BOAL: “English Racers” • Raleigh-oop!

After high school there was a disturbance in the force, by which I mean my motorised automobility got interrupted. One of my criteria when looking at universities had been whether they allowed first-year dormdwellers to have cars on campus. It wasn’t a make-or-breaker, but much to my parents’ annoyance it was on my list. Even though the University of Oregon was a Yes on that question (and I got in, and we liked it for a stout list of sturdy reasons) my folks wouldn’t let me take the car. We flew out to Eugene with duffel bags and suitcases—it was 1994 so that law was still in effect requiring all rentcars to be Ford Tauruses—unpacked them in my half of a glovebox-sized dorm room, drove around buying stuff we hadn’t brought, and then my folks went home.

So there I was without any wheels, and that wouldn’t do. If I couldn’t have four of them on a car—and I couldn’t—I’d settle for two on a bicycle. I knew just what kind I wanted, too: an English Racer. That’s the kind of bike my dad had when he was a kid, he’d told me, and sometime in the late ’80s or early ’90s he’d retrieved the very one he described from the furnace room of his folks’ house in Seattle and brought it, knocked down, back to Denver in a United Airlines bike box. It was a 1954 Norman (‘scuze me, Norman of England), in that kandy-apple colour created by transparent deep red over silver. Brown leather Brooks saddle well moulded to the one butt it had ever kept off the street; gold pinstripes, “Made in England” decal, a chrome front chainwheel with Norman-soldier spokes, and a three-speed arrangement I found fascinating but sort of incomprehensible. It had a trigger-shaped shifter, the position of which put the letter L, N, or H in a little round window in the chromed top plate, which also bore the highly British-sounding name of Sturmey-Archer.

The cable from this trigger ran along the bike’s top tube, over a steel roller wheel near the seatpost, and downward-rearward to enter the axle shaft. Three speeds, but just one sprocket at the back. I didn’t know how it worked, but I liked how it worked: akin to car gears. Even putting the shifter in top gear after parking the bike—good practice, I was taught, so the system wouldn’t be unnecessarily under tension—was sort of like shifting into Park. And there was none of the mishegoss mishmash mess of zigzag chainlines and metal fingers shoving the chain sideways on and off multiple sprockets. Let’s just get this out the way: derailleurs are offensively clumsy, Rube Goldbergy things. I’ve never liked them and I didn’t want one—still don’t. This is not based in logic; I know they work, I just dislike them, same as my aversion to vertical-pull starters on lawnmowers.

A three-speed, then. There was a heavily advertised bike shop I think I recall being called “Campus Bicycle Shop” despite being a long bus ride away from campus. I wish this first lie had been more of a red flag for me, but it wasn’t. Yes, they had just the thing, the man said on the phone. “A 1971 Raleigh Superbee”. I bussed over the bridge and eventually arrived at the shop. There it was: a faded yellow-green Raleigh Superbe (said the bike) Superbee (said the man) with a tatty mattress saddle and some rust in the chrome, but it looked to be all there, more or less; no key for the front fork lock. When it was new, it looked much like the ’72 shown below. My options: buy it, or wait an hour and get back on the bus and still have no wheels. I bought it for too much money—I wonder how many times this guy sold that bike over the years—and set off back toward campus.

It was a difficult ride in afternoon traffic. The bike wasn’t well adjusted for me, the brakes were marginal, the saddle was uncomfortable, and there was a weird asymmetry to the pedal effort: easier with the left foot than with the right. But I did make it back. First order of business (aside from, um, classes and stuff) was to get it into better shape. I found the bike shop I should’ve ducked (see what I did there?) into in the first place: Blue Heron Bicycles, on 13th street just half a block from campus. They were enthusiastic British-bike experts, and they found a gritchingly long list of stuff wrong with mine. The crank arms weren’t the proper 180° apart, which explained the dissimilar left/right pedal effort. The brake caliper bolts were bent, as were the calipers themselves; the cables were seizing, and the pads were as age-hardened as the remains of the grease in the bearings throughout. The handlebar stem was bent. The wheels werent’ anywhere near true, and the tires were, ah, past due. Other than that, it was in fine shape!

