29 July 2012


On any given day--especially in an urban area--one is bound to see a pre-1980 three-speed bike from Raleigh or another English maker.  In fact, I've owned a couple and ridden a few more in my time.

Now I'll show you one that I owned for about three days.  I didn't ride it home, even though I could have. In fact, I rode it only once.

The bike is just like this one--same color and, I believe, even the same size.  But mine was in even better condition when I got it than this one appears to be.

It's, of course, a Raleigh Superbe with a Dynohub generator on the front and a Sturmey-Archer AW 3 speed hub on the rear..  Mine was made in 1956; this one probably came from the Raleigh factory within a year or two of that date.  

The only reason I didn't ride it home is that I found the bike while I was riding down Surf Avenue in Coney Island, near the New York Aquarium.  So I wheeled the bike I'd been riding with one hand, and my new find with the other, onto the D train, which took me to Park Slope, where I was living at the time.

That was about fifteen years ago.  By then, the faded glory of the Coney Island boardwalk had faded; Surf Avenue, like nearly all of the rest of the neighborhood, was as splintered as driftwood and, at night, as desolate as the ocean that stretched from the sand in front of the boardwalk.  

Still, it had a certain charm--though not of the discreet sort of the bourgeoisie.  And, at that time, there were a bunch of semi-abandoned storefronts and warehouses across from Astroland that became impromptu flea markets on weekends.  The men--they were all men--who operated them were even more weathered than the wooden planks on the pier and, if you couldn't read their body language, could be just as treacherous.  

So, with my best poker face, I entered one of those storefronts and, among books and records that were forgotten the day after they were released and clothes that were out of fashion but not yet "vintage" (which wasn't quite hip at that time), I stumbled upon my unexpected treasure.

The old man asked forty dollars for it.  I shuffled around, and pretended to look at his other wares.  "Thirty," he rasped.

"I'll give you twenty."

We settled on twenty-five; if I'd waited a bit longer, I probably would have gotten it for twenty.  

A couple of days later, I rode it to Emey's Bikes, then located on East 25th Street. Although my steed consisted of two road bikes (one of them a tight custom criterium frame) and a hard-tail mountain rig, I was taken with the ride of the Superbe.  However, the shifting wasn't quite right and the Dynohub wasn't working at all.  I was going to ask Emey to work on those things.

He looked like a young  Dick Van Dyke with a pot belly, and talked with E.G. Marshall's voice and Jack Klugman's accent (at least, the one he had in The Odd Couple).  In addition to those qualities, Emey Hoffmann had other eccentricities that were, well, not quite as charming.  Still, the guy knew from Raleigh three-speeds:  People came from out of town to have their vintage Sturmey Archer-equipped bikes serviced.  

After I described the shifting and lighting problems, he asked to ride it.  That didn't surprise me; I used to do the same thing when I was working in bike shops.  

He came back about half an hour later.  "What do you want to do with this bike?"

"Fix the gears--overhaul the hub if you need to.  Same thing with the Dynohub."

"Hmmm..." He puffed on one of the little, unfiltered cigarettes he always smoked.

"Think you can do it?"

He took another puff.  "Wanna make a deal?"

"What do you mean?"

"I'll make you a trade."

"You mean for the repairs?"

"No, for the bike."  

He offered me a mid-level road bike--a Fuji, I think--from the early '80's or thereabouts.  I hemmed.

"Well, what would you like?"  

I glanced toward a Specialized racing bike from around the same time the Fuji was made.  It was a model I knew: I put a couple of bikes just like it together when I worked in Highland Park Cyclery.  

The tomato-red paint had faded only slightly:  The bike hadn't been out much.  The frame was made from a high grade of chrome-moly steel, double butted.  And the components were a combination of Cyclone and Superbe (but not Superbe Pro) parts.  If I remembered correctly, it was the second bike in  Specialized's road bike lineup.  

"Get us a slice of pizza and let me think about it."

One of my favorite pizzerias at that time--Mariella's--was about five blocks from Emey's shop.  I bought a medium pie; 
Emey and I each ate a slice. So did his son, who happened in.  I left the rest "for the house."

He gave me the Specialized racing bike, which I rode home. I thought about keeping it, but a couple of days later one of my riding buddies saw me on it.   The bike was nicer than the one he had; he asked whether I wanted to sell it.

"What's it worth to you?"

He offered three hundred; I asked for five; we settled on four Benjamins.    

I never told him how I got the bike.  Maybe he's reading this now.


  1. Justine, I love your title, and the story.

  2. I am looking once more at the infinitely long list of bikes on the right and it suddenly starting to d a w n ...

  3. Chandra--A beleated thanks.

    Coline--You spent all night looking at my blog?!