Wednesday, January 9, 2013

My Ride: 1971 Raleigh Superbe

I have a 1971 Raleigh Superbe and it's the best bike I've ever ridden. In a previous blog post, I decided I should do a review of it. So here you are:
My Bike History: The Superbe is an important bike in my biking history because it got me back into biking in a big way. The Cole's Notes version is that I used to ride a lot. Then I got a really uncomfortable ten-speed and more or less stopped riding. That bike got stolen at the same time I was living sans-car in Toronto for a summer and needed a way to get around. I had been reading about English Three-Speeds and was pretty enamored. When I found this puppy I was pretty happy. The first real ride I did was 30km (without noticing). I was back into biking.

The Rationale:
Biking is the best way to get around downtown Toronto. I didn't quite know that at the time but I had never spent a summer without a car and a car is a boat anchor in downtown Toronto. I was initially just looking for a way to easily get groceries, get around to friend's places, and perhaps do a little sightseeing. I have cerebral palsy and so biking is fairly easy for me but walking tires me out, especially when carrying things. I needed a bike that would not attract attention, would do well in traffic, would take the abuse of student life in Toronto, would allow me to wear nicer clothes, would not require a lot of maintenance (I had no workshop), and would be comfortable. I also had little money and was having a hard time justifying a new bike. English three-speeds are all over the place in Toronto and therefore hopefully wouldn't attract attention. The internal hub allows you to change gears while stopped in case of having to stop quickly. In addition it quickly changes gears, no skipping or fiddling. Just click, new gear. You also sit fairly high on a three-speed giving you a good view of what's going on around you. English three-speeds are notoriously tough. Of course, mine weighs 45 lbs and that might have something to do with it. They are legitimate utilitarian transportation. Everything is heavy gage steel. The gears and all the finicky stuff is sealed up, requiring only a little oil once in a while. They're reputably bomb-proof. In a similar vein, this means they require little maintenance and when they do you can push it to the last minute and it won't hurt them. They have full steel fenders and a chain guard. I could ride down the street in a suit and get no bike-related dirt on me. They looked comfortable, and with the amount of them around Toronto I assumed they'd be cheap.

The Market:
So it turns out old English three-speeds are not cheap in Toronto. At all. I think it might have something to do with the hipster population whom if they don't ride a fixie they ride some kind of old and interesting bike in mustachioed irony. In addition Toronto's a serious bike city and these are serious bikes. Lastly, they're beginning to be collector's items. I had looked at a new KHS Green for, if I remember correctly, about $300 or $400. Essentially it is a brand new Superbe. I thought that price was a little hard to justify on my budget, but when I started surfing around for English three-speeds they were about $250-300. I wasn't buying a used bike that would require work for the same price as a new one. Luckily, outside of Toronto things are a different story. Where I am from, and living at the moment, biking is not legitimate transportation. There are a few true bikers around but the clear majority of people see bikes as only toys. No one will ride in traffic. No one will ride across town (a distance of only 8km). Therefore bikes on which you would want to ride longer distances aren't worth much but bikes that are stylish (mostly old cruiser style bikes) are quite expensive. I happened to see my Superbe on Kijiji for $60 on a visit home. I had it in the back of my dad's truck within the hour. It needed new tires. After that I rode it for about a year without any maintenance.

The Bike: When I got it, the bike was entirely stock. Any difference was age related. Here it is on the first day I got it. The paint was faded and worn off in some places. The seat post was pretty rusty. The tires were half decomposed. The frame pump was gone along with one of the little hooks that hold it on. The headlight was gone. The fork lock key was gone. The Brooks saddle was still there but it wasn't a nice leather one rather a mattress saddle. Any of the missing things weren't a big deal to me. I figured an original frame pump would be more decorative today than anything. The headlight is cool but I hear not bright enough anyway. The fork lock is cool but certainly not going to deter theft. The mattress saddle, though much maligned on the internet, was more than comfortable enough and I didn't mind it getting rained on unlike the folks who have the nicer leather saddles. Besides, I didn't have the money at the time for a new leather saddle and you don't want to ride on a used one.