Sue and her Blue Heron gang did a terrific job putting the bike in reasonable condition as affordably as possible—aided and abetted by their enormous collection of parts and parts bikes. It rode much better after their work. I started hanging out at Blue Heron in my free time, and I quickly came to see that a Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub gear is a close bicycological analogue of a Slant-6 engine (or a Torqueflite transmission, if we want to be picky about the matter), and I dug into the world of the one just as enthusiastically as I was already into the other. I got my first access to the internet, and even back then there were apposite pages to be found. I learnt an Englishman had written a whole book about the history of Sturmey Archer, and straightaway I sent for a copy.

Meanwhile, the improvements accrued on my green Superbe: Chinese-made Cheng Shin tires probably weren’t the world’s finest, but they surely improved over whatever crusty old crap went before. I put on a Brooks saddle like the one on dad’s Norman, and better pedals. A bigger rear sprocket so the gears were more like their nominal low-normal-high rather than high-higher-hellbound. New shift trigger that wasn’t worn and sloppy like the previous one. I learnt to gauge the hub’s state of lubrication by listening to it in high gear: silence meant too much oil, a metallic Clack! Clack! Clack! Clack! meant not enough, and a happy tick-tick-tick-tick was just right. I put on a big chrome Ding-Dong! bell.

I think it was one of the Blue Heronistas—Steve, probably—who alerted me to a nice matched his/hers pair of 1969 Raleigh Sportses for sale, similar to these pics. The Sports model was not quite so fancy as the Superbe, but in this case the difference wasn’t much beyond the lack of the Superbe’s fork lock. The Sportses were a very attractive bright metallic mustard yellow, and had a snazzy de luxe chain guard I kept wanting to call a “flightsweep” style, though I’m sure that wasn’t its actual name. By this time I was heavily geeked in, and so we upgraded the yellow men’s bike. Aluminum rims in the 26″ × 1⅜” (EA3) size had just become available, looking just like the chromed steel originals but much lighter, so I had Blue Heron build me a set. The twist-grip shifter went away in favour of a trigger, and I swapped on the Brooks saddle from the green ’71.

Oi presto: a hot-rod Raleigh that was an utter joy to ride: geared just right, and the alloy rims made a giant improvement in both acceleration and deceleration. Don’t look now, but chromed steel is a thoroughly rotten choice for a brake friction surface. It’s (just) okeh when dry, but the slightest bit of moisture means applying the brakes does nothing except perhaps make rude noises, which at least might help warn people to give way. It stands to reason, if you think about it: just as the Finns and Swedes make excellent winter tires because they have long, severe winter, the English made bicycle brakes that quit when wet because of that country’s notoriously arid climate. Ahem.

In late 1995 my older sister was working in London, and somehow or other I put together a trip to visit her over Winter break from school. I took the train from London to Nottingham, where I had the great privilege to tour the Sturmey-Archer and Raleigh works. I was welcomed very kindly by a Mr. Cullingsworth at Raleigh, who was quite elderly; he was apologetic that they weren’t making exactly the sort of bike I was so keen about, and he loaded me down with a heap of terrific loot: a big double-handful of assorted old-stock decals and a green Raleigh necktie, all of which I still have. He showed me the ingenious metal tool, a hold-in-the-hand item about the size of a Zippo lighter, that was used to apply the pinstriping to the bikes, and was very sorry he couldn’t give me one to take away. From him I learnt the English say Raleigh to rhyme with alley, not folly. I knew this from John Lennon, but hadn’t connected that across to my Raleigh bicycle…habit?

Across the road, the Sturmey-Archer people just barely concealed their distaste at having some American kid come tromping through their factory. They had half a point; I was an eagerly enthusiastic 18-year-old with broken spectacles held together with tape, and aside from a factory tour I also wanted to gripe about a recent-production single-shifter 5-speed hub of theirs which had snapped its axle shaft almost immediately after installation. Not on my bike, but on one belonging to Blue Heron mechanic (and UO instructor) Louis. He’d let me try out his bike with the newly-fitted 5-speed, and the axle had gone breaking while I was halfway round the block. Groan.

