Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Introducing Titania

 I've been riding vintage bicycles (for these purposes, I mean "cycles predating 1970, or more than 30 years old -- whichever is greater") for about 25 years now.  Most of them have been middleweight 3-speeds, and include a Raleigh, a couple of Schwinn "Racers" (which are anything but), and a Gazelle "stadsfiets".  Each had their strengths, and each served admirably, especially given the fact that most have been free, or at least very cheap.

About three years ago, my old Vespa scooter was laid up with gearing troubles, and I thought I'd pick up another middleweight 3-speed to use for short trips while I repaired the Vespa.  I posted a "wanted" ad on Craigslist listing my parameters and budget ("no more than $75") and was surprised to get a response from a fellow who lived less than a block away from me.  And although we had never met, it transpired that we had worked at the same company, albeit not at the same time.  The cycle he was offering was a 1969 Triumph.  It's price: $75.

What's a Triumph, you ask?  Well, as the name might suggest, it's related to the British motorcycle company (not the automobile one).  In fact, the Triumph Cycle Company predated both.  Founded in 1890, it's not the oldest bicycle manufacturer in Britain, but it's still early on.  They produced their first all-in-house cycle in 1894, eight years before they expanded into motor-bicycles (as such contraptions were known back then).  Soon after WWII, the Triumph Motorcycle Co. sold its bicycle division to BSA, which was soon thereafter swallowed up by the giant Tube Investments Corp., who owned Raleigh, about a dozen other British bicycle brands and everything else from Reynolds (who supplied steel tubing to so many cycle makers) to Swallow Coachbuilding, who made motorcycle sidecars.

Triumph bicycles were produced in Coventry until the Tube Investments acquisition, after which they moved to the sprawling Raleigh complex in Nottingham.  They were made in a variety of grades, generally just below Raleigh's own offerings, although above some of the other brands produced at the Nottingham plant.  Production of the Triumph brand seems to have ceased in the early-1970s.

With its basic Sturmey-Archer AW 3-speed hub, fenders, cable-operated caliper brakes, north road handlebars and 26-inch wheels, this is what Sheldon Brown would've called a "light roadster".  (A "real roadster" would generally have 28-inch wheels and rod-operated hub brakes.)  It's a "compromise bike" -- doing nothing spectacularly well, but a few things quite well enough.  It's lighter and more maneuverable than a true roadster, but at the expense of a bit of smoothness and solidity.

I was pleased to find that the Triumph was immediately rideable, although it had some aesthetic issues (mostly due to its ugly gumwall tires).  I purchased it and straightaway began using it for shopping trips.  My first such trip was something of a travesty, since I had forgotten that I lacked both a lock and any way with which to get the groceries home.  I tried hanging the two full bags from the handlebars, which created an impressive pendulum effect, providing rush hour entertainment to dozens of drivers.

My next point of business was to outfit it with panniers.  I ordered a pair of Wald wire panniers and rear rack to attach them to.  They proved to be ideal, other than the fact that the gear selector cable rubs the inside of the right side basket.  I discovered that an old leather shoulder satchel I have fits nicely in one pannier, and an old wool picnic blanket straps down to the rear rack very tidily with a pair of old ski straps.

The Triumph developed a little problem with slippage; it got to the point where pedaling produced no traction within the hub.  I tried various fixes, but to no avail.  Resigning myself to rebuilding the hub, I stripped the wheel assembly and ordered replacement parts.  After thoroughly cleaning, lubricating, replacing any worn or damaged parts, reassembling and adjusting, I found that the problem persisted!  At a loss, I lucked into an identical AW hub assembly on Craigslist.  I simply pulled the guts out of the shell, plugged them into my wheel assembly and slapped it back into the frame.  Voilà!  It worked.  I still have no idea why my rebuild didn't do the job, tho'.

At the same time, I replaced the grotty original white rubber grips with cork ones, which I varnished.  The tired old vinyl-covered seat was traded for something more substantial (although I'll probably be swapping it out for an unpadded leather Brooks/Ideale/Lepper).  The gumwalls had to go, replaced with white C---- S---s, and I ditched the cast aluminum side-stand for a proper center hubstand that has the added virtue of locking in place.  (Its further virtue is that it holds the rear wheel off the ground, which is a boon for adjusting and testing the shifting cable.)  I found an old Italian water bottle cage into which I mounted an even older Thermos flask with a polished aluminum cap.  I've already tested it with a variety of alcoholic and nonalcoholic refreshments.  Finally, I added a lovely little vintage German thumb-bell of polished aluminum, purchased from a seller in Romania, of all places!  It produces a very musical chime.

Astute viewers may notice that my cables are arranged in non-standard fashion.  This is because I'm used to riding motorcycles and scooters which operate their front brake with the right-hand lever.  To avoid confusion, I swapped levers, and in the process, routed the cables behind the headtube. Such viewers also may notice a small chrome addition to the left chainstay near the hub.  This is a sidesaddle footrest.  While living in Holland, I enjoyed carrying passengers, as the Dutch tend to do.  To better accommodate this, I've removed the left pannier.  And the folded blanket strapped onto the rack provides a nice padded seat for the passenger.

Future projects for the Triumph include finding and mounting suitable vintage head and taillights, fitting "reversed" brake levers (which mount in the open ends of the handlebars; much better leverage for braking), and getting a black leather toolbag for mounting under the saddle, in which to store my lock and chain.  And I'd like to replace the old white Bowden cables with less obtrusive (and smoother) teflon-lined black ones.  Yes, I'd greatly prefer rod-operated drum brakes, but fitting them is more of a project than a 26-inch cycle is worth. 

Naming a vehicle has always demarcated those that I feel affection for versus those that may simply be temporary hacks.  I've owned this cycle for about three years now, but it wasn't until a few weeks ago that a name occurred to me which I felt fit it.  I chose "Titania".  As befits an old British cycle, it's an old British name (going back to Shakespeare), and it's simultaneously feminine and capable-sounding.  (No jokes about Titania being the Queen of the Fairies, please.)  And, oddly enough, after giving her a name, I feel more affectionate towards her.  Perhaps it will encourage me to keep her cleaner and in better fettle than if I just thought of her as a utility hack with no personality.

The following pictures were taken today in Golden Gate Park, as I scouted out a route for an up-coming ride.

man and machine

man, in his correct angle of repose


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