Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sizing up the 2012 Raleigh Classic Roadster

2012 Raleigh Classic Roadster: A Review

Some background…

For someone who has ridden a 1963 Raleigh Sports for much of the last 35 years, the search for an updated version of the bike “concept” I am used to has been disappointing. For a long while, such bikes were not being made.

If I were asked to define that concept, I would list the following points:
  • A bike meant for daily use: not primarily for recreation
  • A solid, durable steel frame that smooths out the bumps on pavement
  • All-weather riding characteristics: fenders and some sort of chain guard
  • Internally-geared multi-speed drivetrain for moderate terrain variation
  • A generally upright riding characteristic
  • A medium-weight bike
  • Essentially a “traditional” bike in look and handling 

Being designed along these lines, the old “All Steel” Raleighs were admirable bikes in quite a few ways. The frames were exceptional in efficiency and durability and their ride was smooth and surprisingly fast. But (and this is a major caveat), they suffered from fairly horrible braking, especially in the rain. This was the result of chromed-steel rims (to cut down on rust) with rather lackluster caliper brakes. The combination, especially in wet conditions, could be hair-raising.

There were other drawbacks, especially over time. The old Raleighs had cottered cranks, and while a perfectly effective way of attaching the crank, cotters need tending. Also, it is getting hard to find people who know how to do this work (if the owner doesn’t have the experience and proper tools), and the right cotter pins for the right model bike are often difficult to purchase. If the crank and/or spindle get damaged, that often turns into a much bigger (and expensive) problem. Finally, the older three-speeds Raleigh made were geared pretty high for some people…though I never found them to be uncomfortably so.

When the old Sports line was discontinued (in the 1980’s, I believe), it seemed to be the final curtain for the English-style three speed. Oh, yes…three speeds of various types were still being made, but most were of a very different configuration as well as build quality. Other types of bike were in the ascendancy: the road bike, the mountain bike, the beach cruiser…each became the “in” bike design for a time and such a mundane and practical design as the old light roadster seemed to have no place in an industry marketing its goods primarily to kids, vacationers, and sports enthusiasts.

With the advent of the post-Enron energy industry (sudden spikes of dubious origin), increasingly expensive extraction costs for oil necessitating a higher base price, and the economic downturn of recent years, new pressures have come to bear on this market. All of this met up with such things as environmentalism, the “Cycle Chic” phenomenon, the move to a more human-centered urbanism, and a realization that daily sedentation contributes to many chronic health problems. The market for bicycles not meant for vacation or leisure time has grown rather quickly. The “hybrid” class of bikes—perfect for those cyclists needing a less bent-over design but not wanting to look, well, old—began to crop up in greater numbers in various catalogs. Eventually, the ultimate “non competitive” bike designs (slow, heavy older types such as the Dutch bike) became a topic of conversation—and fashion.

Re-makes of classic European urban cycles suddenly poured forth from factories all over the globe, and among these were classic English designs. Eventually Raleigh—now a very different company than its earlier Nottingham, vertically-integrated self—decided to bring back an updated version of its light Roadster bike (it also makes an updated version of its classic heavy roadsters for sale in England…the “Superbe.”).

The Bike, Itself.

The Classic Roadster is in a number of ways a direct descendant of the old Sports line of bikes.
  • It is designed for daily transportation
  • It is based on a steel frame (not lugged, but nicely welded)
  • It has a decent set of well-made, solid fenders
  • Comes with a combination chain and “bash” guard for the front sprocket
  • A dependable Shimano three-speed internal hub 
  • Quite an upright design, yet still gives one the ability to get up out of the saddle
  • A respectable 31 pounds as equipped by the manufacturer
  • A fairly elegant, traditional frame design (with some departures) 

But, it has a number of significant improvements, as well:
  • Great braking power
  • A modern drivetrain, with a very solid crankset
  • Lower gearing (fine for in-town riding; great for taking off and cruising)
  • Strong, quality alloy rims and great, puncture-resistant tires
  • Plentiful braze-ons and eyelets for adding racks, baskets, and other items

There are only a few aspects of this bike that I find a little less than ideal:
  • The handlebars are rather wider than they need be (I can only liken it to learning to drive on a 1972 Ford pickup…a boxy sense of security)
  • The seat supplied with the bike feels (to me) a bit like riding on a padded bowling ball—this is a highly individual matter, of course!
  • For this sort of bike, I wonder if rubber platform pedals might not be wiser. We’ll see how winter and rain combined with these pedals works. The stock pedals do seem a bit slippery to me, even cycling this summer.
  • We shall see about the fenders this fall. They look rather too short for me; a front mud flap may be in order. 

In my initial journeys (commuting, in town, some recreational cycling on paths), the Raleigh Roadster “Redux” has done well. It is geared pretty low, so it is not as fast as the old Sports, but it can be made to ride a great deal more upright than my old Sports could. Upright cycling is not only the name of this blog but perhaps one of the most important characteristics I am seeking in a bike. The handling is good (probably would be a bit better if the handlebars were not quite so widely-spaced), the bike rides solidly and with a sure-footed grace that only steel gives, and the bike’s weight and geometry work well for this middle-aged character.

