A Review of the Raleigh

Saturday, September 3, 2011 |

Now that the Raleigh is completely built up to a errand-running machine, I thought I'd give a review of it and list the changes I made to it.

Back in February 2011, Boyfriend and I decided, on a whim, to stop in at a bike store up in our mountain town of North Carolina. He laid eyes on a white Specialized hybrid that he fell in love with. Having recently sold his old heavy mountain bike, this bike bike was light and agile in comparison. So he bought it after a test ride. Thereafter, I became enamored with the idea of riding bikes with my boyfriend.

Being unemployed, I had a lot of time on my hands to, via the internet, better picture this obsession I was forming. I eventually found a number of bike blogs written by women, including Lovely Bicycle, who wrote a number of entries recommending vintage 3-speeds for the beginner woman bike-rider/commuter. Just for kicks, I looked for one on Ebay. There was a 1970 green Raleigh Ladies Sport for $100 that was absolutely beautiful. But could I justify buying a bike when my bank account was dwindling?

Somehow I justified it and purchased the bike.

I waited for days as the bike was shipped to me. When I saw the UPS truck pull up I jumped up in the air and ran to the door. Poor postman had to carry that behemoth across our snow packed yard and icy walkway to the door.

Slowly I acquired some upgrades for the bike: new tires and brake pads, as well as a helmet, lock, and battery lights. I also got some leather conditioner for the old saddle and a scratch awl, a tool to hammer holes into the skirts of the saddle to lace it up. I spent a lot of time adjusting the saddle and handlebars. I added oil to the rear hub by purchasing a small baby syringe from a pharmacy and using that to inject cheap motor oil into the hub. I replaced the brake cables, which made it easier to brake. Eventually the rear 18-tooth cog was replaced for a 22-tooth cog (to make it easier to go up hills) and I replaced the chain. I've had to manually adjust the indicator chain (that controls the tension of the derailleur cable near the hub), as it will occasionally (and annoyingly) pop into "neutral" after switching gears when the indicator chain is out of alignment. I also learned that easing up off the pedals (by either not pedaling or lessening pressure when stopped) while shifting made shifting easier and prevented the "neutral" problem.

I rode it occasionally in the mountains of North Carolina, but found it extremely difficult to ride on those hills. I'm now living outside of Los Angeles, where it is extremely flat, and find that this is where the Raleigh was meant to be rode. It's perfect to ride around the corner for groceries, especially now that I have it equipped with a rear rack and a basket.
I bought a Wald basket and a Greenfield "rat-trap" rear rack from my LBS, as well as a rack bungee strap and bungee net that have proved extremely useful. I can throw my purse in the basket and strap anything else (from a rolled up blanket to a 12-pack of beer) to the back. I also invested in a new leather saddle from Velo Orange (Model 8). It is extremely comfortable, especially compared to the old and cracking original Brooks. I've sanded the rims & brake pads to reduce squeaking (though occasionally find it still present), and added a small square from an aluminum can to prevent the seat post from sliding down in the seat tube. I got a "ring-ring" bell. I polished the brakes and the head badge with steel wool and metal polish. 
I've found this bike rides very well. It's definitely not a sporty road bike, and "prefers" to ride slowly and at a steady pace. It's the kind of bike that doesn't necessarily want to get to places quickly, just comfortably. Though I haven't encountered any rain, I've found the fenders have saved me from backsplash from plenty of errant puddles. The chain guard protects my clothes from grease & teeth. It still needs maintenance every once in a while and isn't quite the worry-free bike I want it to be, but I have gotten a long ways from what it once was.

Unfortunately, I've recently realized that this bike is too small for me. I've spent hours trying to get the adjustments right but can't find a spot that it's comfortable for me. You can see in the photo how high I have to raise the seat. This makes the distance to the handlebars feel cramped. It's fine for going around the corner, though it would be nice to have at least one bike that fits me well.

I love the Raleigh. Every time I look at it I am struck with how pretty of a bike it is, and the thought of selling it for the sake of another makes me sad. Despite it's quirks, I've put a lot into this bike and an attachment has grown out of that. It was the first bike I purchased myself.
If this bike were my size, I would probably be thinking about doing some other things to this bike: replacing the heavy steel rims for lighter alloy rims, installing a bottle dynamo & light, replacing the rubber hand grips (that are hard and leave impressions in my hands after long rides) with cork or rubber, and eventually getting some nice creme Schwalbe tires (though not until the others are thoroughly worn).

If I were to sell my Raleigh, I would want it to go to someone that would actually ride it, not just have it sit in their garage. It would be a great transportation bike for someone slightly shorter than me (I'm about 5'8" and the frame is 21"). It would be very hard to part with this bike, but someday it might have to be done.


Teresa said...

