Why Buy a 3-Speed?
I know, there are bikes out there with lots of speeds. You’ve seen them in the store… 21-speeds, you thought… I could ride up any hill with twenty-one different gears! It’s true that owning a 3-speed is a different experience than owning a bike with dozens of gears. But I’m here to preach it: three speeds is all you need!
Most of the time, of course. For most people, riding a 3-speed isn’t about going thirty miles an hour, riding a hundred miles, or climbing up the French Alps. If you are someone who wants to just go for fun bike rides, isn’t interested in getting there at top speed, doesn’t like spandex (or doesn’t think the world wants to see you in spandex)… a 3-speed may be for you. Here’s a 3-item list of reasons you might like a 3-speed.
1. 3-speeds have the same (or similar) gear spread as bikes with more speeds. There’s just more space between each point in the spread. So if a 10-speed goes from 1-10, with ten steps in the middle, a 3-speed might go from 1-9, with three steps in the middle. But the top gear and the bottom gear are really similar to bikes with many more speeds. You’ll mostly lose the very lowest gears, but 3-speeds aren’t designed to ride up mountains, so this isn’t as big a loss as you might think.
2. Most people never use all the gears on their bikes. Honestly, if you’re just pleasure riding, chances are you will never utilize the vast majority of your gears. You will either stay in one third of the gear range (staying on 2 on the “big” gears and then shifting between grades of 2) or you will shift the big gears from 1-3.
3. You may use your gears MORE on a simpler bike than you would on a more complex one. I find myself shifting far less on bikes with more gears, simply because it requires more thought while riding to choose which gear to use. On my 3-speed, I have three choices. Do I want to peddle less hard on a hill? I shift down. Do I want to go faster on the flats? I shift up. That’s it.
As you determine what type of bike you want, you need to look at how you want to ride. In the end, 3-speeds are great bikes for folks who are just getting back into cycling, who are afraid of the typical bent-over posture of most complex geared bikes, or who just want to ride a bike that feels like the one you had as a little kid. Three-speeds are fun, and that’s pretty much all there is to it.
For a casual rider, a vintage bike can provide much more bicycle for the money. A new, inexpensively-produced cruiser bike can easily cost $300-500, and it won’t be particularly well-made. A fully-tuned vintage bike with all the bells and saddle-improvement-whistles can cost about the same, or even much less, and will run forever on very little care.
Also, let’s face it: vintage bikes have a certain caché that newer bikes do not. Their proportions are often more thoughtfully tuned to the way people like to ride after generations of iterations, their lines can be more graceful, and their history makes them stand out from the crowd. If you appreciate great engineering, or you just like cool old things, vintage bikes are a reasonable way to indulge yourself, as opposed to that $100,000 Mustang Shelby you’ve been eyeing on eBay.
Is Steel “Real?”
Vintage bikes are usually made of steel, it’s true. Does this make them higher quality than a new bike, or give you a “better” ride? Probably not. My vintage Raleigh Sports is made from very cheap, very heavy steel tubing and will proudly rattle my wrists off. My Gazelle Trimsport is made from higher quality steel tubing, and gives a much smoother ride. But all steel bikes will have a more visceral, rougher ride than a brand new titanium bike. This isn’t a bad thing — the “feel” of the road can make riding a vintage bike more fun, just like driving a vintage car. But there’s no reason to claim these bikes are superior to well-made bikes today (you should see the Raleigh Sports’ welds. Yike).
Where Do I Buy a Vintage Bike?
If you’re patient, and live in a reasonably-sized metro area, Craigslist is the way to go. Spend some time perusing what’s on offer, and how much those bikes cost (pay attention to condition, too, as you browse, so you know what a well-maintained bike is worth, as opposed to the “barn find” covered in rust). Every bike market is different, so there’s no way to say what a vintage 3-speed “should” cost in your area. What might seem like exorbitant highway robbery in rural middle America will be an unbelievable bargain on the mean streets of New York City. That said, rural areas are often small markets, which is where eBay can prove useful. You’ll pay more, but often this is the only market in town. Just beware: make sure the bike is sold as being in full running order before you buy!
What Should I Look For in a Vintage 3-Speed?
There are several styles of vintage 3-speed to consider.
