Monday, March 31, 2014

Spring O'Clock

The Bike Obscured
Did you know that Daylight Saving Time begins on different dates in different parts of the world? In the US, the clocks went forward an hour on the 9th of March this year. In Ireland and the UK this happened on the 30th of March. With the timing of my recent visit back to Boston, I got to experience both. 

It felt odd to have the clocks go forward twice. But it also seemed fitting. So reluctant and fitful was Spring's progress that it begged for a second chance, a restart. And a restart it got. You know how some years, after a watery March bleakness there is suddenly this one day when you go outside and are shell shocked by the explosion of green? 

Spring in the Roe Valley
The day the clocks went forward, this happened. And I found myself on the bike, tripping out of my mind at the sight of this colour burst and its accompanying scents. 

Starting off with one of my usual winter flat routes, I found it hardly recognisable. Where flooded brown fields used to be I now flew past carpets of buttercups and swathes of whin hedgerows, past clusters of fledgling fruit tree blossoms and pastures of freshly cut grass dotted with daisies. At first my eyes, unused to such splendor, kept averting defensively, reluctant to accept such a feast after a months-long famine. "Don't take it in all at once after a winter of colour-starvation. You'll make yourself sick!" 

But I don't care, I want to eat it all up. I let my eyes open wide, and I stare, I take it all in - already knowing that these images will flash and replay in my mind as I try to get to sleep later that night, after a day shortened by the time change.

Yellow, Red, Blue and Green
A gentle 15mph crosswind pushes at my shoulder playfully, as if to show how friendly and benign it is. As if to say, "Remember all those times this winter I tried to knock you off the bike with 40mph gusts? That's all in the past now. I am a changed wind, honest!"

Do I believe him and head for the hills for the first time since December? I go for it. The backroads that twist their way up and down the Roe Valley look rejuvenated since the last time I'd seen them, like a friend after returning from holiday - fresh-faced and healthy, glowing in their breezy jewel-tone resort attire. 

Amidst the greenery and the sunshine and the road's seductive undulations I get lost in the moment, and that moment turns into hours. 

Shadow Over Buttercups
Finally turning up the farm lane toward home with the waning still-warm sun at my back, I inhale the dizzying scent of cut grass one more time. And then I wave an eager good-bye to that grim, wind-battered, teary-eyed ordeal known as Winter Cycling. It took two clock changes. But spring has gotten a reboot, and so have I. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Call of the Robin's Egg Blue

Raleigh Sports in Robin's Egg Blue
When I first saw the turquoise hued frame, I assumed it was an aftermarket repaint - not an unusual state of affairs around these parts. But drawing nearer, it became obvious by the amount of wear and tear that its colour was original. An early '60s Raleigh Lady Sports, in robin's egg blue. An iconic colour in the bicycle industry, to be sure. Just not iconic to the English 3-speeds of that era - a breed better known for its sombrer palette of oxide greens, matte blacks and root-beery coppers.

Raleigh Sports in Robin's Egg Blue
At some point all bicycle lovers experience that feeling of "Man, I am way too into this." For me this happens about once a week. And yet, it never gets old. "I've never seen one in this colour," I whisper, my heartbeat quickening. 

Raleigh Finish Selection for Export, 1960s
In response a 1962 Export catalogue is swiftly produced, its pages flung open to a rainbow-like spread of finishes. A dazzling range of powders and pearls, the likes of which most have never seen on an old 3-speed.

Raleigh Finish Selection for Export, 1960s
Let alone the "flamboyant" and the "smoked" finishes.

So, if all of these colours were offered, why did so few Sports models survive in anything but the usual shades we're familiar with? No one can say for sure. But most likely the dealers were risk-averse, and stuck with the original green/black/copper palette they already knew would sell well. If a more unusual colour ended up in circulation, it was likely because a customer special-ordered it.

Raleigh Sports in Robin's Egg Blue
Such was the case with the frame I was now admiring. The original owner special-ordered the finish, and requested for the handlebars to be flipped when building up the bike. For the decades it was in use, she rode the bicycle with its original parts (notice the elegant grip repair method) and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Raleigh Sports in Robin's Egg Blue
It is amazing the way colour can change a bicycle's personality. Looking through my photos of the frame, a friend immediately commented that in robin's egg blue the Lady Sports looked "lighter and faster" than its traditionally-hued sisters (having lifted it, I assure you "lighter" is not the case). Another said "I thought this was a Betty Foy at first!" 

