Friday, October 16, 2009

The One, True Bicycle

I hate bicycles. Not per se - I just hate all the designs now. Somehow, they just ain't...right.

Bikes all cost a fortune now, and have a million gears, and they have wires all over the place, and strangely-angled bars and freaky grips, and weird little tiny seats, and because there are so many parts, they're always breaking. Mountain bikes are fine for mountain biking, I admit; but what do you do if you just want a normal, straight-ahead bike?

Most people would say, "get a cruiser". Yes, they are somewhat close to a normal bike; the problem is that they are actually more like caricatures of a normal bike. They're usually painted some weird bright colour, often sport weird designs, they have overly large mud guards and handlebars, and a giant seat...So the whole cruiser package just screams, "Ooo, look at me, I'm doing the whole retro-cutesy thing! Woo-hoo! Here I am! Isn't this funny?!". For more modest cyclists, this just won't do. Moreover, if you buy one of those cruisers at Wal-Mart or K-Mart, they fall apart within weeks.

So what does the guy do - a guy like, say, me - who just wants a normal bike, nothing overstated, just a rock-solid, easy to use, durable bike? Well...what you do is, you look for a vintage Raleigh, and then, you get lucky.

That's what I did. I walked into the bike shop a couple of months ago to drop off, yet again, one of my kids's broken pieces of garbage, and...there it was...up on a display shelf about eight feet off the ground: a 1950's, single-speed, black Raleigh, made in England, with the original leather Brooks Brothers seat, in great condition.

Oh my God...! I was mesmerized. I felt like Jodie Foster at the end of Contact: "It'"

I'd inquired in this shop before about buying display bikes, just in case one ever came in that I wanted. The answer had always been, "they're not for sale". So I wondered to myself what I could do to make this happen...

I actually couldn't think of anything other than to shift my question from, "Are those for sale?" to "How much for that Raleigh?". So that's what I did.

And, perhaps miraculously, it worked. The guy said, "Hm, I don't know. Let me go ask".

He came back a few minutes later and said, "They'd let it go for $200".

I couldn't believe it. Two hundred bucks is only a bit more than the locks cost these days.

"Can I see it?", I said.

The guy got it down. And then, if you can believe it, he said, "It's heavy" (duh). "I can get you into one of these Fishers here for around eighteen hundred bucks. These are awesome! They're made using a new composite blah blah blah...".

I looked at the bike he was describing. Absolutely ridiculous, I thought. No challenge. No character. No vibe. No mojo. Just a weird little piece of nothing, for some weird little dude wearing a weird little spandex butt-wrap and a weird little helmet to use for his weird little fitness cycling. And way too much money.

"This thing here", he said, pointing back at the Raleigh, "you's, uh, it's can get into something way better here...that Trek over there is on sale. It's only $3599 now...".

I didn't want to blow the deal by popping off, so I just asked if I could take the Raleigh out for a spin.

If you have never ridden a vintage Raleigh, it is hard to describe the feeling. For one thing, the front forks are positioned at a different, more out-front angle, than on bikes nowadays, so the steering, and the whole feel of the bike, are quite different. The weight of the bike (it's pure steel) seems to quickly give it a kind of momentum; and the relatively low height of the handlebars, combined with the seat, make it feel almost like you are reclining, though of course you are not.

And the brakes...they have no wires; they're all connected with rods of steel. Rad.

It took me four seconds out on the street, and I was sold.

"I'll take it", I said, coming back into the shop. The guy looked shocked. These punks have no clue, I thought.

I had them put a little leather pouch on the back of the seat, plus a trap, and a little back light; and now, riding this bad boy around Cadboro Bay has become one of the great little thrills of my life. We live close to a school, and the kids and I will sometimes just go ride around it just for the sheer joy of it, or ride down to Pepper's, the grocery store, or to the beach. It's just so much fun to ride, that it almost doesn't matter where we often, we don't go anywhere in particular at all.

We just ride.


Anonymous said...

haha I totally can relate to this bike. But you need one of those little bells to attach next to the handle bars. Then it is a true masterpiece. I hope you have a great time.

girlie said...

Yeah that bike seems like it needs a bell!

That is excellent. So glad you found that joy. Smooth move the way you changed how you framed the question to "how much?", sometimes that's all it takes. Well, that plus a little bit of magic maybe.

I have a preference for old quality over new and cheap as well.

At a time of much personal reflection, I see an interesting analogy to draw for myself using your story so I thank you for posting this.

In spirit, personally, I would most relate to the old raliegh bike as you describe it. Sometimes however in moments of fear or doubt, or perhaps because of just wanting to be seen, I might try to hide behind the loud flash of a cruiser bike package (again, as you describe it).

Its nice to be reminded that people out there still appreciate the simple things, and that all the extra bells and whistles are not only unnecessary, but are often a distraction.

Good lesson.
You are very giving :)

Jewelz said...

Your last paragraph is beautiful Tal; I needed that reminder.

rachael chatoor said...

Very nice! Reading this reminds me of the vintage Fisher Price toys I collected for my kids when they were toddlers, a lot of the toys and books I found were just like the old items I remember from my childhood. Nostalgia I guess but the kids liked them too. I don't think it would work with everything though, they probably would'nt find PONG to be an acceptable substitute for Xbox.

E said...

Very nice. No casual bike rider NEEDS the newest light-weight-alloy-composite-titanium-whatever... for many, it's purely a status thing, and a money maker for the companies. Besides, peddling a little harder, and sweating a little more builds character with each ride. That bond between man and machine continues to grow further apart. Look at cars: What used to require a mechanic's strong hands, some grunt, and grease, must now be fixed via computer diagnostics and tech-specialists...

Suzi said...

so first bike, and still my all time favourite, was a black raleigh! god, that takes me back. she was sa-weet with a capital esss. i never loved a bike like i loved her. she was strong and hard like a peasant girl and she took me everywhere and anywhere and all points in between. up and over curbs, on sidewalks, through the grass. that baby could move like the wind and mow down anything in her way. god, i loved that bike. thanks tal for a memory as solid as her frame.

Gretel Shuvzwichinstov said...

There's a bike kind of like that in my family, and it's been promised to me. My grandfather bought it in the 50's and rode it until not too many years ago, my dad got it from him a few years ago, and many years from now it'll be mine. The bicycle is not beautiful, but it's solid, one-speed, and great to ride.

Anonymous said...

Are you going to name your bike like you would a car?


JanuskieZ said...

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Suzi said...

hey jz personoid - tres crass. we're talking raleigh here!there's a time and place to make a living and nostalgia not one of them, at least in my multiverse.

Tedly3000 said...

A good bike consists of a frame, good strong wheels, and BRAKES. I am a cruiser biker, but I have all three, even though they are "cutesy", these come from a time where the Schwinn-built type of bike was the norm (exceptions to the UK-built stuff) and strong. Heavy, awesome bikes. If you are ever in Vancouver, look me up, and we'll go for a stint around the seawall or to kits or something.

Glad you found something you're happy with. Cheers.

j said...

We have 5 lovely 3-speeds, 4 are Raleigh, one a Robin Hood made by Raleigh. For more info on classic English 3-speeds check out Sheldon Brown's pages:

Marque and Sarah said...

Great blog entry. Sometimes it is the simple things of yesteryear that really make us happy. We just need to shed the programming that makes us want the newest and coolest thing.