Saturday, July 31, 2010

Two Boston Beauties: Rare Vintage Raleighs

Today I visited the bicycle collector Neal Lerner and photographed some of his beautiful bikes. I am posting pictures of these two in particular - not only because they are rare and stunning, but because the owner is offering them for sale [note: both bicycles are now sold]. Here is more about the bicycles, for your viewing pleasure and for longevity:

The loop-frame bicycle is a 1938 Raleigh Lady's Tourist. This model was the predecessor to the DL-1.  The frame is 22" with 28" wheels. It is a similar bicycle to the one I wrote about here; only this one is in ridable condition.

The main difference between the earlier Tourist and the later DL-1, is that the older bicycles are not quite as long - meaning that there is less distance between the saddle and handlebars. At the same time, they look "taller" than the DL-1, because the head tube extends quite a bit higher. Another difference, is that the older Tourists have a lugged connector between the downtube and the "loop" top tube which is absent from the later DL-1 model.

The handlebars on these older models are quite short and narrow - which makes sense, because of how closely the rider is seated to the bars.

The bicycle is in ridable condition and rolls surprisingly nicely (I've ridden it for a short distance).  The shifting needs to be worked on (the gears slip) and the rod brakes need to be adjusted, but it is a stable and buttery-smooth ride. Sadly, there is a piece missing from the rear of the chaincase; it is so difficult to find these chaincases intact. The shifter, saddle and grips are replacements and are not original to the 1938 model.

Being from the WWII period, this bicycle has some "blackout" components - including the headbadge.

The second bicycle in the pictures is one I'd never heard of before: It is a 1948 Raleigh Dawn Tourist. The Dawn Tourist was apparently the predecessor to the Sports. It was lighter and more agile than the original Tourist, and featured a straight step-through frame instead of a loop frame. The frame size of this bike is 21" with 26" wheels.

Unlike the later Sports, the Dawn had rod brakes, just like the Tourist did. However, its handlebars were wider and had considerably more "sweep".

The seat-cluster of the Dawn looks just like that of the later Sports (whereas the seat clusters of the original Tourist and the later DL-1 were bolted together).

The rear fender with original glass reflector are in very clean condition on this bicycle. These reflectors are highly thought after (both of the bicycles pictured have them).

The middle bit is missing from the original full chaincase, but otherwise it is intact.

"The all-steel bicycle" is written on the downtube. The pain on this bicycle is in very nice, even glossy, condition throughout.

It is rare to see even one of these bicycles "in the wild", let alone two - so I felt privileged to take these pictures before these beauties go to new homes. Hope you enjoyed the show and tell.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Excess in the Bicycle Industry: Explanations and Implications

[Aurumania crystal and gold track bike, image via forbes.com]

A couple of weeks ago, Forbes published an article on "The World's Most Expensive Bikes".  Readers have been sending me links to this article asking what I think, until finally I gave in and read it. 

[Golden Brompton, image via forbes.com]

Glancing over the pictures, I noticed a strong trend for gold plating, crystals and diamonds - the usual when it comes to "luxury bikes". It made me wonder how much of these bicycles' price was due to ride quality (can they even be ridden?) and how much was due to the decorative elements. 

[KGS custom Parlee bicycle, image via forbes.com]

I was also surprised to see that I actually know someone whose bicycle is on the Forbes list (not my cup of tea, this bike, but I understand that some people like to race on such things).  Kevin Saunders of KGS Bikes is an acquaintance (now also a sponsor, but initially an acquaintance) and the proprietor of a custom bicycle shop in San Antonio, Texas specialising in roadbikes that promise the "perfect fit." While admittedly high end, I did not think that most KGS bikes fetched the kinds of prices featured in Forbes. So I asked Kevin about it. His answers were pretty straightforward, and I include them here in response to this discussion on Chic Cyclist (see the comments section):
Velouria: Kevin, how do you justify your $32,000 bicycle that was featured on the Forbes list?
Kevin Saunders: The bicycles in that price range that we have created were commissioned as one-offs. (They were also done prior to the Recession that started in 2008.) A price of around $18.000-20,000 is where we find the line between premium (where more expensive components actually perform better) and luxury (where more expensive components may have a special finish or paint job but do not actually perform better). 
V: So special paint can cost over $10,000?...
KS: Yes. Some fringe exotic components and one of a kind paint jobs (that includes not only the frame but all the components as well) can mean the difference between a $22,000 and a $32,000 bike. Our price for this is based on actual cost plus a reasonable markup.
V: And performance-wise, would a client even notice the ride quality difference between, say, a $10,000 bike, a $20,000 bike, and a $32,000 KGS bike?
KS: Performance wise, the difference between a $10,000 and a $20,000 bike is significant. There is almost no performance improvement to get to the next level (up to $32,000 or more). The only value above the $22,000 price point  is artistic.
So, if I understand this correctly, even if you try to build a top of the line bicycle for competitive road cycling with full custom geometry and the highest performance available, the price will top out at $22,000. Anything beyond that will be mainly decorative. Keeping this in mind, consider that some of the bicycles on the Forbes list are priced at over $100,000. 

