A Raleigh Traditionalist and The Raleigh Classic Roadster

I’ve been a Raleigh fan for as long as I can remember. My first 10-speed was a Raleigh Record, bought and paid for with hard-earned car waxing money. I knew all about “wax-on, wax-off” long before Ralph was just a gleam in Mr. Macchio’s eye.

But for all the cars I waxed to earn that Record, I never picked up any kung-fu skills, which may have something to do with why my gleaming orange Record disappeared from in front of Radnor Middle School one fine summer day, along with my friends’ blue Lenton Sports. The punks who made off with our rides probably knew we were no ninjas, and in any event, they were long gone before we realized what had happened. But I digress — I do that a lot, so you should stop reading now if you’re in a hurry.

Speaking of waxing, I have waxed semi-poetic in the past about my attachment to the Raleigh brand. As far as I know, it’s pure coincidence that the Raleigh Bicycle Company was started by Sir Frank Bowden, but that might have something to do with it. Coincidence as well that the first Raleigh I admired belonged to my Uncle Frank Bowden — a black DL1 with full chaincase and rod brakes — very staid and proper.

Or maybe it’s just that when I was popping wheelies and laying down skid marks with the 20″ slick on my sky blue metal-flake Stingray and thinking about covering longer distances, the only alternatives I saw to Schwinns and Rollfasts were “English” bikes, which by definition meant Raleigh three speeds.

Raleigh RoadsterOh, I’ve had my fling with the sexy continental romantic types. My Basso Gap is Italian to the core — bellissima! And I’ll never forget the first time I mounted… Scratch that. …my first ride on a proper Italian racing machine. She holds a treasured spot in my stable of steel contraptions, and sometimes I daydream about the century rides and fast club jaunts that were so enhanced by the knowledge that my machine was the equal or better of anything in our “peloton” in terms of pure exotic raciness.

But I’m still digressing.

I guess the editor of Campfire Cycling thought that my perspective on Raleighs would qualify me to review a modern Raleigh — thoroughly up to date in every way, from its Chinese frame to its Japanese internal hub and alloy bars and Italian tires (from Thailand).

Raleigh Nottingham Factory
Raleigh’s Nottingham Factory

What? You mean Raleigh doesn’t make everything   in Nottingham anymore? There was a time when   Raleigh owned Sturmey-Archer, Brooks Saddle,   part of Dunlop, not to mention the brands Rudge,   Humber, Robin Hood, Dunelt, Phillips, Lenton and   Carleton. Those days are gone, but the heritage and the brand remain.

So, forcing aside my reservations about the multicultural flat-world implications of associating with such a product, I jumped at the opportunity to sample the amalgamation of parts, paint and rubber that now bears the historic Heron head badge.

Raleigh RoadsterSo how does it compare to my trusty Sprite (which is essentially a Record with fenders and North Road bars)? Very nicely, as it turns out, but with some serious suggestions, questions and caveats.

First, there is the size. I specified a large, which means 57cm nominal size. That’s the size of my Basso. The next smallest was a 52, which sounds Lilliputian in comparison.

Let me tell you this thing is LARGE! I mean HMS Victory large.

For comparison, look at how it practically blots out the Mini-Cooper. It’s longer than the Mini is wide! I’m telling you, this bike is big! And yet, stand-over height is not a problem, in part because of the “thoroughly up to date” frame geometry. (More on that later).Raleigh Roadster

The biggest thing about this big bike is the handlebars. They are wide. New Jersey Turnpike wide.

Raleigh RoadsterThese things are so wide, they actually discourage you from trying to squeeze between cars at stoplights. I think you’re not supposed to do that anyway, so maybe that is a good thing. But it’s not so good when you’re trying to get the bike into the back of an SUV, past the gate at the parking garage or through the front door.

They are just plain wider than they need to be. I doubt it contributes to control or stability in any significant way. The feeling is kind of like what I imagine a three year old feels like on his first trike — reaching up to the handle bars like an orangutan reaching for a branch to swing on. The first thing I’d do if I were keeping this bike is change the bars.

Then there is the seat. It looks like leather, but I’m pretty sure it’s not. And it doesn’t say Brooks on the back.