Hi Lauren! I saw your post on Lovely Bicycle! with regards to upgrading a Raleigh Sports, so here I am! I was interested in doing this as well, because I took was looking for a great bike for someone on a tight budget. I keep reading posts about replaced the 18T cog with a 22t for climbing hills, but how realistic is this? My town is kind of hilly. I would really love to send you a pic of one of these hills just to get your feedback.. or maybe even a Google Map link. I just don't want to go through the trouble of buying this bike, doing all the upgrades, and then finding out it isn't going to work :-( I appreciate any advice you have to give. Thank you soo much! -Teresa

Lauren said...

Hey, great to hear you're considering one of these beauty's! Replacing the rear cog isn't the biggest or the most expensive fix on the bike. I got my LBS to do it, but probably could have figured it out myself (though it involves detaching/replacing the chain so you would have to get a chain tool, though you can find those for $10). You could also ask your LBS to give you your old cog/chain if you figure that you might want to go back to 18-tooth.

I originally switched it out while living in the Blue Ridge mountains, which meant I was finally able to (barely) ride up a significant hill without getting off the bike to push. It really wasn't a realistic bike for those hills. I'm now living in an almost completely flat area in California. I find that I mostly stay in the 2nd gear, and occasionally use 1st for small hills (overpasses over highways) and starting from a stop. I can still get a good amount of power from 3rd gear when I'm cruising or going downhill. I could definitely live with an 18-t here, though having a 22 doesn't hurt. I would say that if your town is kind of hilly, then you couldn't go wrong with switching it out (feel free to link a map here or send me a pic at lemondirgopie(at)gmail(dot)com). Of course, if you're doing this on a budget it doesn't have to be the first fix you get done, and you could test out the bike to see if you could need the extra ease of pedal power.

Also, you don't have to go all the way to 22-t. Shimano makes them 19-21 and are about $3-5 each on Amazon.

The most important factor, I think, is going to be how well the bike fits you (as I mentioned in my post). If you find a bike that really does fit you (and I know it's tempting to lie to yourself a little when you find a beautiful bike that might not fit you well -- I've done it on multiple occasions and ended up with a bike that I poured money into and ended up being uncomfortable to ride for longer periods) then you can slowly upgrade and add parts as your budget fits.

Teresa said...

I'm really new to this. I bought a bike a few years ago (Specialized Dolce road bike), and I never ride it. I'm too intimidated by the skinny tires and positioning. It was a bit too much for someone whose last bicycle venture happened over 15 yrs ago-- I'm 33. The ppl at the bike shop said, "You're not going to like a hybrid.. most ppl don't," so I got a road bike instead. I wouldn't call the purchase a mistake. I'd like to think I'm just not ready YET!

Lately, I've been stuck at home b/c I lost my job, but I need to get out of the house. Because I have a bad neck and upper back, I thought a bike with a more upright positioning would be the best idea for me. I started doing a little Googling and found Pashleys, Gazelles, Abicis, etc. I have some money saved up, so I could go that route, but I'd also like to make the right decision too. Those bikes are super heavy, and altho I don't have too many steps to go up, I think my spaghetti arms and bad neck won't be able to comfortably handle lifting a 50 lb. bike. Lovely Bicycle posted something on going vintage to save money, so I thought this might be a good idea. I can definitely better afford this route but not if this bike can't handle hills. See, that's my main concern: spending a couple hundred bucks and then finding out I can't get this bike up a hill. I'm not in horrible shape, but I haven't exercised in a long time. If it's going to feel like pushing an ox up a hill, I'll probably pass out on the road lol. I also thought a vintage bike would be great, because I could park it at the train station and no one in my town would think about stealing it. So many options, but I can't figure out what's right! Ugh!

I live outside of Manhattan, but I go there to find the best bikes. Problem is, when I test ride a Pashley, Gazelle, or similar style bike, I can't find any hills to ride on! Manhattan is mostly flat. This isn't good for me, because I will only find out how good a hill climber the bike is when I take it home. Currently, I am talking to a woman in Brooklyn about buying her Raleigh (Craigslist). I could test ride it around her neighborhood, but she has no hills. Hopeless.. lol. So far, I've tried the Pashley Brittania (nice but 5 speed) and the Paper Bike (8 speed and even more expensiiiiiive). I was able to lift both bikes, which I couldn't even do with the Gazelle. I've read some bloggers talk about their Rivendell Betty Foys. THAT BIKE is so expensive.. $2200. I hear it's a great hill climber and lightweight. Crappy part is.. I can't test ride it in NY b/c no one sells Rivendells around here! I've written the Let's Ride a Bike blog to see if maybe they knew of a reader in NY that would let me test ride their Betty, but no luck. Reading all these blogs has been great, because I get all this information, but I think it's made me even more confused. I guess it's made me more cautious towards my next bicycle purchase, and that's a good thing.

