Requiem for a Raleigh

YOU can imagine my consternation when, on a Sunday afternoon, I walked out beside my house to find my trusty bicycle's accustomed spot empty. It just wasn't there! Recognizing my penchant for absent-mindedness, I ran through the possible places I might have accidentally left the bike, but nothing came up. It was gone for good, I was sure. This was a bike with some real history. Do you remember when three-speed bikes were called ``English racers''? Well, that's what this was: a three-speed Raleigh, a real world-class bike ... with a difference. I had bought this bike in 1967 for $11, when it was already 20 years old ... or for $20 when it was already 11 years old. I never could remember the details. No matter, it was over 30 years old anyway. Riding back and forth to work in North Carolina for five years had put 9,000 miles on it. It had been with me through four moves, from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Carolina and back to Pittsburgh.

It had a special value in this time of common bike theft: It was so ugly and beat up that it would just stay where I put it. No one else wanted it! But now it was gone. How could anyone have taken this relic? Did you know people are paying $500 for bicycles these days? On a per-pound basis that would make mine worth about $1,500. It was heavy, dirty black, and rusty. On Pittsburgh's hills its low gear put a premium on power and endurance. I needed about two lower than that to make it comfortable. The only way I could figure it was that it must have been taken at night. If the thief had seen it, he never would have made the heist. I could imagine his consternation when he got it home and turned on the light.

Another thing you may not know about biking these days is the close-knit nature of the ``fellowship of believers.'' Some of these fanatics actually collect bikes ... odd ones, ones made up out of parts from different origins. There's a ``Bobby bike'' here that's famous, the kind issued to London policemen. It's been passed from collector to collector, each extracting his own full measure of pleasure from owning this strange machine. Recently I saw one much like it in a German movie made in the '20s. The bike had ``rod'' brakes instead of cables, a direct mechanical connection to the brakes from the handles.

So when I knew my old friend was truly gone, I went along to one of these collectors to see what I could find as a replacement. This fellow is really something else: He rides an old fat-tired bike with spring-mounted front forks and a stereo set - two speakers! - mounted on the rear! You should see the looks he gets when he pulls up beside a Mercedes at a stoplight.

``Well, Joe, my famous old bike is gone now. What do you have as a suitable replacement?'' His eyes lit up right away. Now he had the ``Bobby bike,'' so he tried me on that one first. Then an Italian three-speed with a chrome-plated frame, definitely not consistent with my preferred low profile for urban bikemanship. Then out came the prize: an almost brand-new 30-year-old English racer, a Raleigh three-speed that had been kept in someone's attic for at least 29 of those years. It looked a bit down at the mouth, slight rust on the handlebars, a moth-eaten front tire. But the leather seat had never even been broken in, the paint was unmarred, and everything worked, even the long-forgotten Dyna-Hub generator for the light.

We dickered over the price. He started out by asking me what I wanted to pay, and eventually, with a new tire thrown in, we settled. I made a down payment and agreed to come back soon.

I picked it up yesterday. He had done a bit of TLC work on the bike: The paint now gleamed with polish, and the chrome was bright. Best-looking bike I've had in 20 years!

BUT today was the real capper, a real emotional experience. I was driving through a part of town I rarely visit. Coming around the corner I spotted my old bike, chained to a tree near the sidewalk. I felt as if I had found my faithful dog, tied in the same spot I had left him, waiting patiently for me to return. There he was, wagging his tail, all excited to see me. I actually felt guilty. It all came back to me: I had left it there one morning and run in a big 10 km race to the downtown where I had stashed my car ahead of time. I drove home and forgot all about how I had gotten to the starting line.

When I looked at the bike I could see that a decent burial was the best thing for it. Neighborhood kids had bent both wheels trying to get it free of the chain. This time it really was a goner. I took it home anyway and took off the seat, the only salvageable part. The final remains sit out at the curb, marked TRASH in big black letters, waiting for the pickup in the morning.

With a total of about 15,000 miles on that bike, I reckon at least a thousand hours of intimate contact between the two of us. You haven't spent that much time with many of your friends. It feels like a funeral of an old pal who you know has had a really full life: sorry to see him gone, glad to have known him, knowing he deserves the rest. So long, old friend.

Postscript: Early this morning the bike was gone. It had either gone on to bike heaven, or someone had taken it to put it to use. My bike repair guy always told me, ``Old Raleighs never die!'' My friend lives!

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