They gave me for Louis a replacement set of hub guts—this particular 5-speed model was a half-baked design, one of several forces behind Sturmey’s skidding downfall—and I even got a pretty good factory tour, all things considered, though they wouldn’t let me in the torture-test room. I was amused to see the workers sitting at benches, hand-assembling three-speed hubs as had been done more or less continually since 1936. Quality control? Yeh: each worker used a particular colour of plastic spacer washer. Their powdered-metal operations were also most impressive, as was the spokemaking line. They behaved curtly toward me, but who won in the end? I got great memories; they got sacked and their factory blown up!

Because I didn’t know any better, I also made a side trip to Milton Keynes and spent some time with the proprietor of a backyard-shed business by the name of Phoenix Restorations. This thoroughly bizarre man took a fair chunk of money from me for a (photocopied) book he said he’d send and never did, and when I enquired after it some months later, he responded with a £375 invoice for “consultation”. In fact all that had gone on was I’d learnt why Milton Keynes isn’t listed in the tourist guides, and he and his wife and I had tea and biscuits while they evangelised the new universal language they had invented and were teaching to schoolchildren unlucky enough to have complicit parents. Mr. and Mrs. Cuckoo were a particular kind of, erm, eccentric that seems endemic to England, a country which was slow to remove lead from their petrol. Oh, well. I did eventually get my hands on a copy of a copy of his book, which consisted of exploded views and commentary on more or less every hub Sturmey-Archer made between the early 1900s and about 1990.

Somewhen along the line I played around a little with Sturmey 4-speed hubs; these were essentially the 3-speed with an extra-low gear added on. I found the system difficult to keep in working adjustment and eventually, just like Sturmey themselves, I gave up and went back to the 3-speed.

After the 1995-’96 school year I left the University of Oregon—supposedly in search of better academics, but I was really after better excuses. After a year’s hiatus, I wound up at the University of Michigan. I’d left Mean Mister Mustard, the hot-rodded ’69 Sports, in Denver, so after some hunting around I found a bike shop occupying the same ecological niche as Blue Heron. They had a his/hers pair of black 1950 Raleigh 3-speeds. Clearly Michigan bikes; there was quite a lot more rust than I’d seen in Oregon. Nevertheless, I bought them both, put all the best parts on the men’s, and it was my daily transport all over campus. I’d imported a case of very nice Vredestein tires with retroreflective sidewalls, so a set of those went on. I oiled the Brooks saddle thoroughly, installed special wet-weather brake pads with inlaid leather strips I’d bought on the trip to England (rusty steel is a much better braking surface than chromed), another Ding-Dong! bell, and I was all set.

There was a rat trap-style rack above the rear fender, and I put it to good use. I rode to the food co-op through January slush, loaded up the rack with a big box of fresh citrus, rode back to my building and up to my apartment, and chowed down on hold-in-the-hand sunshine. What I didn’t eat, I juiced. It was welcome bright orange relief from the wintertime drear, and when I was all done I did something very immature: I looked down from my 15th-storey window and saw a pearlescent-white Audi parked (again) in the handicap spot directly below. Defying Doug Llewelyn’s advice, I took the law into my own hands by piling up all the empty citrus half-shell rinds into a bowl and dashing them out the window, which I hurriedly closed. Then I took the lift down to ground level and casually sauntered outside for a walk. I’d scored a direct hit: the Audi was covered with orange peels, and its owner was walking in circles around it, periodically looking up in an effort to see what kind of cloud had produced this very tightly localised rainstorm of used citrus.

The rust on that ’50 Raleigh bothered me a little, but not a lot, and the bike overall had a nice amount of patina. The brass shifter plate had mellowed to a nice golden dark yellow, the red pinstripes and gold “Made in England” decals showed their age without being worn out, and there was a thick stack of years’ worth of registration decals on the back fender below the retroreflector. It made the bike homey to me and invisible to thieves—I never had any trouble finding something flashy and expensive to park it next to.

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