Back in 1985 when I worked at College Cyclery the collective dream mt. bike for all the mechanics was the Alpina Ultima. It would be a year or two before the shop started carrying handbuilt mt. bikes so nice production ones were the best we could get. Even so, the Ultima was better than most anything on the market, production or otherwise. Beyond its substantial double-butted chromoly frame and beautiful tapered fork crown, the Ultima had all the best components; Sugino AT triple crankset, Nitto forged stem, Dia-Compe textured brake levers and so much more. It even had that wacky/wonderful double-quick release seatpost that was popular for, like, 20 minutes.
Sealed bearings were a real big deal, and the Ultima was the most “sealed up” bike you could find. Not only where the hubs, bottom bracket and headset touted as sealed, even the pivot points on the rear derailleur were buttoned up. The Suntour Superbe Tech rear derailleur was undoubtedly the shining star on an already wonderfully appointed bike. Beyond its sealiness, the Superbe Tech also pulled differently from any other derailleur out there, and as we all knew, different meant cool. Rather than the cable looping around to the back, it came angling directly in from its proprietary cable clamp mounted on the chainstay.
The Superbe Tech derailleur also employed the double-pivot system used on various other Suntour rear derailleurs, the Mountech being one of the most popular. It was always a treat to build an Ultima just so you could watch that rear derailleur articulate while in the bike stand.
The bad news was that the Superbe Tech actually didn’t work all that well. It was prone to having play in its pivot points which made for sloppy shifting. We even had one wrap itself around the rear wheel after errantly grabbing a spoke. The upper jockey wheel was also unique to the system, and not in a good way. It wore quickly and was a really pain to replace if indeed you could find a replacement. More than a few Ultimas were converted to standard derailleurs as a result.
I was thus shocked to find this complete Ultima a couple weeks ago. It had all its proper bits and pieces, including its original Superbe Tech. True to the derailleur’s nature, it nearly took out the rear wheel the first time I shifted it, but after some tightening and adjusting it more or less worked as it should. If I were going to ride the bike for any extended time I’d put the Superbe Tech aside and use a more modern derailleur. The Ultima will likely be getting more display time so keeping it stock will be the order of the day.
Little Cat “B” (aka son Lewis) has recently shown interest in learning the family trade. We thus decided to pick a bike to work on together, a wonderful Norman Rockwell father-son moment, if you will. Among the choices; a Motobecane Gran Jubile’, a Univega Gran Turismo, and any of the different Raleigh or Schwinn 3-speeds that had been littering the place as of late. There were also a couple ‘high-enders”, a beautiful C-Record equipped Scapin and the blog aforementioned Gios, but honestly, who’d let a newbie 16-year old boy with a crescent wrench near one of those?
Lewis was fine with any choice, as long as it wasn’t the “President”, a real heaper of a bike. It had been donated and even then I’d nearly turned it away as it was representative of a low point in bicycle manufacturing. Its redeeming qualities were, in order, uhhh…
Ok, so it didn’t have any. It weighed a ton, was poorly equipped and even more poorly constructed. For instance, rather than being spot on parallel with the top tube, the slot at the top of the seat tube was a full 20% off center. That’s a lot. Whoever had welded in the tube had either been blind as a bat or drunk as a skunk. And speaking of frame tubes, the President’s were hollow, but just barely, more akin to gas pipe.
What the bike lacked in desirability or performance it did make up for in expendability. If the President ended up becoming an actual running bike, well then great. If, however, it ended up falling prey to teenage overconfidence or any under-developed skills, no biggie. It was the perfect bike to bounce wrenches off. Though Lewis was less than thrilled by the choice he gamely agreed to give it a go. Good on him because he well knew it was the least palatable choice.
Right off the bat I started second-guessing my decision. The President was going to need more work and more parts than I’d initially figured (big shock). Worse, I found myself making excuses for the semi-functionality of all the subpar components (“Yep, that’s about as true as those rims can be”, or, “You really can’t make these brakes work any better.”) Was there anything to be learned from working on a bike that really wouldn’t improve much, even under the tutorship of a supposed old hand? Would this whole deal be rewarding to Lewis, or was it going to be an exercise in futility? …On his first bike, no less? Maybe he’d end up deciding bicycles were a gigantic pain in the ass and settle on a dull life like in, say, accounting. You know, like his mother.
Through all the many subsequent hours of toil the President sat there, much like the real President during these Covid times; it wasn’t helping out and it didn’t much care, either. Together, Lewis and I took parts off, cleaned and shined them up and then re-installed them in the hope that they’d work, a least a little.
