

Pantani’s main weapon was daring, breakneck paced attacks in the mountains. He would have good days and bad days, but always put on a show for the spectators. Pantani had flair and panache, which makes him much more appealing than the robotic Riis-Ullrich-Armstrong model of a champion in the EPO era. While EPO can’t give you panache, psychoactive drugs can – particularly towards the end of his life, Pantani was a massive abuser of cocaine.

In his widely acclaimed Biography The Death of Marco Pantani, (I highly recommend a read) Matt Rendell paints an endearing picture of a man who was powerful physically but weak psychologically. He comes across as naïve and child like, in which case it’s easier to see him as a victim than perpetrator in those dark days of cycling.

Pantani is one of my favourite riders, warts and all. All I need now is a 1990s Bianchi with Campagnolo Record to complete my homage…