Thursday, November 26, 2020

An Interesting Development

Happy Thanksgiving, folks!

Just a super short post today. Readers might recall it wasn't so long ago that it was announced that Bob Jackson Cycles in Leeds, England, was closing down. Apparently, there was such an outpouring of interest in the marque that plans had to be changed. This notice is currently on their website:


It sounds like someone stepped in to keep the place going financially, and I'm assuming some new, younger staff have come to learn the framebuilding trade. I'd call that encouraging.

As I had mentioned in my earlier post about Bob Jackson Cycles, they offer some excellent traditional "keeper of the flame" steel bikes - built and painted to order - at very reasonable prices. I guess it isn't too late, after all.

Fans of classic steel bikes, let's give thanks!

Monday, October 19, 2020

Peak Fall

It had to happen eventually. After several weeks of gorgeous riding weather, our good-weather-fortune seems to be coming to an end. I'm sitting here on a computer at work on a chilly, rainy, miserable day - and the forecast looks like more of the same this week.

This past Saturday was glorious, though, and I got out on one of my vintage Mercians to enjoy brilliant blue skies and sunshine, cool temperatures, and vibrant fall colors.

I stopped for a photo on a quiet road that winds its way through the woods where the light just looked like gold filtered through the fall leaves.

There may still be some nice riding days left this season, but I've got no doubt that trees will be far more bare and a lot of the color will be gone. I'm reminded of a line from a well-known poem by the renaissance poet Robert Herrick, "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may." I'm glad I got to enjoy it while I still could.

That's all for now - just a short post today.


Thursday, October 15, 2020

Sad News - Bob Jackson Cycles Closing

It's sad to say it, but another great name in classic bicycles is about to disappear. Bob Jackson Cycles, also known as JRJ Cycles (for John Robert Jackson) is expected to close their doors later this year. Between an aging staff and a global pandemic, the company decided that the time has come to call it quits. 

I contacted the current owner of the company, Donald Thomas, who tells me "It’s as simple as this: we are very much an aging workforce and over the last 10-15 years we have not been able to find younger members of staff willing to take on this kind of light engineering work and get their hands dirty. So we are simply retiring. We have four key members of staff, including me, who have said 'enough is enough - let's stop and have some quality time while we can'." He also noted that sales have been trending downward for a while now, what with aluminum and carbon fiber frames dominating the market.

Thomas cites the current pandemic as another factor - if not due to its direct effects on the business, then because of the way it changes the mindset and rearranges priorities. All in all, I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise - but it still saddens me a bit.

In terms of quality and style, I've always felt that Bob Jackson Cycles were a lot like Mercian, which has long been a favorite of mine. The bikes and the companies just always seemed to have a lot in common: lugged steel frames, made to order with traditional methods and traditional materials. There were also some similar frame models, and paint schemes, etc. But JRJ is/was a bit older than the brand from Derby.

Bob Jackson began producing bicycles in 1935, with a hiatus during WWII while Jackson served in the RAF. Frame production resumed after the war, and over the years the company has produced other brands as well. In the 1950s, they acquired South London-based Merlin Cycles which they produced until some time in the 1980s. In the late 1970s and '80s, they built bikes for Hetchins, which was for a few years under the same ownership as JRJ. Even after Hetchins and JRJ were separated and Hetchins resumed building their own bikes, JRJ retained rights to produce the famous and distinctive "vibrant" or "curly-stay" designed frames. 

The Bob Jackson "Vulcan" (from their 
current website) is the only bike other than
Hetchins authorized to use that "vibrant" rear
triangle design. Brand new, starting at only £850.00 
(about $1100!). Sorry, too late now.

Bob Jackson had retired in 1986, and according to their own history page, the company had some troubled years following. In 1993, about the time that the Hetchins and JRJ companies separated, Donald Thomas took control of JRJ Cycles, with Bob Jackson as an advisor, and brought new energy for improvements and expansion. All building and painting operations were updated and brought in-house for better quality control. Mr. Jackson died in 1999, but the company continued.