[Montante gold-plated bike, image via forbes.com]

So what are the implications of such bicycles existing?  The "designer bicycle" not only goes beyond the typical prices of custom builders, but specifically presents itself as a luxury good - incorporating costly decorative materials and accessories from haute couture houses. The "Fendi Abici Bike" I wrote about last year is one such example. There have also been similar products from Hermes and Chanel. Based on the feedback I have read about such bikes so far, cyclists in the blogging universe tend to be critical of excess in the bicycle industry. And this applies to accessories as much as to the bicycles themselves: When ecovelo wrote about a Brompton leather briefcase that retails for $600, some readers questioned that such an expensive bicycle accessory was allowed to exist.

[Formigli track bike, image via KGS Bikes]

My view however, is that the trend for "luxury bicycles" is great. Bring on the gold-plated framesets, the diamond-encrusted derailleurs, and the haute couture panniers! Even though I would not buy any of it, I am glad it is there. The trend for cycling-related luxury goods is a positive one, because it successfully combats that stereotype we all know: The stereotype of cycling being something people do because they either cannot afford a car, or are part of some weird fringe subculture. Rather than making people feel guilty about materialism - which is after all, a basic trait of human nature - this trend takes advantage of materialism to make bicycles appealing for people who otherwise would not have been drawn to them. Think about that the next time you curse that luxury car cutting into the bicycle lane. Wouldn't you rather they were riding a luxury bicycle?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Computer Games

I have never liked computer games, but with the influence of the Co-Habitant I am finally starting to get into them.

Here he is, taking a break after a particularly heated round.

What you need to play: an open road and a fast bicycle. Challenging hills can be introduced after you pass Level 1. Oh yes, and of course you'll need a computer.

After I mocked the Co-Habitant for putting one of these on his own bike, he decided that I was just jealous and got me one for Graham (my Rivendell Sam Hillborne). I reluctantly agreed to try it, and quickly grew to love it - much to my dismay, as there is really no attractive way to attach these things to a bike.

For those not familiar with it, a bicycle computer is basically a speedometer with some extra features. Mine tells me: distance covered during a trip, current speed, maximum speed during a trip, average speed, and total distance covered so far (since installing the computer). There is also a clock, which is handy since I don't wear a watch and extracting my mobile phone requires stopping the bike. If you are training yourself for touring, the bicycle computer helps you measure your progress in terms of how fast you are able to cycle. Keeping track of the distance you have covered is also useful. My top speed so far is 27.4 mph (44.1 km/h), which I reached the other day on the hills in Maine. I know that to the roadies out there, this is far from impressive. But for me, it was shocking to learn that I was capable of cycling this fast. 27.4 mph is of course a downhill speed, but on flattish ground I was consistently cycling at 16-19 mph.

The Co-Habitant is faster, so I guess he won the computer games - and probably will continue to win for a while. But who knows, maybe someday I will catch up.

The main thing that makes me lose speed, is fiddling around with my shifters. I don't shift gears on my usual rides outside Boston, so whenever we go to an area with real hills it takes me a while just to get comfortable with shifting. The Co-Habitant thinks that my friction shifters are an affectation, and if I got "brifters" (brake levers that contain indexed shifters within them) it would solve all of my problems. I feel attached to my wonderful silver bar-end shifters, but I do see his point.