No doubt the robin's egg blue played some role in the wild popularity of Rivendell's mixte through its 2009-2012 production. And the 2011 Surly Cross Check (I am told people are still phoning bike shops on a hunt for that year's model, just because of the colour). Possibly it is the most common colour I've noticed for frame repaints for road and city bikes alike. There is just something about it, and the associations it evokes (blue skies? seaside holidays? Easter candy? vintage Vespas?), that strikes a cord. Seeing it so unexpectedly combined with a '60s Raleigh Lady's Sports was a nice treat, for which I thank, once again, Nick of the Three Speed Hub

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Bike Security for the Road Cyclist

Fit to Be Tied
When it comes to city bikes, I admit my lock-up strategy is on the lax side. Not without admiration, I watch others execute the Sheldon Brown method, employ multiple U-Locks of various shapes and sizes, and drape their bikes in 20 lbs of shackle-like chains. Me? I use a cable lock, same one I've had for 5 years. It's a good, thick, Kryptonite combination lock, but it doesn't hold a candle to these more formidable strategies. Still I use it for the convenience of its versatility and weight, consciously accepting the heightened theft risk. While I never leave an unlocked bike unattended, even to run into a shop "for a second" (Oh the sad stories I've heard that begin this way!) neither do I lose sleep over my choice of lock-up method. As bike theft prevention goes, I am a shoulder-shrugging moderate.

Or so I thought, until I started going on long distance rides with roadies. There I'd be, extracting cable lock from saddlebag, only to watch my companions rest their custom roadbikes against the wall of whatever distant diner we'd stop at and …simply walk away, apparently content to leave their precious machines unattended for a good 40 to 60 minutes. Say what! Now I was the conservative, paranoid one. I understand the idea that out in the suburbs bike theft is less rampant than in the city. But it also seems easier to pull up and abscond with some sucker's fancy bike left propped against a tree for the taking.

As I began to lighten my roadbike setup - with 60 mile rides no longer seeming long-distance enough to warrant a saddlebag and the kitchen sink - reluctantly I abandoned the lock carrying habit. But this never felt comfortable. When I'd go out with a group, I could tell myself there was safety in numbers when leaving our bikes in a heap. But what about on my own? When you're flying through the countryside and panting your way up hills on your pared-down machine, it is not exactly fun to lug around a hefty lock for that occasional bathroom break or lunch stop. But maybe it's a case of something is better than nothing?

Abus Combiflex 201 Lock
Eventually I came to a compromise, in the form of a tiny, lightweight Abus Combiflex - a retractable cable gadget that uses a 3-digit combination, fits into a jersey pocket with room to spare, and will please the staunchest of weight weenies. Truth be told, it is basically a step up from tying my bike up with string, and two steps up from not securing it at all. But for the brief amounts of time I leave my roadbike unattended, it brings the theft risk down to a level I can accept.

Speaking of string… There is a bit in Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman about leaving a bike thus secured, which I thought was parody. But later I saw a man doing just that outside the town of Limavady. It was not exactly a string he used, but more like a thin piece of cord, extracted from the pocket of his hi-viz cycling jacket. With it he tied his race bike in a loose bow to a farm gate on the side of the road, before climbing over the gate and walking off across the muddy field in clipless shoes. Where he went I do not know, but I hope his bike awaited his return faithfully.

What is your bike security policy when you're out road cycling? Do you leave your bike unattended or must you always keep it in sight? Do you carry a lock …or a string?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Monday Mailbox: How to Tell If a Bike Will Have Toe Overlap?

Once in a while I get emails from readers who are either planning to buy a bike online, site unseen, or to order a custom frame, and are concerned about the dreaded toe overlap. Is there a way to figure out whether a bike will have TCO short of actually riding it? Can you tell by the frame geometry?

My intent is not to host another TCO debate, but to address this question for those who do want to avoid toe overlap. And the short answer is yes, TCO can be determined by a bicycle's frame geometry. The crucial measurement is what's known as the Front-Center - the distance from a bicycle's bottom bracket to the front axel (center to center), measured as shown in the picture above. Many manufacturers now provide this figure in the geometry specs. It is usually stated in millimeters.