I suppose signs that the company was "winding down" have been popping up for a couple of years now. They had a retail shop which I'm told was closed a few years ago, though frame production continued. Frames could be ordered through their website, either fully custom built or "off the peg." But custom orders were recently halted, and they had stopped taking new work for frame renovations and repairs, which was another thing they were known for. Their website still says folks can order an "off the peg" frame, but that needs to be updated because Thomas says they are not accepting any more new orders at this time. "We have had orders flood in since the word (about the closing) got out, so I would say now, no, sorry we will not have enough time left to build more orders."

Thomas told me the plan is to finish the last of the orders that have come in and close the doors by mid December. When it's all done, he added, "We are going to build ourselves new frames each, the last ones to leave the factory in the 85 years and 30,000 frames we have built."

There really aren't many of the old traditional builders left in Britain any more. Woodrup is still in business, with Kevin Sayles as the builder, and Mercian is still going. I believe one can still get a Hetchins as well. If someone wants a new "keeper of the flame" British-built lugged steel frame, the options are are really thinning out. Such a shame to see it happening. I'll be wishing all the best for the folks at Bob Jackson. You'll be missed, lads.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

A Beautiful Autumn For Biking

There's been lots in the news lately about wildfires in the West, and hurricanes in the South, but for the past few weeks here in Northeast Ohio, we've had just about the best weather for riding a person could ask for. We've had very little rain, mostly sunny days, cool temperatures overnight (down into the 40s typically) but up into the 50s and 60s by afternoon. I've been riding to work nearly every day. In fact, I've only driven my car once since Labor Day.

Early in the morning on my ride to work on Oct. 1st, the clear skies were lit by the harvest moon - seen here, just getting ready to dip below the horizon. It looked huge to my naked eyes, but I only had my phone for a camera, hampered by the limitations of that tiny wide-angle lens. This was one of those times where having my SLR camera with a telephoto lens would have given a much more impressive photo, but that's not something I normally carry with me on my ride to work. October this year will see a second full moon, the "blue moon," on Halloween.

At this point in the season, my rides are in darkness all the way to work, so I'm really relying on my lights for the morning commute.

Our weekends have also been beautiful, and the roads, paths, and other facilities of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park have been booming with cyclists. This morning, which was perfect and clear, with temps in the low 60s, I got up fairly early and suited up for a ride into the valley. The Saturday morning farmers market is still going on in the middle of the national park, and I made a stop for some goodies. There are only a couple more "outdoor" farmers markets scheduled for this year before they move to an indoor venue for the winter. I brought my orange Mercian, which has an assortment of small bags (most of them made by Berthoud of France) which would be useful for carrying my purchases from the market. Vendors have a lot of nice produce to offer, as well as meats, fresh pasta, and bread and other baked goods.

I stopped at the train depot near the historic Botzum farm for a photo on my way through the valley.

The "orange pearl" on the Mercian is a great color for a fall ride. The headtube is done in a cream color that looks very similar to the paint on the train depot. Coming back from the market, those bags will all be full.

Our leaves are only just beginning to turn color for autumn, but I anticipate they will be spectacular in another week. Hopefully our excellent riding conditions continue through that peak of color. 

That's all for now . . .

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Retro Raleigh Replica Revisited

Earlier this month, the Raleigh Team Replica bikes that I talked about back in July started making their way to buyers. They are being produced in a limited run of 250 bikes - some sold as framesets, while others are complete bicycles with a mix of Campagnolo, Cinelli, and various retro-styled components. I don't know if many (or any?) of them ended up coming to the U.S., as they were never actually offered for sale here officially. (Keep in mind that Raleigh in the U.S. is NOT the same company as Raleigh in the U.K.). But now that the actual bikes are getting "out there" into the public, it seemed worthwhile to check back on them.

This was one of the promotional photos from Raleigh's website. The bike looks pretty good from "back here."

Just to remind readers, the framesets are being sold for £1500, while complete bikes are £2500. No prices were given in U.S. dollars (like I said, the bikes weren't actually offered here) but those prices would work out to about $2000 and $3200 respectively, assuming a U.S. buyer could get one shipped stateside. That didn't sound too out of line for a limited-edition frameset built from Reynolds' legendary 753 tubing. So, now that the bikes are getting into customer's hands and people are getting a closer look, what are they saying?