For those interested in touring or in cycling for sport, the bicycle computer can be useful and fun. But beware: Once you have one, it can also get addictive! I know some people who have one on every single bicycle they own and are incapable of cycling without knowing their exact speed or distance covered.  I am not likely to suffer this fate, but I am glad to have a computer on Graham.  And a question for the randonneurs and roadies out there: What speed should I be working toward for touring and for club rides? It would be great to know where I stand.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fastrider Deluxe Shopper Pannier from Bicycle Muse

I received this Fastrider Deluxe Shopper Bicycle Pannier from Bicycle Muse (a sponsor in July-August 2010) as part of an equal value exchange. Prior to trying this bag, I was not a big fan of single panniers and have never found one that I liked. But when I received the Fastrider, I changed my mind.

Here is a front view of the pannier. You can see that it does not interfere with the lines of the bicycle, which I like very much. The setup allows me to leave the beautiful custom rack on this bike unobscured, while enjoying the benefit of a roomy container that can be attached or removed in seconds.

To my eye, this pannier has a classic, timeless look to it that will go nicely with any vintage or classic bicycle. The style may be too quaint for some, but it suits my taste perfectly. One reason I have not been able to find a pannier I like, is that they tend to be either too industrial looking, or too "girly" - in the sense that they come in bright colours and highly stylized patterns like florals or polka-dots or paisley. Now, imagine showing up to a dinner and discovering that you are wearing the exact same outfit as one of the other guests. If it's a grey suit you are both wearing, the coincidence is not even noticeable. But if you're both wearing the exact same brightly coloured print, it's embarrassing. That is more or less how I feel when it comes to bicycle accessories, which is why I like mine to be subdued. Plus, a neutrally coloured pannier will match your outfit no matter what colour it is. A pink paisley pannier will not.

The pannier material is water-resistant woven pine. The surface is tactile, yet smooth. The colour is a warm caramel (there is also a lighter colour available). Underneath the flap (which secures with velcro strips allowing for different degrees of fulness) is a zipper opening. The flap and zipper together pretty much ensure that the closure does not let in water. (These panniers are made by the Dutch company Fastrider, so I am guessing water-proofing was a top priority.)

Not sure whether my pictures portray this adequately, but this pannier is huge.  Dimensions are: 15.5" width, 14.5" height, 6.3" depth. The fabric-lined interior is enormously deep, and has what I initially thought were dividers for compartments, but are in fact stiffeners (I nonetheless use them as compartment dividers and find that they work in that capacity!). There is also a large, zippered internal pocket (large enough to fit a medium notebook and other accessories) and a smaller pocket that will fit a wallet or phone. You can see how much room is left over inside the bag after I place my Macbook Air inside it. If you are compulsive about your laptop, you will probably want to get a sleeve for it, as my makeshift "dividers" do not reach all the way to the top. That is the one drawback to the design - but then, it was meant to be a "shopper,"not an office bag. Otherwise, everything is fantastic for my purposes. This bag will easily fit my laptop, work-related documents, and a few days' worth of groceries.

The pannier attaches to a bicycle rack with a system of 3 plastic hooks on metal spring hinges. They are quick and easy to attach and remove; the process takes just a few seconds.

Here is a close-up. The middle hook curles under to firmly clasp the rack's tubing and can be adjusted to be tighter or looser. The two outside hooks act as extra weight supports. Plastic hooks are another reason I had been staying away from single panniers - they all seem to have them. But again and again I am told that these types of hooks are safe and are designed to withstand the weight. So - fine. I like this pannier so much that I am ready to believe that. (Any words of assurance or admonition?)

View from the non-pannier side. The handles flop to the sides, but they are not long enough to get stuck in the spokes, so leaving them that way is fine.

Pannier in motion. It attaches firmly to the rack, and there is no jiggling or movement, as far as I can tell.