Tell me: how did you realize the bicycle you're trying out was a bad fit? When I tried the Pashley Brittania and the Paper Bike, I couldn't find anything wrong with either. I kept asking myself to find flaws, but I couldn't. I will email you a link with a map, because I'd love your input. Also, I just read on Velouria's blog post today with regards to the Paper Bike... She said she doesn't use her IGH bikes in really hilly terrain. I wish what she meant by "really hilly" and just plain ol' "hilly." Maybe U can shed some light! Thank you very much for writing back to me. I REALLY appreciate it. - Teresa

Lauren said...

(Ok, are you ready? I'm going to overwhelm you with links and options. Go!)

Proper size/fit is something you can become acquainted with through 1) the bike's measurements and 2) just trying out as many bikes as humanely possible and figuring out what you like best. When I first started trying out bikes I had the same problem of not being able to criticize anything. One thing that is useful about the Raleigh is that I have been able to learn what I do and don't like about a transportation bikes, as well as how I fit on a bike, for not too large of an investment.

How tall are you? There are some good resources online for figuring out bike fit:

I'm assuming you test rode the bikes at Adeline Adeline? They might be able to do a proper bike fit and advise you on what bikes are good for hills in that area. You might even be able to rent out a bike from them so you can test it on some of your hills. I'd be interested in how you liked the Abicis they have there. Since they are a lighter bike with slightly sportier handling, they'd be easier on the hills. Bella Ciao's also really nice (and I would fully recommend one), though a little more expensive than Abici. I'd also be interested in what you thought of the Retrovelo. It's weight is kind of inbetween those heavy Dutch bikes and the Italian bikes, and the super wide tires are going to offer you supreme comfort and stability.

Ever heard of Worksman Cycles? They are based out of NYC and have commuter bikes on sale right now: http://worksmancycles.com/shopsite_sc/store/html/page54.html
They also offer "dutchie" bikes you can customize. It might be another inexpensive option to get a feel for what you need. Plus the bikes are made there in NYC.

There's also the Soma Buena Vista mixte for a budget option, though don't know how you would test ride one. LB! did a post on it a little while ago.

Yet another option, vintage-wise, is finding a cheap mountain bike and converting it to a "dutchie" bike, like this guy did: http://chicargobike.blogspot.com/2011/05/dutch-bikes-build-em-yourself-take-2_05.html
You, of course, could do the same thing with a Raleigh, though a mountain bike will allow you to have wider tires and more range in gears. Have you checked out Landmark Vintage Bikes? I've heard that they are a good resource for old bikes in NYC: http://landmarkbicycles.com/about.html

Though don't make the assumption that more gears is automatically going to be better. A bike's ability to climb hills has more to do with the bike mojo (frame construction, geometry, etc.) and the specific gear range. A single speed (like the Paper bicycle) might be a good budget option, and according to LB! its a good hill climber (I believe when she was talking about not using her IGH bikes for really hilly terrain, she was talking more along these lines: http://bostonbybike.blogspot.com/2011/11/5km-challenge.html)

Ok, sorry if that's too much. Sometimes I like to live vicariously though other people when it comes to buying a new bike. :)

Jamie said...

Hi Lauren,

Great write-up, and very inspiring to see that someone on a budget converted an old Raleigh into a lot of value. So much more quality than you could have bought new for that amount of investment.

Since you are so passionate about these old Raleighs (like me!), but feel yours is small, I wanted to add that Raleigh did make a 23" womens frame for the Sports in 1972 - 1975 and perhaps other years. Although it wasn't as common and sellers don't often even know what size the frames are. You can probably tell in a photo by inspection of the seat tube height vs the rear fender. The 23" ones were only made in the same bronze green as yours. Vintage bike shops that might be able to locate one for you. Breaking down and shipping a bike costs about $100, and most bike shops will do that. Just giving you some data points in case you decide to pursue a location effort.

Another option is called the Raleigh Tourist, and is styled very similar to a Sports, but is overall larger (than even the 23" Sports) with a 22" frame riding on top of 28" wheels (i.e., the bottom bracket is 1" higher off the ground than on 26" wheels). The lady's Tourist frame has a cool loop top tube... http://www.kurtkaminer.com/TH_Raleigh_Cat_70_14_LG.jpg . It's designed a little more for distance than sharp turns in a city.

You might find one of these larger frame options on eBay and end up with your Raleigh vintage setup sized more to your liking. Craigslist results in lower prices, but takes longer to find what you're looking for. The good news is that you've done such a nice job with your 21", you can probably sell it for the same price you're going to pay for the 23". You can swap some of the parts to keep your new goodies, too.

Good luck!

Jennifer Faught said...

My 1978 Raleigh women's sport has the exact same issues of "slipping into neutral" when I'm in second gear! How did you adjust this??

"I've had to manually adjust the indicator chain (that controls the tension of the derailleur cable near the hub), as it will occasionally (and annoyingly) pop into "neutral" after switching gears when the indicator chain is out of alignment."

... I've got mine riding to work and back (6 miles both ways), with a new chain, some new tires, and a decent tune up.. but still have minor things to do, cork grips and basket are to be purchased soon!

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