The Whale

Classic roadsters have lugged-steel frames; swept-back “North Road” handlebars; one-speed hubs or 3-speed internal-gear hubs; steel cranks with single chainrings; fully-enclosed chaincases and steel fenders; 28″ (700B) wheels with steel rims; and sometimes, dynamo hubs with integrated lights. Traditionally, roadsters came equipped with rod brakes, but modern roadsters more commonly use cable-actuated drum or caliper brakes. Roadsters are built to withstand the rigors of daily use on rough roads, and as such are quite heavy. They are anything but performance bikes, but they make wonderful daily workhorses for running errands and hauling loads from the grocery store, library, or hardware store.

Very few true roadsters are still being manufactured today. More common in this country are what are called “Dutch” bikes (so-called Dutch bikes are closely related to roadsters but differ slightly in their ergonomics and frame geometry). In other parts of the world, roadsters are still widely used as utility bikes. The Chinese Flying Pigeon brand roadster is closely associated with the communist era during which it became the single most popular mechanized vehicle in the world. It is estimated there are still 500 million on the road today, with many handed down from one generation to the next. All modern-day roadsters are based upon the English roadsters of the 1930s, with the archetype being the Raleigh 3-speed.

Pashley calls their roadster a “whale amongst minnows”; I feel the above photo accurately captures the personality of this imposing bicycle.

21 Responses to “The Whale”

  • Roland Smith says:

    The best thing about this kind of bike is that they’re nearly indestructible. I had a classic Dutch bike (brand “Gazelle”) for more than 25 years.

    I had to replace a front rim once due to a collision with car driven by an English tourist who wasn’t accustomed to the multitude of bikes on the Dutch roads.

    But other than that and replacing wear parts like tires and brake pads, maintenance was adding a drop of oil to the 3-speed Sturmey-Archer hub every now and then and the occasional lubrication end tensioning of the chain.

    But after I bought my ‘bent it fell into disuse, and I finally gave it away.

  • Croupier says:

    Some of my favorite classic roadsters from days-gone-by were built by companies that actually specialized in making cars, motorcycles, and, in some cases, firearms. BSA’s frames were brilliantly put together. Pierce-Arrow made the first full suspension bike ever in the 1910s… it’s awesome (I know because I own it; it’s ironically worth more to a car collector than a bicycle collector). But above all, American gun maker Iver Johnson put together some of the finest cruisers EVER made. If you have one, build it up, and don’t like it: I’ll give you twice whatever you think it’s worth for it.

  • Geoff says:

    Excellent Sheldon Brown material. THANKS for this !!

  • Alan says:


    Here’s ANT Mike’s modern take on an Iver Johnson:

  • Croupier says:


    Mike has so much style. He’s put a lot of people on bikes with his designs. He and Sacha White are making RIGHT NOW one of the greatest periods ever for hand built bicycles.

  • Raleigh Chopper says:

    The Raleigh DL-1 design will last forever. I am building up an 20’s Iver Johnson now to use around town. Have you seen the Pashley Guv’nor?


  • Alan says:

    @Raleigh Chopper

    “Have you seen the Pashley Guv’nor?”

    Yup – cool bike. I like their description: “spritely yet surefooted”. :-)

    I’d love to see photos of your IJ when you’re finished building it.


  • Croupier says:

    Yes, please send Alan some pictures for all of us to admire, Raleigh Chopper. Thanks.

  • Dale says:


    I realize that there is an EXTREME (new day) “Chic” factor involved with the Pashleys/Roadsters, (European, Dutch, whatchamacallits), but it occurs to me that these bikes are IMPRACTICAL on many levels.

    A decent, modern day, Mountain Bike (or even a Hybrid) fitted with fenders and racks would weigh less, be just as rugged, and be infinitely more VERSATILE than these relics of by gone days.

    All the HYPE on these bikes are causing “basic Humans” to once again make illogical choices based on cluster-consciousness instead of intelligent and independent thinking.

    I don’t mean anyone any disrespect, but think about it. Other than the “fad” factor, they’re a really dumb bike given the ADVANCEMENTS in materials, designs and technologies of the past 100 years, since these old tanks were first conceived.


