Monday, March 18, 2013

Back to the drawing board: another bike rack design

On my way past the State Accident Insurance Fund (SAIF) complex some weeks ago, I observed something I hadn't noticed before: one of the oddest designs for a bicycle rack ever conceived.

The SAIF building is an early 1970's masterpiece of slightly modified concrete brutality, breathing a cold disdain for people and healing even as it houses an organization providing worker's compensation insurance. It took an amazingly self-possessed era to accomplish this feat.

Like a lot of things from this period, many of the building's details don't make sense. The structure seems designed to confuse visitors about where one enters. The grounds are singleminded in contributing neither beauty nor functionality. Instead, a great deal of effort has been expended to communicate a pervasive hostility to both logic and nature. There is a funky, irrational aspect to its front gardens, overrun by ivy in place of the native plants mentioned in the out-of-date but still hopeful signage. Walkways and grading appear designed to confuse and punish. Anti-climax reigns supreme: the jumbled Grand Facade towers above its setting with all the heroism of a plumbing fixture.

The quasi-ceremonial concrete wasteland/piazza in front of the SAIF building lacks the obligatory piece of hideous late 20th century public sculpture, but the bike rack--which seems to be an original part of the plan--makes a plausible bid to fill that void.

Located in a depression signaling ignominy, the rack is made up of a series of rotating hoops mounted on a long pole, two to a side, presumably meant to receive a bike's wheel, and then be attached to the bike via a lock. The rotation of the hoops is perhaps a way to aid in positioning the lock or the bike. Or, it could have been meant to adjust to different-sized bicycles (such as children's bikes, penny-farthings, extension unicycles, and other likely varieties apparently then popular). When empty, the hoops may be turned in fabulous, corkscrew patterns reminiscent of DNA...meaningful if bicycles had DNA.

The problem is that these rotating elements have become stiff over the years, making them difficult to turn for whatever reason. The design also makes it hard to anchor a bike frame using modern short U-locks many folks carry today. A lot of older bike rack designs have this drawback.

The hoops are also prey to being shoved together by vandals, rendering the design even more hopelessly useless and absurd than when first fabricated during Nixon's Imperial Presidency.

I have never seen this design for a bike rack replicated elsewhere, though I suspect it was considered quite "the thing" at some people who didn't ride bikes, or did so in places where theft was largely unknown. This is truly a triumph of optimism over reality, so redolent of the era that produced it and myriad other fantasies now dissolving into rundown silence.

Over time, the materials used to execute this rack and its setting have taken on a decayed futility difficult to describe. The combination of mold, weathered metal, staining, peeling paint, and blank, cracked concrete found here creates a tableau of disillusioned emptiness worthy of Le Corbusier at his most desolate and doctrinaire. 

The rack seems to be trying to say something. Perhaps it speaks of captivity to a poverty of insight, or of post-industrial subservience to faceless bureaucracy, or maybe even a forlorn acceptance of its complete failure as a bike rack. It could be a meditation on what it means to be on worker's compensation, I suppose. Though exactly what that would mean must require a kind of artistic Rosetta stone all its own. Whatever it is trying to say, it manages to do so in an unintentional but oddly jocund manner.

Of course, the joke could be entirely on me: this could actually be a piece of art that I have mistaken for a bike rack! 

All-in-all, though, this rack appears to function far more effectively as poor civic art than effective bicycle storage. 

I have yet to see a bike parked in it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Raleigh Classic Roadster – Nearly a Year On

A review after really using something for a while

In the spring of 2012 I purchased a black step-through framed Raleigh Classic Roadster and have been riding it quite regularly since. I wrote up a short review a while afterwards; that review has had a fair number of hits and responses from people looking for just this sort of bicycle (or, who also purchased it and wanted to share their experiences). 

Recently, I thought it time to write a status report on how this bicycle (which I’ve named Hugo) is holding up, what its strengths and weaknesses seem to be, and how I have modified it over the last year.


Quality: this bicycle is generally well made. I have a fairly hefty build, and the bike’s design and build quality meet the requirements excellently. The steel frame is nicely welded and looks to last a long while. This is the first thing I look for in a bicycle. I have only had one disappointment in this area. Due to a bad batch of wire, some spokes broke on the rear wheel, necessitating a rebuild.

Components: The various component systems are adequate to very good. The brakes, while not of the highest caliper (sorry about that), function well in the rain—something that I was most concerned about. The Shimano three-speed internal hub system has proven flawless thus far. I did end up replacing the pedals (more about this below), but the crankset seems quite nice and sturdy. Considering that it is mass-produced, much of the bike has a certain elegance about it.

