A Conservative Commuter's Recycled Raleigh

Tom BowdenTom Bowden is a bike commuter from Richmond VA, a “suit” – a corporate lawyer with an MBA, and a conservative – 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 don’t know how long it’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 gentleman’s tradition, but I just couldn’t see springing for that kind of money.

Raleigh SpriteFortunately, though, here in Richmond (cycling’s best kept secret), we have some great neighborhood bike shops. A couple of them are “recycling” 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. It’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. “Dude– wanna to buy a bike?”

I looked them over and thought to myself, “Sure–-in your dreams!” But as I looked past them and saw the goods, I quickly changed my mind.

Raleigh SpriteA brown Raleigh Sprite! It was a mess. Something didn’t look quite right about the front wheel, the brake cables hung loose, no front derailleur, and it was all scratched up–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 didn’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 Mayo’s Island in the middle of the James River.

“How much?” I said, as nonchalantly as I could (a good negotiator always makes the other guy go first).


“How about $10?”


I rolled it across the street and put it into the back of the Escape.

Driving home I worried: “What have I done! How am I going to explain this to Constance?” (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)

Raleigh Sprite

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 didn’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.

Raleigh SpriteI 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 I’ve been looking for! I ducked into the shop and asked Evan, the owner, “Hey, what’s the deal with the Raleigh?”

“I don’t know. Somebody just left it there a little while ago.”

“What are you going to do with it?” I asked as we both stared at it.

He rubbed his chin, thought for a second, and said “I don’t want to mess with it. You can have it.”

Raleigh SpriteNeedless to say, I didn’t haggle. It was in the car and home on my work stand faster than you can say “Raleigh – The All Steel Bicycle.”

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.

Raleigh SpriteOnce 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, “And Bob’s your uncle!”

Riding the Raleigh has completely changed my approach to commuting. I’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, I’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.


Brompton and Raleigh Sprite
CbB Editor Ted (L) on a Brompton and Tom Bowden (R) on his Raleigh Sprite | Photo: Streetfilms

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21 thoughts on “A Conservative Commuter's Recycled Raleigh”

  1. Greg says:

    Great story. I love stories of Bikes being redeemed and then put to good use.

  2. Ted Johnson says:

    Tom: When I was in Cameroon (the English-speaking part), the locally available bikes looked like this one.

    At the time, I thought they looked really low-quality. I never rode one.

    Now I’m wondering if they were from Raleigh’s factory in Nigeria.

    Fodder for a future post…

  3. Rhonda says:

    What brand is your rear rack?

  4. Tom Bowden says:

    I don’t recall, but I will look at it tomorrow and let you know. It’s nothing fancy, that’s for sure.

  5. Beth says:

    Great story! I’m jealous of your new wheels 🙂

  6. Matt says:

    How do you find riding to work with a suit? I’m a law student and I am always worried that I’ll have to give up bicycle commuting once I land a job because I just can’t see how to keep my suit clean along the way. Do your suit pants wear out quicker because of the wear and tear of riding?

  7. BluesCat says:

    I especially like that big bulb horn, Tom.

    The “goose with a head cold” sound of those always makes me grin.

  8. Thomas Bowden says:


    It’s a company or brand called Eleven81, or at least that is what is stamped on the top. I got it at an LBS in Richmond. Seems strong enough so far, but I don’t load it very heavily.

  9. Thomas Bowden says:

    Matt – I don’t usually ride in my suit. I keep clothes at my office. There are nearby dry cleaners, and we have a shower in the office, with a YMCA across the street. Through the winter, I found that by riding at an easy pace, I didn’t sweat much, so i wear older wool pants, including some I got a Junior League thrift shop. Ditto on the sport coat. I can change to something nicer if needed, but sometimes I do not. I like the fact that when I arrive at the office, even if I plan to change, I don’t look like I just finished a triathlon. Sometimes though I may resemble a bike messenger more than a lawyer.