It is pretty clear at this point that I love the pannier. Bicycle Muse offered me a choice of products, and I am glad to have selected this one. My plan now is to transfer the contents of my work-bag to the pannier, and share it between several bicycles. Of course, time will tell how the pannier will hold up, and I will update regarding durability once sufficient time passes.

edited to add: It is 6 months later, and I love the pannier. To my embarrassment, it took me a while to figure out that what I thought were dividers were in fact compartment stiffeners, and I've changed the text of the review so as not to mislead. Having gone through the rainy Autumn and part of winter with this pannier, I am pleased with how waterproof it is and how resistant to abuse. There is some minor fraying of the "wicker" near the hooks, but I think that is to be expected. I wish there were a smaller, equally classic version of a Fastrider pannier available in the US that would fit bikes with shorter chainstays.

edited to add: Over 1 year since the review, and the bag is no worse for wear. It survived a New England winter unflinchingly and the hooks are holding up fine so far. I own a couple of other panniers now, but this one is my designated "shopper."

Monday, July 26, 2010

Retrovelo Paula in the Countryside (with Her Vintage Friend)

I have written about Anna's Retrovelo Paula before, but I was not able to evaluate the ride after what was only a couple of minutes on a cold November day. This time around it was summer, and Anna and I went on a nice long trip along the Danube - she on her Retrovelo Paula and me on the Steyr Waffenrad (the bike I ride while in Vienna). Our ride was 30-miles round trip, and for a stretch of it we swapped bikes.

Here is Anna on her beautiful bike.

I must pause and mention here that she was wearing a stunning outfit taylor-made for her in India: slate blue kaftan, white trousers and white cape. It looked elegant and kept her cool on what turned out to be a very hot day.

But back to the bikes: neither the Retrovelo nor the vintage bike I was riding had a problem with the magnitude of the ride, which did include occasional (but mild) hills.

We rolled out of Vienna and passed through the beautiful countryside of Klosterneuburg, Krietzendorf, eventually stopping at a scenic spot in Greifenstein.

Here is me with the Retrovelo Paula during our trip. This dog decided to join us for a bit - no doubt because he liked the bike!

Anna's feet and sandals. My main impression of the Retrovelo Paula is that it is a comfortable ride with a feel of gliding to it. The bicycle is clearly well-made and of high quality. It rode very differently from the vintage Austrian bike I was on, but similarly to my Pashley back home (after the latest round of modifications I made to the Pashley). Prior to its latest modifications, I would say my Pashley was more sluggish than the Retrovelo Paula, but post-modifications they are about the same. One interesting point, is that I did not feel a huge difference in "cushiness" between the Delta Cruiser tires that I had been riding on my vintage bike, and the Fat Frank tires on the Retrovelo; to my surprise the ride quality was similar.

Overall I liked the Retrovelo Paula, and found its ride quality to be in the same general category as that of Pashley and Velorbis.  I think that between the three of these, preferences really depend on individual tastes more than anything else. I know of one former Pashley owner who tried the Retrovelo, liked it better, and has now gotten one (and is selling her Pashley). However, I do not feel the same, and wonder how much of the difference she felt is component and setup-related. The Retrovelo is a very pared-down bike in comparison to the Pashley, and I think the choices of tires and gearing further contribute to the sportier feel of the ride if we compare their "out of the box" set-ups - but all of that can be changed, and I feel that the basic ride quality is similar.

In terms of manufacturing quality, I would rate Retrovelo as being on par with Pashley and better than Velorbis. Aesthetically, I think the Retrovelo has hands-down the best fork-crown design and lugwork of the three, but it has a few practical drawbacks - such as a lack of chaincase and dressguard. As for weight, the Retrovelo Anna was riding felt to me as if it weighed exactly the same as my Pashley at home; it is not a light bicycle by any means. 


Other random notes... The Retrovelo has handlebars that to me feel unusually wide, a bit like cruiser bars. Some may like this, others may not. The braking system is hand-activated hub brakes. If you are a coaster brake fan keep that in mind, but I know that some dislike coaster brakes and will see this as great news. The bicycle is equipped with dynamo lighting, front and rear.

The bottom line is: the Retrovelo is an excellent modern bicycle built in the classic tradition. It is fairly fast and maneuverable, comfortable, gorgeous, and its owners love it. If it is within your budget, I doubt that you will regret choosing this bike.