We agreed to work a hour a day but I found myself putting in many more hours in the shop on my own, trying to make a silk purse out of the sow’s ear of my own choosing. Lewis started taking Rocket (his beloved cat) for backyard walks during our daily work time and I’d never seen him take such an interest in the less apparent going’s on of nature in general. He’d stare at the little songbirds at the thistle feeder, watch the winter clouds as they wandered over us, and the bathroom breaks were getting longer and longer. I couldn’t blame him as the bike really was a “Shop-Vac” in that it both sucked and blowed.
New saddle, new tires, new tubes. We threw out the lame 5-speed drivetrain in favor of a period-correct 3-speed setup. New grips, new chain, new handlebars. We scrubbed surface rust from chrome as much as we could, trying to make the bike appealing, at least aesthetically. We put on new fenders because the old ones were deemed unworthy of more effort. We replaced bearings, cables, housing, brake pads and did our level best to make the “bike” an actual bike.
On Day-2 we exceeded the original retail price of the President, on Day-5 we surpassed what any sane person would actually ever pay for it. By Day-8 the total invested was upside down by a factor of 3, possibly 4. The goal was never to recoup every cent, but it was getting ridiculous. It was no longer a bike project, more in line with one of Roosevelt’s New Deal projects.
..And still the bike just looked and functioned ok. OK was not going to cut it, but that’s the best we could hope for. Hoover Dam may have cost a bunch but it really did work quite well. Not so the President.
Coincidentally, we finished the President this morning, the same day our new president was sworn into office. I’d usually attempt some clever comparisons or heady remarks, but I’m tired and just want to put it behind me. The end result of the “Bike New Deal”? It surprisingly looks ok, kinda nice, even. Especially at dusk, though closer to actual nighttime. Lewis test rode it this morning and his take was, “It actually rides ok, Dad. It’s not too bad at all.” High praise indeed.
A by-product of Covid must be Raleigh 3-speeds.
In the past I’ve usually run across one locally every year or two. Sierra Cyclery sold Raleighs in the 1960’s-70’s, but the population of Reno was only 50,000 so there were never too many out there to begin with.
Since Covid started Raleighs have been coming out of the woodwork, to the tune of 8 in as many months. The first two arrived last March, a pair of beautiful deluxe Sports. Next came a Raleigh Twenty, then a women’s Superbe followed by a pair of black men’s Sports, and then another pair of Sports, this time blue and red. All but the Twenty had stickers from Sierra Cyclery.
If my three-speed overhauling skills had ever fallen off they’re certainly getting refreshed now. I’ve been overhauling Dyno hubs, re-keying locking forks, re-dyeing Brooks saddles and generally having a fantastic time.
I also got Covid which wasn’t so fantastic. …Not much of a fan of the virus but I do love the Raleighs so in some small sense it’s been worth it.
(The green Raleighs are done, the Twenty is mostly done and all the others are most certainly not done.)
Well, that was even harder than I’d expected. In the end, it took Jake Barrett and me 30+ hours to get the first Thai pedicab together. 25% of the time was spent researching just what it was supposed to look like when done so we could properly assemble it. Since all three of the White Horse pedicabs were NOS many parts had never been fitted or assembled. We had to determine the proper configuration of all those non-bike looking piece, drill holes in the appropriate places and then hope we were on the right track.
While we were fussing over the mechanical components I also addressed the seat cushions. Over the years they’d morphed from comfortable and pliable to hard and crumbling so our local upholsterer rebuilt them. He was able to save the covers which was a Godsend because there was no way to reproduce them accurately.
So, one down, three to go. We should cut the assembly time quite on the two remaining White Horses, but the Neelam will again be a learning process all over again since it was built in India and is thus a completely different beast.
I thought I was doing great this year. I got so many bikes done during the winter that I kinda slacked off. The problem is, things kept coming in. Good things too, like old Masi’s, some pretty Raleigh 3-speeds and a ton of older mt. bikes. With only 5 days left I’m now way behind. Better put on my rally cap and get down to business.
Jeez, if the average number of bikes sold each year is 15, that’s 375 over the course of 25 years. I guess it’s a good thing we have the sale; otherwise we would have been buried underneath a pile of steel years ago.
Ahh, my first bike, a second-hand 20″ single-speed with a rattle-can red paint job and dented fenders. It was nothing to look at, but I loved it nevertheless. I rode it everywhere, or at least everywhere a 5-year old could. Pretending it was a top-fuel dragster, I’d purposely high-center the rear wheel between its training wheels and pedal with all my might, executing the dirt equivalent of a burnout. I’d use more or less the same method but creep slowly forward, digging long trenches in our driveway, much more efficient than using my Tonka backhoe.