Sorry to say - but reactions seem to be mixed.

The folks at Cyclingnews.com reviewed the bike, and overall their review seemed mostly positive. They called it "A safe and thoroughly enjoyable ‘Sunday best’ ride whether you remember the original or not." They liked the bike's iconic and retro styling, its great steel ride, and "surefooted" handling. Their negatives mostly seemed to center on the things most modern bike reviewers seem to focus on with any bike built with classic/vintage appeal: downtube shifters, toe-clip/strap pedals, skinny handlebars, etc. Other folks who have posted about the bike have also complemented the classic "steel bike ride" quality.

Harsher criticism of the project is coming from folks who are the most familiar with the original team bikes, which were built by Raleigh's Specialist Bicycle Development Unit (SBDU). One such expert on the SBDU bikes is Neil McGowran, who has recently taken delivery of one of the new framesets and has posted photos and his observations on his blog, raleigh-sb4059.com. As one might expect, any close comparison between the new, made-in-Taiwan replica and an original SBDU vintage bike is not going to go so well for the new bike.

Photos of Neil McGowran's frame. (from his blog, used with permission). 

Some critique has been leveled at the new bikes for things like decal placement and size (the new graphics, lettering, etc. are a bit smaller than the old). I suppose those are the kinds of things that might bother a person who is really familiar with the original bikes, and who hoped beyond hope that the new bikes would truly replicate the old. Speaking for myself, I think those are pretty minor concerns and I probably wouldn't make too big a deal about the decals being slightly "off" in comparison with the originals - and I'm guessing that a lot of the target buyers, many of whom may have only a passing acquaintance with the vintage versions probably wouldn't even notice the difference. As long as the bike basically "looks the part," they'd likely be satisfied. On the other hand, a lot of the marketing about the bikes prior to their release hyped the level of research that was done into the original bikes, and how much painstaking effort was put into getting the details right and making the new bikes "faithful" replicas. If a person took them at their word, then those little details might justifiably be an annoyance.

Decals and graphics aside, there was at least one area where I know I would be disappointed if I plunked down $2000 on a new bike frame -- and this would be true regardless of whether the bike was supposed to be a faithful replica of an iconic racer or not. McGowran shared some close-up photos of the area around the rear dropouts, and the joinery of the seat- and chain-stays to the dropouts. I was shocked, to say the least.

Featureless frame ends and lumpy joinery mar the new bike. The front fork ends are similarly disappointing. (used with permission from McGowran's blog)

The rear frame ends are apparently laser-cut from thick steel plate. They look like chunky featureless slabs. The Cyclingnews review chalks that up to "modern safety standards," which leaves me shaking my head in wonder. In what way is a chunky slab of a dropout safer than a proper forged steel one (which would be stronger, lighter, and better-looking)? Obviously the forged Campagnolo-brand dropouts of the vintage bikes are no longer made - but nearly identical versions (without the Campagnolo name) are still made and readily available, almost certainly from the same source that provided the new bike's lugs.

Besides the chunky dropouts in and of themselves, the way they are joined to the stays leaves so much to be desired, as well as a lot of questions. The lumpy, unfinished joints would not look out of place on a cheap steel bike selling for $500 (for the complete bike!) - but are a serious disappointment on a frame in this price range. My first thought was they look like they were welded, not brazed. McGowran says they were, indeed, welded - which surprised the hell out of me. Everything I've read and heard about Reynolds 753 tubing says that the only acceptable method for joining the tubes is low-temperature brazing, usually with silver instead of brass. Folks who know much more about framebuilding and metalworking than I ever will have said that welding with 753 tubing would either destroy it, or at the very least, eliminate its heat-treatment properties. Now I learn that Reynolds apparently says it can in fact be TIG welded. Call me puzzled. But also, even if they were indeed welded, could the welds not at least have been "cleaned up" to make them look smoother?