Raleigh RoadsterIt does however have springs. Those are nice, because they are springy, and when you are sitting straight up with those mile wide bars in your hands, feeling a little like that three year old orangutan, those shiny springs provide a little extra cush for the tush, which isn’t all bad. It’s a little too thick in the nose section though, and the stitching can be mildly irritating if you’re used to the smooth polished nose of a Brooks B-17. I’d add a new seat to my list of modifications.

So what else bugs me? The pedals.

Raleigh RoadsterI find it curious, inexplicable in fact, that this bike comes with quill pedals. No one who buys this bike is likely to want to put toe straps on it, so what’s with the quills? Unlike the bars, they are much too narrow.

This is a bike that should be ridden in sensible shoes, like my Timberland waterproof bike commuter specials (that’s not what they are called, but that’s what they are). You want wide pedals with grippy stuff distributed over a large surface.

Quill pedals are designed to work with traditional cycling shoes which have cleats and very stiff soles. They are not a good fit for shoes that flex at all, and cycling shoes are not good for walking across polished marble floors in office buildings. This is an easy fix, but a curious choice for a bike so clearly targeted at commuters.

Back to the frame.

As well built as it is, I really don’t understand the swoopy top tube. What possible advantage does this confer? If it’s lower stand-over height they were going for, a simple extended head tube would do the trick. I am not a subscriber to the sloping top tube school of design in the first place, but sloped and swooped is definitely not my cup of Earl Grey, if you know what I mean.

I can’t help thinking it looks like somebody sat on it before the tubes were heat treated. In the field of automotive design, it has been said “If you give an Englishman a piece of sheet metal, he’ll do something  foolish with it.” Maybe that tradition has been carried over into the field of outsourced bike design. That said, it’s kind of growing on me, and maybe if I change the handlebars, seat, pedals, chain ring, sprocket…

One last quibble: What’s with the color?

There may have been a few cream colored Raleighs back in the classic era, but I don’t think I ever saw one. There were white ones, black ones, green ones, orange, yellow, bronze, even red, but I can’t recall ever seeing a cream-colored Raleigh. This is a sort of “foam on the half-caff mocha latte” cream color, which does not inspire vigorous pedaling or thoughts of long jaunts in the Cotswolds.

Groping for a favorable English reference, I would say that it might remind one of Cornish clotted cream — a truly indulgent pleasure that one enjoys for breakfast with scones and preserves, if one were to ride their Raleigh from London to Land’s End and stay at the climbing school at Sennen Cove, with its improbable combination of semi-tropical climate, rocky cliffs and world class surfing conditions. Palm trees in England — it’s true. And while enjoyable, those palm trees seem just as out of place as the cream colored paint on this Raleigh. But you must try the clotted cream with strawberry preserves on your scones.

Here’s what I like.

The frame is very nicely made. It has braze-on lugs for front and rear racks — nice touch. The fork is beautiful. Its sloping crown with cutouts reminds me of a 70’s era Raleigh Pro, as does the “fastback” seat stay junction at the top of the seat tube. This helps overcome the subliminal effect of the torporific cream color.

And the paint, aside from the color, is first rate. I don’t know if it’s powder coated or just sprayed, but it’s flawless and it’s tough too. I know this because when I threw the chain (that’s another story), I just wiped off the grease, and there wasn’t even a scratch.

The welds are very clean, and while I prefer lugs to filleted joints, one comes away with the impression that whoever welded this frame up really cared about their work, In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that the workmanship at least equals and possibly surpasses the standard of the Nottingham Raleighs of old.

I also appreciate the forged dropouts, which are an upgrade from the stamped steel counterparts on the Sprite. Not only that, the rear dropouts come with adjusters! Extra nice touch, especially in today’s world of vertical dropouts and other so-called modern improvements.

Raleigh RoadsterThe Tektro brakes are silky smooth — not a touch of squeal and the light touch suggests the cables (those are Bowden cables by the way, named after Irishman Ernest Monnington Bowden who invented them and sold the patent to Sir Frank Bowden of the Raleigh Company) are probably Teflon lined. Braking is smooth and easily modulated.

And by the way, the recessed brake bolt mounting on both the fork and the seat-stay brake bridge are nicely done as well. Definitely not expected at the price point of this rig. In fact, this is pretty much the same frame exactly as the next step up in the line, which sports an 8-speed Alfine hub and disk brakes.

