Wednesday, October 8, 2014

My Take On Commuter Bikes

I've been cycling for transportation for most of my life, but it's only been about eleven months since I started paying real attention to bikes.  Back at home, I rode a couple different cheap mountain bikes that got me from point A to B without a care.  Cycling really only became a hobby when I acquired my 1958 Raleigh Sports after college began last fall and my knowledge and awareness of bicycles has skyrocketed since then.

Photo from January 2013 after a cross-campus ride, long before restoration

I went up and down Sheldon Brown's website learning all I could about classic Raleighs and Sturmey-Archer 3-speeds and began following the Lovely Bicycle! blog.  I started noticing the differences between my Raleigh and my too-small-yet-too-long mountain bike, namely the upright riding position versus the neither-crouched-nor-upright position on the mountain bike.  The step-through frame was extremely convenient for hopping on and off and later proved to be safer for me during a fall when I would have gotten pinned under a men's frame.  Despite the weight of the Raleigh and lack of shock absorbers, I noticed something oddly pleasant about it back then, something that made the Raleigh much more satisfying to ride.

Image from Lovely Bicycle!

One of the first topics I stumbled across on the Lovely Bicycle! blog was Velouria's beautiful 1973 Raleigh DL-1 Lady's Tourist, pictured above.  I still kind of want one.  Following the blog gave me tons more information about commuter cycling and Velouria's numerous bike reviews gave me a better idea of what would be my ideal commuter bike.  Of course, everybody is different and test-riding is the only thing that could tell me for sure.  

Image from Lovely Bicycle!

Velouria also briefly talked about a friend of hers who also has a blog, Biking in Heels.  "Cycler's" daily bike, pictured above, looks similar to mine except it's really tricked out.  She reportedly started with a bare Raleigh Lady's Sports frame that she rescued and stuck Shimano hubs on it, among other things.  Depending on what you value, a salvaged bike such as this would probably give you more freedom with modifications.

Although I'm not a "numbers-matching weenie" as they say in the car community, I wouldn't have the heart to modify my 1958 Lady's Sports as far as I'd need in order to create my ideal commuter.  Almost all of the parts are original; the only modifications I've done have pretty much been simple bolt-ons, aside from the new paint job.

Based on all of the research I've done and all of the blogs I've read, I have compiled a list of components that I think would make up my ideal commuter bike.  Lovely Bicycle! seems to share a similar perspective.  Again, the only real way to tell for sure is to test things out.

  1. 21-inch Raleigh Lady's Sports frame, possibly a 23 inch which are rare but they exist. I love the geometry and the well-known durability would work to my advantage.  
  2. Plastic fenders would help reduce unnecessary weight.  I also worry about denting or chipping the paint on my original steel ones.  The originals play a huge part in the classic look though, so maybe I won't bother.  
  3. Sturmey-Archer XL-FDD 90 mm drum brake/dynamo front hub. Rain, steel wheels, and Ann Arbor hills make for a terrifying combination on my Sports.  A drum brake would solve any problems associated with rim brakes and I just love dynohubs.  However, caution must be taken because bending the fork with the reaction arm is possible even though the rider in this blog was far harder on his bike than I ever would be (Front wheelies? No thank you).  A standard GH6 dynohub would be my choice if this was a problem.  
  4. Sturmey-Archer X-RD5 5-speed gear hub with 70 mm drum brake.  I used to say that 3 gears is all I need and in most cases it's true, but I feel like two more ratios would make my ride noticeably less tiring.  I wonder if it's easy to bend the chain stay with the reaction arm.  If yes, then I'd go with an S-RF5 5-speed hub.  
  5. Sun CR-18 alloy wheels would reduce weight quite a bit and improve wet braking power if I end up not using drums.  The fully-assembled, 26 x 1-3/8" steel wheel and dynohub/gearhub combos on my old Sports each weigh over six pounds each, no joke.  I wonder how much it would change the classic ride quality I love so much, though.  Kevlar-reinforced Schwalbe Delta Cruiser tires, as tested on Lovely Bicycle, are on my want-list as far as tires go.  Cream or black?
  6. Bright road lights mounted low on fork plus taillight. As much as I love my old Dynohub, it doesn't create nearly enough light for night riding.  I don't know about the new ones, though.  Also, it would be nice to have a light that doesn't flicker at low speeds or die when stopped.  
  7. Rear rack with two folding baskets. I use my rack and basket daily, but the basket gets in the way of things and throws the bike off balance when parked. Folding baskets would be more compact and having a 2nd basket would balance the bike, as well as give additional carrying capacity.  The ones from Wald received a good review from Lovely Bicycle! I know the Sports is not a full-on work bike but it has carried heavier loads just fine. 
  8. Frame pump. Many old Raleighs, I think, came with frame pump braze-ons just like mine.  It would be nice to put those to use as well as to not have to run three floors up or ride a couple miles just to fill up on a bit of air.  
  9. Velo Orange Model 8 saddle. I'd love a Brooks B73 or B66, but those are considerably more expensive and I'd feel bad leaving them out in the rain.  I pretty much just want a wide, sprung ladies' saddle that isn't too fat-looking for my bike (yes, I'm a guy, but deal with it)
  10. Miscellaneous: A front wheel stabilizer might be nice, given how many times I've almost crashed while trying to put gloves on.  A double legged kickstand would be practical for loading as well as doubling as a work stand if a tire change is needed. Also, rear view mirrors like the one on my Sports are useful, although it's too convex because I bought it from an auto parts store.  
  11. Non-cottered cranks and maybe belt drive. I do realize this would be quite an undertaking and would cost a considerable amount of money.  This is a money-no-object mod. Greasy and chewed-up pant legs used to be sort of a problem until I started tying them up, but that takes time.  Parasitic power loss due to a rusty chain is surprisingly noticeable, even by an amateur like me.  If I was to get the belt drive, I'd have to modify one chainstay to be removable.  I like the appearance of the old heron chain ring so I'd also like to bolt that on to the new pulley for kicks, if possible.  As a much more feasible alternative, I could just try to squeeze something like a Hebie Chainglider under the old metal chain guard.  

This, of course, is kind of a dream of mine.  As far as I know, my commuter cycling days might be mostly limited to my years at school, during which I'd have to save money for more important things.  I also wouldn't want to get rid of my old Sports, so having another bike that is so similar in many ways might not be a good choice until I settle down years in the future.  At that point, I might not need a hardcore commuter.  Who knows.  Maybe I could outfit my old Sports with most of these mods but keep the old components safe for later.  

Below are just a few websites I've come across for those willing to pony up for a colorful, fully-assembled commuter.  
  1. Legacy Frameworks.  Based on Chicago and founded by a friend of a classmate, they seem to put out some high-quality stuff. The frames are hand-built. 
  2. ANT Bikes, hand-built frames as advertised on Lovely Bicycle!
  3. Linus Bikes. There seems to be quite a few of these in Ann Arbor.  The beautiful Dutchi has that classic, swoopy frame and the Scout 7 looks just like an old Raleigh Lady's Sports! 
  4. Simcoe Bicycles not only look like classic Sports roadsters, but according to Lovely Bicycle, offer a ride quality that is surprisingly similar as well. 
  5. Pashley has been in the business for almost a century and continues to make sturdy commuters with classic style.  
  6. Republic Bikes offers a few models with a huge range of options, namely the colors for all components.  They have a lower starting price than the above companies.  
I read somewhere that a decently-outfitted Sports in the 1950s cost around $850 in today's money, which is pretty spot on with a modern Simcoe.