I’ve been riding my Raleigh Superbe quite a bit lately. When I got the Brompton back in October, I pretty much rode that exclusively for two months. Then I rotated to the Bantam, as I wanted to get some more “ride” rides in. Now it’s the Superbe’s turn for attention. And I’m not feeling any itch to “switch it up” anytime soon. I’ve used it for everything, even longer rides where the Bantam excels. Why is that? It’s because the Superbe is such a versatile machine.
The “sports” model roadster came about sometime in the earlier part of the twentieth century. I’m not exactly sure when, but I’d say just after World War I. The sports or light roadster differed from the full-on roadster in weight (hence, light) and geometry (hence, sports.) It hit that sweet spot between robust but heavy roadsters and speedy, responsive but perhaps too light “club” racing bikes. It was the hybrid of the day, and was used for both utility (like a roadster) and even racing for riders not wealthy enough to have a dedicated club bicycle. Its heyday in the UK was from the 1930s up to the 1960s. This period overlapped with several decades of austerity in the British Isles: from the Great Depression, through World War II, and the post-war slump and rebuilding. Having a do-all bike was a necessity for the working and lower middle class, people who couldn’t afford to have more than one bicycle. It got people to their jobs, helped them shop, got them out of the city on weekends, brought them across the island on summer holidays, and stripped of accessories, could even race.
Knowing all that history, it never ceases to amaze (and amuse) me of how some people now think they are incapable bicycles. And this isn’t an attitude limited to the general public, there are “three speed enthusiasts” who won’t ride them for more than five miles. I don’t get it. Sure, they’re now making bikes with 1 or 2X13 gearing. But more isn’t always better, and it’s not always necessary to have “the best” to do something. Sometimes good enough is, well, good enough.
And I love challenging the idea that sports roadsters are not “appropriate” bikes for “real” riding. Last week I took it on a great twenty mile ride on the east side, all the way to the base of Powell Butte. I didn’t go up, not that I don’t think the bike can handle it (it can, and has), but it was just too late in the day. I even did a little “rough stuff”, though I’m not doing too much of it right now. Not that I don’t think that the bike can handle it (it can, and has), but because we’ve had a very wet winter. Even my Bantam would have a tough time on the saturated, muddy trails.
I got my Raleigh Superbe in September of 2015. My then three-speed, my Raleigh Wayfarer, was my education in British three speeds, and served me well for almost five years. But it was having issues. The original paint was not good, so a friend who wanted to get into bicycle painting offered to repaint it. After two attempts, the results were not good: Paint was flaking off. I was either going to have to get it powdercoated ($$$) or find a different yet similar bike. Thankfully there are plenty of sports frames out there. And just at the right time Todd B wanted to get rid of a 1968 Superbe. It was the real deal: that lovely green, an actual Dynohub and fork lock, pump pegs. The paint was in good shape too. So I bought it, and in the following months and with the help of Steve M, the bike got fixed up into what it is today.
The bike has always been a joy to ride. There’s something “just right” in frame geometry, the ride quality (even though it’s lowly hi-ten steel, not chromoly) and the vibe. It’s fun riding an upright bike. And there’s something fun about riding a vintage bike, especially since we’re in a society that only values the new and shiny. Some people couldn’t fathom riding a bike without the newest technologies, whether it be e-assist, hydraulic disc brakes, electronic shifting, etc. Riding a vintage bike goes counter to all that, saying “I don’t need all that crap on my bike, what I have is just fine.”
Riding the Superbe to the library the other night, something hit me: this is the only vintage bike I currently own. Well, OK, I still have the Heavy Duti, but I mothballed it, awaiting a final fate. My other two bikes are modern bicycles purchased new: the Bantam and the Brompton. There were many years that all I owned was vintage bikes, or I’d have one modern bike with everything vintage. The idea of having one vintage bike felt a little weird all the sudden. I’m sure I’ll have another at some point, but I’m not actively looking.
And right now I don’t want or need another sports roadster three speed. One is enough. I’ll ride the Superbe until it fails, which hopefully won’t be for a long time. And if and when that happens I’ll find another sports bike and move the good bits and bobs over from the Superbe. The beauty of the sports roadster is essentially the frames were all the same, virtually unchanged over many decades. But that means I don’t need to own two, unless I found something special, something rare, like an earlier model, or a nice Schwinn made lightweight. Those are fairly rare and pricey, and I’m not actively looking. And after two attempts at creating a “path racer” with a sports frame, if I want to try again, I’ll find a nicer sport-touring frame from the 70s or so, something with lighter chromoly tubing.
Another reason to not get another Raleigh Sports equivalent is I’ve gotten the Superbe to the point I want it to be. I don’t need to recreate it in another bike. My Superbe has aluminum rims. Some afficionados claim that the original steel rims ride better, but I don’t feel any difference. And riding year round in Portland, I want brakes that stop a wheel in wet weather. I think that tires make more of a difference in ride quality. I put Panaracer Col de la Vie tires back on. They are possibly the widest and “most supple” tires you can buy for 26″ x 1 3/8″ wheels, though admittedly there’s little competition. I didn’t like the tires that much when I first tried them years ago, too many flats. But I found that the secret is keeping the tires inflated to at or just under max inflation of 45 psi. Before I was too worried about the “low pressure” so I pumped them a good 5 to 10 psi over the limit. A few parts migrated over from the Crested Butte, namely the wider Brooks B72 saddle and the leather grips. I also got Velo Orange Left Bank bars, as I wanted something more “straight back” than Albatross bars. I’ve liked them so far.
The most interesting thing about riding the Raleigh Superbe, or three speeds in general, is that it rarely feels inadequate. Instead it feels good enough for the task at hand. Yes, the Bantam is going to be better for distance, touring, and rough-stuff, but I don’t treat the Superbe the same way. For instance, on that Friday ride to almost Powell Butte, I encountered one short but steep hill. On the Bantam I’d push it into the lowest gear and grunt. On the Superbe? I walked it. There’s no shame for walking a hill. I wouldn’t use the Superbe on mountainous terrain, but it can handle a grade up to 7% just fine. It won’t be my touring bike, but I definitely will be doing some bike overnights and short tours. I’ve biked up to fifty miles at one time on the Superbe, pretty respectable.
Would the Superbe be my only bike? No, I like having more than one bike, and I’m not getting rid of the Bantam or Brompton any time soon. But what if I wanted to go minimalist? Could I survive with a mid-century three speed made of mild steel? Yes, I could. I’m sure some folks would scoff at that idea. Then again, plenty of folks had/have only a fixed gear bicycle, and you don’t hear much scoffing about that. A three speed bicycle is three times more versatile than a fixie! 1 And I have put my Superbe through the paces to know that it is a capable machine.
The Raleigh Superbe has served me well for six years. Here’s to many more!
1 For the “well, actually” folks: Yes, I know that “fixed gear” is a misnomer, as it’s not about the gears, but about the wheel (or lack of freewheel.) It is entirely possible to have a “fixed gear” bike with multiple speeds. In fact, Sturmey-Archer has made three speed fixed geared hubs. But 95% of people only think a “fixed-gear” bike can have only one speed, and I’m guessing that 98% of fixies only have that one speed.