One fine fall day in 1970, my father and I headed out to get my first brand new wheels. Dad’s parents came from Scotland, so he insisted on finding something British. This of course meant a longer drive to a dealer, and thus more time for me to get excited. I spent the drive thinking of the open road and the places I could go, and of how great it would be not to have to worry about those clunking noises coming from under me while struggling up a hill.
Soon enough we pulled into the alley by the dealer, got out of the Saab (anglophile or not, his own choice of car was driven by Mom’s Swedish background) and walked in. While Dad talked to the dealer, I walked around the showroom, and there it was in the corner: low, sporty, and very blue; not practical and black like what Dad had in mind. So what was the vehicle that caught my eye? An MG? A TR6? A Lotus? Well, not exactly. It was 1970, I was turning eight, and the wheels were a bicycle. The bike in question was a Raleigh Rodeo, and the dealer was Drexel Hill Cyclery, outside of Philadelphia. 44 years later, both the bike and the shop still exist and look very much like they did that September day.
Similar to the hot rods occasionally seen here on CC, the 1950s saw a huge growth in custom motorcycles, especially in California. As others did with cars, the bikers customized their Harleys and Indians; handlebars were an obvious thing to customize, resulting in the “ape hanger” handlebar.
Meanwhile, in a culture about as opposite as you can get, Persons Majestic – an American bicycle seat and accessory manufacturer – was trying to get Americans interested in playing polo … on bicycles. The owner of the company had apparently seen bicycle polo in Europe. To make it easier to control the bike (using the legs) while holding a polo mallet in one hand, they used a long narrow bike seat that had to be held up at the back by a hoop attached at the rear axle; Persons started making them for the US market.
Bicycle polo never caught on in the US, but California teens soon realized that the seat made a bike look more like a motorcycle. As their fathers did with cars and motorcycles, they modified their old bikes using the Persons polo seat and tall handlebars like those on custom motorcycles, and the high-riser bike was born.
In 1963, Schwinn released the Sting Ray, and the high riser came to the masses. It was an instant hit, and every bike manufacturer soon had their own version. Raleigh, the English manufacturer of conservative, traditional “English racing bikes” like the one my Dad wanted me to buy, came out with the Rodeo in 1966. The Rodeo had two major differences from the Sting Ray.
First was the thick, pleated, even more motorcycle-like “dragster” seat, made for Raleigh by Brooks, the premier English bicycle seat manufacturer.
The second difference was that the Rodeo had narrow 1-3/8” tires more like a racing bike (the Sting Ray had 2 ½” tires). (Apparently this difference concerned Schwinn somewhat, as they came out with the Fastback in 1967, essentially a Stingray with narrow tires. Conversely, in 1968 Raleigh released the Fireball, a Rodeo with wider tires.)
As shown in the catalog, mine has the one-year-only derailleur gears; previous years had internal hub shifting in 3-speed or the unique 3+2 five speed “twin shift” version.
The Rodeo never sold nearly as well as any Schwinn Stingray; perhaps the relative unpopularity of the Rodeo explains why my bike, purchased in late 1970, was a 1969 model. I rode the Rodeo hard for five years. It took me all over southern Chester County Pennsylvania, to my friends’ houses, to buy apples or doughnuts at Nussex Farms, and just to see what was over the next hill. In a very real way that bike cemented my love for exploration and road trips that lasts today.
In 1969 Raleigh released the more popular (and wilder) Chopper to compete with the popular Schwinn Sting Ray “Krate” versions, but in less than 10 years high-rise bikes would be all but gone, replaced by BMX bikes (which, like today’s SUVs, rarely saw the dirt they were ostensibly created for).
When I turned 13, the Rodeo was passed on to my younger sister and replaced with a brand new Raleigh Grand Prix, also from the Drexel Hill Cyclery; when she turned 13 and got her own Grand Prix, the Rodeo was hung in the garage.