What it had that I really liked was the heavy duty rack, comfy seat, nice fenders, dynohub (one day I'll get the light for it), and the little details. The headlight bracket has a nice heron pressed into it. The same with the crank, the design is three herons. Completely unnecessary but really very nice. Another thing that I really liked that probably shouldn't matter in the least was the cable housings and clips. The housings have no inner coating but are made out of what I assume is good quality stainless, there is barely any friction. The outer is this nice rubber which I think looks and feels quite nice. The clips are these nice metal spring clips. Just an old-school touch I like quite a bit. I lost one the other day. I'm upset. Oh well. It rode like a dream and one of the first rides I ever did on it I found out later was thirty kilometers. I just rode for the afternoon and realized later we'd rode a good portion of downtown Toronto and I had no discomfort. In addition, the thing is well built. It's heavy but it's meant to withstand a lot. I'm surprised what has survived all these years of obviously hard use with no ill effects aside from the cosmetic.

After a while I did need to start replacing things. First were the tires. They were toast when I got it, surprise surprise. Next I decided to see if the dynohub still worked which meant rebuilding the front hub. Raleigh has a weird locknut setup which meant it took me a while to figure out how to stop the front bearing cups from loosening. I simply rode around with a couple wrenches and tightened it up every once in a while. I did figure out how to fix it properly after a while. Next, I think what I did was ride over a curb which stressed the back axel nut and stripped the threads. I have a note on this at the end of the article. I had to replace the nut which turned out to be harder than I thought. I had to replace brake cables after a while. Then the seat split and I had to replace it (after two years of hard riding). The pedals eventually seized and required replacement.

Of note is the quality of the steel. It's just plain steel, and it's ALL steel. I'm a fan of steel bikes but this steel seems to be just...good. For instance, there are quite a few spots of bare steel on the frame. I rode this bike with snow/salt on the ground when I first got it. I stored it outside for an entire season rain or shine. The chrome got surface rust that wiped off easily but the bare spots on the frame just never rusted. Nothing. I have no idea how or why. It's just good quality. In addition, the chrome bits despite rusting have really thick chrome on them. We're talking chrome wrench thickness. It's overdone, but I'm glad it was. Lastly, things like bearing cups are stupidly hard. God help you if you want to replace them or put a sealed bottom bracket in, but you should never have to. They just won't die. I guarantee.

What I've Done To It: Aside from basic maintenance things I've done some upgrades I'm proud of. First of all, I tend to really load up the rack. It can take it, but the clamp which holds it to the seat stays cannot. It slides down the seat stays and if you over-tighten it then it simply bends the clamp. I got around this by putting pipe clamps on the stays under the rack clamp which stopped it from sliding. I can put two panniers full of canned food on the bike and it takes it. Of course, every bike needs a sound making device and this bike needed a big horn rather than a bell. So I did that. Then, I was missing being able to carry my coffee around with me, so I got a coffee cup holder from MEC. It's not the prettiest of the ones available but it has three important features. First, it's easily removable. I don't always use it so I take it off sometimes. I also put it on my other bike now if I want to bring a coffee. More importantly it's open at the front for mugs with D-handles and it has a bottom on it for odd-shaped mugs. This is important to me because I'm weird about mugs and really like to stick to my favorites and my favorite wouldn't fit in the standard style holders. There are other cup holders that are prettier but they only hold certain kinds of cups which is a pain. I also found a nice double kick stand through my local bike shop. It was used and thus I got a really good deal on it and it looked right on the bike. It required a little work, it needed to be re-threaded which is no problem, and it works quite well.

