“Mad as bicycle”

Lieutenant The Honourable George Colthurst St. Barleigh

On the face of it, refurbishing old bicycles is a lot like podcasting. How hard can it be? A podcast is just people holding forth in front of a microphone, just like building a bicycle is about sticking a couple of wheels and a seat on a frame and off you pop.

This is how mental breakdowns happen.

For the sake of your health, relationship and bank balance take the easy path and purchase an off the peg number.

Then again these shiny mass produced numbers are a bolt cutter’s dream. More importantly, there’s nothing like the satisfaction of owning a set of wheels designed and built exactly the way you want it.

It’s been a steep, and sometimes costly, learning curve so here’s some top tips as well as some (badly taken) photos to act as a rough guide if contemplating a self build.

Let’s start with my maiden voyage. Here’s the finished article:

1. Raleigh Racing Green

I bought the frame from a second hand shop and had it resprayed from a lurid yellow to a racing green with added sparkle. The respray was pricey, much more than I had anticipated. I would recommend buying a frame with a colour scheme you like instead of trying to change it. Plus, the paint chipped easily. So all round not a great experience.

Secondly, this Raleigh frame is made of 501 Reynolds tubing not the superior 531. The late, legendary Sheldon Brown has a guide to tubing and lots more besides. Before you even buy a bell give his site more than the once over. When I first read about frames and how they affect the ride I thought it was marketing guff. It’s not.

Thirdly, it might be obvious but sizing is paramount. You can get a rough idea from guides like this one at Wiggle.  My tip: if you regularly cycle but fall between two sizes go for the slightly smaller option. More control. More speed.

One of the joys with the build is obsessively searching out the perfect component to compliment the style of bike you’re striving for. This crank still pleases. It’s Italian:


You’ll notice it’s not a single speed or fixed gear. Partly it’s because I live on a hill but it’s more to do with personal preference. Cycling in London can be a tad hairy and with gears at your disposal they help dash a roundabout or negotiate a set of busy lights.

The biggest headache when it comes to refurbishing old bikes is the mighty struggle between imperial and metric. If your frame takes 27 inch rims then don’t be tempted to buy the more widely available 700c. Your brake leavers won’t fit. That’s just one migraine. Carefully measure everything using a nice set of Digital Vermier Calipers.

Check out the retro Raleigh badge, nicely polished, brought alive by the red brake lever tubing:


I eventually sold The Raleigh Racing Green. It was on the small side and the ride was functional not riveting. Too rigid. But Bullhorns fun. The Schwalbe retro touring tyres were tremendous value and puncture resistant reliable.   3 stars our of 5.

Soon, thoughts turned to my next project.

If, like me, you’re on the tall side the first thing you’ll notice are large frames in the used, vintage market are rare. Worry not. If  based either side of the Atlantic there are plenty of Raleigh Sprint frames available on ebay at a reasonable price.

The jet black paint set off by the gold letters naturally turned heads:

2. Raleigh ’80s Arcade

Note the print on the wall. It’s by the British artist, Jeremy Deller, a commision by Transport for London. The artist was invited to design a tube map. It was later rejected on the basis it sent out a confused message (heathens). You can read more about the project here. A treasured present from my wife (apparently it’s not mine if we divorce).

With this build I wanted the best of both worlds: a single speed aesthetic but geared flexibility. It was trouble from the start. The Sprint is a fine specimen and at an XL size it had a lovely flexibility to it in the saddle.  This is not unusual – in fact it enhances the ride –  but the famous Sturmey-Archer internal gear hub just wouldn’t settle down and constantly slipped, knocking out the gearing. Such a shame. At the brief moments it danced, it handled like a dream:


Take note of the gold crank. A slender beast.

The other surprising challenge came from England’s finest, Brooks, the Rolls Royce of saddles. Brooks saddles have very short rails and therefore leave one in a bit of a bind when it comes to finding the perfect fit. Such a disappointment for those with an inside leg verging on the antisocial. Beware.


Note the gold bell and brake tubing nicely complimenting the 80s arcade game-style Raleigh lettering:


Excuse the baffie.

All in all a regal build besmirched by a dodgy internal hub. Taking your refurb anywhere near a bike shop is sacrilegious but in the name of fairness I had a mechanic give it a service before selling.  The purchaser subsequently offered up a 5 out of 5 but while it resided under my roof it hovered around the 3 1/2 mark.

On to my latest carriage. This I call the full Alan Bennett:

3. The Full Alan Bennett

I can’t believe how dirty that back rim is.

What we have here is a Falcon Olympic ’78 custom built six speed with riser bars and a ‘pizza box’ front basket.

I found this on gumtree in a sorry state. Added a new front tyre, riser bars, crank, pedals and seat, plus forks (unfortunately I could only find touring forks with protruding pannier handle).

It’s still a work in progress – the frame needs a lot of retouching work – but It’s my most pleasing build so far:


That’s it for now. Thanks for reading.  Keep an eye on the blog as I tinker with this one. And come the Spring thoughts will inevitably turn to the next build.