Tom Bowden is a bike commuter from Richmond VA, a â€œsuitâ€ – a corporate lawyer with an MBA, and a conservative â€“ You betcha! He is also a board member of BikeWalk Virginia, a pro cycling and pedestrian group in Virginia that raises raises money to promote cycling, walking and active lifestyles. Tom’s lawyerly blogging can be found at http://vabizlawyers.com/author/tbowden/
I donâ€™t know how long itâ€™s been, but it seems like I have always wanted a classic Raleigh for a commuter bike.
I scanned ads for a classic DL-1, with the rod brakes and fully enclosed chain. Finding none, I even thought about settling for a Flying Pigeon or one of those knock-offs from India. I looked at the Pashley bikes; they make some beautiful bikes in the English gentlemanâ€™s tradition, but I just couldnâ€™t see springing for that kind of money.
Fortunately, though, here in Richmond (cyclingâ€™s best kept secret), we have some great neighborhood bike shops. A couple of them are “recyclingâ€ shops, catering to students and city residents on a budget. I make a point of patronizing them–not out of civic duty or anything like that. Itâ€™s just that I am, well… cheap.
Late last summer, as I stepped out of one of the local shops. A couple of young entrepreneurial types approached me with a proposition. â€œDudeâ€“ wanna to buy a bike?â€
I looked them over and thought to myself, â€œSureâ€“-in your dreams!â€ But as I looked past them and saw the goods, I quickly changed my mind.
A brown Raleigh Sprite! It was a mess. Something didnâ€™t look quite right about the front wheel, the brake cables hung loose, no front derailleur, and it was all scratched upâ€“even for a 30-plus-year-old bike.
But it spoke to me, like a stray at the pound. Not the cute puppy that everybody falls in love with; more like the scruffy old mutt curled up in the back of the cage, resigned to her fate.
This bike looked me straight in the eye and it was clear that I was its last hope. If I didnâ€™t make a fast deal with these aspiring day-traders, it would soon be piled into a pickup between old washing machines, swing sets, and fence posts, with a ripped blue tarp flapping loudly as the truck bounced its way to the metal recycling depot on Mayoâ€™s Island in the middle of the James River.
â€œHow much?â€ I said, as nonchalantly as I could (a good negotiator always makes the other guy go first).
â€œHow about $10?â€
I rolled it across the street and put it into the back of the Escape.
Driving home I worried: â€œWhat have I done! How am I going to explain this to Constance?â€ (My long-suffering wife frequently reminds me that when I go to the dump, the object is to come back with less in the car than I left with)
Fortunately, I keep a lot of miscellaneous parts scattered throughout the house. (Constance may try from time to time to sneak them into the trash bin while I’m at work, but she’ll never find them all).
I got it on the road pretty quickly. Just one problem: The front end didnâ€™t just look a little off, it was way off–bent to the side. Thus began The Great Fork Scavenger Hunt.
After about a month, I found a Peugeot that worked reasonably well. And finally I could ride without having to sit a little to the side and keep pressure on the left handlebar.
I was content. Sort of.
What happened next was truly bizarre. As I passed the same shop on my Saturday errands, I saw, leaning up against the front window, what appeared to be another brown Raleigh Sprite! But this one was a 23-inch frame. Much more to my liking than the first, a 21.
I stopped and looked more closely. It was indeed another brown Sprite, in exactly the same spot where I bought the first. No crank arm on the left side, funky seat, bars flopping loose, but it was pretty much all there. And the fork looked straight!
I figured, worst case, this is the fork Iâ€™ve been looking for! I ducked into the shop and asked Evan, the owner, â€œHey, whatâ€™s the deal with the Raleigh?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know. Somebody just left it there a little while ago.â€
â€œWhat are you going to do with it?â€ I asked as we both stared at it.
He rubbed his chin, thought for a second, and said â€œI donâ€™t want to mess with it. You can have it.â€
Needless to say, I didnâ€™t haggle. It was in the car and home on my work stand faster than you can say â€œRaleigh â€“ The All Steel Bicycle.â€
Soon I learned why Evan was so quick to hand it over. It turns out that back when Raleigh was the largest bike manufacturer in the world, they did everything their own way, which is to say, almost all the threadings are different from all the other manufacturers. They are not Italian, French, or even English threads. They are Raleigh threads, strategically designed to be incompatible with all other makers.
But I worked my way through it. A few more trips to my local sources for a crank arm here, some cotter pins there, and it was coming together.
Once I had it mechanically sound, it was time to dress it up a little. Some shiny new plastic/aluminum fenders did wonders. Faux leather grips for the bars (from WalMart!) were a near perfect match for a nearly new honey brown Brooks B-17 saddle–taken from my Schwinn Traveller where it never looked 100% at home anyway.
Finally, I swapped out the forged steel John Bull side-pull brakes for some classic Weinmann center-pulls, and even replaced the original steel bars with (gasp) aluminum.
My work was done, or, as they might say in Nottingham, â€œAnd Bobâ€™s your uncle!â€
Riding the Raleigh has completely changed my approach to commuting. Iâ€™ve added about 10 or 15 minutes to my commute with the slow and steady pace and upright position that seems so natural on the Raleigh. Visibility is fantastic! The Brooks is breaking in nicely. It seems tailor-made to go with the heavy wool pants that keep me so warm on even the coldest days.
Lately, Iâ€™ve been thinking maybe I should ride the other bikes a little once in a while. But somehow I can’t quite picture the tweed jacket with my Litespeed with its cow horn bars and the Speedplay pedals.