It has been 50 years since Eddy Merckx set the Hour record in Mexico City and 46 years since Alf Engers broke the 25-mile British record. Not only were these men top-level athletes, but they were both at the forefront of a new cycling technology: drillium.
A play on words such as titanium and aluminium, ‘drillium’ was coined to describe the process of drilling holes in components to reduce their weight. The dominant thinking at the time was that lighter was faster and, with Merckx’ Hour record bike featuring several drilled components, the cult of drillium was born.
After the 70s, the importance of aerodynamics became clearer, and the extra drag caused by the holes meant it fell out of favour.
Fast forward to today, and drillium is something of a lost art. Some, however, have kept the practice alive. Enthusiast and former time-triallist the Campag Kid – as he’s known on social media – is a specialist restorer who’s recently put drillium to use again with an extraordinary period-correct steel road bike.
Coming in at just under 7kg, this drillium-centric Mercian build is no token gesture, with every component handcrafted to reach its bare minimum weight. We caught up with him to learn how he got into the sport, where his love of drillium came from and if he thinks he’ll ever take this bike out for a spin himself.
Cyclist: How did you get into cycling?
Campag Kid: I grew up in a very poor part of the Midlands, from a shopfloor-type, working class environment.
When I got to about 11 or 12, I’d just had enough of it… I had lovely parents and a lovely upbringing, but I’d had enough of it and wanted to escape from all the grime and manufacturing and cobbled streets.
My mother and father didn’t have a lot of money at all but with what little money they did have, they bought me a racing bike.
One day, I came across this café that was full of cyclists. I asked what they did and one of the guys said, ‘Well, we’re a cycling club and we race.’ I told them I was only 12 and they said it didn’t matter so, long story short, I joined.
I got this bike that my mother and father had bought and did a time-trial on it on the Friday evening, in 1972.
Cyc: Where did the name, the Campag Kid, come from?
CK: Cycling has always been a lifelong hobby of mine, but it’s not my actual job at all. That’s why I use a pseudonym, you see, The Campag Kid.
I was always obsessed with Campagnolo, this mysterious equipment that all the top people seemed to have. I used to go into the shop on a Saturday morning and obsess over all of their Campagnolo bits and pieces. The owner of the shop said, ‘You are a Campagnolo kid!’ And that’s where the name came from.
I’ve now got one of the biggest collections of Campagnolo parts in the world – not the largest value-wise, but I’ve got an example of virtually everything they’ve ever made.
Cyc: What inspired you to start this build?
CK: I have all my modern bikes but I thought I’d really love to make another bike exactly like what we had – Alf Engers, the time-triallists, all the champions – in the ‘70s.
I always feel quite emotional when I’m online and people are asking me questions about those days. That’s the reason why I built this bike and is absolutely authentic to the way that it would have been built back in those days.
If you look at the weight of this bike at the moment (it’s still got a few bits to go on it), it’s under 7kg and this is a 50-year-old design.
Cyc: How did you get started using drillium?
CK: I’m not far from Nottingham and the Raleigh team, and they used to do a huge amount of lightening of the Campagnolo components on their bikes.
When Eddy Merckx took the hour record in 1972, his bike had been significantly lightened by Ernesto Colnago. I’ve actually met him, and he invited me to his birthday party.
Photo: Mike Massaro
The Colnago that Ernesto built for Eddy had been significantly lightened by really going over the top with everything he could possibly do, so most parts had been drilled and it started off this sort of cult.
The idea of drilling holes in components had been used previously in things like the Super Record chainring but really got taken up by the club time-triallists in Britain. We were under the illusion that if you lightened the bike, you’d go faster.
We knew nothing about aerodynamics in those days but we knew about engineering and how far we could go before something would break. Well, some people didn’t and there were some spectacular examples of drillium failing.
The time-triallists were so obsessive with drilling and lightening that the bikes couldn’t actually be ridden to the events. They had to be taken in a car or a van and assembled. The gears were ridiculous. You couldn’t possibly ride them up a hill.
Drillium didn’t last very long as people started to realise that it wasn’t very aerodynamic.
C: Did you have any cycling heroes when you were younger?