I understand why folks have a strong connection to their first bikes. Like the beat-up little Schwinn-built B.F. Goodrich girl’s bike that showed up here one day 7 months ago. It wasn’t rare, it wasn’t collectible per se… Heck, it wasn’t even a full-size bike, but rather a diminutive 24″ wheel model. The fact that the customer had kept it for 69 years was no accident, though. …And any attempts to talk her out of a full restoration fell on deaf ears: Sometimes a bike is restored not because it’s rare or valuable, it’s love, pure and simple.
The B.F. Goodrich went into the shop queue and soon enough was underway. I discovered there’s something liberating about restoration without worrying about the cost vs. subsequent value. It’s a good thing because the Goodrich threw the scales off almost immediately and never looked back.
So here it is, all shiny and running like a champ. No garage queen, the owner says the bike still fits her so she’s gonna ride it. Maybe I’ll teach her how to do a burnout when she picks it up.
I love them all, of course: old racing and touring bikes, 3-speeds, folders, track bikes, early wood wheel jobs… But the ones that really get my heart pounding are balloon-tire bikes. They’re just so over the top. Tanks, lights, springs, chainguards, horns… all of which could have been pared down weight-wise, or at times, left off completely. My fondness for these beasts obviously has little to do with how they ride, something akin to pedals mounted to a Buick Roadmaster.
So, it’s always a joy and pleasure to bring one back from the dead. Take a gander at the “before” photos and you’ll see a bike that was d.o.a. or at very least, flatlining. What’s worse, it arrived in pieces which always makes things more difficult. Thankfully the bike was more or less original and the owner had been very diligent to keep everything together. He was also infinitely patient throughout the whole restoration process that involved multiple false starts and what seemed like ions waiting for replacement parts, chroming and the like. Hopefully it’s all worth it to him. God knows I’m panting, and not just from test riding it.
We all take breaks from riding. And when we do our trusty steeds sit there patiently gathering dust. If it sits long enough the bike will start to collect grime. We humans tend to like oil in everything from lawn mowers to shrimp scampis and some of that invariably becomes airborne, eventually to alite on “Ol’ Paint”. It can takes years, or you can throw one good Bagna Cauda party and the deed will be done in one evening.
Once everything is good and tacky, simply add pet hair, your hair, lint, another helping of dust in the form of bunnies, etc. and you’ll have what is known in Buzz Bomb nomenclature as a “Fuzzy Kitten”.
As “Kittens” go, this Della Santa is about as good an example as one could hope to find. Note the uniform coating of oily felt on all bits, the wisps of fluff draped from the spokes. It’s nothing short of feline art. Part of me wants to hose it down with Simple Green, while another part wants to hide it away and let it continue on its current path. In another couple decades it could be the bike equivalent of a purple bottle, aged into unexpected beauty. Since the bike has to be prepped for sale it will almost certainly get the hosing treatment, but you get my point.
By the by, the stamping on the bottom of this DS is “GL”, but no, I don’t think Greg LeMond ever owned a Fuzzy Kitten, let alone a 61cm.
(Thanks to G. Lanstyak for allowing me to poke fun of his bike and my apologies if didn’t want me to.)
This Brit two-wheeler arrived from Minnesota a few years ago and was promptly tucked away. Having a dizzying amount of projects can mean that good bikes sometimes don’t see daylight for awhile. A couple weeks ago I decided it was high time Robin Hood was let out of the box, so out it came.
My quandary was what to with the drivetrain. The bike was only a single speed, likely sold as an entry-level bike in 1966. After debating the merits of changing it over to a three speed I ended up leaving it as it was. It might not be as capable to handle hilly Reno, but after a glance down the row of balloon-tire bicycles-cum-boat anchors, I remembered that practicality had never been a strong suit of the collection from the beginning. A single speed it would be, then.
This particular Robin Hood will never be anything beyond a foothill bike; no Mt. Rose Highway or Geiger Grade for this bike. Nevertheless, it’s a dandy ride around the neighborhood, or “The Shire” as my friend Brennan calls it. Speaking of which, the coincidence of Robin Hood” and “The Shire” only clicked a day or so ago. At times I can be a little slow on the take.
As you probably are aware, Raleigh built bikes under various names. Roland Della Santa told me they did this so they could expand their market: one shop would be an exclusive Raleigh dealer, another would sell Triumphs, while a third was carrying Robin Hoods. Roland said the shop he worked at sold Triumphs for a number of years, directly competing with the Raleigh distributor in town. Both shops effectively sold the same product, the only difference was the head badge. …And of all the badges, I like Robin Hoods the best. Rudges are a close second, but nothing has the character of the Prince of Thieves. With his longbow and tights, he certainly cuts a dashing figure.