After a year, would I purchase this bike again? Yes, indeed.

In detail…

[As you can tell, this is not an extremely sophisticated blog, and I don’t take Great Photos. I am just an ordinary person who advocates using a bike for basic transport where possible. The pictures used to illustrate this section are taken of my bike “as is,” with no attempt to glamorize it.]

The Classic Roadster (I’ll abbreviate it as the “CR” from here on out) is Raleigh’s successful effort to update and improve on the famous “Sports” line of 3-speeds made by this company in the decades following WWII, up until the early 80’s.

The CR is a well-designed bike able to serve as basic everyday transportation. It is not meant for touring (though I have heard it used for such) or racing. It will not make your heart beat faster because of its associations with famous cyclists, hipster culture, or the chance to wear lycra. It is really just a steel-framed 3-speed bike, solidly but elegantly constructed, that wants to be ridden at a leisurely pace on a regular basis.

Like the Sports of old, this bike has a pretty upright riding posture and a smooth feeling ride…probably even a bit more so. Unlike that venerable Nottingham steel workhorse, it has functional brakes (even in the rain). This, alone, was worth its moderate cost. I like being able to stop when needed.

Because of the size of the front and back cogs, the CR is rather lower-geared than the old model Sports. This can be remedied by having a slightly smaller rear cog put on at little expense. Since I don’t need the speed, I’ve left it just as it came.

But, I’ve done a fair bit of modification to this bike by way of additional components in order to make it truly useful for utility cycling through the year. There is in fact very little left on my eventual list of additions/upgrades to do. All of this seemed quite worth it, as the basic bike is so well constructed and thought out.


The seat that came with Hugo was covered in a materials suggesting that at least one Naga’s hide had gone into it. The basic construction was, shall we say, not ergonomic to my anatomy. I intended to purchase a leather saddle of the type I had for years on my old Raleigh Sports, and was given one this Christmas. Riding short distances is great thing for breaking in a new Brooks saddle—and I am enjoying the process. It does mean I need to bring a seat cover with me to places, though—both for keeping the leather dry, and discouraging any “sticky fingers” regarding that saddle.

The CR comes with quill pedals, which seem a bit out of character for it. They are OK as pedals go (less slippery in the rain than I expected; I only beat up my shins once on them). The main problem was that they were wearing away the soles of my shoes. I am very much a utility cyclist of the “old school,” bicycling in the clothes I wear through the day. My leather street shoes were getting pretty badly mauled by the cleats on the pedals. When one of the reflectors fell out of my left pedal, I took it as a sign that it was time to get a new set. Fortunately, this is both easy and economical. $17 later I had a fine set of metal & rubber platform medals that aren’t slippery at all, don’t threaten my shins, and are very kind to my shoes.

We all have our points of vanity, and one of mine on a black bike is natural rubber tires. They look nicely antique and compliment the frame elegantly, I think. The tires that came with the bike were fairly skinny (I think 30mm)…certainly a bit skinnier than I liked. I found some of the few remaining Schwalbe Delta Cruiser tires around (via Amazon…I gather that this tire line is no longer being made). These are not only well-made tires in natural rubber, but also a bit wider (35mm), cushier, built to take a tire generator’s wear, and come with a very visible reflective strip on the sidewall. They were quite easy to put on. Their only drawback is that they get dirty from the brakes in the wet winter, but an occasional cleaning restores things right as…well…rain.

Rear rack
A utility cycle just about requires a rear rack. I found a Topeack model that was both sturdy and came with a “rat trap” spring clip for quickly securing things like rainwear. The rack attached nicely to the eyelets built into the bike’s fork and frame. It also has a mounting for my rear light, allowing me to take it with me so as not to “lose” it when locked up for an extended period of time.

The CR doesn’t come with lighting, which is a pity, as it is essential for most likely users. Fortunately, remedies for this problem abound.

I have a belt-and-suspenders approach to bicycle lighting, largely because I’ve experienced having a night ride in the rain when my battery-powered lights died. So, I took my old Union bottle generator lighting set from the 1970’s and put it on Hugo right away. Though I rarely use it, it provides the security of modest emergency lighting at the cost of some drag. Finding light bulbs for it is getting a bit tricky, though.