But... I have yet to find a modern bike with a ride quality I like better than my vintage Raleigh DL-1 or the vintage Steyr Waffenrad I ride in Austria. I honestly wish that wasn't so, as I'd feel more comfortable riding a reliable modern bicycle than a vintage one. But it is as if the modern designs did something to the geometry of the bikes that has made them less efficient than their vintage equivalents. Maybe someday I will figure it out.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

50 Miles Without Coasting

I have ridden Marianne for about 50 miles now as a fixed gear, so I figure that I can offer my impressions without feeling that I am speaking too soon. I have taken her both on city rides in traffic and on trails (the Charles River Trail and the Minuteman Bikeway), both with the Co-Habitant and alone. And I think the fixed gear conversion was the best thing that could have happened to this bicycle.

Popular culture has created the unfortunate association between fixed gear and danger, brightly coloured track bikes, and "hipsters". But that is ridiculous. The only distinguishing feature of a fixed gear bike is that it does not coast.  You can turn your loop-frame or your beach cruiser into a fixed gear if you like, set the gearing low, and enjoy pedaling leisurely around town on it. It will be just like a single speed, only you can't coast. That's all.

I know that most people enjoy coasting, but I have never been crazy about it. On my regular bicycles I try to always be in a gear that will allow me to pedal. Coasting - especially at high speeds - makes me feel as if the bicycle is a wild horse galloping out of control and dragging me along, with me barely managing to hold on to the reins. This is especially frightening on winding downhills - so I try to switch into a high enough gear that will allow me to pedal, and then I feel that I have better steering control. I have no idea whether this is based on real physical principles, or whether it is all in my head. But the result is that I welcome the "no coasting" aspect of fixed gear bicycles, rather than think of it as a drawback.

For the same reason, in many ways I find fixed gear bicycles easier to ride, not more difficult. What else is easier about them? Well, remaining stable at very slow speeds - which is a useful skill in the city. You can only coast for so long before your bicycle stops, but if you push on the pedals again, your speed will increase too much. On a fixed gear, you can pedal in slow motion, and the bicycle will remain perfectly stable while going at the exact speed you want, no matter how slow. This is especially useful when you are trying to go around pedestrians, or inch your way forward to the red light at busy intersections. If you have a poor sense of balance and coordination like I do, you may find fixed gear to be helpful in situations that would otherwise leave you flustered.

As I have mentioned earlier, Marianne was a particularly good choice for a fixed gear bike, because her over-responsiveness is now an asset. As before, she turns super-quickly and easily - but now, she does it only when I want her to and the responsiveness no longer feels like "twitchiness" or "squirreliness". It feels like I now have an extremely maneuverable bike, of which I am in full control - as opposed to a bike that was more maneuverable than I could handle.

The thing that took the most getting used to, was trusting the brakes enough to speed up. I kept having to remind myself, that this is not the track bike I rode in Austria; this bike has brakes and I can come to a complete stop any time, just like on a  regular bike! After the first couple of rides though, this finally sunk in and I've stopped worrying about braking.

After a couple of days, we re-did the bars by wrapping the entire surface in cork tape, to allow multiple hand positions. We also removed the rear brake (it really was unnecessary) and placed the front brake lever on the right handlebar for easier access. The bell is now mounted on the stem.

My gearing on this bicycle is 42-tooth in the front and 19-tooth in the rear (with 170mm cranks and 27" wheels).  That is a pretty non-aggressive gearing that is good for everyday cycling in hilly areas. I may get a smaller rear cog eventually (which will allow me to go faster, but will make things more difficult on hills), but I don't feel the need for that yet.

There has been some discussion about foot retention and whether I plan to get clips for the pedals. On a fixed gear bike, there is the danger of the feet slipping off the pedals, and the pedals then smacking you in the ankles. This can happen when going over bumps at high speeds, or when flying downhill. I do recognise the risk, but let me put it this way: Given that I have brakes and I don't go very fast on this bike, I think there is more chance of my falling as a result of using clips, than there is of my getting smacked with pedals. I may try Powergrips at some point, but I've seen them in a local bikeshop and even they look scary. I did not do well with half-clips. Are Powergrips easier?

I am sure the novelty of the new Marianne will eventually wear off, but for now I can't seem to stop riding her. After a seat post adjustment (more on this later), the bicycle now feels fairly comfortable on rides under 20 miles. Taking it on a very long ride last night was overkill though, and various parts of my body are now hurting. I think I will stick with the Sam Hillborne for those, and leave Marianne for the city.