Thursday, July 13, 2017

Reverence for the Raleigh 3-speed Sports Roadster

After a brief peruse on this site, it may be obvious as to what my favorite type of bike is. I am going to take the time right now to explain why that is.

This right here is the first photo I ever took solely for the purpose of documenting a bike. This is my 1958 Raleigh Sports, my first "hardcore" bike, first restoration project, first ... you get the point. This is the way it sat for who knows how many years before I unstuck its tires from the ground and rescued it in November 2013. It just so happened that a bike that I acquired to fix up and get around on because I thought it looked "cool" was the perfect bike for me. It was the right size (almost), it was a 3-speed, it had a dynohub, it was made of steel, it was comfortable, fast, old, beautiful, and it loved me back. This is the reason why I went from being a regular, car-obsessed metro-Detroit kid to being known by fellow students as the "bike god of Ann Arbor" in the four years I was there for school.

My favorite bike of all time is Raleigh's 3-speed sports roadster. Not to be confused with the full-size roadsters with 28" wheels. They came in many trim levels: the Sports, Superbe, Dawn, LTD, and more, not to mention the ones sold under different brand names. I will emphasize that this post, as are most of mine, is opinion based. What I say here may not be entirely agreeable to others. Anyway, with all of the mushy emotional bits out of the way, I'll get into the practical stuff, which is what I like to do. Shown above is my '79 Superbe, the best-riding and most practical one out of the few(?) Sports that I own. 

In summary, these bikes are not exceedingly fast, obviously, but much faster-accelerating than they should be at 35-40 pounds. To say that they "plane" is an understatement. Heavily built but quite responsive. Excellent cargo capacity. Internal gear hubs are the best for city riding. Their 2030 hi-ten steel frames are actually quite light, but the steel fenders, bars, cranks, rims, and the occasional dynohub add the weight right back. They were made from the 1930s to 1982, practically unchanged. The embodiment of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" (or, more realistically, budget constraints due to poor management). 

Since I am almost purely a transportation rider, the things that I value most in a bike are that they can get me to work in presentable shape even in bad weather, that they can carry my stuff to and from as well as whatever food I may pick up on the way, and that they can handle the abuse from bad roads. A daily bike also needs to be an absolute blast to ride, because how else would you enjoy the commute? The Sports easily checks all of these boxes in its stock configuration. I do have a couple more-or-less purpose-built road bikes, but even those have fenders and beefier tires in case I do decide take one for the day. And what if it rains? Would I park a Sports outside for a day? Ten days? Sure. The internal gear hubs are not completely, but decently sealed from dirt and water and the chrome plating and lacquer finish on these bikes are of extremely high quality. I hate to be a "retrogrouch," but you'd have to pay a lot to have a finish like that these days. 

Some riders will say that weight is everything. This makes obvious sense, in most cases. If you've got to get moving, or if you've got to counteract the force of gravity when traveling up a hill, bike weight will make a huge difference. But wait, there's more! I like to sacrifice a bit of weight advantage for fatter tires, beefier wheels, and tougher frames. Why is that? That's because lighter bikes are more delicate. I mean sure, bike frames are always pretty tough. They have to be. But if you have to slow down or swerve to avoid pot holes, change a tire, gently step off a curb instead of going sailing off because you don't want to kink your wheels, or maybe get off and walk through a construction zone, that's energy wasted. Once you slow down, you have to speed back up! 

On my daily commute, I regularly ride over glass, rocks, pot holes, and hop curbs fairly frequently. Even if I'm keeping up with car traffic at 25 mph, I am not usually given much space or room for error. I spot a hole in the road. Should I slow down? Swerve into traffic? Neither. Give it a hop, and keep right on pounding. Fat tires at lower pressures give physical comfort in these times, and beefy wheels, frames, and forks give peace of mind. Of course, the tires aren't too wide. 1-3/8" is just about perfect and doesn't slow me down. The Sports Tourist pictured above was made in 1948. It has city registration stickers. It has definitely been hit by a car before, and it was found at the dump with fairly new tires. The fork is still (almost) straight, the wheels are true, everything works. All non-consumable parts: wheels, cranks, forks, handlebars, and all but three spokes are original and have survived for 69 years. The hard knock life of a city bike. This may be overkill to some, but for me, it means carefree riding. 

And carefree riding ain't no joke. I've got enough to worry about when riding in auto-centric America, and the last thing I want to worry about is something completely in my control: my bike. I was recently diagnosed with a mental condition that causes me to think about too many things at once. You can guess what it is. It explains everything! On the bright side, it makes me hyper-aware of my surroundings. I have had many close calls, but zero accidents with car drivers. And by close calls, I mean that I saw it coming from a mile away but would have gotten hit if my eyes were not everywhere at once. I watch them as they see me, jerk to a stop, and I give a stank face and keep on going, safe and sound. On the down side, mental hyperactivity is exhausting. More worrying is more energy wasted! I am always conscious and aware, but we wouldn't want to overload that capacity now, would we? What would happen if I had to take my eyes off the road and look after my bike, even for a second? 