Now, the key is to know what you need that figure to be in order for your toe to clear the front wheel. And this will depend on a number of things. Some of them will be specific to you, and will remain constant: the type and size of shoes you wear, and the way you position your foot on the pedal. Others will be specific to the type of bicycle you are getting: wheel size, tire size, and whether fenders will be used. To figure out your desired Front-Center figure, you will need to factor in all of these variables.

So let's start easy and say you are shopping for a new roadbike with 700C wheels and 23mm tires. Your current roadbike with the same wheel and tire size (that part is key) has a bit of toe overlap, and it's something you want to avoid in your new bike. So you measure your current bike's Front-Center and determine it to be 575mm. How much more room do you need for your toe to clear the tire? Well, put on your cycling shoes, clip in, and measure at the point of greatest overlap (by turning the wheel as if you are making a tight turn at slow speed). Maybe have someone else measure for you as well, to double check. And err on the conservative side just to be safe. 5mm of overlap? You sure? Okay, so this means that on a roadbike with 700C wheels and 23mm tires you need the Front-Center to be a minimum of 580mm.

And what if your current bike has enough toe clearance? Well, great. Measure the Front-Center and then determine how much tighter you can go while still avoiding TCO. That's the minimum figure you want to see in the geometry chart of your new bike.

If you plan to use wider tires, or fenders, or both, keep increasing that figure as appropriate. Because fender fit and true tire size differ from brand to brand, you will be estimating unless you have a chance to try a bike outfitted with the exact same tires and fenders your new bike will have. If you're cutting it close, consistency is key.

But what if you want to switch to a different wheel size? For instance, if you're shopping for a 650B x 42mm bike, and have no current basis for comparison? This is tricky, as you will basically need to calculate the difference between your current wheel + tire combination and that of the bike you're considering. But the numerical information for such calculations is freely available and, if you're mathematically inclined, figuring this out will be fun. And don't forget the fenders!

For a bike that will be ridden without clipless shoes (for instance, an upright city bicycle), toe overlap is more ambiguous. With your foot unattached, you'll be able to plop it onto the pedal every which way - which can result in the occasional fender bump even when there is plenty of clearance. There will also be greater variety in the footwear you will wear on the bike. On a given bicycle, you may have enough toe clearance when wearing sneakers and dress shoes, but find that you scrape the front fender on slow turns in clunky work boots.

So if you absolutely positively do not want any toe overlap what so ever on a non-clipless bike, be sure to wear your most toe-protrudingest shoes and to plop your foot as far forward on the pedal as you dare, when measuring for your desired Front-Center figure.

If you've determined your minimal Front-Center, but the geometry chart of the bicycle you're considering doesn't offer this information, you can always contact the manufacturer and ask. Just make sure you tell them the specific frame size you're looking at, because this measurement is size-specific. And if you are working with a framebuilder, you can of course simply tell them the Front-Center figure you need - or better yet, they can help you figure it out.

There is no substitute for trying a bike before buying. But if that is not an option, hopefully this has shed some light on how to ensure a TCO-free purchase.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

One Hub, Two Purposes… The Elusive BSA DP Hub in Action

With its aged champagne-green finish and its outburst of shimmering lugwork, the bicycle was lovely enough in its own right - to admire, to ride, and to photograph. The beautifully proportioned English "lightweight" - a BSA Gold Column - was built not long after the Second World War. And, by the look of it, it was well ridden and well appreciated by previous owners.

But it wasn't for its looks or pedigree that I'd been brought to this undisclosed location specifically to see the old machine. And as I stood now before Aaron its keeper asking "Are you sure you want me to ride it?" I knew I was about to try something few even knew existed. I certainly hadn't, until a couple of hours prior.

Earlier, in the basement of the Three Speed Hub, Nick chattily sifts through piles of rare old bike parts with the air of a person accustomed to sights that might make other vintage enthusiasts faint. Casually he pushes aside stacks of NOS Bluemel fenders, boxes of jewel-like quadrant shifters, heaps of full chaincases polished to an obscene sheen. Absentmindedly he toys with springs of Brooks saddles with model names I'd never heard of. But none of these things are what he wants to show me, and his search continues until he retrieves a small gleaming object from a back drawer. "Ever heard of these?…"  It's a BSA hub. A nice, shiny one too. But okay …so what?

