Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Gwendolyn

Here she is, the single biggest reason for why I started this blog. 

Scale figure of the bike at 3/8" = 1'0" for an architecture project.  Real size was less than 1 inch tall.  Teacher said she used to have a Raleigh Sports as well, "but not a '58 (laughs)."  Hmm...

It’s hard to think it hasn’t even been a full year since bicycles became a true hobby of mine.  I did have an obsession with all wheeled vehicles but most of it was limited to the ones powered by fossil fuels, i.e. cars, trucks, and trains.  However, I still held a deep appreciation, almost a need for devices that increased my average speed above walking pace.  During my childhood, I would frequently cruise around the neighborhood on a bike, not for the sake of biking or exercise, but for the sake of seeing the pavement zoom under me and feeling the wind course through my hair. 
Fast forward to the summer before 12th grade. I went to a summer camp at the University of Michigan called ArcStart that served to give aspiring students a taste of the architecture program at the school.  One day, I noticed a cool-looking bike locked up outside the arch school.  It was rusted and abandoned; so abandoned, in fact, that the tires were flat and stuck to the ground.  It looked as if it hadn’t moved in over twenty years.  What caught me were the sturdy fenders and the huge, chrome headlight.  I thought to myself “oh man, that looks awesome” and never thought about the bike again until…

Soon...

I began attending U of M Ann Arbor the following year to study architecture.  I had my razor scooter to whisk me to and fro between buildings and that became a defining feature of me in the eyes of my new friends.  I even sprained my ankle in an accident once, opting to continue riding it because “if every step hurts and it takes less steps to get somewhere by scooter, then why not?” One of my good friends called me his hero in good humor because of that. 
Still, my quest for speed was too much.  I admired the buses but did not enjoy waiting upwards of half an hour to get from my dorm on North campus to my classes on Central campus.  I wanted a bike but did not want to endanger my "nicer" mountain bike at home.  Suddenly, it occurred to me that abandoned bike I saw a year earlier would make a great beater bike.  I tied a note to it asking who’s it was and contact info (an old email in case of scammers) if they were interested in selling, expecting no reply.  In the meantime, I searched up the serial number and visually identified it (as I’m used to doing for cars) to be a 1958-60 Raleigh Sports ladies’ 3-speed bike.  I knew from then on that this would not be a throw-around bike.  After weeks of no reply from the note, I asked my mom to bring the angle grinder when she picked me up for Thanksgiving break. 

Right after installing new tires, right before first ride.  

Upon inspection, I estimated I could probably get the bike roadworthy from my experience working on the bike at home, which ended up being true.  The tires were weathered and the brake and gear cables were seized so I thought I'd have to replace them all.  It turned out that after I attacked the thing with WD-40, everything freed up and all I had to do was to throw on some new tires and inner tubes.  The original Dynohub headlight and generator still worked, too! At that point though, this was still kind of a lie.  It was stuck in first gear for the first four months.  In the meantime, I discovered that the low-slung, heavy steel frame (though advertised as lightweight back in the day) was excellent for tracking in the snow.  I rode this bike throughout the unusually harsh winter with a monkey wrench and WD-40 on me at all times, falling over, er, sitting down on the ground slowly and awkwardly, only once while stopped on a slushy road. 

After a cross-campus bike ride in December.  My shins would be covered by snow flung forward through the fender in times like this, as is evident on the fork

I dove head first into the world of antique bikes.  I found the website of Sheldon Brown which contained a treasure trove of information about the bomb-proof, silky-smooth riding, old English 3-speeds and became somewhat of an expert on antique Raleigh 3-speed commuters myself.  It was during this time that I started receiving much of my information from blogs such as “Lovely Bicycle!” and that gave me an idea to start one myself.  My bike was also featured on the “old three-speed gallery.” After reading my story, one commenter said “Good luck with your classic bike. It is cheaper than a classic car, and just as addictive” and she was ten hundred percent correct.  My obsession with this bike strengthened the more I learned about it and I realized how lucky I was to have found it.  I inspired a few friends to look for 3-speeds of their own, but I must give credit to another friend of mine, Taylor, who introduced me to the magical internal-gear 3-speed hub before I acquired my bike. 

Before and after surface rust removal

In the next few months, I became friends with Joel from Midwest Bike & Tandem who would often chat with me when I stopped by.  I had him install a rear cargo rack because I didn’t have the tools to drill through the rear dropout.  He also gave me a piece of steel wool to remove surface rust from the chrome (which I later learned is not advised but what’s done is done) and it confirmed the November 1958 production date on the Sturmey-Archer rear hub.  I also bought pink Kool-Stop brake pads so water would not completely eliminate braking power on my steel wheels.  When the two upper gears freed up, I adjusted the cable tension and was able to use all three gears on my bike – 3rd gear being the tallest gear I had ever ridden on.  I swore I could have gone 35 mph on a rare stretch of flat, straight road.  Before this, I had considered buying a new 5-speed internal gear hub when money allowed.  I realized later that 3 ratios is literally all I’ll ever need for city commuting and my current hub will probably never fail anyway. 

Exploring Ann Arbor's Gallup Park at dusk after frying my headlight bulb riding too fast.  LED bulb and voltage regulator to be installed soon after, during the spring semester.  

I planned to bring the bike back home for a full cosmetic restoration, as it is pretty much mechanically perfect, during summer vacation but not before completing a spring term at school.  I thoroughly enjoyed the country roads between home and school during that time, parking my car at a free lot 4.5 miles away and biking between class and the lot almost every day.  After restoration, I plan to continue using it as a “daily driver” as car guys say.  I like the upright riding position that is ideal for wearing school backpacks with and there's something special about operating a vintage piece of machinery that has a thousand times more soul than something new (no, I am not a hipster.  More on that later).  And hey, if this bike lasted 56 years and maybe 20 abandoned outside, it'll outlast me under my care. 

 After wrestling the ~40 pound all-steel beast into my station wagon, it is at home and restoration is about to begin.

I don't usually call my bike by its old-school English name.  It was just sort of for fun and for the record if other bike people ask because, you know, cyclists usually aren't afraid to name their bikes.  Or something.