Monday, March 2, 2009

The Joy of the Roadster

Lately the bike I have been riding most is the Raleigh Roadster shown in the photo at the top of my blog. I have several bikes, all of which weigh less than this one and would appear to be more sophisticated and desirable, so why am I riding this one? Occasionally I make an excuse: "it was the one closest to the door." However, that's not the only reason. It is surprisingly pleasant to ride, as two Roadster owners I know, who also own bike shops and have plenty of riding options, have attested. 
The first thing you notice is that it is very long. If toe overlap is a problem for you, get one of these--Bozo the Clown wouldn't have toe overlap on this thing. Roadsters typically have very low angles and long wheelbases. 
Then you get on, and if you are my height, you notice it is tall. Men's Roadster frames only come in two sizes, 22-inch and 24-inch, and sitting on 28 inch wheels, even that 22-inch frame has a top tube so high that--well, let me just say I don't want to come off that seat in a hurry. I can barely stand over it. However, this has given me new insight into the point of view expressed by Grant Peterson of Rivendell regarding frame sizing--that most people ride bikes too small for them. Back in the 70s, I was taught the opposite--that most people tended to buy bikes that were too big and would be better off to ride something at the small end of their range. After riding this barge for a while, all my other bikes seem too little. 
Then I push off, and the first thing I noticed was how easily it balances. By the way, this is so whether you do a rolling start and swing a leg over, or get on first and start pedaling. It barely needs to be rolling to balance. This is practical, given its intended use as a utility bike for people who were not "serious" cyclists and likely to be riding in "normal" clothes. 
Once rolling, I notice a variety of noises. Stuff rattles, fender stays rub tires (no matter how many times I adjust them), the Sturmey Archer hub makes its distinctive ticks. If I go over a bump or release the brakes, the bell rings (I put a large, appropriate-looking bell on it). The brakes squeal a bit, and if the wheels are not perfectly round (and what wheels are?) the brake blocks thump when you stop. 
And how about those brakes? I am rather partial to the rod-operated brakes on these bikes--perhaps because they remind me of the three Model A Fords I've owned (including eight years as my primary car, 1971-78). You can read in many places that steel rims are inferior to alloy for braking, especially when wet. I can vouch for this--one wet day I nearly took a header off a 5 foot drop because I waited too long to brake. But that's the secret--don't wait too long--and if the rims are wet, applying the brakes early dries them off. It is, indeed, a lot like driving a vintage car. As for the friction of steel versus alloy--first of all, the steel rims are chromed (until it wears off), which is slipperier than aluminum, and aluminum itself seems to have a "stickiness" to it that steel doesn't have. Then the brake blocks are simply black rubber--no fancy red stuff here--and may well be dried out if the bike has been sitting unused--I detected some improvement after a few rides, perhaps because I wore through the dry top layer. And it might simply need new blocks. My experience riding it regularly is that the brakes work well enough, and indeed can lock up a wheel. They need to be in good condition and properly adjusted--don't blame the design when the problem is maintenance. Again, having done much of my learning in the 70s, I do not expect the kind of stopping power that you get with present-day brakes. Nor is it necessarily desirable, in paved-surface riding, to lock up wheels, which will certainly cause you to skid and probably fall. Admittedly, to slam into something because you couldn't stop is embarrassing or worse. But should you be going too fast to stop on two wheels, any more than on four? 
These bikes are geared what would be considered very high today. Yet they retained the same gearing throughout their long production run (which, if you count the copies of them still being produced in Asia, is approaching 100 years). So there must be something to it. Just as I did with antique cars, I assume the people who built it knew something about it, so I try it their way first. What I find is that the bike is optimized for a slow, steady pedaling speed--just the opposite of the high cadences (70-90 rpm) I was taught were optimum. Of course, a lot of riders I see on derailleur bikes have gotten stuck in top gear and clearly don't know how to downshift, and some of them seem to think standing on the pedals is the normal way to ride, so roadster gearing should hardly bother them. I compare the Roadster to the cars of its era, most of which were similarly built to run at low engine RPMs with relatively high gearing, and do most of their driving in top gear. This was the dominant design concept for most cars from the 1880s until well into the 1950s. What I find, riding the Roadster, is that I'd like a lower gear for hills, but I can get up the hills, and everywhere else the gearing is fine. If you have very low gears, it's easy to get stuck in one, pedaling furiously and going nowhere, basely keeping the bike balanced. Unless I am crossing the Rockies, do I really need granny gears? 
This is the only bike I ride regularly that has no means of holding my foot on the pedals. I normally ride my other bikes with toe clips and straps, but no cleats. My foot is secure, but I can get my foot in and out quickly. When I tried riding my commuter bike (a 1984 Schwinn Sierra converted to look like a roadster) without foot attachment (thinking this might make more sense in urban riding), I found it tiring and insecure. I seemed to expend a lot of energy just keeping my feet on the pedals. When after a few weeks I changed to pedals with clips and straps, I noticed I made the commute in less time and with less fatigue. But I notice no such insecurity with the Roadster. It's not likely to be the rubber pedals that make the difference. I think it's the way the whole thing works. It was intended to be rideable in whatever you're wearing, and it is. 
My particular Roadster has a rear hub dated 1971, and has a simple "hockey stick" chain guard instead of a full chain case, also known as a gear case. I have a chain case for it, and one day I'll probably install it. It has a Pletchscher rack that appears to have been original equipment, although most of these came with steel racks. I found an old folding basket (slightly different from the ones made today) and put it on the right side. It has no kick stand. I added Reelights and a dynamo lighting set. Spare parts are readily available if you know where to look. Copies of the Raleigh originals are still being made in India, China and other places. The Eastman Roadster, made in India and sold in the USA by Yellow Jersey in Madison, Wisconsin, is so exact a copy that it effectively serves as a spare parts source--everything is interchangeable with the Raleighs. Several companies make tires in 28" x 1-1/2" (ISO 635mm, French 700B). 
It's utterly fearless, and hence ideal for running errands or riding in inclement weather. Last week I had so much stuff on the back rack that I could not get my leg across. So I laid the bike on the ground, put one foot in the main triangle and the other to the left of the top tube, and picked the bike up, moving my right foot outside as I did so. It occurred to me that I might not have been willing to try this with one of my more expensive bikes. But then, I wouldn't have been carrying so much on them, either. 
The nearest equivalent in the automotive world is my 1988 Volvo 240 wagon--another dreadnought of a vehicle, which, if it were human, is now old enough to drink. Like the Roadster, it makes a stately progress through the world, passed by all the faster, sleeker, more stylish young things, but it does it for years and years. The others can win the race to the junkyard. Volvo 240s and Raleigh Roadsters will gladly lose that particular competition. 

1 comment:

  1. Nice article. Didn't know about the Eastman bicycles. Was wondering about them relative to the Flying Pigeon brand that has seen a resurgence in the states (fit and finish is beautiful).

    btw, Schwalbe sells 4 different tires for the 28" size, including the Delta Cruiser in the Creme color. Or is that colour?