I wasn't exaggerating about cargo capacity. On the left is my '79 Superbe with a 12-pack, dinner, and some books in the pannier. Usual cargo. On the right is my '58 Sports, carrying what would usually be a very precarious 35-lb grocery load through the snow in late 2014. Of course, it was not precarious, because it was a Raleigh Sports. A Sports roadster with up to 20 pounds on the back feels completely natural. It's nearly unnoticeable. I don't know how else to say it, and I don't know how to explain it. I still don't really know how geometry works, but the Sports has it nailed.

Enough about the Raleigh Sports being the perfect "if I could only have one" kinda bike. I like to keep a few of these around in different sizes because they're perfect loaner bikes. Many of my friends who don't ride regularly remark that a 3-speed internal gear hub is the easiest thing to ride. Not only are the shifters indexed, but many people are uneasy when shifting cheap derailleur gears because it sounds and feels wrong. Crunch crunch! They're also not used to downshifting before coming to a stop. Internal hubs can be shifted at a stop. Sports roadsters are good loaner bikes because of their all-rounder capabilities, and also because they do not need any special care, nor are they usually particularly valuable (although I do cherish them). If someone needs to borrow a bike to do ... whatever with, the Sports will most likely do it well, do it comfortably, and come back the way it came. There's not much that can go wrong. And because of that, the borrower will most likely want to ride it again. I certainly did after my first ride on a Sports, as did almost all of my friends.

And what about road bikes? I like road bikes, right? Yeah, I like road bikes. I do have a couple nice ones. However, I recently retired my rusty-but-trusty '79 Ross Gran Tour and was in search for another beater road bike for the new city. Well, I already had this '69 Sports, so I gave it the Ross's drop bars, shifters, stem, and seat, as well as a super cheap 3x5 drivetrain for the hills. Another perfect combo. The Sports might be a little heavier than the Ross and it might not handle as nimbly as a road bike should, but I'm used to the way it goes. I do know that it will carry loads much more comfortably than the Ross did. It's even less attractive to thieves than the Ross was, and that's already saying a lot. There's something about old road bikes that makes people go "wow, nice" from a distance even when they're not. That isn't the case with a ratty old Raleigh Sports. Not a "real" road bike here but certainly nothing to complain about. Did you know that during the bike boom in the late '60s, some Sports frames were fitted with 5- and 10-speed drivetrains in the factory to fill the demand before the Record and Sprite came out?

I will say that the one thing about a Sports in factory trim that I could maybe complain about is the brakes, just as everyone else will. But really, it's not that bad. Alloy Sun CR-18 rims will improve braking in the wet, as will Kool Stop salmon brake pads. However, this '79 Superbe does just fine with its chrome steel rims and very cheap Dia Compe Gray Matter pads, even in the rain. Steel rims are better in dry weather than alloy rims are. Alloy rims produce a lot of dust, which ends up creating a slippery layer. In the rain, that gets washed away and the brakes are much better. On the flip side, I have been able to slide the tires on dry ground with the Superbe. In the rain, of course, steel likes to stick to water which forms a layer between the rim and the pad, similar to the way an ice cube is slippery on your hand. I don't know, something about these brake pads makes them quite alright, and I only require a slightly longer stopping distance when the wheels are wet. I'm not even worried when my steel-wheel 3-speeds have these pads.

The Raleigh Sports is a wonderful mass-produced bike that fits me perfectly right out of the box, even if that box disappeared 40+ years ago. Its enclosed gear hub with three widely-spaced ratios suits my drag-racing city-riding style perfectly, the steel frame is tough but smooth, the tires are just the perfect all-purpose width, and fenders and chain guard keep me clean. I can ride through traffic or go miles away from home knowing that my equipment will not let me down. Sure, you can get a brand new bike that does everything a Sports will do, but there's no fun in that, is there? An old Raleigh can be had for cheap and you get to put your heart into getting it up and running. I know it sounds like I abuse these bikes and I do ride hard, but I've also learned a great deal about how to rebuild them, how to maintain them, and to gather spare parts to ensure that I can enjoy their company for years to come. Some mechanics don't like to work on old English 3-speeds due to their quirks and proprietary parts, but I don't mind it at all. I have the special tools because of how many of these I've had my hands on and how many miles I put on mine. I take care of my bikes and my bikes take care of me, but frankly speaking, they still do most of the work.