We continued to go to Drexel Hill Cyclery for all our maintenance and repairs until I moved away. After my father passed away, I retrieved the Rodeo and set about getting it ready for my kids to ride. The seat had been replaced with something more feminine (and not torn) when my sister rode it, and the original pedals had been replaced replaced in the ‘70s (I rode so far I quickly wore out the bushings (not bearings!) on the originals).
Through the wonders of eBay I actually found originals of both the seat and pedals, along with the correct ribbed derailleur cable housing, tires, and brake blocks. Cleaning the chrome took a lot of elbow grease (it’s still not great), and I had a local vintage bike specialist (Jim Cunningham of CyclArt in Vista, California) straighten out the fork. (I had obviously crashed hard at least once. Apparently I was lucky that time, as I was still able to have children, despite the stylish-but-risky placement of the shift lever.) Though they didn’t appreciate it quite as much as I had hoped, my older son did ride it in our local parade a couple of times, and my younger son rode it for several months before deciding he’d rather ride his rather more modern mountain bike. But I am still very glad to have a connection to a really great part of my childhood.
That’s not quite the whole story though. I have continued to ride throughout my life. At 13, I rode the aforementioned Raleigh Grand Prix across the state of Pennsylvania, from near Philly to near Erie. Later, each fall through high school, I rode 100 miles on my birthday with the local bicycle club. Then, for graduation from college, I asked for a Cannondale touring bike (the engineer in me was fascinated with the new aluminum technology), with the plan of riding cross country (alas, unfulfilled) . Though I soon moved away from Philadelphia, somewhere I learned that one of the sons of the bike shop’s owner (who had served us back in the day) was making custom bicycles. Harry Havnoonian had attended Drexel University for mechanical engineering and used his engineering skills to make frames, initially for his brother Frank (current owner of the shop) who raced, quite successfully.
In 1995 I got a good bonus from work and decided to treat myself to a custom bike. I contacted Harry, went to his shop (then located in in south Philly) for a fitting and to pick out the components for a new HH Racing Group Professional. I was tired of the harsh ride of my Cannondale so I ordered an old-school lugged-and-brazed steel frame. (Modern carbon forks have made large-diameter aluminum frames more comfortable than my Cannondale was, but good steel frames are typically both stiff and comfortable.) Though I had initially wanted Reynolds 531 tubing, Harry suggested Vitus tubing. (Vitus is best known for their pioneering bonded aluminum frames, but they also make very light steel tubesets.)
The lugs are unique, with long points and “flying buttress” webbing, which (especially at the bottom bracket) makes the frame quite stiff and responsive but still fairly light. It has wishbone seat stays which, though common now, were unusual then, a custom HH Racing titanium seatpost, and even a painted-to-match Zefal pump. The color is almost the same blue as the Rodeo, but with a purple fade. I also spec’d all European parts – all Campagnolo, no Shimano.
One interesting feature is Harry’s signature reversed rear brake. Besides allowing the mechanic to work quickly on everything from one side (Harry was often his brother’s race mechanic), he feels it improves braking. It is still my primary ride after nearly 20 years.
Postscript: Last week I was in the Philadelphia area with my son who is (gulp) looking at colleges there. We drove back through Drexel Hill and found the shop. We parked and went in. It looks almost exactly the same now as it did in 1970, and is in fact owned by the original owner’s son Frank Havnoonian (who is himself about to retire). It is the oldest continuously operating bike shop in Delaware County, and it still sells Raleighs, as it has since Frank’s father opened the doors in 1969.
History of Raleigh muscle bikes: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/catfoodrob/choppers/history/history9.html
Retro Raleighs: http://sheldonbrown.com/retroraleighs/
High risers, now more commonly known as muscle bikes:
Pictures of an amazing variety of muscle bikes from a (now closed) museum: http://www.nemusclebikes.com/index.php
Frame building video of Harry Havnoonian: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lizwOdOEEBc