Nick flips the hub over to reveal the inscription "DP." He searches my face for traces of recognition, and seems all the more pleased when none is forthcoming. "You've heard of the Sturmey Archer ASC hub yeah?" (English accent, conspiratorial smile...)

"The vintage 3-speed fixed? Sure. And I've tried the modern remake, the S3X."

"Right. Well in the '30s, BSA made a 2-speed fixed hub…"

"Oh?"

"…the Dual Purpose. And you know why it was called that?"

"Why?"

"Because this…" (pulls on the indicator chain on one side) "controls the speeds, and, you see this…" And as he tugs at the chain on the other side, I suddenly know, incredible as it is, the punch line that is coming... "switches from freewheel to fixed and vice versa."

Bang! There it was. Mind blown.

For several long seconds the basement is silent. And then: "These hubs are very rare. But my friend's got another one and it's built into a bike. Do you want to try it?" And soon we're en route to the BSA Gold Column.

Under the still-wintry Belmont sky I shiver with cold and trepidation as I approach this most unusual of machines.

The saddle height fits me with chilling precision, the reach suits me nicely. I have been shown how to operate the hub and sent on my way. The BSA's owner seems dangerously trusting of my good intentions and bike handling skills, and this instills in me a keen sense of responsibility as I eye the busy road on which I am to cycle.

The downtube shifters look so innocently normal. The right one switches from first gear to second. The left one switches the drivetrain from freewheel mode to fixed. I start off in free and push off. The gear is nice and easy, and with a flick of the right lever, I make it higher, than lower again. So far it is an ordinary vintage roadbike experience - with the exception that, as I soon discover, once the bike is in motion I haven't adequate hand strength to activate the front (and only) brake. As unpanickingly as possible, I slow down, then shift into fixed mode and brake with my feet. The smoothness with which I am able to carry out this operation surprises me, and I continue down the road (which, blessedly, has a bike lane) switching from fixed to free to fixed to free again. This is not as disconcerting as I expect. At the slow speed I am going, there is an ever so slight jolt during the free-to-fixed transition and an equally subtle sensation of "being let go of" (not unlike a glider at the moment it disconnects from a tug plane…) when switching from fixed to free. But that is all, and the transitions are very smooth.

Riding the bike in fixed mode, shifting gears feels equally smooth and natural. And in neither first not second gear do I experience the off-putting "dead spot" sensation like I do whenever I try the modern S3X.

The awe-inducing rarity of the DP hub and the lack of a functional front brake make me too nervous to truly enjoy riding this bicycle. But the experience is memorable enough so that the following night I dream of riding the BSA again - this time in the countryside, at great speeds, switching between gears and fixed/free modes with abandon. If these hubs were more common, how great would it be to set up my Mercian with one.

But common they are not. Produced from the mid-1930s through WWII and discontinued shortly after, the BSA Dual Purpose hub is one of the rarest, most holy-grailest hubs out there. Its discontinuation is all the more mysterious and disappointing considering the glowing praise of its performance from riders who have owned it.

"This hub is so good," says Nick, "someone should really do a kickstarter campaign to get them manufactured again." Nothing is impossible. But it's unlikely. The BSA DP hub is a piece of bike lore so obscure that few will ever hear of it. How improbable and delightful to have experienced one in action.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Body Remembers

I never thought that I would become one of those cyclists with permanent tan lines. But many months since my last ride in shorts the persistent duotone of my legs says otherwise. It is strange to see myself discoloured in this way, to be sporting this roadie badge of honour that I never strove for and do not especially "deserve." Are these legs even really mine?

In fairness, the bulk of the damage was done in the course of a single ride, early last summer: that 300K brevet, when, uncharacteristically, I rode all day in 90°F+ heat and humidity without issue only to, equally uncharacteristically, give up just 30 miles from the finish after night had fallen. This failure hit me with unexpected intensity. After some time I wanted badly to put it behind me, to stop dwelling on the hows and the whys and the what-ifs. But how could I forget an event that left me physically branded? The marks were so prominent, the contrast between the pale and the darkened flesh so dramatic. To make matters worse, everyone around me noticed. "So many miles so early in the summer!" But of course they did not know the real story the tan lines told. All those hours in that insane sun… and all for nothing.

