Wednesday, October 20, 2010

America's Vintage Bike Capital?

I wonder whether there is a way to get some official acknowledgement naming Boston the vintage bicycle capital of the USA. Because the sorts of bicycles we see here - and take for granted - during our daily travels, are not to be believed. Restored 50-year-old roadsters casually locked up outside office buildings, ancient step-throughs with exotic headbadges and enormous baskets, vintage folders of unknown manufacture used as canine transport - these are just some of the bicycles I see every day as I make my way through the city. Normally, I have no time to stop and photograph even a small fraction of it all, but today the Co-Habitant was with me and a couple of the bikes absolutely required documentation.

Just so you understand, this all-original 1950's Raleigh Sports with front and rear dynamo lights and original white Raleigh grips(!) is actually someone's commuter.

Secured with a U-lock to a bike rack outside a small local university, it looked so natural amidst the mixed crowd of other bikes, including a fully lugged Specialized and a couple of Peugeot mixtes.

The headlight and tail light seemed functional. These must provide sufficient lighting for the owner's commute, as there were no other lights attached to the bike. Anybody know how powerful they are?

But exciting as it was to see the beautiful vintage Raleigh, it paled in comparison to what we stumbled upon next. Yes, that is my Gazelle, Linda, parked next to... another vintage loop-frame Gazelle.

What are the chances? Unlike Raleigh 3-speeds, Gazelle "Oma" bicycles of this vintage were never imported into the USA and were never sold here.

Both my bicycle, and the bicycle next to it, have stickers indicating that they were purchased in Germany (not in the same shop or even the same town). And the (yet another) vintage Gazelle I spotted nearby a year ago, had a Dutch shop sticker on it. The bicycles' owners must have at some point brought them on the plane when moving to Boston, probably for grad school or for post-doctoral positions.

Seeing the other Gazelle and remembering the third one I spotted earlier, made me wonder whether they still belong to the same owners who brought them over from Germany and Holland. Either way, those bikes must have been dearly loved, at least at the time. Transporting a 50lb bicycle on an airplane could not have been easy!

Overall, my Linda was in nicer condition than her neighbour, but one thing that evoked her envy was this mudflap on the other lady. Now she is asking me to get one for her, too. I think a leather one (possibly hand-made?) would go well with her saddle and grips, but I am curious whether these Gazelle proprietary flaps are still sold today. Also, they seem to be attached by a bracket that does not necessitate drilling the fender, but makes use of the existing holes for the stays, which seems like a fairly easy installation method.

I think that to spot several bicycles like this in an American city is highly improbable. Surely it is proof that Boston is the vintage bike capital? If you have a better story about your city, bring it on!

27 comments:

  1. Very impressive.

    We have many vintage American cruisers from the 40's and 50's here in Southern California, and a multitude of 70's bike boom road bikes, but very few European city bikes. I'd love to buy a used Gazelle, but shipping a new one over from Europe seems wasteful.

    Bad form on locking the bike to a tree, however. If I met the owner, I would have to scold him or her.

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  2. I know this is unrelated, but what make is your trench coat? I have been looking for a new one, and I think yours has all the right classic elements.

    On topic, having recently visited Boston, I couldn't help but wonder in general what makes it such a cycle-crazy city do you think? You'd that more people would be into riding in the more mild climate where I live, but that is in no way the case.

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  3. Wow...so many vintage bikes. What are the odds of finding another Gazelle? Though, now that I ride a loop frame, I see loop frames everywhere.

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  4. Anon - Banana Republic outlet in Kittery, ME, circa 2008. It has a flattering cut and has held up impressively to wear and travel. I think BR still sells some version of these.

    I think what turned Boston into a cycling city is the pre-existing presence of the culture, followed by infrastructure. There are many local bike builders, many vintage bikes around, and the late Sheldon Brown was a world-famous advice giver. But I am sure there is more to it as well.

    Joseph E - I too am guilty of locking bikes to trees when no other alternatives exist : (

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  5. One of my coworkers rides in on a Schwinn Breeze with sparkly paint, and another has an old Fleet Wing. I see old Schwinns, Raleighs, Fujis, Peugots, Nishikis, etc., etc. around here all the time. It's probably due to a variety of factors--traditional Yankee frugality (don't throw anything away), the vast and constantly rotating student/university population (always on the lookout for a cheap ride), the relatively liberal/eco-friendly politics, the relative compactness of the urban areas, and so on.

