A Legend Embarks on the Route of a Tour de France Stage

A Legend Embarks on the Route of a Tour de France Stage

Lifestyle Sports

We all have dreams. Vladimír Vidim, from Prague, is no exception, but he goes further and makes those dreams come true. A passionate cyclist and a bicycle maker, he decided to resurrect the legendary SLAVIA, the bicycle first made by Laurin & Klement – the predecessor of the ŠKODA brand.

4. 7. 2019

Václav Laurin and Václav Klement, the founders of ŠKODA AUTO, built their first SLAVIA bicycle back in 1895. Vladimír Vidim, a fan of vintage bicycles, is now rebuilding their third model from 1896, which also happened to be the first SLAVIA racing bike. He is keen to ride it at this year's L’Étape du Tour – a 135-kilometre Alpine section of the Tour de France that is open to the public.

A LEGEND IS BORN

The SLAVIA is a legend. At the end of the 19th century, a bicycle was a rare and expensive means of transportation. Around this time, Václav Klement purchased a Germania bicycle made by Dresden-based Seidel & Naumann. When it broke, he sent a letter of complaint to the company’s branch in Ústí nad Labem. Unhappy with the manufacturer’s reply, Klement decided to set up in business with his friend, Laurin, and they gave their company the patriotic name of SLAVIA. They started making bicycles with the same name in a workshop on the outskirts of Mladá Boleslav.

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Vladimír Vidim
passionate cyclist and bicycle maker

More than 120 years later, Vladimír Vidim was enjoying a drink with a friend in a pub when they had the idea of reviving the famous SLAVIA. “We thought that, seeing as ŠKODA sponsors the Tour de France, it would be great to rebuild this legend and ride it on a stage of the Tour,” says Vladimír, who indulges in his bike-making passion in a workshop in Roztoky u Prahy.

He cannot imagine his life without bicycles. Back in the days of socialism, there were no good bicycles in Czechoslovakia, so Vladimír learnt how to build them himself. A racer himself at the time, nowadays he trains the youth team at the Dukla cycling club in Prague. His company also fixes the club’s bicycles.

Vladimír has built all manner of contraptions over his life. “As a trained locksmith I always tried to harness the skills craftsmen had in the past,” says Vidim, who has created replicas of all sorts of historical bicycles, including a draisine, boneshaker and a penny-farthing. Aside from building bicycles, he also rides them and has broken dozens of records. On his penny-farthing, for example, he managed to ride 470 kilometres without his feet touching the ground once. He didn’t get off the bike for 23 hours. To make this record, Vladimír had to ask a group of his friends to ride ahead and check that there was no train approaching and that all the crossing gates were open. He thought up his SLAVIA project, culminating in his participation in L’Étape, as another major challenge.

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NO RACING-BIKE BLUEPRINT

Vladimír’s bicycle is nearing completion, but he admits it hasn’t been easy. Some original Laurin & Klement SLAVIAs designed for everyday use have survived and can be found at the ŠKODA Museum and in private collections, but there was no trace of any racing models. “As things turned out, no one was aware of any surviving racing version of the SLAVIA. That approach led down a blind alley,” explains Vladimír.

There was nothing left for it but to start building his bike according to old photographs, period brochures and other documentation from the ŠKODA archives. He used rulers and protractors to deduce the original lengths and angles.

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Things got harder when it came to working out the details because the pictures didn’t really show whether the tubes were straight or bent. Any experts diverged in their opinions. In the end, Vladimír used 32-millimetre-diameter chromium-molybdenum weldless tubing. He had to build the bike all the way from scratch, including all the components and the connecting pieces for the tubing. He used thicker tubes to build the back of the bike, which lacks a centre bridge piece – the part of the frame previously used to attach the mudguards.

The preparations and building took three months. The search for documentation and deciding on the right way to build the bicycle took three weeks. The biggest problem cropped up right at the beginning: shortly after Vladimír decided to launch his project, he fell off his bike and broke his wrist. “I could only use one hand for six weeks. Luckily, I can control both the lathe and the milling machine with just one hand,” he says. He used all of this time that had kept him from training as an opportunity to prepare the documentation.

BRAKE DRIFTING

If Vladimír had decided to build a bicycle for display in a museum, he would have finished much earlier. But because he wants to race the bike, it can’t just look nice – it also has to be professionally welded and fully functional. “I had to build the bike with excess capacity so that it wouldn’t fall apart on me when I was on the road,” he laughs, explaining that the bicycle must safely carry a 90-kilogram person.

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The original SLAVIA had no rear derailleur, nor did it have the brakes we are familiar with today, so the only way to regulate the speed was by drifting, just like today’s fixed-gear bikes. “We thought about fitting a brake, but that would mean straying too far from the original and the bike would lose some of its magic,” explains Vladimír, who now intends to train as much possible on his new 18-kilo bicycle.

L’Étape at the end of July is hardly going to be a walk in the park. Since 1993, this race has been an opportunity for amateur cyclists to have a go at one stage of the real Tour de France. Usually it is a tough mountain track in the Alps or Pyrenees and attracts about 15,000 entrants. They have the whole route to themselves, complete with refreshments, medical care and spectators in the background.

This year’s L’Étape du Tour is being held on 21 July. Participants will have the chance to try the 20th stage of the race, running from Albertsville to Val Thorens. Vladimír will get to enjoy a beer at the finish line, after riding 135 kilometres and covering 4,563 meters of latitude. “I built up a sweat making the bicycle, and I’m going to be dripping in perspiration as I ride it, too,” he says.

Here’s wishing him the best of luck!

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