When they don't make me think of the failed brevet, my etched legs make me think of photography. There is considerable overlap between cyclists and photographers, and among these are many film enthusiasts. When you ask those who prefer film over digital to explain why, many will tell you film has a special look that digital simply can't replicate, that film stirs emotions in a way that digital cannot. I do not believe this to be so, and the more I use both mediums the more certain I am there is no such thing as "the look of film" per se. Once you fully and properly control for format, type of lens used, type of film used, aperture and exposure settings, and the myriad of other factors involved, I believe that you can create a digital and a digitised (i.e. viewable on your computer) film image so that the two are indistinguishable to the human eye and emotional palette.

This is not a popular opinion and many film lovers will disagree. But that is beside the point. Because my point is that despite holding this view, I nonetheless prefer film photography over digital. When I want to capture something truly special or meaningful - be it a place, person or event - I shoot it on film. For me it is not about the look, or the quality, or the negative vs megapixel size. It is about capturing a moment and fixing it in physicality; it is about transforming fleeting light into a solid tangible object. The sensual palpability of the silver gelatin process is especially appealing. The baths, the resins, the salts and metals, the "cooking." The photographic process is essentially a printmaking process, and it is the alchemy of it that attracts me. Is this any more valid than the "special look of film" narrative? Maybe not. It's only my way of conceptualising it.

When seen from this perspective, my legs, in a sense, have become photographic objects. Exposure to light produced an etched, physical record of an otherwise fleeting event. Large format. Pigment on flesh. If analogue photography is what I'm after, this is it, in its most basic form.

After a long winter, I am slowly getting back into the swing of roadcycling. The tan lines are covered by long fleecy tights and, considering where I live now, might be for some time. But as I ride, I notice something else that has imprinted on my body. While my fitness level has degraded and my muscle tone's diminished, the technique I have internalised over last summer and all the summers before that have not. On climbs I rise out of the saddle so effortlessly, and on corners I lean so intuitively, that I can hardly believe it was ever otherwise. And then there is that feeling of oneness with the bike that carries with it an animalistically alert-yet-calm sort of confidence that I can hardly put into words. These states of being are etched so deeply, they are of archival quality. The body is analogue and it remembers.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

It's a Beater

In cyclist jargon, to refer to a bike as a "beater" is to describe a machine that is so weathered, so cheap, so ugly - or, ideally, so all three of these things - that you do not care about wrecking it. Sure you might have your nice bike. But it's the beater you leave out in the rain for days, ride on heavily salted roads,  lock up outside bars in dodgy neighbourhoods, and generally subject to all manner of abuse. Because who cares - it's a beater. On this concept a Canadian company has based an entire line of city bicycles, named …drumroll… Beater Bikes. For $350 a pop you get a single speed roadster, either diamond frame or step-through, equipped with a surprising amount of commuter accessories.

But what sort of creature is this Beater, with its hammer-head tulip headbadge and krylonesque paint job? The Bicycle Belle in Boston carried them briefly, which gave me a chance to try one. And you know what? By golly, I liked it. The Beater is not without faults, but as far as "budget bikes" go, it seems hard to beat (heh) and has now replaced the KHS Green as my favourite bike of that category.

As far as the basics, the welded frames and forks (described as simply "steel") come in one size only (53cm for the diamond frame and 45cm for the step-through) and one colour - matte racing green. The loop design of the step-through is attractive, in a subdued industrial sort of way, with nice even curvature, clean welds and a unicrown fork that blends in well with the frame. Aesthetically, the bike looks simultaneously classic and modern, with a subtle dystopian undercurrent to it. The all-black components (rims, crankset, stem, seat post, handlebars) complement the matte green frame finish and, combined with the iconography of the headbadge, give off a futuristic and vaguely sinister vibe. Not in a bad way. It's an interesting juxtaposition, with the bike being so vintagey in concept. Loop frames can come across as too cutesy, but the Beater does not suffer from that. The complete bike weighs under 30lb, which is pretty good for an all-equipped city commuter of this style. In addition to the single speed, a 3-speed version is available for an extra $100.

On the step-through model, the headtube is extended past the seat tube considerably, and the stem is extra long to allow for a super-upright posture. For someone of my height (just under 5'7") or taller it is also possible to adjust the fit so that handlebars and saddle are level, for a sportier position.