Another area that raises some questions is the weight of the frame. One of the features of a classic 753 frame - and what made them so sought-after - was the low weight, which was due to the extra-thin wall thickness of the tubes (said to be as thin as .3 mm in some versions!). Putting the new frame on the scale (56 cm frame with all fittings, etc. removed) showed a weight of 2027 grams, which is about 250 - 300 grams more than what one should expect from a vintage 753 frame in the same size, and making it closer in weight to a vintage frame built with venerable 531 tubing. What's going on here? If I had to guess, I'd say that while Reynolds may have produced a limited run of their heat-treated 753 tubing, they must not have drawn it to the ultra thin-walled dimensions that were used in the past. If true, I have no doubt that the decision was made in the interest of longevity, safety, and reducing future warranty claims. Once the tubes are built into a frame, it's nearly impossible to accurately measure the wall thickness, but the extra weight provides a strong clue. 

Will most of the people who buy the new Raleigh Team replica bikes notice or care about these things? I don't know. I assume that a lot of the potential buyers are looking for a nice steel bike with some vintage appeal and the right amount of "cred" but don't want to deal with whatever hassles they may perceive would come with finding an actual vintage bike. Maybe the target buyer is someone who wants a "new" bike, with "modern" components that looks and feels like a vintage one. If they've mostly cut their teeth riding aluminum and/or carbon fiber bikes, then little things like chunky dropouts with lumpy welds probably won't even catch their attention. It's hard to argue that the bike doesn't look good (at least from a few feet away) and that it will definitely stand apart in a sea of bloated popped-out-of-a-mold carbon fiber bikes. And there seems to be no disagreement that the bike does offer a nice classic steel ride, which is a very important consideration for any bike (that is, if you're not a snob - which I think I probably am). 

I mentioned at the end of my previous article on the Raleigh Team replicas that I would not be in the market for one. And now that the bikes are out there, I'm more convinced that people like me probably aren't the "target market." If I were really interested in a Raleigh Team replica, I would take my time and search the vintage market to find one of the original SBDU bikes. And if I were looking for a new bike with vintage-style construction and appeal, I'd get something built by a custom builder here in the States, or (as I've done several times over the years) get it built by a "keeper of the flame" builder in the U.K., like Mercian. Heck, Mercian might even have a couple sets of the original 753 tubing still on hand. If not, one can get similar characteristics from 725 (heat treated chrome moly) and 853 (heat treated and air-hardening alloy) - both of which are readily available.

Wrapping it up - I still think it's pretty cool that Raleigh saw fit to make a bike like this -- a bike that should be a retrogrouch's dream. More power to them. But it's important to remember that while the Team replica attempts to imitate the look/style of a vintage bike - it is NOT a vintage bike. Rather, like most other bikes built today, it is a modern bike built to a "price point" in one of the same Taiwanese factories that cranks out mass-produced bikes by the the millions. 

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Back To Work - Back To Biking

Well, I'm back to work.

After schools had shut down due to the virus back in March, I was working from home for a few months, followed by summer break. Other than our family camping vacation (for about a week) I spent almost the whole summer painting my house and not riding as much as I might have otherwise.

The entire summer was full of uncertainty as we waited to see what/when/how schools were going to reopen in the fall. Ultimately the decision was left up to every individual district in the state (and probably across the country) to come up with their own reopening plans. Some school districts went full-steam-ahead in mid-August with in-person classes, and no mask mandates, and then made national news when they were forced to quarantine within days due to viral outbreaks.

In my area, every school is on a different schedule and different opening plan. Many have delayed the start date by a few weeks. Some are entirely online. Others are in-person with certain "precautions" (like maintaining "social distance" - which is nearly impossible to enforce with kids in a school setting). My district delayed the start be several weeks, and is beginning with some kind of split schedule where half the kids are in school, while the other half are online, and then they switch on alternate days. We'll just have to see how that goes.

Anyhow, this means I'm back to commuting by bike as often as possible, which is great since that's how I get most of my biking miles. The weather this first week back has been and looks to be favorable for riding.

When we would start back to school in mid-August as normal, there would actually be a hint of daylight when I'd set off for work. Starting after Labor Day, as we did this year, means it's still pitch dark when I leave the house. But within the last few miles I can see the dawn breaking through.

I emerged out of the darkness of a long stretch of woods to see this misty sunrise scene.

This misty field is soon (unfortunately) to be filled with luxury McMansions. Looking closer I could see something moving off there in the distance (just a little black speck near the horizon).


