18 April 2011

Beware of Indian Three-Speed Bikes

I should've known something wasn't good when I saw this:

Even though I haven't worked in a bike shop in at least fifteen  years, I still have nightmares about this bike. 

It's a made-in-India replica of the traditional English roadster--specifically, the Raleigh DL-1.  Like the erstwhile velocipedic pride of Albion, this made-in-India machine has three speeds, rod brakes and one of those rear kickstands that lifts the rear wheel of the ground.

Someone once said that the Yugo took the worst features of the Fiat 128 and made them even worse.  I would say something similar about the relationship between this bike and the DL-1.  It's well-known that rod brakes don't do a very good job of stopping, and that steel rims give poor-to-nonexistent stopping in the rain.  Well, the bike in the photo has inferior versions of those parts.  

And while the DL-1s weren't much fun to work on, the Indian bikes were downright scary.  Pieces broke and threads stripped under a normal amount of torque from riders' bodies as well as from bike shop tools.  Seeing as much rust as you see on the bike in the photo wasn't unusual; what was scary was that brand-new bikes were already rusting from the inside when they were brought into the shop.

Plus, as much as I like pink, the shade of the bike in the photo looked a little too much like Pepto Bismol for my tastes.

The bike was parked in front of a pizzeria where I hadn't gone in some time.  I used to stop there when riding along the Long Island City and Greenpoint waterfronts; sometimes I'd buy a slice or two of pizza and pedal over to the Long Island City piers, which are directly across the East River from the United Nations and directly in line for a nearly perfect view of the Empire State Building. 

The pizza slices from that place were always pretty good.  So was the one I had today.  And the dour middle-aged proprietor who made the pizzas the first time I went there, at least a decade ago, is still plying his trade though, I suspect, he may be a senior citizen by now.  That wouldn't be so bad if he didn't seem so worn, and the place sadder, shabbier-looking and not as clean as I recall from earlier visits.  

Maybe the now-old man senses the end is near.  Several storefronts around his are vacant, with "For Rent" signs in their windows.  I'm not sure of whether they're the result of the economy, which has claimed a lot of restaurants, bars and stores, or of the changing neighborhood.  The places that closed looked like their best days were past when I first saw them, around the first time I went to the pizzeria.  I wouldn't be surprised if I learned that the now-closed bar specialized in Boilermakers.

I wonder whether that Pepto Bismol-colored Indian bike parked in front of that bar, or any of those other places that have closed, will be unearthed by some future archaeologist--from another planet, perhaps.  What would that person/being make of them?


  1. Every single mechanic I've spoken to who has worked on a DL-1 replica made in India or China has similar things to say about them - the feedback about the Indian ones being worse than about the Chinese ones. And yet today it seems more popular than ever to not only acquire these machines, but to spend more money on equipping them with costly, high-end accessories. Makes me wonder what will become of these Eastman roadsters with Brooks saddles and Honjo fenders in a couple of years.

    Having said that, I think the rusty pink bicycle in the picture is kind of cute...

  2. Pepto Bismol pink - now that made me laugh. Rusting from the inside... that is scary. Remind me never to look at a replica.

  3. Velouria, I confess: I do spend lots of money on accessories. (What girl doesn't?) But why someone would buy Honjo fenders, Brooks saddles or any other high-end accessory for an Eastman or Flying Pigeon is simply beyond me. As Cervantes wrote, "Sobre gustos no hay nada escritos," which means something like "Chacun a son gout."

    I think the worst bikes sold in K-Mart or Wal-Mart are better than those Chinese and Indian faux-Dl-1s. At least some of those department store bikes have brakes and shifters that actually work for a time. And at least everyone knows those bikes are disposable and don't pretend to be anything else. (That said, I don't endorse disposability as a quality for a bicycle. The landfills are already overflowing!)

    Sue, The really scary thing is that the bikes I saw rusting from the inside were new, or nearly so: They hadn't been sitting in someone's basement or shed for twenty years.

