A Tale of Two Three Speeds

Last fall I relocated our offices to the Laurelhurst neighborhood in Northeast Portland.  Now, I commute to work in a lovely and historic part of Portland’s awesome east side, leaving behind the stressful and gnarly traffic surrounding our old Victorian on SW 5th near PSU.  I usually commute on one of my daily riders, but also keep extra bikes on hand at the office for errands and lunchtime rides through the neighborhood, including my two favorite 3 speeds:  a 1950 Raleigh Sports Tourist, and a 1947 Peugeot PH55.  I restored both bikes many years ago, but the Peugeot was a more involved process because many of its original parts were missing.

The restoration process involved sourcing a vintage 650b wheelset and fenders, as well as handlebars, stem, brake levers, saddle, dynamo, lamps, and saddle.

My goal was to come as close as possible to the bike featured in this 1947 Peugeot catalog, and to err on the higher quality side when possible.

I think I achieved this objective and am happy with the way the build came together.  The NOS Ducel dynamo lights work well without excessive drag.  The bike is much lighter than its Raleigh counterpart, weighing in at a respectable 28 lbs. compared with the Raleigh’s 45 lb. bulk.  This is because the tubing is high quality Rubis, and the bike features many alloy components.

The Peugeot’s drive train is all original, with a 19-24 “Twister” freewheel, Simplex TDF rear derailleur and Peugeot 46T crankset.  That puts the gear inch range, with its 650b wheel size, at 50 to 63.  Very narrow and with no low or high gears.  The Simplex TDF shifts just fine, but needs a bit of correction both shifting up and down the gear range.

The Raleigh’s drive train is, of course, a Sturmey Archer internally geared hub, mated to a 46T Raleigh crankset, which is fully enclosed in its full length chain guard.  The AW hub with its 17T cog gives a gear inch range of 52 – 93.  A much wider range than the Peugeot, but mostly very high, especially given its bulk.

The Raleigh has steel rims, as compared to the Peugeot’s lightweight alloy Super Champion rims.  Both wheel sizes are similar, and both bikes feature full length fenders.  The Raleigh’s are steel (of course!) and somewhat mangled from years of use, and the Peugeot’s are lighter weight alloy.  All of these elements contribute to the significant weight difference between the two bikes.

1950 Raleigh Sports Tourist

So, what bike wins my vote?  Believe it or not, it’s the Raleigh.  While it is MUCH more challenging to conquer hills on the Raleigh, the comfort and quality of this machine is no match for its highly competent counterpart.  The bike kind of self-propels once it gets going, due to the inertia of the heavy wheels.  And, the convenience of shifting whether stopped or not adds to this bike’s appeal.  It’s the bike I most often select for neighborhood jaunts, even though I may have to stand up and stomp to get it up the hills.  It’s a pleasure to ride and gives me a great workout.  And, it’s a reminder of what it’s like to experience the quality and craftsmanship of this era’s legendary Raleigh marque.

Commuting on a Vintage Bicycle

French 1939 Sironval Recumbent. A 24 inch wheel at the rear and a 22 inch wheel in front.

One of the biggest obstacles to attracting new cyclists is the fear of maintenance.  Bicycles are time consuming, messy, and non-intuitive. That’s a (fun, IMHO!) fact.  It’s so much easier to drive your car, order Lyft or take public transportation, and avoid the challenges involved in becoming a commuter cyclist – right?

Meanwhile, certain members of the retail cycling industry seem to lack the will or interest in helping to educate new cyclists on the many, and rewarding maintenance tasks which routine cycling requires.  Instead, the marketing focus is on overcoming these obstacles with technology – such as belt drives, e-bikes, index shifting, bike share, and the like.  And for new and returning cyclists it can feel like the retail industry’s focus is on intimidating and humiliating newbies, catering only to elite competitive cyclists and wannabes.

While I believe new technologies are critical to the future success of the cycling industry, I don’t necessarily believe that they are critical to the success of the cyclists themselves.

Lightweight box style rims, components drilled to save weight, and custom racks and fenders are not necessarily something the regular cycling commuter wants to think about. For a commuting cyclist, safety, efficiency and reliability are the most important elements in determining whether to ride, and what bicycle to ride.

While new bicycles and e-bikes can address some of the needs of new cycling commuters, vintage bicycles, modified as needed, can actually provide much greater utility for a new or returning commuting cyclist.

Over the last 25 year I have cycled regularly from my current home to downtown Portland where I work.  That ride offers steep hills, sharp turns, and plenty of discouraging encounters with car drivers.  Often in the mornings when I ride over Mt. Tabor, I have spotted the same cyclist – someone about my age, riding a fairly upright bike.  We have nodded and waved to each other over the decades.  Recently, I noticed this cyclist was ascending the hill I was descending with quite a bit of speed.  When I passed her, I realized she was now riding an e-bike, and that made me smile.  Yes, keep riding, and find the right bike to do it with.

But what is that bike?  I think the first thing to look at is the drive train – which involves choosing among internal hub gears, single speed, or derailleur options.  Chain driven derailleur-geared bikes offer the greatest range of gears as well as the greatest efficiency.  Derailleur equipped bikes are also the most time consuming and messy when it comes to routine maintenance.  These are also the most commonly found vintage bicycles. They are generally very reliable, and are the easiest to learn to work on yourself.  Their components have not been designed for built in obsolescence.