Raleigh RoadsterThe Suntour crank feels totally rigid and the 170 mm length is a good choice, but I still have clearance issues with my panniers, leading me to think a different rack might be in order (the rack is mine — not standard equipment).

My Team Fuji has a Suntour crank and I rode it all the way from London to Land’s End where I first sampled the clotted cream on scones — coincidence? I leave it to you to decide.

The “bash guard” outer plate totally protects the chain from your trousers, but not so much your trousers from the chain guard when your trouser cuff catches on the point behind the crank. I had hoped that the “suspenders and a belt” approach of the chainguard/bashguard combination would make it unnecessary to wear trouser clips, but one ripped cuff convinced me that the clips are still a good idea.

Still, the protection from the bane of chain stain is exemplary, and most welcome when wearing light colored trousers. I see many so-called commuter bikes that forego chain protection altogether, as if all bike commuters wear bike messenger baggy shorts or knickers, or lycra. Here’s a thought — why don’t they just get a chain stain tattoo on their right calf and wear long pants?

The convenience of cycling in comfortable apparel is a major consideration for me, and I suspect, for many cyclists be they commuters, bike packers or casual cyclists, and Raleigh gets it right on this score. The only thing better might be a full chain case, a belt or a shaft. I would, however, welcome another five or six teeth on the chain ring.

The 42-tooth ring combined with the Nexxus hub and 20-tooth sprocket will let you climb walls with no-hands, but you will quickly exhaust the top end gear on even the lightest downhill, and even on the flats. I’m sure this compromise was chosen for a reason, but it clearly was not top end speed.

Now, about the tires. They are very round, and smooth. The front hub is a generic Joytech alloy piece, and when I picked the bike up from Agee’s Bicycles in Richmond, I thought it was set a little tight — from the factory no doubt. I backed off the cones a little, until it spun pretty smoothly in my hand. Not Phil Wood-Campy Record smooth, but smooth. However, when I took my first spin around the block, I was awed by the sensation of buttery smooth effortless motion.

So much so that I wondered what was wrong with my Sprite, to which I had just added a new set of Weinmann rims with similar hubs. Could it be the tires? Granted, these Vittorias are a notch or two up from the Kenda gumwalls I put on the Sprite’s new wheels, but could the Vittorias really be that much “rounder” than the Kendas?

Well, yes, and no. No, because it turns out that my ham-handed tire skills had left a small section of the rubber rim strip between tire and rim on my front wheel, and that was enough to put a little speed bump in every revolution of the wheel. Fixed that.

But still, the Roadster definitely feels smoother up front than the Sprite. I’m definitely going to look into some better rubber for the old Sprite once I deal with a few other priorities.

Raleigh RoadsterMy nostalgic leanings would have preferred a set of classic Dunlop gumwalls, or even real Italian Vittorias, rather than the Thai-made treads on the Roadster, but then I am reminded that Marco Polo is said to have brought pasta to Europe having discovered it on his visit to Asia — so maybe the Vittorias from Thailand are just as authentic — or more than – if they had been crafted in Madone.

Now for overall impressions.

First: Build quality is excellent. I give it 4 “Herons” on the Raleigh scale which maxes out at 4.16*. This bike will last as long as you want it to, and although I did not go out of my way to abuse it, one look at the diameter of the stays, the quality of the welds and the attention to detail and you know that it will handle whatever you are likely to dish out on your daily loop. So on that score, it’s worthy of the Raleigh head badge on all counts.

The ride is blissfully smooth, if a bit sedate. 3.9 Herons. This reinforces my feeling that suspension has no place on a typical commuter bike. If this bike isn’t smooth enough for you, get a car or take the bus.

Component selection is, for the most part, very strong, if quirky (bars and pedals): 3 Herons. Here again, you’ve got the basics. Customize to your taste. So, would I buy this bike if I did not already have the Sprite? I really can’t say for sure. I’d probably be looking for a few more gears or at least a bigger top gear, and definitely a different color, but this is a worthy set of tubes.

Overall score: 3.633 Herons.

The 2011 Classic Roadster sells retail for $520 US.
The 2012 Classic Roadster will sell for $550 US and be available only in black.

*The Heron scale runs from -.8 to 4.16. Don’t ask why it’s not 0-5 — this is a Raleigh. And even if all the threadings are now standard, that doesn’t mean the Heron scale has to be.

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