Mostly, I use a variety of LED lights that work better than most modern generator systems I’ve seen. On the front, I have a relatively inexpensive CyclePlanet “Beamer” that flashes, so that I may be seen by oncoming traffic. This light, however, isn’t worth beans to see by. After reading various reviews, I selected a Serfas as a primary light, and wow…it works. For the sort of riding I do, I couldn’t imagine needing more power than this (though they are available). It comes off the handlebars very easily…which is important, considering how expensive it is. Makes a good flashlight, as well!

On the wheels I have two spoke-mounted flashing LED units; together with the reflective sidewalls, they make me quite visible at night.

The CR came with a bell…but I didn’t notice it for a long while! It is built into the left brake lever (you can see it in the photo, if you look carefully) and is a nice touch. It is a bit quiet but really quite sufficient, as most people don’t notice a bell even if you throw it at them, what with earbuds, legalized marijuana, overstressed lives, &c. I have another, louder bell, but am considering taking it off, as it needs occasionally oiling and the one built into the bike is maintenance-free.

My old Raleigh Sports long had a wire basket on it. When I purchased the CR, I had a black Wald basket installed at the same time, and have already had a great deal of use out of it. I often take Holy Communion to people at home or in the hospital, and place it in the front basket while I travel. When not doing so, I sometime take off my coat, gloves, and hat when they get too warm and stuff them between the bungee cords to secure them while riding. I attached the flat bungee cord to the front of the basket to hold letters I am going to post on the way. I often keep my locks in the front basket, as well.

Cup holder
This gets a lot of comment from people, of course. Living in the Pacific Northwest, it almost seems essential, though. I actually don’t have coffee too often when riding, but when I do, this holder keeps it in easy reach. Because the handlebars that came with this bike are rather narrow, it took some shimming using pieces of rubber to make this work, but it seems quite sturdy now. I am thinking of rigging up an umbrella carrier using this holder for the top portion (based on one I saw online). We’ll see…

Garage door opener
Yes, you read that correctly. I have an extra one of these gadgets, and since the garage door has no outside handle & lock, it is rather nice to be able to actuate it from the street. I just put it in some plastic wrap and cable-tied it to the basket. It has worked fine since. I sometimes put a toothpick in the top for post-lunch dental hygiene purposes….

Mud flap
The CR comes with fenders…something essential to this sort of bike. They are really quite attractive and have proven sturdy, with only some occasional straightening of the stays and tightening at the fork attachments needed. The front fender is, however, rather shorter than it should be. When I would ride in the rain, the bottom bracket, chain, and lower rear fork stays would get quite dirty from the front wheel splash (my shoes weren’t really the issue, oddly enough). To remedy this, I have fashioned a prototype mud flap attached with cable ties for the winter season. I am likely going to make the “final product” a bit longer, and will also make a flap for the rear wheel. A certain amount of DIY in utility cycling is almost expected, I guess.

When I purchased the CR, I found it came with no kickstand, so I found an old one I had on hand and bolted it to the bike. It isn’t elegant, but it works…and this design doesn’t crush the chain stay tubing, either (something that cannot be said for many kickstand designs out there). It just needs a bit of oil from time to time and keeps on keeping on.

Other projects…

Gear/Chain case
I am always trying to figure out how I could put together a more fully-enclosed chain case. This is something I found very attractive about my previous Dutch-style bike. Keeping the chain dry, lubricated, and protected from grit extends its life and keeps it from getting grease on one’s clothing. The chain guard  that comes with the CR is certainly adequate (and adjustable), but it doesn’t cover enough of the chain to work in an ideal manner. Finding a way to cover all but the far rear of the chain would be the best solution (full coverage involves some real complexities by the rear hub). I don’t have an easy answer for this, as there are almost no aftermarket options available out there. I suppose this will only change when bicycles are seen by more people as basic transport, not status symbols or sporting goods.

Another characteristic of a Dutch bike is the skirt- or coat-guard. These help keep one’s clothes from getting caught in the rear wheel spokes. If made of a sheet of plastic or canvas, they also keep mud from spattering on one’s clothes and panniers. This is another project I still think about applying to Hugo, especially in the winter. I’m thinking cable ties will come in handy here once more….

White brake pads
I might try these in order to see if they make less black goo on the rims and tires during winter. I know, I know...its a bit Obsessive/Compulsive...but it is pretty harmless.

In Conclusion...

I write this to any who are interested in this bike with a recommendation that you consider it carefully. It won't work for everyone (which bike does?), but it probably could serve many people who desire a bicycle for truly practical purposes quite well. If you have any questions about this review or the bike in general, don't hesitate to contact me.

God bless!