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  6. Very nice! That Raleigh Sports is very similar to mine actually - a 1953 - though mine doesn't have the original lights or grips (though the guy I bought it from had the grips and they were black, but cracked lengthwise). Mine does have fenders, and the Dynohub however, so I do have a front headlight attached, and mine has a wide-range 4-speed SA hub. Mine also doesn't have the handlebars flipped upside-down. Right now, it's my only bike, so it's my commuter as well as my grocery bike and everything else.

    In terms of Dutch bicycles, you really don't see anything but new here in Portland - or at least I haven't that I've been aware of. You see tons of 1970's era Schwinns, Raleighs, Fujis and a few other big names, but almost all of the older bikes you see here are either light roadster style like the Sports, or road racing (or imitation road racing) bikes.

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  7. i have the same taillight on my 1951 raleigh DL1, and a newer headlight. neither are adequate for everyday commuting (and expectantly, neither has a standlight function, further limiting their practicality as daily commuter lights).

    the gazelle mudflap is most likely made by axa-basta, the dutch parts comglomerate that makes (or at one time made) many accessories for the dutch bike industry (including fenders, lights, bottle generators and locks). gazelle being a manufacturer of large enough volume probably ordered large lots of mudflaps molded with their insignia. the flap is very similar to the flap i bought from DBC boston, which was axa-branded. the one i bought also required no additional hardware to install.

    as a side note, i found the wide flap to be relatively worthless, as it didn't protect my feet from spray any more than the fender itself, and it kept hitting my feet on turns. by contrast, i found the most effective protection to the feet and bottom bracket area to be achieved by fenders being as long as posisble. i.e., the wide flare-out is not important, the length is.

    i think boston is a large vintage bike mecca for several reasons, and those reasons may be inter-related: there is a rich history of cycling "firsts" in the area (boston had the first raleigh dealership in the nation), there are many long-established and legendary bike shops, and there is a long history and high concentration of legendary independent bike builders here. add to all this, an enormous student population looking for budget "beater" campus bikes generating a booming used bike resale market.

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  8. I am envious of your vintage bikes. I definitely think Boston is vintage bike capital of the US.

    More contributing factors: so many universities and students who need to get around whilst carrying heavy things and might not have tons of money. And the public transport is terrible and inconvenient.

    We have more Schwinns and Ross Eurotours than Raleighs here. But there are plenty of Sports. I almost never see a DL-1, though. Which means I almost never contemplate bike theft :)

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  9. tis always nice to see rear mudguards painted half-white, which dates from WWII blackout regulations

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  10. Thanks for the trench tip, it looks like BR's still making one that's virtually identical :)

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  11. I see nothing like these bikes out and about in Salt Lake City. It is to the point that my Pashley Princess is kind of an anomaly.

    When I was at the Farmer's Market this summer, I did spot another Pashley. The owner had bought it used so it was a little older than mine. I have to admit, I couldn't tell if I was happy or sad to see another Pashley. I was kinda getting used to the idea that I was one-of-a-kind in the city.

    But you know, it would be so awesome to stumble on these kind of bicycles more often. To know there are bicycle kindred spirits in my town.

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  12. I would have thought Chicago or thereabouts. Home of Schwinn and the original home of the Bike League. You do make a strong case for Boston, however.

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  13. another observation i've noticed about the boston area is that the types of bikes differ from town to town. it seems that in boston proper and on the north side of the river (cambridge and somerville, notably) there are more vintage bikes, especially old 3-speeds. then it seems that the south and southwestern towns and neighborhoods (jamaica plain, for instance) has more fixies and modern bikes. and of course, towns like quincy and braintree don't have bikes (except for perhaps one vintage one that i've heard lives in a photography studio :-)). i have no explanation for this, it's just an observation i've made.

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  14. Steve - I don't hear that many stories about vintage bikes in Chicago. they have a few very nice bike stores that specialize in modern classic Dutch, Danish and English bikes, and I imagine those are a lot more common on the streets than vintage bikes.

    Kara - I know what you mean! Even in Boston, my Pashley Princess was an anomaly, because she was just so shiny and beautiful. Later I saw another on one of the local rail trails and my first thought was "hey, that's my bike you're riding!" But that's why I think it's nice to do little things here and there to personalise your bike, no matter what brand it is. Bikes can have personality too!

    somervillain - the Waffenrad bike I ride when in Vienna has a large mudflap on the front fender, and I had no problems hitting my toe. But I did try another bike in a bike shop once where the mudflap did create toe overlap. So I guess it depends on the bike + flap combination.

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  15. My mother often tells us of the story of her family emigrating to Australia by boat from Germany in the mid fifties. The kids (I'm not sure of the adults) all dismantled their bikes to transport over in suitcases! My dad emigrated from Italy a few years earlier and he tells us people from there did the same thing.