    When I said that DL-1s weren't much fun to work on, I didn't mean that as a commentary on their quality. It's just that they're so much more complicated than other bikes. The last shop in which I used to work used to charge 70 dollars for labor to change a rear tire or tube, in addition to the cost of a tire and/or tube. What's interesting is that customers (admittedly, few for the DL-1) didn't complain. Those bikes didn't flat often, in part because the original tires were heavy and of good quality, but also because people tend not to ride a lot of miles on them. Their owners might ride them frequently, or even daily, but a typical trip on it tends not to be more than a mile or two. Another reason they didn't complain, I believe, is that DL-1 owners tend to be loyal to their machines, or simply can't think of any reason to buy another.

    1. Ouch,

      I just bought an Indian roadster bike, and what you're saying hurts my feelings a little bit. I don't think it's fair to generalize about bikes from a particular place of origin just because of a few bad experiences you may have had with a certain brand or a certain batch. Everybody knows (even people from India) that Eastman is at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to quality roadster bikes. Ask anyone from there what kind of bikes that they recommend. They will probably say Hercules, Avon, Hi-Bird, but not Eastman. Aside from that, it looks like the owner in this picture doesn't know how to take care of their bike. This bike looks like it's left out in the elements all year long and has never been given a tune up. That has everything to do with owner neglect and nothing to do with the quality of the bike.

      Billions of Chinese and Indian people can't be wrong by continuing to use these kinds of bicycles today. Maybe some of the ones that make it over here have been left in a warehouse with a leaking tin roof in the middle of monsoon season. But that doesn't make them all bad. I was able to put my roadster together just fine without bolts stripping or any of the issues you're talking about. It took me a while to figure out the brakes but that was my fault and not the bikes. An experienced mechanic who works on these bikes all the time can put one together in a matter of minutes, I have seen them on Youtube.

      Please don't hate on bikes because of their place of origin or because the dutch sell their versions for 10 times more. Just remember that that dutch bike was probably built in Taiwan by someone who commutes on a Flying Pigeon to work each day.

  4. Ironically enough I passed a Flying Pigeon with a Brooks saddle today!

    I think a reason behind the influx of Indian/Chinese bikes is that they are cultures associated with utility riding, so they seem like viable options for someone who's looking for that. "Well, a billion Chinese can't be wrong!" they might say. "They ride these things everyday so they should be fine. Besides, it's cheaper than a Dutch bike."

  5. @ Johnny Guzman:
    Well Said Johnny. I'm from India. And I have grown up using an Atlas bicycle. Trust me, though it might not be keeping up with today's technologies, it is a very good bike given its price. Millions of these bikes have been carrying people and monstrous loads here in India with very little maintenance. The road conditions here are severely off-road. So even if an authentic, costly and celebrated Dutch roadster is tried on the usual Indian roads, I wonder how much better they would fare. If something is serving millions of people everyday, at very little running cost, one has to give it the due praise.

  6. Hey Justine,

    Thanks for your Post. I've recently bought a Hero Jet Gold model (Made in India). The bike with the same components has been made in the same manner for decades.
    It's solid, it's components are solid, the seat sucks, but there nothing else that you can say that's wrong with the bike.

    Indian roads are rough, as are many parts of rural Africa and Asia...and these bikes are what the common person uses for transportation. These bikes are tanks. They're definitely built well.

    I disagree with your comments about generalizing that all Indian made bikes are of low quality. As a previous user said, there are so many factors. Yes there are copy cats that use crappy materials. But there are some really good quality (like the Hero brand) bikes. I had my first one at age 9. It's still back home in India. Always stored away from the elements. Always needing very little maintenance.

