Two-Wheeled Time Traveler

How an old folding bike brought back the 1960s Jersey Shore

Back in the 1960s, I worked in a Margate, New Jersey bike shop during the summers and holidays. I did minor repairs and assembled new Raleighs and Peugeots for sale. The shop was only three blocks from home, so it was convenient for me to hop on my bike and ride over (I was, after all, still a youngster). The owner of the shop sold me a used Raleigh folding bike and, although I had a 10-speed Raleigh Super Course, I rode the folder every day to work and back.

The folder was an excellent bike for the Jersey Shore. The upright seating position was good for negotiating narrow streets and tourist traffic, and it had a short turning radius for weaving between cars. Since it was only a three-speed, it wasn't considered a prize by thieves who preferred the flashier 10-speeds. I took that bike on many boardwalk rides and, on one occasion, even rode it the six or seven miles to Ocean City to visit a friend who needed help eating a few dozen Maryland steamed crabs (a case of Rolling Rock pony bottles rattled on the back rack the whole way).

Fast forward 30 years. My beloved folder was long since gone, borrowed out of mom’s garage by my brother. I still remember that folding bike, because of all the great memories attached to it. I remember the sticky heat in the un-airconditioned bike shop. I remember the sounds and smells of hamburgers sizzling on the grill at the famous burger joint next door. I remember the feel of sticking my hand into a tire to find the nail or rock that had caused the puncture. And, in retrospect, those were all very good memories.

So, after I mentioned to my wife for the thousandth time how much I missed that folder, she said, “Why don’t you just find one on eBay, and fix it up? You love to fix bikes.” (There's a reason I married this woman.)

I did exactly that. After bidding on many nice bikes, I finally won a bid on a 1982 Raleigh Twenty—the non-folding model. When it arrived, I was ecstatic like a little kid with a new bike (and, in my mind, I still was). I stripped that bike down, and was more than willing to replace almost everything on it. That is, until I gave it a test ride and realized that the Sturmey-Archer three-speed hub didn’t work. That was a major bummer. I was all set to ride down memory lane, but buying a new hub would delay the rebuild and probably set me back $40-50.

Before giving up on it, though, I combed the web for info on Sturmey-Archer hubs (many thanks to Sheldon Brown for his excellent web page on Raleigh folding bikes) to see if I could fix it myself. I put oil in the hub, because most people don’t do this and it can cause problems. I sprayed the shifter with WD-40. I adjusted the cable tension. Still, the sucker wouldn’t shift.

Then I remembered assembling those bikes in Margate so long ago. There was a little piece of white plastic over the end of the rear hub (where the gear chain comes out) that protects it during shipping. You're supposed to discard it upon assembly. And there it was—the solution to the problem was right in front of me the whole time. Some people have eureka moments; mine was more of a 'Duh!' I pulled the piece off, reassembled the cable and tried to shift. The ancient hub emmitted a loud BOOM as it leapt to life and, lo and behold, shifted!

Where is this story going? Well, I honestly think that small plastic piece had been on the bike since it left the factory. For 25 years, the bike had yearned to be what it was supposed to be—a galloping three-speed. For a quarter-century, its owner hadn't thought to take off the plastic piece, so it could fulfill its function. He rode it as a one-speed in the hardest pedaling gear, not knowing how to get the full benefit from the bike.

I have no idea what real use I'll get out of the bike once it's done. I may ride it on bike paths now and then with my daughter. I may take it down to the Jersey Shore in search of a memory or two—to visit some old friends or ride by a still-popular ice cream stand.

But that little plastic piece has made me wonder about the small things that keep us all from best fulfilling our functions. Wouldn’t it be nice if it was that easy to remove the stumbling blocks in our lives? I also know that bikes are just things made of steel and rubber. They are not themselves memories, but, like all good things in our lives, they can help trigger those past good times and make the present even sweeter.

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