  • Alan says:


    What do you REALLY mean Dale? ;-)

    Not to get into a pissing match, but… seriously, until you’ve ridden one, you probably don’t know what you’re missing. Even our guru Sheldon Brown was enamored with these bikes, and for good reason. There’s a lot to be said for their extreme simplicity, indestructibility, and supremely comfortable ride position (rivaling some recumbents and CFs). To call them “impractical”, in my opinion, shows a lack of understanding about how they’re used. I’ve owned very many bikes over the past 30 years, and a 3-speed roadster (mine happens to be a 5-speed) is right up there among the most practical bikes I’ve owned.

    Here’s a quote from Sheldon:

    “Don’t sneer at old 3-speeds. They are serious bikes, built for serious use. They are meant for utilitarian cyclists, and they are still extremely appropriate for riders who don’t usually go more than a few miles at a time. They are particularly at home in stop-and-go traffic, because they can be shifted even while stopped. Their English heritage: full fenders, oil lubrication, and totally enclosed gear system makes them relatively impervious to wet conditions. They may be heavy, but that is not because they were built to be cheap, but because they were built to endure extremely rough usage and neglect. Properly cared for, they will outlast us all.”


    PS – I routinely ride mine 15-20 miles with no issue whatsoever.

  • Raleigh Chopper says:

    Here are some pics of the Iver Johnson as is today. Any suggestions?

    Iver Johnson Photos

    As for Dale’s comment, I see where you are coming from. But I don’t totally agree with it. If it takes a “Fad” to get people riding their bikes when they could be taking a car, I think it is worth nuturing. Mountain Bikes were a fad at one time as well, so was the internet.

    I would rather ride a bike that my kids will fight over who gets it after I die. I also think we need to be more concerned with the riders weight rather than the bikes.


  • Dale says:

    LOL ! :- 0

    You, (and Sheldon), are right, Alan. I have ridden them , (back in the stone age). :- )

    They’re the ideal bike for SOME folks. They are reliable, I’ll give them that.

    But for “practical” urban assault-ing, there’s nothing like a bike that will bunny hop curbs, potholes, road-kill, and the occasional wine-o passed out in a glass-filled alley. The “practical” UAV has to be able to go down step/stairs, off walls, and over all manner of trash and construction debris. It needs to be able to fly through parking lots and people’s yards and able blast trails, streets, sidewalks, and alleys with equal ease – and while doing wheelies if necessary. Of course they need the mechanic’s touch from time to time, but that’s just part of one’s “survival readiness”.

    I may get me one of those “Grandfather Bikes” when I get OLD, but I’m only 64 now, and still full of testosterone and adrenalin. :- )

    As always, Alan, I love your blog.

    Kindest regards,

  • Alan says:


    I can’t argue with the fact that on my roadster I’d be hard-pressed to “bunny hop curbs, potholes, road-kill, and the occasional wine-o passed out in a glass-filled alley”; “go down step/stairs, off walls, and over all manner of trash and construction debris”; and “fly through parking lots and people’s yards and able blast trails, streets, sidewalks, and alleys with equal ease – and while doing wheelies if necessary”. Your take on practical cycling is just a tad bit more aggressive than mine… WOW!

    My typical ride is nothing if not sedate: hop on the bike with whatever clothes I happen to be wearing, concentrate very hard on riding slow enough so as to not break a sweat, pick up my groceries or have lunch or whatever, and saunter back home. The trip is considered a success if I don’t need a shower or change of clothes when I arrive home. In my mind, my Pashley is made to order for this kind of riding. If I do encounter potholes, road-kill, or a drunk in the road, I just detour around them like a turtle; no need for acrobatics… :-)

    Have fun and stay safe..

    Best regards,

  • MikeOnBike says:

    Wow, indeed. There’s nothing I do on a bike that could be characterized as “assault”.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that. []

    Horses for courses, of course.

  • Croupier says:

    Alan already did a piece that covered this ground: the one about different bikes for different purposes (just last week I think). I agree with what Dale is saying to the extent that there may be a difference between an urban bike and what we can now probably label, a suburban roadster. On the San Francisco or Oakland streets I don’t think a Pashley is the logical choice (sidewalks are for pedestrians ONLY and most drivers are quite insane). I’d have to be on ‘roids to even think about throwing that much weight around an area that crowded. My BMX bike proper rips those streets up right. A done-up fixie is a surgeons knife on the same terrain (which I’m sure Dale would also call a “fad”). I can’t carry much more than a 6 pack, a gallon of milk and some Cup Noodles in my backpack but also I can’t recall a fully outfitted mountain bike sans panniers (that it’s not made to haul) that could carry much more.
    The streets you see now, it’s hard to take their measure (wink), so pick your weapons accordingly.

