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 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, 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.