Zooming in, it's a pair of deer. Probably a mother and fawn.

Readers might recall that I'm testing out a Brooks saddle. I moved that over to my commuting mule, figuring that that is the bike that's going to get the most miles on it for the next nine months.


The "Imperial" (B17 with a big cutaway in the top) temporarily replaces the all-weather, rubber-topped C17 on the commuter bike. The dark brown saddle doesn't look bad on the all-black bike - but ultimately I don't much care what the commuter mule looks like. In many ways it's kind of an assault on my retrogrouchy sensibilities, but that's why I got it -- I don't hesitate to ride it in bad weather, and I don't worry about riding through the salty slush of winter the way I would on a classic steel bike. I'm still withholding judgement on the cutaway saddle until it gets broken-in. However, I will say that the C17 I had been using was, in my opinion, a very nice saddle. Count me a fan of that one.

That's all for now. Welcome Back.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Portage

Long before Europeans settled the part of Northeast Ohio which is now Akron and Summit County, Native American tribes lived and moved freely about the area, using the rivers as almost a natural highway. Shawnee, Iroquois, Delaware, Wyandott, Huron, Ottawa, and Miami Indians are among the tribes believed to have traveled by canoe between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River, and from there, to the Mississippi and possibly all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

There was one hitch, however, to making the trip entirely by canoe: there was no waterway connection from the Cuyahoga River, which flows to Lake Erie, to the Tuscarawas River, which flows to the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers. Perhaps thousands of years ago, Native Americans made an overland trail to connect the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas Rivers -- an 8-mile stretch known today as the "Portage Trail." Today, the ends of the trail are marked by matching sculptures depicting a Native American carrying (or portaging) a canoe. One of these stands a couple miles from my home, at the edge of the valley roads I routinely bike on.

Riding through the valley the other day, just a couple miles north of the bronze Indian portaging his canoe, I had to do a version of some portaging myself. I got to a "Road Closed" sign blocking the way north along the main valley road and decided to ignore it, as I frequently do. Well, a little further up the road I found why it was closed. A huge tree had fallen over, completely blocking the road.

Couldn't go around it, so I just hoisted the bike up onto my shoulder and started climbing over the fallen tree. As I scrambled out of the tangle of branches with my bike, I saw a police officer on the other side, sitting in his SUV watching me. "Can't do that with a car," I told him, as I remounted my bike and rode off.

OK - so it wasn't anything like an 8-mile trek, but still. . . that's one of the great things about a bike, isn't it?

Rarely am I deterred on a bike ride from a closed road, unless I know for certain that it's truly impassable. On a bike you can almost always find a way to get through. Bridge out? I've been known to scramble down riverbanks and ravines, wade through streams, and climb back up the other side with my bike on my shoulder. Once, on a ride many miles from home, and on unfamiliar roads, I got to a bridge that was in the process of being rebuilt. Turning back and following a detour was going to add many miles to what was already a very long ride, so it was portage time. There was no roadway - just I-beam spans across a stream. Being a Sunday and no workers around, I picked up the bike and walked carefully over the spans to the other side. A bit foolhardy, perhaps, but no regrets.

I recall some years back when a major flood hit the Cuyahoga Valley. Sections of the two main roads that flank the east and west banks of the river were under water - at least a couple of feet deep in some parts. Car travel was impossible. I went for a ride the next day, and there were several stretches where I was wading knee-deep - with shoes in one hand, and bike on my shoulder. I remember one section where I could see a car stranded in the deepest part, with water half way up to the windows. Obviously some idiot thought he could make it across. On the other side I found a lady in a minivan watching me wade across the flood, and she was actively contemplating whether she should attempt to drive through. The stranded car was apparently not enough of a deterrent. 

As I emerged from the water carrying my bike, she asked me "Do you think I can get through?"

"I don't know," I answered, and pointing to the bike on my shoulder, I asked "Can you do this?"  

She didn't press the issue.

Being able to go where cars cannot, or ignoring signs that say "Road Closed," feels not only a bit rebellious, but also like getting a free pass, or like being part of an exclusive club, or knowing a secret handshake.

Portage-ability. Just one of many awesome things about a bike.