Monday, January 14, 2008

Riding the Rex

I have been riding the Rex three-speed to my office and back- weather permitting- for about a year and a half now, and the experience has afforded me the opportunity to develop some well formulated thoughts about what a town bike should look and function like.

While the Rex is not a high quality bicycle by any measure, it has some features that make it especially well suited to the task. The combination of properly sized frame and large wheels are a vast improvement over the standard 23” frame and 26” wheels of a typical English three-speed for a tall guy like me.

Rule No.1: Buy a bicycle that fits- if it doesn’t fit, you will hate it, and it will languish in your garage. A bicycle that fits is one with a frame that is the tallest that you can straddle comfortably. Grant Peterson’s perspective on this subject is entertaining and well written, so I won’t try to paraphrase. Read Grant Peterson on bicycle fit here.

The “North Road” handlebars, and the upright riding position that they provide are just the ticket for town riding. The riding position is comfortable and relaxed- it takes the weight of your body off of your hands and back on your “sit bones” where it belongs. The upright body posture puts your head balanced naturally above the shoulders, making it much easier to see, and be aware of, what is going on around you. The “North Road” pattern is not my favorite handlebar shape, but definitely the right general idea for a town bike.

The somewhat relaxed geometry of the Rex’s frame, and generous fork rake make this bike very stable at slow speeds. A racing bike is designed to go fast, but a town bike needs to handle well at a crawl, and with a load. My commute covers a wide variety of road surfaces: smooth pavement, boardwalk, cobblestones, railroad tracks, and gravel. The relatively wide tires ( about 29mm) handle these conditions well enough- certainly better than super-skinny road bike tires. Somewhere between the low rolling resistance of a 23mm racing tire, and the stability of a fat 45mm balloon tire, there is a sweet spot. I think 32mm is about the optimum width for a town bike tire.

My first stop on my way to my office is the Peet’s shop for 16 oz. of high-test. To accommodate my caffeine addiction, I have fitted the Rex with a handlebar-mounted bottle cage from the early ‘50s. I have a stainless steel tumbler with a rubber outer surface that is a nice tight fit in the cage. Sounds like a good solution, but it doesn’t work very well. If you think about it, the handlebar is the one place on a bicycle where vibration is most amplified- not where you want to put a cup of coffee. That’s probably why modern bottle cages are mounted as close to the bottom bracket as possible.

I love the Wrights saddle on my Rex. It measures 8 ¼” across at the widest point- a full 40 mm wider than the Brooks B-17- and the leather a bit thinner and softer. It was comfortable to sit on from the start, and was sporting permanent indentations from my “sit bones” after a week of riding. I have always been a big fan of English (or French) leather saddles. Like a pair of fine bench-made leather shoes, once broken in, they are as comfortable as your favorite slippers, and last forever. The coil springs on the Wrights saddle squeak, and I’m not sure that they add that much in the way of comfort. I will try the new Brooks B68 next; an updated version of the venerable B66, sans coil springs and with single rails to fit a modern micro-adjustable seat post.

The Carradice saddlebag that came with the Rex is cavernous. It looks like a “Nelson Longflap” without the side pockets. It is big enough to carry a few tools, my cotton anorak, a cable lock, LED headlight, and a snack with ample room left over for a bottle of wine and sundries from that stop at the grocery store on the way home. At 16” wide, I have to swing my leg wide to mount and dismount. A pair of expanding panniers sized to fit a file folder and a laptop would be a lot more useful for transporting work materials to my office and back.

The long fenders do the job that they are designed for- keep your feet and butt dry. The hockey-stick chain guard, on the other hand, is only partially effective. It keeps my pants cuffs from getting caught between the chain and the chainring, but doesn’t protect them from getting grease marks from the chain at the bottom of the chainring. My notion of a proper town bike is one that I can ride in a suit and dress shoes when I need full-on business attire. The rather twee color scheme is not one that I would have chosen, but is probably something of a theft deterrent. The one uncool accessory that I have learned to really appreciate is the kickstand. Try loading and unloading a saddlebag while balancing a bike with one foot, and you will see the wisdom in this oft maligned feature. In a perfect world, the frame would have been purpose designed to accept a kickstand, rather than use the stay clamp mounting method. Esge’s twin leg kickstand looks like a thoughtful improvement over the more common single leg version, but at nearly $50 a pop, it is hard to justify the cost.