Eventually, after a year or so of riding the Superbe pretty hard with absolutely no maintenance I realized I was quite attached to this bike. It deserved a complete rebuild so that's what I did. I dislike painting and thought that the patina on this bike was well-earned and quite beautiful so I opted to wax it with some boat wax I had for restoring fiberglass. This polished off the oxidization without hurting the paint and so brought the color back out. It also left a coating of wax on the paint which put a nice sheen to it but also served to protect the scratches and bare metal from the elements. For chrome parts I used some metal polish I had from a motorcycle project. One thing I have to underline is the good quality of the steel on this bike. It's overbuilt. The bare metal, even after riding in early winter with salt on the road, never got even a hint of rust. The chrome on the other hand, which is quite thick, had surface rust that came off no problem with a red Scotch-Brite pad. I then polished it all to shine it up and put a protective coating on it. I think it looks pretty good now. The only parts actually pitted by rust were the seat-post, probably from being pulled up and down in the seat tube all those years, and the brake levers. Both of these cleaned up fine enough. I kind of like the pitted bits on the brake levers as it's just a bit and adds character. I finished by re-tensioning the wheels. They were true enough but a lot of spokes were downright wobbly. Overall it tightened the bike right up and made it feel like a million bucks and it really made it look nice as well.

I upgraded the pedals around this time and I'm glad I did. It came with the non-serviceable rubber block pedals. Much maligned on the internet. I actually liked them for their grip-ability on any shoe without damaging the shoe. Unfortunately they have bushings and not bearings and after 41 years of riding they began to cease up. I tried to get some other rubber block pedals but they were difficult to get here. The guy at my local bike shop suggested using BMX platform pedals. I was apprehensive at first because I thought they'd tear up my shoes and look weird on the worn looking superbe. He sold me some brown Evo pedals with removable pegs. They ended up looking really nice (especially after some wear), feeling better (they're quite a bit larger), and not hurting my shoes as much as I suspected. I think I like them better than the rubber block. In addition, I think they're probably better for riding longer distances because your feet are a little more planted and thus more efficient.

What I'm especially proud of is my dyno-powered light. I've always wanted to use the dynohub that came on the bike but the headlights are difficult to find and I keep holding onto the hope that I'll find one rather than getting one off of ebay. Ideally I'd like to implant some LEDs into the rear fender reflector to turn that into a light and convert the old style light into an LED powered light as the dynohub lamps have a reputation for being too dim. In the meantime I have put together this setup. It's the light from a hub generator mounted to the front axel via a broken sailboat turnbuckle I had. The inner lens and LEDs come from a lousy Canadian Tire light set I bought that broke almost immediately. Initially I wired the LEDs in as they were in the battery powered light to see if that would somehow work but the reverse-load blew the LEDs fairly quickly. I now have four LED's wired like a bridge rectifier which always gives the alternating current a path. It's quite bright and I've ridden quite a few km on it and had no problems. I've not bothered with an off-switch since there are no batteries to run down. It's quite a simple getup. It flashes depending on speed. One day I may put in a smoothing capacitor but so far I like that it flashes.

I've also upgraded the saddle - twice. I actually found the old Brooks mattress saddle to be more than adequate. I especially liked that I didn't have to care about it. It was vinyl so if it got rained on it just didn't matter. I actually kept the bike outside for a season and it showed no ill effects. It did finally split. I understand that being kept outside for a season might have had something to do with it but I think what is more likely the case is that 41 years of riding on it split it and I just put it over the edge. No matter, I went to one of our bike shops in town looking for a replacement. I wanted a Brooks B66 like the bike should have but I was having a hard time with the investment. I initially wanted just a classier looking wide padded saddle with springs. More or less what I had. The bike store wanted $45 for it which I thought was reasonable enough for around here. However they caught me drooling at the Brooks saddles in their display case. They didn't have a B66 but they had a Flyer and the fellow there offered it to me for $75. He then threw in a can of proofide and a saddle cover. Sold. The Flyer is narrower than the B66 and a little less heavy duty but at the time I was trying out a more forward position on the Superbe than was intended and figured the Flyer would be just fine. I must admit it was quite comfortable however I found that suddenly after about 25km I'd start to get pretty sore. The Flyer is meant for a more forward position and I think I was sitting too much on it. I was quite happy with it because I've never done a ride longer than 30km but when I got my Fuji S12-S it became pretty obvious that the Flyer's home was on that bike. This happened right before Christmas and so I asked for a B66 for Christmas and got it. It's sitting on my desk right now waiting to be mounted. You can see it in the first picture in this article but it's just on loose. The seat post I have is too small for the clamp. I'll have to get a bigger one in the spring. It feels and looks awesome. I really can't wait to get riding it. To me, this saddle completes the bike. The only thing left is the original light set but that's an option where the saddle is not. You can bet I'll be out as soon as the snow's gone in the spring.

