A Nurse with a Gun

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Raleigh Grand Prix Single Speed

Americans can sometimes be fickle creatures, and those who manufacture products for sale in the States will sometimes simply produce what is selling. It's the nature of business. Raleigh, of Nottingham England, is a long time bicycle producer with a history of brisk sales in the U.S. Still, they followed the trends for sales to the American consumer, Click to enlargedelivering the Raleigh "Chopper" to compete with the Schwinn Stingray, and a plethora of multi-speed bicycles from the three speed "Sport" to 12 speed racing machines during the great bike boom era. To my knowledge, other than cruisers, they never aggressively marketed a single speed classic bicycle to the adult market in the United States. The closest they came was the three speed Raleigh Sport. Thus, if I wanted such a thing as a single speed Raleigh, it was up to me to build it.

I started with a 63cm Raleigh Grand Prix 12 speed racing bike frame in bronze green. The frame was a chromoly steel lugged frame, the kind many cyclists bemoan the loss of, with the advent of lightweight aluminum frames. It had a tall head tube, and a threaded bottom bracket for the venerable Raleigh cottered crank. It came with a steel front fork, with chromed tips. The gold and black decals were present and accounted for, but had become battered a bit over time. The paint was glossy verdant metalflake with the usual assortment of mystery scratches etching it's surface. Click to enlargeI removed the braze ons. Perfect.

I wanted to spin the original tall skinny 27 inch by one and a quarter chrome steel rims, and I was lucky enough to find an original high flange Raleigh front wheel on ebay, along with the quick release skewer. I quickly sniped it. I also sniped a cottered crank from a Raleigh Superbe. The Superbe is the classic English three speed roadster made by Raleigh, a bicycle that is rare on this side of the pond, but as ubiquitous as fog in old London. The Raleigh cottered crank is a heavily chromed steel 46 tooth 1/8 inch unit with three Raleigh herons cut into it. The crank arms slide onto square spindles and are wedged into place with steel "cotters." It fit right onto the Grand Prix bottom bracket.

The rear hub presented a challenge. I considered a fixed gear for a while. The horizontal rear forks of the Grand Prix frame would lend itself to such a conversion, but I wanted a bike that was as pleasing to ride as it was simple. Click to enlargeA fixie would demand cables and brake levers for me. I opted to go with a coaster brake for simplicity's sake. I was surprised to find one new from Sturmey-Archer, a British manufacturer of parts for Raleigh. The next problem was finding a suitable rim that would match the chrome front rim. After asking around, I decided to purchase a low flange front rim and lace it up myself. Once laced and trued, the coaster brake rear wheel slid right into the rear forks of the Grand Prix, and I capped off the axle ends with chrome acorn nuts. Leverage is kept under control by a heavy brass strap around the left chainstay. For rubber, I opted for prototypal gumwall racing slicks. I used a nickel plated chain from KMC to connect the drivetrain.

It would have been commonplace to install drop handlebars, or a "chop and flop" set of messenger bars. I wanted an upright riding position. I looked towards the Raleigh Superbe again, Click to enlargeand acquired a set of vintage "North Road" handlebars which I capped off with real cork grips, and installed on a tall British stem. An Electra bell lets pedestrians know I'm approaching.

The seat is one of my favorites, a lightly sprung Brooks Champion Flyer in honey brown. These classic leather seats are still made by the original manufacturer, Brooks of Birmingham, England. Many people shun the leather suspension saddle, saying they must be broken in like a new pair of shoes. I have not had that problem. Whether they need no breaking in, or whether they adjust to the rider's bone structure over time, there is nothing quite like a sprung and suspended leather saddle for comfort. I used a modern micro-adjustable aluminum seatpost to mount the saddle to the frame.

Many people would wonder why so much effort was invested in revitalizing an old bike such as this. The truth is, it's hard to explain. An understanding can best be found through riding the bike. Click to enlargeThe ride quality of the vintage steel Raleigh frames is like no other. It is stiff and unyielding to the rider's effort at pedalling. The lugged and brazed joinery that connects the sections of tubing is both beautiful and superbly engineered. The durability, height and ease of speed provided by the tall steel wheels and narrow rubber is something few bikes can match. Minimal exertion is required to propel the machine at hair blowing speeds. The look of the bike is pure yesteryear, a relaxed but efficient velocipede. The traditional road bike frame geometry and wheelset combined with the upright riding posture and a clear expanse of uncluttered handlebars typical of a cruiser makes for a unique old school ride. Add the durability of a chunk of granite, and there is nothing else quite like it. This is most certainly a bicycle that Raleigh should have built!

Ironic Twist

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Anonymous Bubbafats said...

You deserve some of the credit for my newest obsession: bicycles. You are one "multi-faceted dude" and I enjoy your gun and bike blogs. I too collect guns (not on your scale, though) and love bicycles, particularly mountain bikes. Based on this article, I ordered a black Brooks Champion Flyer for my hardtail Trek mountain bike. My bike's current configuration batters my middle-aged lower-back, and the Brooks saddle seems like the ticket for relief. I was going to buy a pneumatic seat-post, but the sprung seat is the best way to go, and I love the looks of it, as I am an Anglophile and love all things British. THANK YOU FOR YOUR FINE BLOG!

7:32 AM  
Anonymous Chris said...

gorgeous bike!

9:22 PM  
Anonymous Susan said...

It looks like an antique!

5:59 AM  
Anonymous bickernaut said...

that is one of the coolest singlespeeds ever!

9:48 AM  
Anonymous Buffy said...

I want!

12:35 PM  
Anonymous k-beck said...


9:52 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Congratulations on the Raleigh; I did effectively the same thing with a 65cm in the same colors, although I went with Mustache bars from Rivendell and a set of SKS fenders for Atlanta's wet weather when living there. Although I later gave the bike to a deserving commuter, I still recall the Raleigh fondly.

Thanks also for your excellent blog, it's on my daily list and I look forward to all of your postings. Soon I hope to return to the embrace of the 1911, as like yourself, I'm retreating from the seduction of the "wonder-nines."

8:32 PM  
Anonymous gaia said...

I am very interested in your edits to this Raleigh Grand Prix. I am buying one off of craigslist and I love the look and feel of a single speed bike, and I too dislike riding fixed gears. I was wondering if you knew of any more cost effective wheel and gearsets I could replace the originals with, as I am a poor college student.

3:28 PM  
Blogger idotel said...

I have an 85 Grand Prix. Just converted it to Single Speed. Questions if I may. re-packing the crank on this thing -easy or hard? re-aligning the crank so it sits closer to the frame to get a better chain line - possible?

3:44 PM  
Blogger Xavier said...

Repacking the crank? Easy as pie. You just need the proper tools for access.

I would recommend working with the rear hub and spokes for alignment issues.

1:37 AM  

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