    So any way..my 2 cents :)

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  8. I feel like I am in a unique position to comment here since I daily drive an authentic bone stock Raleigh Tourist DL-1 and also own an Indian Avon Roadster. I would like to point out that there are a lot of differences that aren't readily visible between the two. In fact, the Indian bicycles are NOT based upon the Raleigh DL-1 but a Philips Roadster which was originally a British Army contract in the early 1900's. The geometry and feeling of riding these two bikes couldn't be more different. The Raleigh is one of the best I've ridden, including a classic 60cm steel cinelli, a french 650B randonneur, a new english Pashley roadster, a dutch gazelle, a modern soma cross bike, trek race bike, etc etc. The other bike I've ridden that had the "good" feeling was a friend's Lemond road bike. Strange that two very different bikes could have a similar "feel" to them. I think it's something to do with the seat tube angle. The indian Avon is one of the worst and most poorly built and shortest lasting bikes I've owned. The Raleigh actually feels FAST somehow, I think due to the large cranks, frame angles, handlebar position approx even with the seat. You can really dig into it, stretch out your legs and arms and it doesn't feel nearly as heavy as it is. It is very stable, soaks up bumps and corners solidly. You can mash the pedals and arc around a street corner at high speed. You don't notice the weight, unlike a similar modern Pashley which for some reason feels heavy and slow like a beach cruiser. The DL-1 feels much faster than any Raleigh Sports that I've ridden as well. The Avon roadster feels dangerous to me, and not just the brakes. Honestly the brakes kind of "suck" on the DL-1 as well, but they DO function once tweaked a bit and can actually function quite well if the rims are upgraded to aluminum. I like them, they are an anachronism I can live with and the hardware is quite beautiful on the Raleigh. The modern Pashley does away with them. On the Avon the rod brakes remain and are made of ugly easily bent sheet steel and feel terribly flimsy (and rusty of course). They WILL stop the bike though! The thing that makes the Avon feel really awful is the steering and handling. Something is just "off" there, you feel as if you are riding on a tall tipsy horse, every pedal stroke makes the steering flop over in that direction. Basically you are correcting your path with every pump of your feet. Additionally the handlebars and angles make it so that your knees will interfere on corners, something that never happens on a raleigh (or any other bike I've ridden) You are entirely correct about the crucial screws and bolts on this bike being made of gray swiss cheese metal, they simply strip and bend with moderate pressure. The chainring is slightly oval due to bad manufacturing tolerences and so the chain and freewheel don't spin smoothly unless the wheel is slid forward in the track ends to de-tension the chain. All the chrome on the bike rusts even without rain in humid air. Conversely the Raleigh bolts feel solid like forged steel and the chrome is jewel like and won't rust even after many years out in the rain. It's a shame that the indian roadsters are the way that they are because I think that if people had a chance to ride a *proper* clone of a DL-1 they would love it. Instead they probably attempt a roadster a few times and are then scared off of the whole genre within a couple rides. The frame itself honestly doesn't seem all THAT bad on the Avon, if they could simply correct the head tube angle and fork rake to fix the handling and upgrade the nuts and bolts and improve the chrome plating, maybe go to drum brakes or v-brakes they might really have something...

  9. I guess what I'm trying to say with all that is that the "Roadster" is a whole genre of bikes, brands and eras many of which can feel quite different to one another. The DL-1 IMO got it extremely right and the Avon got it extremely wrong. The dutch bikes and the Pashley have a slow heavy feeling that the Raleigh lacks but are very well made. There are a whole slew of vintage roadster brands like Sunbeam and Rudge that I'm sure ride differently as well.

  10. Todd--I hope I didn't seem as if I were trying to "dis" the DL-1. As you say, it's a particular kind of bike, with a particular purpose. One thing I can say--as a former shop mechanic--is that the hardware and other parts on most old Raleigh three-speeds, whether the DL-1 or any other, are well-made and sometimes even beautiful.

    I think you state very well what the DL-1 is "all about", and why the Avon and other imitations/parodies of it are so bad.

    Thanks for stopping by!