I like the proportions of this bicycle. It is compact compared to a genuine Dutch bike, but the "cockpit" does not feel cramped. And as far as the Beater's ride, I thought it a very normal-feeling, unremarkable (in a good way), stable bike that beginners would feel comfortable on, but experienced cyclists would not find limiting - as long as they don't expect performance beyond the city-bike category. The ride quality is not as plush as that of some others I've ridden, but it's not harsh and is better than I would expect at this price point. The bottom bracket is not too high, so it is possible to put a toe down at a stop while remaining in the saddle and still get decent leg extension when pedaling. And for me there is no toe overlap despite the 700C wheels with 38mm tires and fenders.

In addition to the fenders and chainguard, which are colour-matched to the frame,

the Beater comes equipped with a rear rack,

a double-kickstand,

battery operated LED headlight and tail light, a bell, padded vinyl saddle, rubber grips, platform pedals and even a front wheel stabiliser.

What it doesn't come with is a front brake. And therein lies the Beater's tragic flaw: It is coaster brake only. Now, I like coaster brakes as much as the next contrarian, euro-born, skirt-wearing, baguette-toting transport cyclist, and am prepared to debate their merits in my sleep. But even I would not make a bike that's meant to be ridden in North American cities coaster-brake only. I mean, come on, Beater - a pile of accessories but no front brake?.. Anyway. The proprietress of the Bicycle Belle was of the same opinion, which is why she retrofitted her entire stock of Beaters with front calipers before allowing them out the door. The good news is that this can be done aftermarket. The less good news is that it increases the bicycle's cost, thereby diminishing the wow factor of what would otherwise be a perfectly decent and ridable, fully commuter-ready $350 bike.

So, if I might be so bold as to make a suggestion to Beater: Why not nix the front wheel stabiliser (the cheap ones are no-good anyway) and replace the double kickstand with a plain old single one, then use the savings to fit the bikes with front brakes? (And to be honest, if catering to the North American market, a bike with front and rear hand-activated brakes in lieu of coaster would sell better still - but I am not versed on the cost difference that sort of change would entail.)

All things considered, I enjoyed riding the Beater. For the price point, I am impressed with both its design and with the accessories package it comes with. How well will a bike like this hold up in use is a question only an owner can answer - and if you are one of them please feel free to share your experience. Based on my limited impressions, I would recommend the Beater to readers searching for an off-the-shelf city bike for under $500 ...if it weren't for the manufacturer's choice of brake system.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Probably a Long Shot, But...

I've been doing some spring cleaning and found this amidst the house's endless supply of cups. Looks like new-old-stock, circa 1990s. Child sized. Made in England. I do not know any Neils spelled this way, and it seems a shame to get rid of it. If you are Neil or know a Neil who would like to have it, drop me a line!

Thank you - I have found not one but several Neils. The cup shall have a new home!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Green Chariot of Derry

Just back in Northern Ireland, and I've ended up at the St. Patrick's Day Parade in Derry. It was, as they say here, legen-Derry. Har har.

It was rainy,

sunny,

carnival-like,

secular,

spectacularly crowded, yet surprisingly sober and lacking in rowdiness.

It was also not without a touch of bikeyness. Or, rather, trikeyness. One of the parade's main attractions was this marvelous old rickshaw chariot. Pine green. Double top tube. Rod brakes. Derailleur gearing. It originally hails from India, the grand forest elf astride it told me.

Bedecked in flowers, a patchwork canopy and lanterns, this thing was just gorgeous.

It attracted good will and cheer as it made its way down the city street at a parade pace of about 1mph.

Not a bad start to the week, all things considered.

Happy Monday everyone. Spring is here!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Double the Fork Blades, Double the Fun? Trying a Humber Ladies Sports

In the cavernous depths of Boston's Three Speed Hub, the humble black step-through looked like a garden variety vintage 3-speed. Smallish and plain of ornament it seemed downright unremarkable next to its freakishly collectable turn of the 20th century neighbours. But as I made my way past it, from the corner of my eye I glimpsed a little something that made me examine it closer - ultimately dragging it out into daylight. And there, by the creaking garden gate and under threat of rain, I stood and marveled at that deliciously bizarre feature that distinguished Humber bicycles from other English 3-speeds of its era.

