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Just Another Holy Grail

(A Long Story With No Moral)

by Robert Hill

I need hardly say that Mrs. Russell had very little to do with any of this, but she set the tone. That she undeniably did. This was much later, of course, when we were all in the basement and everything was in pieces.  Upstairs her radio was turned so loud we couldn't hear the gasp of her respirator. All this was, of course, 25 years later.

A quarter century ago, when I was a graduate student, I bought my first ten-speed bicycle. It was light with French derailers and lots of gears for the time, and because it was far too large for me I supposed it fit me perfectly. It was a sedate coppery bronze with gold script on the down tube that said 'Raleigh' and gold script on the top tube that said 'Super Course.' It had a real brass badge on the head tube. If a modern bicycle is spare, this one was elegant.

One of my professors, a large and unwieldy philosopher, appeared one day on a silver-blue Raleigh Professional, also with the famous brass heron on its head tube. Even my unschooled eye recognized machinery superior in some way to mine; more beautiful, more elegant, more ethereal-particularly so when it seemed to attenuate itself into spidery fragility beneath the considerable bulk of the university's ethics-and-political-theory man, who rode about in generously cut pants with trouser clips, large leather shoes with roundish toes stuffed pillow-like into dainty toeclips. Those were the days of wool, and I have no doubt many sheep were spared in this man's economy of style. More than once the department chairman (his sole friend, so far as I could tell) received a call from a pay phone in the hinterlands to come and fetch Joel, whose rear spokes had strained valiantly before going once more astray. Fortunately he was not a man to ride far afield.

I had no further brushes with that bicycle in the ensuing years, excepting occasional sightings. It had become more of an idea, the one bicycle Plato might have meant had he ever spoken of 'the Bicycle itself.' But Plato spoke of 'the Beautiful' and 'the Good,' while I bought other Raleighs. Was then this not, I asked myself socratically, nostalgically, the Bicycle?

Then last May, after years of unremembrance, I spied one for sale on the internet, a 1973 Professional. I felt the immediate pang of an old unfulfillment. Salad days be damned, I thought. This is rectification, time to set right my little world. Still I did nothing, in large part because I had already purchased, well. . . several bicycles over the course of the summer and had been noticing my spouse eyeing me strangely at odd moments, muttering veiled references to money in the hands of drunken seamen. So I tucked away the message in a file and to this day do not know what prompted me to resurrect it and send off an inquiry. E-mail is treacherously easy, but I suspect the abandon of having no more money in my bicycle budget, coupled with the addict's conviction that more than enough is never enough, was sufficient prompting.

The bicycle belonged to a holographer living with Chekhovian frugality in an old row of attached brick apartments on a side street in Allentown, Pennsylvania-a mere stone's throw away and an unparalleled opportunity to find out what a holographer does, which I never did exactly find out. I piled into the car with an equally curious Dolenga and Andersen, and we rolled off the Pennsylvania Turnpike early one bright December Sunday. Holographers are, I note here, a bit owlish and blink a good deal in the early morning sunlight. But our man recalled after some prompting that my note had suggested I might be there, weather permitting and other like insincere qualifiers. I was there.

It took him a longish while with a good deal of rummaging around above stairs to dig out the bicycle, while below stairs we stood about the parlor admiring a magisterially wide television screen and other electronic knick knacks of presumable veneration, utility, or pleasure to holographers. The twilight of drawn curtains still reigned in the small lower rooms when  Frank the holographer at last carried the bicycle down the staircase and into the sunny hallway. There it stood, silver blue-ish, champagne-colored headtube, alternating champagne stripes on the downtube, "Professional" still legible on the top tube, dull and unimposing in its first resurfacing. It did not glisten.

But it beckoned. It seemed to drip slowly with residual momentum. It leaned, dynamically at rest against the wall. The tires settled on the rims like threadbare slippers, the wide-flange hubs as tall as wagon wheels. Andersen swallowed noisily.

"Look at that saddle," he murmured. It was an old Cinelli with the muted coffee glow of used tack shop leather. This was the bike-not quite the glory of a quarter-century of memory, still, it had the distinct possibility to be once more what God or Plato had intended and which the gentlemen of Carlton had executed.

Gobs of green Phil Wood grease oozed from the hubs and around the crank spindle. Grease is promising. It means someone has been paying attention. The satiny aluminum of the Nuovo Record parts was painstakingly drilled away, leaving the chainrings pierced like lace doilies and the rear derailer cage termite-riddled. The heart of the derailer arm had been excised and the tension of cable over the years had bowed the weakened arm inward. The shift levers were drilled into hollow loops, bending mushily when I pressed on one. "A seventies thing," someone pointed out. "To save weight."