Best of all…my knees don’t give me the slightest back-chat any longer. Whoopee!

My verdict, thus far: I would recommend this bike to anyone looking for a well-made weekday workhorse or a weekend moderate activity bike. As I ride more and experience different terrain/conditions, I’ll explore more about this bike’s character and effectiveness on this blog. Suffice it to say for now that “I’m back in the saddle” again—though I will probably change the current saddle for a Brooks, eventually!

Here are my further reflections on this bike after about a year of use...


  1. Very nice, if concise, exploration of the present status of the Raleigh 3-speed. if you get a chance, flip us another pic of the brake arrangement?

  2. Your blog has helped me in selecting this as my primary city bike. Blessings to you in your ministry. Ride safe!

  3. That's delightful, Stephen.

    I'm planning on doing up a more detailed review of this bike soon. After cycling with it a lot, I continue to feel it is a very good choice. I'd be interested in hearing more of your experience with it as time goes on.

    Thanks, too, for your well-wishes.

    Safe & blessed cycling!


  4. Dear Brandon,

    I've been riding the standard (i.e. no-step through) for some time and have made a few minor additions/modifications to it.

    First off, I purchased the mid-sized version (52 cm.) The additions/modifications include a Portland Design Works tail light/strobe, a Planet Bike 3 beam head light/strobe, a Cat Eye Orbit Wheel Light Set, a Brooks B67 saddle (how you can tolerate the stock saddle is a mystery to me), a Cat Eye CC-MC100W computer, a black Greenfield kick-stand, and a Topeak MTX rack with snap-in wire basket.

    I am using the bike for shuttling between the Holocaust Museum, where I work, and the National Gallery of Art, where my wife works; short-trips, urban environment, and a combination of paved road, gravel, and cobble stone.

    Aesthetically, it as pleasing as any bicycle I've owned, and its geometry permits for a bolt-upright riding position, which is a great relief to my middle-aged, shredded back. The handle bars are wide set and place the hands in a palms-down, position (think sleep-walker's pose.) I've Christened the bike "Lady Marjorie" after a much-loved character in the old British television series, "Upstairs, Downstairs." You can sort out on your own why I named her that...

    With the exception of cobble stone (between the East and West buildings of the National Gallery) the bike handles the aforementioned surfaces quite capably. The tires are simple too narrow to competently handle cobble stone and the resulting "shimmy-shimmy-shake" is enough to precipitate renal failure in all but the heartiest of human specimens, of which I am decidedly not. Get off the bike and walk her, you will be glad you did.

    The gearing is remarkably, and appreciatively, low. Shifting is quite smooth, though counter-intuitive as one shifts the grip downward in order to go into higher gear; no great-bother that, and easily learned.

    The wire basket and my own decrepit frame make a flying dismount (with the left foot still on the left pedal with the right foot hurled over the frame and trailing behind the left foot) virtually impossible. Without the relatively high-profile of the wire frame basket, this would be imminently possible.

    Braking power is decent, if unexceptional. The upright geometry is comfortable and affords for a "head-up" position that makes taking in the sites on the National Mall, and the more comely of the tourists, much easier, effortless, and more pleasant.

    I find the built-in bell to be a nice touch, and its "retro" sound in keeping to the anachronistic overall design of the bicycle.

    The original saddle was simply intolerable so was swapped out for a new Brooks which, though a considerable improvement, I expect to be completely broken in around the year 2032.

    In all, I am delighted and thank you once again for your blog and advice, which saved me the considerable expense of a Gazelle, where I was leaning, for a perfectly delightful urban machine that more than adequately meets all my needs.

    Once again, blessings in your ministry and your riding, and do pop over if you are ever in D.C.

    Ride safe,

    1. I was re-reading this excellent review, Stephen, and wondering how you and your bike were getting on. You are a very fine writer.

      I have made a number of modifications to my Classic Roadster since purchase, many in line with your comments. My Brooks saddle should be just fine on or about the date you mention. Thankfully, I take mostly short rides!

      I hope your work and travels are treating you well. If I am in the DC area and you are available, I would very much enjoy a chat.


    2. Dear Brandon,

      No major issues to report, apart from the brakes being a trifle more splongy than when new. I expect I could get that sorted by merely taking the time to tighten the brake-leads which, owing to sloth, I've yet to do.

      My only major issue has been with the Topeak wire basket. I'm in the habit tossing the Kryptonite Evolution lock into the basket while shuttling between the National Gallery and the Holocaust Museum. I've noticed that the weight of the lock has created several ruptures in the wire-frame structure of the basket. On closer examination, I noticed that the basket is simply rather light and fragile in construction. This being the case, I would recommend a basket of somewhat more robust construction.

      Do please look me up at the Holocaust Museum if ever in DC!

      Kind regards,