Lastly is my crappy Canadian Tire/Schwinn pannier bags. Not really a modification or customization but I use them enough and think highly enough of them that I need to mention them. All things considered they are garbage. However after looking at better panniers, I'd honestly rather have these for this bike. The reason I started using them was because we already had them. They'd been hanging in the garage for a few years and I simply grabbed them. First of all, they're dirt cheap. I think at one point I saw them for $30. A set of panniers at a bike shop seem to be about $100. I don't care if I loose them. I don't care if I break them. I may modify them. It's freeing. Second, they easily come apart. I know other panniers come apart but I've seen quite a few which are permanently fastened to each other and the only time I ever need two is if I'm grocery shopping. Also, one is easier to carry than two in a shopping centre. Third, the fastening mechanism is simple. Frankly too simple. It's just two big sharp steel hooks with no covering material, a chain stay tie that broke almost immediately, and the handle loop at the top. The reason I actually like this is because it's easy to get on and off. I stopped fastening the chain stay tie when it broke which was nice because I found I was getting my hands dirty on the wheel (Sturmey Archer Hubs leak a little oil) and it turned out I didn't need need it. It just stays put. After that I just hook it on the rack and loop the handle through the rat trap. It's never fallen off. I essentially just pick it up and go. It does scratch my rack up quite a bit, but being a well used bike the paint where the hooks attach was worn off already so it doesn't matter. The continued rubbing prevents any rust that might form from doing so, but for some reason this frame doesn't rust anyway. Any other pannier I've seen has some sort of fancy attachment system and some don't come off at all. I can fit a ton of stuff in these and they pretty much just hang. I've ridden all over the place with just one (sometimes I've not even looped the handle through the rat trap) and it just stays put. Lastly, when you're not using them they fold flat and store anywhere. I doubt they're waterproof, but I always carry a few plastic bags around anyway. If you have an old bike and don't mind scratching the rack, I would actually seriously consider trying these. They're just simple and worry free. I take one with me everywhere.

The Ride: Like a dream. That's all I can say. A friend of mine rode it and said it had "Wanda Factor." For those of you who aren't familiar with Wanda, she is a character on a Canadian sitcom called Corner Gas. Not the 7.9 rating on IMDB, yes Canadians CAN do sitcoms. Anyway, one episode Wanda was given a Vespa and would ride around town and it would transform into an Italian village with soft lighting and nice music. Here's the clip, go to 8:53 for the clip but you should watch the whole episode. Anyway, lots of Wanda factor. It also just feels nice. It's got those medium sized tires that allow a reasonably small amount of rolling resistance but are still pretty cushy. This combined with a sprung seat and raked back forks mean it's a fairly cushy ride but an efficient one. The north road bars are really nice as well. I like having my hands parallel with the bike rather than perpendicular a lot more. It's also surprisingly fast. It weighs about 45 lbs, has steel everything, and steel wheels. I've ridden two road bikes this summer and it's actually hard to beat the Superbe on them. You wouldn't think it goes but it does. I've had it up to 40kph or so, and average a couple kph faster than on the two road bikes I have. I suspect with some conditioning the Fuji will be consistently faster but the Superbe is surprisingly fast without the conditioning. The north road bars are designed so that if you really want to go for speed you can put your hands up on the front of them. This puts you into a bit of a tuck which makes a good difference. I actually ride around like this quite a bit. I've even considered some bar tape there. One complaint about these bikes is that the gearing is too steep. It would indeed be nice to have a lower gear for the hills around here but the top gear is actually pretty good for riding around at about 25 to 30kph and it's easy enough to keep that speed going. The middle gear which is direct drive (no loss of efficiency from the gears) is perfect for my cadence at about 20kph. When I go for long rides I keep at about 20kph in second gear and I've calculated that I ride about 75rpm cadence (just counting) and it's quite comfortable. I suspect with the B66 I'll be able to ride the thing all day long.