A cyclist in a relatively flat environment can instead choose a single speed or internally geared option, and that will mean very little routine maintenance for the rider, but potentially expensive service costs should the internal hub fail.  Vintage Sturmey Archer hubs are extremely reliable, and with only routine lubrication can last many decades without the need for an overhaul.  So, a good choice for commuter cycling in a relatively flat environment would be a pre-1970 bicycle with a Sturmey Archer internally geared hub.

I would like to make the case for the derailleur geared bicycle as the most desirable choice for new commuting cyclists.

You can achieve, by far, the greatest gearing range and the most efficiency by using a front and rear derailleur with at least two rings up front and 6 or more cogs in the back.

But, I have often seen neglected triple crank bikes, with teeth wear only on the middle chain ring.  Their riders decided not to figure out how to shift or trim out the front derailleur, and instead used only the middle ring.  That is something to take note of.

The other reason vintage bicycles are so much more suited to new and returning cyclists is their steel frames, usually lugged, and often quite beautiful.  It is a matter of pride to venture out on one’s well-designed, comfortable, and eye-catching lugged steel frame and ride among the masses of heavy, stiff, uncomfortable aluminum frames, or those of questionable reliability such as carbon fiber.

1950 Raleigh Sports Tourist – 45 lbs of Riding Pleasure

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I recently cycled home from work on my 1950 Raleigh Sports Tourist.  The bike had been sitting at my office for a while.  One of the reasons I haven’t ridden it with greater frequency is that the full chain guard (“gearcase” for those who speak British) and the drive side crank arm contact each other with an annoying noise with each pedal stroke.  Previously, I had tried to solve this problem by mashing various parts of the gearcase with my hands to see if I could force it into a different position that would provide clearance for the crank arm.

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As I was noisily making my way up Clinton Street, I came upon a rider on a Mercian.  We chatted for a while and I learned he was riding an early 80’s model that a friend had given him as a frame (nice gift!), which he then built up.  That’s only the 2nd Mercian I have spotted in Pdx, aside from my own.  Interestingly, because my Raleigh is geared so high, I ended up surging past him in my big (but lowest) 52 gear inch as we began to climb the steeper hills, and so we parted company.

When I arrived home, sans heart attack, I put the bike into the shop stand, determined to solve the gearcase/crank arm clearance problem.  The first thing I did was to mark the position of the axle in the dropout and the adjuster on the shifter cable.  This way, I could restore the wheel and cable back to their current position – something which took a while to perfect so that the hub shifts correctly.

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One thing I’ve gotten questions about before is how to get the gearcase off the bike.  There are two pieces at the back of the gearcase which can be removed by unscrewing the bolts which attach them to the main part of the gearcase.  After that, there is a bracket which attaches the gearcase to the chainstay, plus a bolt which holds the front part of the gearcase, and attaches near the bottom bracket.  Once those are removed, then it’s a matter of re-positioning the gearcase and sliding the opening at the back through the narrowest part of the drop out.  The photos above show how this is done.

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Once I had the gearcase off, I took my mallet to it and tried straightening it out a bit.  Then, I tried various methods of altering the position of the gearcase once I re-mounted it to the frame, but nothing worked.

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Finally, I took my files and filed away a small section of the metal on the inside of the crank arm, to provide more clearance.  I didn’t want to take a lot of material off.  But with these solid steel crank arms, I probably have nothing to worry about.  Ultimately, I was successful in adjusting the gearcase cover to eliminate any contact with the crank arm.

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Since I had the pedals off, I thought it might be time to overhaul them. Their last overhaul was 8 years ago.  Sure enough, the grease was pretty dirty.  Fortunately, the brilliant design of the cone and lock washer made the process incredibly quick and easy.  The tabs on the back of the cone make it simple to adjust the cone to perfection.  Once adjusted, the cone’s tabs lock into position with the grooves on the lock washer.  If your adjustment needs a tweak or two, just loosen the nut and move the cone one notch at a time.  If only all pedals were designed this way!

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I headed out on the bike today and thoroughly enjoyed not only the new, silent drive train, but the amazing ride quality of this bike.  The steel frame and steel wheels absorb road shock very well, so that even the upright riding position does not transmit pain waves to your spine.  With the inertia of the heavy steel wheels, the bike really rolls once it gets going.  In my high gear, I have even passed a carbon fiber bicycle or two, much to their riders’ surprise.  The components, the paint, and the attention to detail in every aspect of how this bike was manufactured puts modern quality control to shame.

The bike responds to pedal strokes and never feels mushy or bogged down.  The geometry is perfect for the type of bike it is, and it does not wobble at slow speeds and provides for fun descents and excellent cornering at high speeds.  In fact, the ride quality of this bike is a sharp contrast to another 45 lb. machine I recently rode – the SoBi bicycles which are part of Pdx’s new Biketown bike share program.  Those bikes are made with large diameter aluminum tubing, and also feature an upright riding position, although much more extreme than that of the Raleigh.  The stiff aluminum frames, bad geometry and questionable component quality provide for a really unpleasant riding experience.

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It would be fun to see a bike share program which used quality vintage bicycles and de-emphasized modern technology (which serves as a barrier to those who cannot afford the latest internet device) as a way to introduce new riders to urban commuting. There are so many quality vintage bicycles out there. Find one and ride it!