  • Alan says:


    I fully agree. The Pashley is probably not a good choice for a car-dominated urban environment such as found in the SF Bay area (or the city center of downtown Sacto for that matter). Besides, the hills would kill you.

    With its compact footprint and super-quick handling, a sturdy folder like a Brompton is not a bad choice for a dense urban environment, though it doesn’t quite have the curb hopping agility of a BMX bike or ss/fixie. I’d be afraid of destroying the rear triangle bunny-hopping a Brommie.

    Like you said, “pick your weapons accordingly”. And what the heck, all this specialization gives us ample justification for a garage full of bikes… :-)

  • Michael says:

    Having started out riding a mountain bike during my teens – and later a Danish bike, in Denmark – and then back to a mountain bike in the US when I lived on Nantucket – I’ve now chosen specifically to ride a Danish bicycle again here in NYC. I’ve been exposed to all the ‘technology’ that Dale is talking about and it doesn’t add up to anything more than a light-weight frame – and who needs that?

    My Velorbis is more high tech than any bicycle I’ve ever owned – in-hub gears, brakes and dynamo (front & back lights), the chain case, coat guard, durability and absorption of steel – it’s all amazing technology that makes riding a bicycle a serious form of transportation in the city, not a sport.

    I can get on my bicycle wearing anything – I never have to dress for biking – I don’t have to pull up a pant leg. These are things that matter if you’re living in the city and want to use a bicycle for transportation.

    And the other thing Dale doesn’t mention is the frame geometry and the riding position. And these are the most important parts. Why in the world would I want to ride around in the city hunched over? Sitting totally upright, I am taller than most cars, I can see everything that’s going on and most importantly they can see me. An upright riding posture is ideal for the city and it’s comfortable.

    If I moved back to the mountains where I grew up, I might have a mountain bike again – but as long as I’m living in the city or the country, I will be riding upright, on this very high-tech classic bicycle.

  • Michael says:

    P.S. Regarding the Flying Pigeon bicycles:

    I see these all over the city – and I have to say, they’re cheap for a reason. They have low quality brakes, and I’ve seen them rust all over after a week outside. If you want a bicycle you can pass down for generations – buy a used raleigh in good shape, a pashley, an Azor, Gazelle or another dutch or danish bike.

    The Flying Pigeon is being sold in NYC for around $500, in China they cost about $30.

    It’s a bicycle that superficially looks like the higher quality ones, but compare them in person and you’ll see the differences in quality right away.

  • andy parmentier says:

    where there’s a whale, there’s a wave. took a nite ride as part of portland’s bikepalooza and it was a long trail of cyclists. we had at one point “lost the tail” and in another spot, run into an apparent dead end. which prompted me to compose one liner poetry. portland is a wonderful bike town, and there’s a bikepoetryglue that connects there.
    i ended up riding “sir costalot” my tour easy (“sur coast-alot?) to tillamook, down 101, 22, ending up here at the public library in albany, oregon. because i love to landsail and the prevailing northwesterlies were beckoning. saw a trio of cyclists loaded down out of tillamook.
    once i DID see the TAIL of a whale in southern oregon, in 1999. (brookings)

  • Len says:

    I’ve ridden my 1968 Raleigh Sports from Oakland to Richmond as a work commute. I also ride a 2008 Raleigh single speed (set up Roadster style) almost every day to work from Oakland to Emeryville. Roadsters are great city bikes. The upright position helps you see what the cars are doing, it’s more comfortable than being on flat mountain bike bars (where you look down at the trail instead of up at traffic and pedestrians). Also, the big, cushy tires on both bikes and the sprung Brooks saddles absorb much of the bumps of everyday commuting.

    Jumping curbs, going down stairs, off walls, through people’s yards, etc is not part of any “regular” commute in Oakland, which actually has a lot of bike lanes, bike routes, and bike boulevards. Sounds like some fantasy “extreme BMX” video–not any real riding in Oakland.

  • Geoff Apps says:

    My AventuraTT is principally inspired by the ‘roadster’ to the extent that I’m even soon to build a set of 700B wheels, but in this case with 31″ X 2.75″ tyres.

    However, you would probably not easily see the connection between my design and a roadster.

    Have a look at

    …see what you think?

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