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  16. Those two Gazelles together is quite a site! Boston definitely has the American market on vintage bikes that are still up and running. The eye candy you often post here demonstrates that clearly. Chicago does win for vintage Schwinns, though, since they used to be manufactured in the city. :)

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  17. California is definitely loaded with classic cars and classic bikes. This reminds me that my 70s Raleigh 3 spd was surprised to meet its exact match on the BART the other day. It's not an uncommon ride, but I don't see many other people lugging them on BART commutes! (I keep meaning to get a second, lighter bike, but by now I'm used to the heavy lifting.)

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  18. I did not know that Schwinn had been made in Chicago, thanks to Steve and Dottie for pointing it out.

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  19. somervillain--I think you're spot-on re the neighborhood variations. Whenever I ride into Boston proper or over the river, I'm struck by the number of "old black bikes" of all sorts, whereas in Jamaica Plain where I live, it's mostly fixies (many with dazzling colors and details) and road bikes. I'm guessing it's due to all the art students over here at MassArt and SMFA--and I'd say that we have more hipster 20-somethings, musicians and bike messenger types, whereas Cambridge and Somerville have that steady turnover base of university students who have probably passed down generations of old Raleighs and Phillips three-speeds. I did see a wonderful hybrid this morning in JP--a black 1950's Raleigh converted to a fixed-gear but with the new but very classic accoutrements of brown cork grips, brass Japanese bell and a shiny toast-colored Brooks saddle.

    The twin Gazelle is amazing though--it must have given the other owner a smile too. I hope you meet up again.

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  20. And a P.S.--the first Raleigh dealership in America--really?? Was it on Boylston Street? I've seen old ads for that store and figured out, I think, that it was across from the Copley library.

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  21. I would agree Boston rules hands down in this category. Have seen some nice vintage bikes putting around places like Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Buffalo too. Possibly rust belt ghosts from the glory days of the industrial age?

    Unrelated, but the other day on Youtube was watching "Stop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before" by The Smiths; the one where the bespectacled look-alike posse of pedal mashers is riding around Salford Lads Club in Manchester (UK). There are several scenes where it caught my eye that Morrissey is clearly pedaling a DL1 roadster. The bike of course would be quite at home in this old Orsdall neighborhood. Just sayin'!

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  22. Boston & Cambridge are certainly good candidates for the vintage bicycling capital, especially if you like the Egnlish bikes.

    I think Boston has always had more bicycling than typical American cities, both because bicycling is easy due to the short distances between different areas, and because driving is difficult and expensive (few straight streets laid out in the 17th Century, congestion, limited parking).

    As noted, there are also lots of schools, huge numbers of students, faculty and many other frugal Yankees that are frustrated with high costs of keeping cars.

    For a long time, Raleigh's US headquarters were in Boston. I have an owner's manual from my parents' bicycles (1974 Sports) that lists the address for the Administrative Office at 1168 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston Mass 02134. I think there were many Raleigh dealers on the East Coast, including the Bicycle Exchange on Bow St. in Harvard Square.

    Philadelphia also has a large number of commuter bikes and vintage 3 speeds. Trophy bikes has switched to selling new bikes, but has good service and still carries Brooks saddles, Carradice bags and lots of racks; they could also provide Sturmey Archer parts the last time I asked.

    Via Bicycle in Philadelphia has a larger range of obscure parts (seems easier to deal with them if you have lots of time to go in person). For a while, just about every interesting 3 speed I saw in Philadelphia or Baltimore came from Via Bicycle, including a number of DL 1's.

    Like Boston, Philadelphia is congested (travel distances are short and cars are no faster than bikes) with expensive insurance and parking, and lots of students.

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  23. I hope that Raleigh Sports didn't get stolen, all someone would have to do to steal it would be to remove the front wheel and slide the fork out of the lock.

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  24. Long, long before this recent popularity of bicycling, a physician and cardiologist named Paul Dudley White (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Dudley_White)was very bravely extolling the virtues of bicycling as daily transportation and the path that runs along the Charles is named after him. During the time when cars were taking over the American landscape, many thought White was either excessively frugal or just plain nutty. The good doctor was more correct than anyone knew. We're all still trying to catch up!

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  25. Mr C--I didn't notice that, it's funny indeed to see the world's best U-lock securing a pair of 15mm lugnuts. :)

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  26. hello ,

    Nice to see all pictures about bike...etc

    Unfortunately,if in my country you should have

    to rid a bike becareful because you were be in

    danger by a truck < real big truck and a lot

    of dust >

    Well, pls,try your imagination rid a bike with

    masque....ha ha ha

    a lovely day for bike capital

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  27. I would suggest those bikes came over by ship.

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