The mechanical feel is fabulous. Old technology has a kind of loose feel. It's not a sloppy feel, it's a nice looseness that makes it seem effortless. Sturmey Archer has a bit of a reputation for loose tolerances but not for poor quality. They make loose work and I think it's actually a nice feeling. For instance, when you shift gears you feel the spring mechanism in the shifter, the gear change mechanism in the hub, and the same through the pedals. You don't feel that slightly stiff feeling of no-service teflon in the mechanisms and the cable housing. It feels, as they say, like a well oiled machine. You feel quality well worn and oiled metal on metal. While the no-service and high tolerance approach we have now eliminates the need for oiling, which is good, it does also eliminate the feeling of a well oiled machine. For 99% of people this is probably just fine, I sure do like the feeling of a well-oiled machine though. I had the privilege to ride my friend's Trek Soho Delux which is an extremely nice bike and in a way the modern version of my Superbe. At risk of alienating my only reader (Sorry Nick), I liked the feel of the Superbe better. It actually pains me to say so but while the Soho is an all around better machine and marvel of technology, the Superbe is just...nice.

The drawbacks? There are a few. It absolutely sucks on cinder trail, which we have a lot of around here. It's fine on dirt and gravel but on cinder it slides around in a rather scary way. Where skinny road tires seem to cut down in order to find stability and bigger tires tend to have some kind of tread for gripping cinder, these medium sized smooth tires just float. This is a shame because it makes certain trails around here which are otherwise quite nice simply unpleasant. Secondly, there are only three gears and while middle and high are perfect, low gear is way too high. What it could really use is four or five speeds with the two extras being extra low. A lot of people apparently swap out the stock sprocket for a slightly larger diameter one. I don't want to do this because I really like the middle and high gear. I think they're perfect. The low gear is great for starting, gradual inclines, and tolerable for steep but short hills. You may have to really stand on the pedals to get over the peak of certain hills. I would really like to do some riding across the bay we have in town here but the ride over the bridge is absolutely exhausting and ruins me for the rest of the trip. This was the impetus for buying a road bike, truth be told. Having said that, it's a fantastic in-town bike and even in the country so long as you don't have a sizable bridge to cross.

Things to Know and Things I've Learned:
Raleigh Threading: Back in the day, way back, every country had their own nut/bolt size and thread standards. This meant threads from one country were not interchangeable with another and it meant that wrenches for one country weren't the right size for another. Much more complicated than the Metric/Standard problems of today. As I understand it, Britain held out on their sizing (I've heard it called British Standard or Whitworth, also known as Whitworthless) for the longest and Raleigh held onto it the longest within Britain. The reason being that the Nottingham Raleigh factory was so huge that it cost more to retool to standard or metric sizing than they would save on using standardized parts. So they continued making their own tools and hardware right into the seventies and maybe later. Thus, any Raleigh built in the Nottingham factory has wonky sizing. Usually you can try various metric and standard wrenches and get a "good enough" fit. Occasionally you will need an adjustable wrench. It's frustrating at first, but not really the end of the world.
What is more frustrating is having to replace threaded pieces. As I said, most of Raleigh's stuff is bulletproof so you won't have to. What is not is their wheel nuts. The front isn't so bad because the nuts don't carry any load because the fork dropouts point down. The back is a different story. The reason for this is Raleigh uses an axle design with flats on both sides. It can actually be handy and they have their reasons. The result, however, is that you end up with half the thread surface for the nut to grab to which results in wheel nuts being half strength. The good news is that the axle steel is quite hard and those threads are difficult to damage. The bad news is the soft wheel nuts are hard to find when (not if) they strip. They are available but not always. My suggestion is to buy some of the nicer nuts still available (Sturmey Archer is still using proprietary threading so these things are still available). The link is to the left side nut, the right side nut is special because it is where the indicator chain exits the hub. These have come as one piece and two piece units. Go buy a couple one piece units and the right side nuts. The reasoning is that these have threads for the entire axle rather than just the quarter inch that a nut covers which means more strength. I still don't trust these. Buy an extra pair so you don't get stranded. It's stupid I know, but five dollars and a little forethought makes it a minor inconvenience. I would also avoid riding down curbs.