Behold: The Duplex Forks!

That's right. In leu of standard fork blades, Humber devised a fork with skinny twin blades on each side.

Brazed into a twin-plate fork crown at the top with a cm gap between them, they swoop down,

growing closer together toward the dropout socket. Exciting isn't it? Okay, so maybe I need to get out more …but still! I mean come on, they are twin fork blades!

Founded in 1868 in Beeston, England, Humber Cycles were a brand that has always struck me as largely fictional. By the 1900s - when they began manufacturing bicycles as we know them today - original owner Thomas Humber had already sold the company and it was headed, as far as I can tell, by a marketing entity.

This could explain why, at a time when other bicycle manufacturers were making efforts to become more accessible to the general population, Humber boldly branded itself as "The Aristocrat of All Bicycles" (inscribed on the seat tube decal) - boasting a superior build quality and a plusher ride feel than its competitors. Naturally, these alleged advantages were reflected in the price. "Not cheap, but good," the adverts assured.

Having seen lots of Humber ephemera before ever glimpsing an actual bike, I've wondered whether perceptions of these bicycles at the time reflected the marketing message. After all, by 1932 Humber was sold to Raleigh, essentially becoming just another of its sub-brands. But when I asked this question in Northern Ireland, those who remembered the days when Humbers were sold in shops new, said that indeed they were considered high-end bikes and valued as such. And although owned by Raleigh since the '30s, Humbers were always made according to their own design - including the unique Duplex Fork.

Another distinguishing feature of the Humber is the Maypole Chainring - a ring design that features 5 dancers in a circle, presumably around a maypole. It is not clear where this design came from. Recently, a Wheel of Life plaque with a more detailed, relief version has been put up on Humber Street in Beeston.

That aside, this specific Humber has a number of neat features. The most striking is the enormous Rollfast cyclometer. Larger than a coffee mug in diameter, it displays moving speed and miles ridden.

Mounted at the stem, a cable extends from the unit to the fork's dropouts

And plugs into a plate of sorts at the axel. As far as I can tell the cyclometer still works. There are 1,396 miles on this bicycle, according to the counter.

The lighting is bottle generator powered Radsonne, headlight and tail light.

The bottle is at the back, clipped on to the left rear stay.

3-speed Sturmey Archer gearing - the gears labeled high (H), neutral (N) and low (L) rather than 1-3.

A Raleigh-branded kickstand.

And a Brooks B72L (ladies?) saddle. Interestingly, this bicycle seems to have come with (stock) upgrades of an aluminum seatpost and rear hub to make it "sportier." However, the wheel rims are steel.

Being a Sports model, this step-through was designed around 26" wheels, with a shorter wheelbase, steeper angles, and a lower bottom bracket than the more stately Roadster models, as well as with a brazed, rather than bolted, seat cluster, and with caliper brakes in leu of rod brakes. Date of manufacture is 1956.

In person this Humber looks very compact - tiny even - but once I got on, it felt like a perfect fit. The cockpit was not cramped at all, there was no toe overlap, and the North Road handlebars were easily set level with the saddle, which is my preference for upright bikes. According to the speedometer I was doing 10-12mph straight out of the gate. Sporty!

But I know that, with bated breath, you are all waiting to hear about the Duplex Forks. Do they indeed deliver a superior ride quality experience worthy of the title "Aristocrat of All Bicycles?"

Well, I will say this much. This is one fine riding bicycle. Finer, for example (as in smoother, cushier, and at the same time more responsive) than a Raleigh Ladies Sports of the same era. It was so nice I did not want to stop riding it, wishing instead to whisper sweet nothings into its ear as we cycled off into the sunset, enormous cyclometer clicking away to the tune of our bliss... But whether it's the weirdo fork construction that's responsible for this or something else entirely, is difficult to tell. While the official line was that the Duplex Forks were a design feature to improve ride feel, in reality the manufacturers of the time often just wanted to find a way to visually differentiate their product. Hetchins had their vibrant stays. Bates had their diadrant forks. Baines had their flying gate frame. And so the duplex forks were Humber's distinguishing feature. Whether ultimately useful or decorative, they are a part of bicycle manufacturing history. And getting to look at, touch and ride one of these fairly rare machines was an exciting experience - for which I thank Nick at the Three Speed Hub heartily.