Three Speed for Tweed

Looking for just the right steed for the upcoming Tweed Ride?  In my humble opinion the correct mount for any tweed run is a proper English roadster.  All steel.  Three speeds. Hub gears.  Brooks saddle.  Made in England by the likes of Raleigh of Nottingham, Robin Hood, Rudge, Humber, BSA or any one of about a dozen reputable firms that spread this bicycle around the Empire and known world from the early 1900’s through the 1980s.  These bikes will typically have 28”or 26”steel wheels and slightly knobby tyres.  They are the perfect ride for town or country.  They cruise city streets with ease, particularly the less than well paved ones, and they shine on gravel paths or trails.

English thee-speeds were once commonplace in the U.S.  My first new bike was a three-speed Raleigh Sports.  Before the mass introduction of the ten-speed and the mountain bike were imported to the U.S. by the thousands and they remain plentiful and cheap.  Sometimes even free.   A quick glance at eBay shows at least a hundred such bikes for sale in various states of repair at any given time, some can be had for less than $100.  Few seem to go for more than $400.  The better news is that these bikes were designed to age and to be serviceable.  Every part can be replaced, adjusted or repaired relatively easily, so even if you find a real fixer-upper, there is great potential.

About two years ago, I found such a bike, quite literally in the trash.  I rescued it from certain death and made a project of restoring it.  Being no expert at bike repair, the first thing I did was sign up for the bike repair course at a local bike shop (LBS).  With enough wrench-turning knowledge to be dangerous, a little elbow grease and some time I was able to turn the bike on the right into the one above.

The bike in question is a 1967 Raleigh DL-1, sometimes called a “Tourist” model.  It’s a roadster with rod-operated roller-lever brakes, which were not common on bikes imported to the U.S.  These pull up from the bottom of the rim using metal linkages rather than the sidepull brakes operated by cables that were and still are more prevalent in the U.S.   This bike was in rough shape when I found it.  There were weeds growing with tyres and spokes.  It was covered in rust.  But few of the major parts were broken, and the frame was solid as a rock.  Unbelievably, after years of abuse and idleness, the wheels were still dead true.  Most of the rust came off with liberal amounts of bronze wool (don’t use steel wool as it will induce rust), turtle wax and elbow grease.  The mudguards (fenders) and chainguard had to be sanded and repainted, but the frame cleaned up nicely.  Although some of the graphics were lost, overall it has a nice patina of a well-maintained 40+ year old bike.

This bike has a unique upright handlebar set called a Northroad bar.  It has a built in stem and the brake levers are bolted directly to the bars with springs.  The rust had pitted the bars and one of the springs was broken so the whole handlebar unit was replaced.  I found the part on eBay for $44.00. The stainless steel cranks are a work of art, with three Raleigh Herons supporting the 48 tooth chainring.  The rust came right off; I and I added new cotters and the cranks shined like new.  The bottom bracket needed some attention.  It was the tough to get off, so I enlisted the help of my friendly LBS, and we took it apart.  We found grass and seeds inside… but not much grease.  You can’t ever have enough grease in your bottom bracket.  We replaced the ball bearings, repacked the bracket and it ran smoothly with the first crank.   Wrench, grease, repack, and reassemble.  Repeat step with pedals.  Repeat step with headset.  Every moving part on this bike now runs like a brand new bike.  The most expensive replacement item on the bike was the Brooks Saddle.  A properly sprung leather saddle, like this B-67 model in Honey cowhide, is essential to the character of an English roadster.   I added leather grips to match as well.

What really sets the English Roadster apart is the Sturmey-Archer 3 speed hub gear system.  Internal-gear hubs offer many advantages over external derailleur gears system common on today’s bikes.  They are more reliable than derailleur systems, and require much less maintenance.  Unlike, internal hubs shift even at a stop, very nice in stop-and-go urban traffic.  Since most also have the month and the last two digits of the year of manufacture stamped onto the shell, they make the task of dating older 3-speed bikes easy… providing it has its original rear wheel.  The hub on my DL-1 dated it to 1967.  The gearbox worked nearly flawlessly after replacing the cable and a worn nut.  All of the parts are housed in steel shell, and which is bathed in oil.  So most often these hubs, no matter how old they are, will work perfectly with simple cable adjustments.  If they don’t, fear not.  Any good bike mechanic should be able to work on a Strumey Archer Hub.  If you can’t find one, just turn to the Internet.   The great late Sheldon Brown  (RIP) scribed just about anything you would ever need to know to repair, or even build an English 3-speed bike from scratch here: http://www.sheldonbrown.com/english-3.html The shop he worked for outside Boston also is a great resource for English roadster parts: http://www.sheldonbrown.com/harris/index.html.  Another great resource for parts on the Web is Yellow Jersey:  http://www.yellowjersey.org/eastbits.html .  They also sell brand new copies of English Roadsters, imported from India, where, like in China and much of the Third World, these bikes still provide reliable daily transportation for millions of people.

These are serious bikes, built to last.  They are not speedsters, but they do provide stylish and efficient transportation.    If your aim is to keep up with the peloton and you make it a habit of counting the grams on your carbon fiber speed machine… this may not be the bike for you.   Mine weighs in at about 50 pounds.  But with the huge 28” Westwood rims, it cruises surprisingly fast, and over distances of less than 20 miles or so it is without a doubt the most comfortable bike I own.  Ladies versions have a stylish step-through frame that allows for skirts (I’m currently in mid-restoration of one for the Mrs.) Mr. Brooks’ springs obviate the need for padded spandex pants.  Platform pedals with rubber blocks allow you to wear footwear you can actually walk in once you get off the bike and when you step off the bike there is not a big black chainring tattoo on your right leg.  All in all… the English roadster is the perfect match for your stylish self on the next tweed run.

For additional restoration photos visit Sir Walter Rides Again!