Mid-Life Cycling

Mid-Life Cycling

24 August 2014

Oil And Mud

On Charles Street in Greenwich Village--just a couple of pedal strokes from the Hudson River and the Greenway that rims it--there's a shop that calls itself the "Downtown Upright Bike Shop."  I guess I'd prefer that to a Downright Uptown Bike Shop, and I'm sure I'd like it better than a Frowntown Uptight Shop.

In any event, Hub Cycles is an interesting place.  With its open front, entering it is rather like walking into a flea market.  It's somehow appropriate--among the rows of "Dutch style" and "city" bikes from Biria, Linus and like companies, one finds the unexpected, such as this:

The red bike behind the Biria has an unusual combination of design and construction:  It looks as if someone crossed an English three-speed from the 1930's with an American baloon-tired bike from built by, say, Schwinn or Columbia during the same era.

As you can see, it has the "camelback" design common on the old Schwinns.  The curved top tube connects the head tube with the seat tube cluster. On diamond-shaped bikes,the seat stays would connect the cluster to the rear drop outs or fork ends.  However, on this bike, a pair parallel tubes arcs from the downtube, across the seat tube and down to the dropouts.

What's really oee is that the top tube is joined by lugs while the curved twin tubes are spot-welded.  I guess there really is no other way to join them.  Still, I was a bit surprised to see such a construction method on a British bike.

The bike, as it turns out, was made by Dunelt, one of the best-known manufacturers of classic English three-speeds.  (It, like many other makers of such bikes, was acquired by Tube Investments--the parent company of Raleigh--during the 1950's.)  The head badge and chainring bearing the manufacturer's name were present, as was a faded transfer or decal on the seat tube.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the bike is this:

The hole on the bottom bracket shell is meant for an oiler.  If that sounds familiar, you probably have a classic Sturmey-Archer multigear hub--or, perhaps, some old BSA or Chater Lea pedals, hubs or headsets.  Those components--and the bottom bracket in the shell of this bike--were not made to be greased.  Instead, the oil--which had to be applied regularly--served as both lubricant and cleanser, helping to flush grit out of the mechanism.  

Such designs make a lot of sense when you realize that bikes like the one in the photo were made to be ridden on dusty country lanes that frequently turned to mud developed ruts big enough to have their own representation in Parliament.  People who rode such bikes often were far from the nearest bicycle shop and did not have specialized bicycle tools.  So, bikes and parts were designed to need "tear downs" as infrequently as possible.

Generations of people who used such bikes as their main means of transportation as well as for recreational riding were accustomed to the notion that their Sturmey-Archer hubs needed a teaspoon of oil every month or every time they rode in heavy rain or other harsh weather.  

Americans, on the other hand, got out of the habit of depending on their bikes--or of adults riding bicycles at all.  So what was common knowledge in Britain and the rest of Europe was forgotten.  That, I believe, is the reason why so many Yanks end up with otherwise-good three-speed bikes on which the gears don't work:  Necessary maintenance, minimal as it was, went by the wayside.  

The good news is that Sturmey-Archer three-speed hubs made before the mid-1970's or thereabouts can usually be resurrected if the inner parts haven't corroded or rusted together entirely.  The bad news is that fewer and fewer mechanics know how to service those classic parts.

Anyway, in a rather perverse irony, the bike I saw today was equipped with a new-production Sturmey-Archer hub that doesn't need to be oiled.  That, to me, was more offensive than seeing the other replacements and modifications--including the hammered fenders, which I actually like on the Dunelt.

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