    As for increased wear, it may be too early to tell, but I don’t think it’s a big issue. You might think about having your suit pants lined around the crotch and seat, if they are not already. Also, I really think the Brooks saddle, with its slippery surface, will minimize wear.

    So depending on how far you commute and what kind of storage or facilities you have at your office, you may plan on changing regularly, riding slower, or some combination.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Dang. Someone ought to nominate your law firm to be recognized by LAB as a Bike Friendly Business.

  10. Tom Bowden says:

    Ted – I agree, but I’d like to see the firm adopt a ComMuter credit policy first, but that probably won’t happen because no one but me would give up the parking benefit. I even broke down and took it because when I do need to drive, it’s more convenient to have a parking pass. Maybe we should get Rep Blumenaur to amend the commuter credit rules to allow the credit even if you have parking. It’s ironic,but maybe more people would ride if they didn’t have to make an all or nothing choice.

  11. Rhonda says:

    Thank you for looking and your reply.

  12. Marty Mathis says:

    Hey Tom,
    Another great article. Your bike looks great. I also commute by bike and have to wear a suit. And like you, I keep some clothes at work and shower at my club across the street. There’s nothing like a little crisp morning ride to work to set the right tone for the day.

  13. Tom, this article reminded me of my dad’s vintage Raleigh. When I was a kid I have fond memories of daddy taking me around with me sitting on the bar in front of the seat.

  14. Tom Bowden says:

    Dear Serviced apartment at Goa – Likewise, my memories of my Uncle Frank Bowden’s DL-1 (with the rod brakes and the fully enclosed chain) are the origin of my desire for a “Gentleman’s Commuter.” I actually owned one briefly in the late 80’s, actually found it left on the curb with a bunch of rubbish to be collected and disposed of. I saved that one too, but it was really too big a frame, and my wife won that argument (about whether it was worth keeping).
    I find it an interesting coincidence that my earliest memories of the Raleigh bicycle are connected with my Uncle Frank Bowden, as it was Sir Frank Bowden who is credited with founding Raleigh Bicycles (actually, he acquired a small shop and turned it into Raleigh). He is also (erroneously, I think) credited with invention of the “Bowden Cable” which we know as the modern brake cable. In fact, it was another Bowden, a Scotsman by the name of Ernest Monnington Bowden, who held the patent. He later sold it to Sir Frank, who was among the first to introduce cable activated brakes on bicycles. I wish I could say that I am related to or directly descended from these icons of cycling history, but it seems unlikely, or at least it would be a very distant relationship. One of these days though, I’m going to visit Nottingham and see if I can at least get a free pint out of it.

  15. Tom Bowden says:

    Oops – E.M. Bowden was an Irishman, not a Scot. I’m sure I have mortally offended both nations with my error.

  16. Salvador Gonzalez says:

    Hey Tom, just wondering…

    I have my dad’s old Raleigh Sprite (which looks IDENTICAL to the one in your pictures, by the way, minus the fresh look haha) and it needs new tires.
    Needless to say, it’s very old and the original tires are crumbling and cracking. Would you happen to know of a place where I might be able to buy the correct type for my bike? I’m living in florida, so maybe a website would be the best bet.


  17. Tom Bowden says:

    Salvador – Let me check and see what I can find. I got them at a local bike shop. They are Kendas. Kenda is a big manufacturer of bike tires these days so I’m sure you can find them somewhere.

  18. Charlie Eck says:

    I love to hear about the old Nottingham bikes being revived and put back on the road!
    I have an early ’70s Hercules that I was riding last year, but since I was 12 when my dad gave it to me, the frame is too small for comfort. I’d love to find a Raleigh or other classic roadster or touring frame to build up for my commute. (6.5 miles one way.) I picture a Sturmey Dynohub and 5 speed, hub brakes, full fenders and chain guard, and a Brooks saddle.

  19. Charlie Eck says:

    BTW, your rack looks like the one I have on my current commuter, a reworked Pannonia Centrum.
    I bought my rack from Sports Authority about a year ago, I’m not sure of the maker. It’s pretty sturdy, I’ve had over 50 pounds of groceries on mine.

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