A cash register was ringing somewhere in my head. I knew these attenuated parts would need to be replaced. I made a mental subtraction, made another, and an offer. Andersen nodded approvingly. Off came the wheels, into the trunk of the car went the bicycle, and off we drove to the nearest diner to watch Andersen eat pork roll for breakfast. Andersen is a Pennsylvania boy and pork roll is something they make out of things they have left over in Pennsylvania. I mean that to mean just how it sounds.

By that evening the grimy machine was reduced to a skeletal frame on a workstand in Andersen's apartment building. Stripped to its essential geometry in the stark basement, it became more promising, more suggestive. The simple lugwork ended in tapering chamfered points, the chrome of stays and fork glinted a cold, even light. Years of polishing had worn the head badge smooth as a lost coin, decals were half obliterated along the tubes.   At rest under fluorescent light, it was drenched with patina.

A few days later, in a small bicycle shop in one of the darkish corners of Binghamton, a city of darkish corners, we stood bargaining in a manner gratuitously surreptitious (a criminal sort of way which the circumstances and surroundings seemed to require) for a set of '73 Nuovo Record derailers and shifters, still new in boxes covered with the gritty dust of back streets. Our proprietor was grudging, having evidently discovered the value of his new old Campy stock only after much of it had already disappeared in Andersen's earlier depredations. Andersen is to the local bicycle trade what locusts are to Uzbekistan or the Cossacks to Budapest.

"You guys been buying this stuff out from under me," he said balefully.

"I pay what you ask," Andersen countered. "Two fifty is just way outa line." He always say these things cheerfully.

The counterman glared out from the gloom, relented painfully, and reached down into the glass case. "Okay," he muttered. "But I hafta get more than last time. People still want this stuff."

"What?" choked Andersen in his best incredulous voice. "It's old!"

"Just my point. Ever hear of antiques?" he growled.

Upstairs on Mrs. Russell's radio, Jim Morrison and the Doors were attempting to ignite what Mrs. Russell's respirator had already with fair success modulated. The steady shuffle of her slippers did not suggest that her fire had been lit. Belowstairs, the machinery loosened as though dipped in warm butter. The place smelled like an orange grove, citrus cleaner melting away decades of soft black grease. Cups and bearings, fork blades and brake calipers, crank arms and seatpost, all took on a soft polish. We laughed and chattered and sang to the radio above- "See the pyramids along the Nile, doo wah doo, Don' go dancin' with a crocodile. . ."-and slowly rubbed a satiny blue gleam back into old metal. We drank basement-cooled beers and, a bit too raucously, we took hats off to Larry sittin' on the dock of the bay. Those were the days, my frinn.

Just about the time that Brenda Lee was feeling so hurt the cranks were turning on the old bearings like the orbits of the celestial bodies. Back on Earth, packages were arriving in the daily mail, big envelopes stuffed with black rubber brake hoods and stainless steel toe clips and soft leather toe straps and cloth handlebar tape and big fat tubular tires. Upstairs, the Temptations were lyrical with joy. Downstairs the Italian leather saddle was soaped, then buffed to a deep espresso glow. The pointy quill pedals, yesterday a pile of spindles and bearings and disembodied cages, rolled at the ends of the crank arms. The big cut-out wheel flanges were ridiculous and beautiful. The embossed derailer hung from the dropout tab with stylish Edwardian silliness.

"The carbon frame was light and responsive without being twitchy!" we ranted. "The STI shifters worked flawlessly and smoothly, typical of Shimano's fine componentry and meticulous production methods." We were yelping now, filled with a retrograde glee. "Production methods," we scoffed. "Whatever happened to 'workmanship'?" My momma tole me-ee, you gotta shop aroun'. (Mrs. Russell had upped the volume on her radio.)

Then inevitably, in the quiet of a Friday evening, there it stood, a Raleigh Professional, on its own tires. By now we could make up magazine test ride parodies out of our heads at will, laugh with idiotic abandon at our latest concoction of Campy 9-speed Ergopower carbon bladder bikes with GoreTex cables and seventeen-point-five-gram saddles. But here stood a personality, down from the work stand. It was more than a bicycle, it was a marque. It was something I had never quite managed to forget.

From my wallet I took the paper of little triangular Reynolds 531 fork decals that I had begged from Richard Schwinn, and I put the finishing touches on just another guy's holy grail.

Robert Hill is a freelance journalist who currently lives, works and bikes in Colorado.
He can be reached at [email protected].