CK: Alf Engers and Eddy Merckx were the poster boys of the day. Everybody else was great but they were the ones that shone out. And Beryl Burton, she was an incredibly powerful cyclist.
Cyc: What was the fixation with time trial bikes?
CK: With time-trials, you really rip yourself to pieces and you sort of forget about the bike because you’re pushing yourself so hard. And that’s what makes it a race of truth.
It’s the ultimate race against yourself and the clock, that raw cycle racing.
There probably won’t be racing again in the same way, because the roads in the 70s were fantastic. It was all beautifully smooth and there weren’t really potholes at all. The only thing to watch out for was the occasional car that came down the bypass.
A lot of it came off the back of racing bikes on the road after the war being illegal. That’s why time-trial courses ended up having nicknames, so no one outside of the sport knew where the course was.
That’s why this bike is a bit of a bandit bike, not illegal so to say, but they kept a close eye on what we did and the police would stop us if they thought was dangerous.
Photo: Mike Massaro
Many people never finished the race because their tyres had exploded or the wheels had collapsed. Even Alf Engers, when he set the 25-mile record, towards the end of the race in the last mile or so, the back wheel was starting to collapse and he was doing 25mph.
Cyc: How long has the build taken?
CK: It took me about two years to find a complete bike’s worth of upgrade parts, and it’s still not finished. Sometimes I sit staring at the bike, wondering if there’s something else I’ve missed and often there is, but I’m starting to run out of upgrades.
Cyc: What was the most complicated part of the build?
CK: This is real anorak stuff. I mocked it up manually, stripped them all the components down and hand-worked them like we used to do when I was a shopfloor guy. I drilled and milled them, and then hand-polished them.
There are nearly 300 holes in the rear derailleur alone. All of the fixings have been replaced with titanium and alloy fixings and then, with the alloy fixings, I filed them all down by hand and drilled the ends of the fixings as well. The brake levers were another mission and a half, to drill all of the holes out of the lever bodies.
With the down tube shifters, I took every single bit of metal out of that and made it lighter and lighter and lighter, so now I can only tighten it up to a certain degree before it strips off. Just enough to hold the friction for about an hour and then you have to start again.
Cyc: Do you think you’ll ever ride it?
CK: I don’t think I’ll ever ride it properly, except to replicate some of the photos of Alf Engers on his bike. It was more about me reproducing something which was as purpose built and as specialist a racing bike as the time-trial bikes you see today.
It’s a work of art to be honest with you, it’s not a bicycle anymore. I mean, it still works absolutely fine on a smooth road. But in reality, most people look at it and it’s like a piece of jewellery.
In the old days, we didn’t polish the parts, we just drilled them and got on with it. But now it really is like a piece of mechanical jewellery, like a watch.
Campag Kid’s Drillium Mercian build spec
- Frame: Mercian steel 531C Superlight, drilled dropouts and BB shell
- Fork: Mercian steel 531C Superlight, drilled dropouts
- Weight: just under 7kg without pedals
- Headset: Drilled Campagnolo alloy Super Record
- Brake levers: Drilled Campagnolo Nuovo Record
- Shifters: One drilled Campagnolo DT shifter with all alloy OMAS parts
- Brakes: Campagnolo Record, drilled with OMAS titanium upgrade kit
- Rear derailleur: Campagnolo Nuovo Record totally drilled with OMAS alloy and titanium fixings
- Front Derailleur: None
- Crankset: Campagnolo Record to Eddy Merckx 1972 ‘Mexico’ level ie milled, drilled and profiled. One single drilled 56t Sugino chainring. Drilled alloy chainring bolts. OMAS alloy crank bolts.
- Bottom bracket: OMAS titanium and alloy with roller bearings
- Freewheel: Everest alloy 6 speed 13-18, drilled sprockets
- Chain: DID 6-speed nickel plated
- Wheels: Campagnolo large flange Record 24h hubs laced with crow’s foot pattern onto NISI Sludi rims
- Tyres: Modern handmade Veloflex tubs
- Bar: 3ttt Super Light
- Stem: 3ttt Record 115mm with OMAS titanium bolts
- Seatpost: Campagnolo Record drilled with OMAS alloy bolts
- Saddle: Cinelli Unicanitor Mod. 55, drilled with no cover material
- Accessories: Stop watch holder