There are a couple of things not to like on this bike. The steel rims squeal like a stuck pig while braking, and the long-reach steel calipers don’t provide quite enough stopping power. An integrated lighting system would have been a thoughtful addition. I have some cheap battery powered LED lights set up on this bike that work well enough for low light evening riding around town- not enough illumination for night riding in heavy traffic. The LED lighting elements are super energy efficient, but I don’t like the idea of using batteries to power them.

A Pair of Rex “Classique” Three-Speeds

While searching the internet for the correct new/old stock replacements for the damaged Rudge parts, I stumbled on an intriguing ad on my local craigslist: 20 Rex Three-Speed bicycles, NOS from 1971, and still in their packing boxes. What caught my attention was the frame and wheel sizes: 23”, and 25” frames built with 27” wheels. Most English three-speeds “back in the day” were built for 26” wheels with the largest commonly available frame size being 23”.
At $40 each, these were too good a deal to pass up. I bought two over the telephone- one 25” bike for myself, and a 23” model for my wife.

The seller, Jim Langley, describes himself as a bicycle aficionado, and is a well known bicycle writer. By the time I could made the all day drive to Santa Cruz and back to collect the two bikes- about a week later- every one of the 20 bikes had been spoken for!
My visit with Jim was well worth the long drive, as he proved to be friendly and well-versed in the idiosyncrasies of vintage British bicycles.

The Rex marque is a total mystery. Jim Langley thinks they may have been made in Raleigh’s Nottingham factory, and the many Whitworth fasteners used on these bikes seems to support his theory. By the early ‘70’s, Raleigh was hurting- the bike boom was in full swing, and every kid on the block wanted a “ten speed.” I believe that Raleigh ended production of the once popular three-speed “Sports” model in 1976. Several of the Rex bicycles in Jim’s lot were fitted with drop handlebars in an apparent attempt to grab some of the bike boom market share.

The story of how Jim Langley came into possession of the bicycles is an interesting one in its own right. Seems a man from New York moved his family and the inventory of his bicycle shop to California sometime in the early ‘70’s, intending to re-establish a bicycle business in the South Bay. Eventually, he retired, and then died, leaving a good part of the assets of the New York business stashed in the garage of his widow. She, in turn, sat on the stash for years before deciding to tidy up her garage. Her daughter mentioned the remaining inventory to Jim’s wife, who mentioned that Jim was an expert on vintage bicycles, and the introduction was made. Jim made a commitment to getting this lot of rare bicycles into the hands of those that would use and appreciate them at no profit to him- a gentleman indeed.

After 35 years in the box, these two bicycles were in pristine condition save for the congealed grease in all of the bearings. I took the first to the LBS that I most wanted to like for the job of repacking the bearings. They weren’t too enthusiastic about the project, so I took the second one to a newly opened bicycle shop near my office- Sonoma Bicycle Company. There I met Adam Long, bicycle mechanic extraordinaire. Though just out of high school, Adam knows vintage Raleigh three-speeds inside and out, and he quickly had both of the Rexes on top tune.

There are more pictures of this pair of Rex “Classiques” here.

Here are the tech specs:

Frame: Steel, lugged construction

Model: Classique

Seat Tube, C-C: 63cm

Top Tube, C-C: 58cm

Chainstays, C-C: 45cm

Stand-over Height: 87.75cm

Rear Dropout Width: 112mm

Front Dropout Width: 95mm

Bottom Bracket: “Made in England”

Dropouts: Stamped steel

Rear Hub: Sturmey Archer AW, 3-speed

Front Hub: Steel shell, “Made in England”

Shifter: Sturmey Archer w/ clear plastic cover

Cable Routers: Sturmey Archer fulcrum stop, gray plastic pulley

Crankset: Steel, cottered

Pedals: Phillips w/ 4” rubber blocks

Rims: Sturmey Archer, 27 x 1 ¼, chrome-plated steel

Tires: Michelin “High Speed” whitewalls, 27 x 1 ¼ , “Made in England”

Brake Calipers: Steel side-pull, unmarked

Brake Levers: Steel, 2 bolt clamp, unmarked

Cable Housing: white, ribbed

Headset: Steel, unmarked

Handlebars: Steel “North Road”

Grips: White plastic

Stem: Steel, unmarked

Saddle: Wrights, black leather, sprung

Seat Pin: Steel, unmarked

Fenders: Steel, painted

Pump: White plastic, unmarked

Chain Guard: Hockey stick, steel, painted white, clamp-on

Kick Stand: Esge/ Pletscher

Saddle Bag: Carradice, black waxed canvas