Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Small-Wheeler

Just as Lovely Bicycle! wrote in her article years ago, "The handlebars look like antlers and somehow the bike seems to be always smiling. Just a friendly little reindeer, waiting for you to ride it..."

Yeah, I know. So the Raleigh Twenty is not a child's bike, nor is it supposed to be "cute." As many other cyclists have written, the Twenty is a legendary workhorse. A serious bike that is capable in stock form yet responds very well to modifications. It is commonly referred to as the best of the old folding bikes. But just look at it! It looks so animal-like with its single down tube and prominent vertical members. It's so funky! And ... cute! 

For a while now, I had been thinking that I wanted to have a Twenty some day. I would hop online and have a quick scroll through the listings every once in a while and there would almost certainly be some very nice examples, but they were usually very high priced and non-shippable. There was one located at a thrift shop in town that would occasionally drop in price but I figured that since I had to allow some budget for modifications, it wasn't low enough. Plus, it had painted fenders, which I have come to learn, get scratched and chipped more easily than chrome in the event that the bike is folded up. 

One week, two promising listings showed up and I figured if I wanted a Twenty, this was the time. So, I ended up with 1971 model, very faded, very used, but still very solid. The paint looked dingy but there were very few marks that went through it. The day it arrived, my roommate had to help the post man drag the box into the apartment while I was at work. First impressions were that it was incredibly heavy and unwieldy for a folding bike. There didn't seem to be a convenient way to carry it, nor was there a way to swing down the handlebars without a wrench. 

Not put out in the least, I was eager to get working on my new Twenty. A hint of disappointment crept up as I thought I would have to finish my homework and wait until tomorrow, but the moment I realized that school had actually ended days prior, my tools left the ground real quick. 

I took my usual steps to get it running: new grease, new chain, oil in the bottom bracket, new BMX tires, and Kool Stop brake pads. After some thought, I opted for the white Vans (cue "back at it again with the ...") so the brake dust would not foul the white walls as badly. A previous owner added an alloy front wheel which had horrible bearings but I figured I could get by since there was no immediate need to do serious commuting with this bike (which I ended up doing, anyway). The rear wheel, I assume, was heavily rusted since it was covered with a layer of silver spray paint with lumps under it. The cranks were also bent and emitting a strange noise, probably due to bearings damaged during the bending impact. Not to worry, because I have decided that if I am to need this bike for serious regular riding, a new, sealed bottom bracket, alloy rear wheel, and dynamo (and possibly drum brake) front wheel will be in order. I may even upgrade the entire rear hub to a new rotary-shifted drum brake unit. For now though, I don't think the bike will be changing for a while. 

For its current purpose, though, the Twenty is perfect as it is. It is often my bike of choice for late night cruises through the park. The tire treads make a zapping sound as they plow through puddles. The gearing is surprisingly adequate; in fact, I did not need to install a larger rear cog. The gearing is already lower with the small wheels and just like how my full-sized Sports cruises well at 20 mph, this one does just fine at 12. It feels natural. The fat tires ride very smoothly and don't feel any more rough over bumps than the 26" wheels that I'm used to. There may be more rolling resistance, but it is a non-issue considering the bike's lower cruising speed. Despite all that, the bike is still happy to shoot down the street at the top end of 3rd gear. First gear is low enough that I can pop a wheelie out of sheer torque. The "dampened" steering feels alright, but I may be looking to upgrade to real bearings on the top of the headset at some point. 

Unfortunately, the original kickstand was gone so I installed my own and added an "R nut" sticker just for kicks. I took advantage of the lock nuts on the center hinge quick release and moved them to make sure the lever would sit parallel to the tube when fully tightened. Also, I seem to have a less common type of handlebar. 

To replace the gigantic, sofa-like saddle that arrived with the bike, I bought a Retrospec Wide Urban saddle. It was very inexpensive but it looked nice and I figured at such a low price, it would be worth a try. And by some stroke of luck, the saddle fit me just right. It initially felt as if the center section was too rounded, but after going out for a spin, and then several more, I realized that I could not feel it under me, nor were there sore spots when I got off. It was great. 

I also bought Fairdale handlebar grips that seemed to match well. The swan is a fun detail. I had to trim the grips short and slit them to fit around the brake levers. The bar ends were hilariously referred to as "human body core sample prevention devices" on the packaging. The grips are nice and grippy but the feeling of the ribs "crushing" down when I hold them is a bit off-putting. Nothing major enough to warrant a change, though. As for the light, it appears to have been installed when the bike was nearly new. It was previously attached with a gnarly clamp on the handlebar but I modified a headlight bracket to allow the light to be attached by the handlebar clamp bolt. I still have to retrofit an LED system to work in it. 

This no-name-brand rack top bag was marketed toward full size bikes but with the panniers fully unrolled, it fits the Twenty perfectly well. It is a bit flimsy, as the right pannier was about to tear off (the issue was resolved), but should be capable enough to carry food and tools between home and work. Lastly, the Wellgo folding pedals reduce the width of the folding bike by a significant amount, even if it's just 2-1/2 inches on each side. They are conveniently retracted by kicking them simultaneously inward and upward (or down), unlike other models where you have to push a button and get your hand dirty. 

The vast majority of stock Twenties I see online either have lower-rise (with taller stem) bars that are swept back, high rise bars that are not very swept back, or low rise bars that are not very swept back. My bars are high rise and very swept back, placing the hands at a position similar to that on the Raleigh Sports. I had to scroll for a good few minutes before coming across the same bar in the Google Image search. And in looking through many examples of stock and modified Raleigh Twenties, it occurred to me that I was almost afraid of bikes with no fenders. At this point, I am so used to being able to fly over and through anything with my fully-equipped city bikes that the mere thought of hitting a puddle and soiling my clothing is frighteningly foreign to me. Fenders may get in the way of folding, but they sure as heck are staying on this bike. 

In all, I am very glad to have this Twenty and plan to keep it for a long time. It fits in the elevator with zero fuss and is always eager to go for a ride. It is no less comfortable than my full-size bikes and the ways in which the ride differs does not make it "less nice" - it's just different. And nice.