Raleigh Weirdness: Raleigh does some other weird things that no one else does. It can be confusing at first but once you get into their headspace it's really not. Don't let it put you off, just check Sheldon's site before you do even things that seem simple the first time or two. Literally everything you need to know is there, you may have to hunt for it though.
One bit of wisdom I will pass down is how to deal with the raleigh hub locknuts. If you open your hub up to grease it you'll find the locknuts have a crushable shoulder on them. This crushes over the flats on the axel to prevent the cups from loosening. Sheldon tells you to loosen them with a screwdriver and to tighten them with a punch. I found this didn't work and my cups kept loosening. Really bad news on a dynohub because then the windings drag on the magnet. My solution was instead of using a punch to tighten the edge of the locknuts to use a set of vice-grips. Set the jaws to the size of the flats, and then clamp down on the locknut edge gently. You will have two perfectly flattened sides that won't let go. You won't be able to get a screwdriver in to pry them up anymore so you'll have to loosen them by putting a wrench on the axel flats and using another well fitting wrench to loosen the cup. The rotation will force the edge of the locknut back into round. I don't think this is the ideal system but I couldn't find any other way that worked for me. I suspect one day I'll have to replace the locknuts and that'll be difficult. If you're doing this job remember that only one side of a raleigh axle is adjustable, the other side should be fixed.

Cottered Cranks: A lot of people hate these. I sort of get why. It sure does look like a stupid system. Having said that, once you figure it out it's really not hard and Sheldon has a really good writeup. I've done a few sets of these now and had the cranks off of the Superbe a few times. There are a few things to remember. First, the nut does NOT tighten the cotter. It merely holds it from working out. Secondly, the cotter is tightened by a large hammer. No kidding. It's soft metal designed to change shape as it is driven into place. Thirdly, you need to be hitting the cotters with solid force (as opposed to hard). The bike itself will soak up a lot of shock through the tires, wobble, and the cranks moving. Therefore you need to put something solid between the floor and the bottom of the crank. I have a gas pipe with a screw on fitting for the end that I use. You can use the screw on ends to adjust it to the right height exactly, the cotter fits in the center of the pipe, and the pipe transfers the force to the solid floor rather than through the bike to the floor, making your hammer strikes much more effective. Secondly, use the biggest hammer you have. You need momentum rather than force. You don't want to hit it hard, you want to hit it in a way that transfers power. The larger the hammer the more the momentum. The smaller the hammer the more the deflection which will screw up your cotter. Hit it squarely and solidly and you'll be just fine.

Hub Oiling: I came to bike maintenance from car maintenance. In car maintenance a gear case has to have at least some of the gears immersed in oil. I applied this wisdom to my internal gear hub and made a mess for a long time. I thought perhaps the seals were worn out. A lot of people told me this is just a reality of older British machinery. It turns out this is not the case. You only want a few drops of oil in the case at a time. The key is to ride and if the various clicks the hub makes sound really metallic and sharp then you need a bit of oil. It's pretty obvious when you hear it. It should click but it should be a mellow sound created by the cushion of just a thin layer of oil between the parts rather than metal tapping on metal. Even then, you'll still get some weeping so your back wheel will often be dirty. Make sure you use quality oil, I bought some nice synthetic stuff at my local bike shop for about $5. It'll last me forever.

Conclusion:
Best bike I ever had and probably ever will have. I owe it a debt and while I'll probably always have or at least want another bike or two to accompany it I plan on keeping it as my baby and main ride forever.

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