The basic design of the bicycle was perfected a long time ago. With the exception of advances in gear shifting, braking and niche flourishes that benefit professional racers, any design changes over the last half century or so have been derivative and largely unnecessary, especially when it comes to aesthetics.
Years ago, I dropped the hunched-over racing model of cycling that puts the weight on the shoulders, elbows and wrists for the more classic upright model that puts the weight of the cyclist in the seat. I also dropped the aggressive vigor that goes with extreme riding. (And I, of course, dumped the TRON helmet, the special shoes and the logo-drenched scuba shorts with taint padding.) My preferred mode evolved into a more relaxed style that got me from A to B and burned a few calories, whether riding in a suit and wingtips or in shorts and sneakers. No specialized gear necessary.
The only task was finding a bicycle that enabled that way of riding a bicycle with style – the same style with which people were riding decades ago.
I’m very particular about the geometry of the diamond frame, specifically about the angle of the frame’s top bar. Lately, men’s bikes have gotten “sporty” with an angled top bar, giving the bike a trail bike look. I prefer the top bar to be horizontal, parallel to the ground, like the old bikes.
Over the past few years, I scratched that itch with commuter bikes from Brookly Bicycle Co. (formerly Brooklyn Cruiser). When it was Brooklyn Cruiser, it was about bikes that were “vintage inspired, built for today.” My first two Brooklyn Cruisers were the original Bedford from 2011 (with a coaster brake and a 2-speed kick shift – no cables!) and the next generation Driggs 3 (with 3 speeds, a coaster brake and a grip brake on the front wheel). Both bikes had essentially the same frame, which was a diamond classic with a signature double-tube on the top. They were upright Dutch model bikes – real head-turners, expecially with the wood crate fastened to the rear carrier. And those double-top bars on the frame were horizontal – parallel to the ground. But Brooklyn Bicycle has gone in a different direction with design, opting for the angled sportier frame for the current fleet of men’s bikes. Nothing wrong with it at all. It’s just not my preference. (And I will go on record as saying that Brooklyn Bicycle makes fantastic bicycles for an incredible value, packed with great features right out of the box.)
I merely found myself wanting something different.
For months I had been searching for a mint condition vintage men’s Raleigh bicycle in black – from anywhere between the 1950s into the early 1970s. I’ve always loved the classic men’s diamond frame and other timeless touches about it. But finding one in my size (and also hoping that it was in genuinely good shape) was a challenge. I got tired of waiting.
I love the Shinola Runwell. It’s an exceptionally made bicycle with that classic geometry and the whole made-in-Detroit story. But $3,000 is a little (okay, a lot) out of my price range. So my quest took me further further west to Heritage Bicycle in Chicago to invest in a new customized bicycle…
I had been looking at the Heritage Bicycles website for a while before deciding to take this plunge. As the website suggests, I sent an email to [email protected] expressing my interest in ordering a custom bike. Within an hour, I got a phone call from a nice guy named Alan who patiently discussed all of the options with me. With a ballpark estimate of around $1500, I approached this bicycle the same way I would have treated a bespoke suit: this was an investment that should last a lifetime. I wanted a classic that would have looked fantastic decades ago, today and 25 years from now. In a strange way, I was also inspired by the look and color ways of a black 1965 Ford Mustang, my favorite car ever.
My starting point was the The Chief frame from Heritage. It’s a classic diamond frame with a crown fork handmade in Chicago from American high-tensile steel. Heritage has a spectrum of options for the paint. I went with gloss black, of course.
High on my vintage Raleigh/’65 Mustang influence cloud, I went with chrome rims, chrome fenders, chrome cranks, a chrome rear rack and, of course, a chrome bell. I thought about chrome for the chain guard, but it would have disrupted the look of the frame, so I went with gloss black for better visual continuity.
Heritage has the option of upright handle bars, which I took to accommodate my preference for upright cycling. There were several options for the grips, including leather, leather wraps or cork. I chose black rubber “pistol” grips with those grooves for the fingers, which reminded me of the original grips we had on our Schwinns when we were kids. As for the all-important saddle, I went with a classic leather Brooks B67 in black.
The tires could have been cream or black, either of which would have been nice. But if I were to be consistent with the rest of the bike’s look and feel, understated black was the way to go. Another influence on that decision was Kevlar. I’ve had enough flat tires riding around NYC to know that Kevlar-lined tires are something worth considering. Tires lined in Kevlar are only available in black. Decision made.
Then there were the mechanicals. In my personal bicycle history, I’ve had kick-shifts, coaster brakes and as many as 12 gears (of which I only used three, if I’m going to be really honest). I went with a 3-speed Sturmey-Archer hub, front and rear caliper brakes and a double kickstand.
When you order a bike from Heritage, you have the option of having the partially assembled bike shipped directly to you or to a local bike shop for final assembly. I chose the latter, having the bike sent to Velo NYC at Gotham Market West on West 44th Street and 11th Avenue. Unfortunately, the frame and one of the fenders was damaged during shipping, which required a re-make of the whole frame, thus extending the initial 6-week production time to 11 weeks. I can’t deny that I was more than annoyed, but… shit happens.
When I got the call that the bike was finally finished, I stopped everything and marched over to NYC Velo. I couldn’t wait to see it and ride it. It was beautiful. Everything I had hoped for.
As opposed to other heavier Dutch-inspired commuter bikes I’ve ridden, my custom Chief was certainly sturdy but decidedly slimmer and tighter in feel – not unlike the difference between a 1965 Mustang and a 2015 Mustang. Leaner, more elegant and a lot less “pumped up.” I don’t know the exact weight, but I’m estimating it to be around 26 or 27 pounds.
And the ride? Like a black Burmese cat. Smooth, tight, light and breezy.
At nearly $1500, this was a significant purchase for me. Like my Alden chukka boots, this was an investment that I had been thinking about for a long time, not a frivolous impulse. As a sometimes unwilling participant in our envy system of acquiring things, I will always look admiringly at Shinola’s Runwell, a beautifully-preserved Raleigh Tourist or the Aston Martin of bicycles: the English Roadster by Vickers. But I love my custom Chief. It’s made in the USA, it’s everything I wanted, and I couldn’t be happier with it.
About that headlight on the handlebars…
That polished aluminum headlight on the handlebars that looks like the cylinder of a revolver is the weatherproof and shockproof “Defender” headlight from Fortified Bicycle, makers of nice theft-proof gear for bicycles.