As the Tour De Yorkshire heads to his home town of Middlesbrough this weekend, artist Mackenzie Thorpe tells PETER BARRON about the influence bikes have had on his work

FOR Mackenzie Thorpe, artist and globe-trotter, the travelling hardly stops. In January, he was in Japan. In February, it was Florida. In March, Texas. As April draws to a close, he’s travelling back home to Middlesbrough, and as May begins he’ll be bursting with pride when the old town hosts the world’s top cyclists in the Tour de Yorkshire.

“Who’d have thought it?” he says. “Middlesbrough being shown on television all over the world because of bikes. It’s fantastic, isn’t it? Really amazing.”

For someone who grew up being afraid of bikes, they’ve clearly left their mark and featured in many of his works of art.

“I don’t know why but bikes were never for me when I was a kid. I was the only one at school who didn’t have one and I used to get stick for it,” he recalls.

“The truth is that I was scared of them, because I didn’t want to fall off. I used to see other kids learning to ride by being shoved down Ormesby Bank and, to be honest, I thought I could do without the danger."

Mackenzie’s family never had a car so his dad, a labourer at Dorman Long steelworks and later at Smith’s Dock, would often ride to work on his bike. Still, the young Mackenzie remained bike-less as he started work himself down the shipyard.

“Bikes were such an important part of the working environment down the dock and, if you didn’t have one, it was almost like you were inadequate, not a real man.

“Bikes were like the horses of the working man – taking them to work, getting them to the beach – and it didn’t cost them anything.

“It was an incredible sight at the end of the shift at Smith’s Dock to see hundreds of men run to get through the bottle-neck, jumping on their bikes to get down the Dock Road, then carry their bikes across the bridge to the pub.”

Mackenzie had reached the age of 24 before he was first persuaded to climb onto a bike by his wife, Susan, in a park in London, where they were living at the time.

“I crashed into a tree because I was distracted by the landscape,” he says, chuckling at the memory.

Yet, despite his own lack of success with bikes, he has grown to appreciate the special place they have in his memories of growing up on industrial Teesside.

And when Middlesbrough Borough Council got in touch to ask if he would promote the Tour De Yorkshire coming to the town, he was delighted to help.

“I was in America at the time and it was music to my ears – another chance to celebrate Middlesbrough’s heritage. This great, world-class cycling event was coming to the Boro and that made me feel really proud.”

The image and title didn’t come easily as he grappled with different ideas but, eventually, a typically stunning picture emerged from his studio: a working man, proudly holding a bike above his head like a trophy, in front of a glowing backdrop of Roseberry Topping.

“I wanted the working man’s horse, his mule if you like, to be portrayed as the star,” he explains. “So he lifts it up and says ‘Look what I’ve got – I’m the champion of the world’. And, not only that, but he has Roseberry Topping, and that beautiful landscape, and the Transporter Bridge in the distance. He’s got everything he needs.”

The piece was titled Erimus at wife Susan’s suggestion. The word features in Middlesbrough’s coat of arms, having been chosen as the town’s motto in 1830, and translates as “We shall be – we shall exist”.

“It just seemed to fit,” says Mackenzie. “And there was a pub in Middlesbrough called The Erimus too, so we decided to just go for it. I'm glad we did.”

But, as is so often the case with Mackenzie, the project didn’t end with the painting. It led to a discussion with Middlesbrough-based Truefitt micro brewery which resulted in a special beer being born – Erimus IPA – bearing Mackenzie’s latest artwork on the label.

In turn, that sparked an association with Teesside charity Fat Lads On Bikes, with a percentage of the sales from the beer and the limited edition prints of Erimus going towards dementia care.

Despite his early aversion to bikes, he can’t wait to be back on home soil to see some of the world’s best cyclists set off from Middlesbrough on Sunday. It’ll be a very different atmosphere from the hundreds of thirsty riders who flocked through the gates at knock-off time at Smith’s Dock. The grey caps and coats will be replaced by all the colours of modern, elite cycling – but what a sight it will be.

For Mackenzie Thorpe, the artist who was so scared of bikes as a boy, the wheels have come full circle.