Dutch Bikes: The first is the fully-upright, Dutch-style bike, which is generally very heavy, designed for transportation, and virtually bomb-proof. These bikes are ideal for anyone who wants a bike that’s easy to ride: if you’ve ever ridden a bicycle successfully, you can ride one of these. As long as you don’t have to lift it onto the car rack, these bikes are also perfect for people with physical issues, as they are totally upright. If you can walk and sit in a chair, you can probably ride one of these bikes. Just remember that they are very slow, and very heavy. They are not built for significant hills of any size. They are generally weather-proof as well, and can be locked up outdoors with minimal maintenance.
Sports-Class: These bikes are like my Raleigh Sports, and are semi-upright, with a slightly more aggressive posture. This type of bike is better for cranking up the occasional hill — they were made to be ridden on variable terrain, and they’re quite a bit faster. Almost certainly, if you remember riding a bike that you thought was wonderful when you were a kid, this class of bikes will make you feel like a kid all over again.
Other 3-Speeds: There are occasionally other types of vintage 3-speed available, some with drop bars or racing posture (particularly if you get into very old bikes). These bikes are perfect for someone who wants a bit more speed, but loves the simplicity of a vintage 3-speed. There are also 3-speed folding bikes, which are a fun alternative if you need something that’s easier to store and transport.
Factors to Consider
Manufacturers: There are many, but the best known would be the British makes like Raleigh (through the end of the 70’s, some early 80’s), Rudge, Phillips and Triumph (among others). Japanese three speeds can also be fun, and the Canadians and others also made great bikes during the 3-speed heyday. The Raleigh Sports and LTD are the best known (a LTD is a slightly less fancy Sports), and the Raleigh Sprite is a great 5-speed from the company. Raleigh Tourist and DL-1 are fancier, larger versions, requiring specialized tires, but glorious to ride. American manufacturers are dicier here. Schwinn has many fans, but Sears and Montgomery Ward are often just cheap Raleigh knock-offs. Research any unusual bike you find very carefully.
Condition: Vintage 3-speeds tend to be well-loved, meaning their paint can be pretty beat-up. Don’t worry too much about nicks and dings. Pay more attention to rust that compromises the tubing. I’d also rather see a beat-up original paint job than a cheap refinish. Even less important is the condition of the chrome. A beautiful, shiny finish can be restored to even horribly pitted chrome by rubbing it with 000 steel wool. “Mother’s Mag,” a wheel cleaner available at most auto stores, will shine up dulled aluminum parts.
Now it’s time to think about the bike’s working parts. If the bike uses an internally-geared hub in the rear, not a derailleur, you should make sure it will shift, at least a bit. Some hubs freeze up due to lack of maintenance and fixing them is expensive, plus it requires a mechanic with some specialized experience, which may be harder to find. If it shifts at all, it can probably be adjusted. Ideally, it should shift through all three gears before you take it home. Internally geared hubs, if properly maintained with a drop of lubricant now and then, can run virtually forever, so if you buy a bike with a working hub, you’ll quickly find that you love it. Derailleurs work the same way: can you shift? Does it stay in gear? As long as you’re getting a decent response from the bike, it’s probably rideable with a tune-up. If you have major gearing/shifting issues, you have to ask yourself how willing you’ll be to do a total replacement.
Other issues to watch for include brakes that don’t work, “frozen” cranks or bottom bracket, stuck seat posts and the eternal threat of a bent fork. However, if your brakes stop, at least pretty well, the cranks turn, you can adjust the seat, and the front forks look like the are at the correct angle, you can adjust the rest.
Though it’s nice to get a real leather Brooks saddle on your bike, that can also raise its price. Things like bells, baskets and other accessories are just nice extras.
Fit: Look for ridability — does the bike fit you? Vintage 3-speeds came in several sizes. Try one out before you buy! Raleigh Sports came in 19″, 21″ and 23″ versions, but sizes vary by manufacturer. You will also need to determine if you want a step-through frame or a diamond frame. Ideally, I like my legs ever-so-slightly bent on the down-stroke when peddling, my arms to be comfortably stretched but not feel like I’m reaching to get the handlebars, etc. If you can find a bike where your fit is in the middle, you can tweak it later. Never buy one that’s a hair to small or a hair too big right at first, or you’ll end up regretting that you can’t make it fit you later.
Once you’ve purchased your 3-speed, take it to a good bike mechanic. Expect to spend at least $100 to get it in good working order, but probably you’ll spend more like $200. This should include:
1. A general tune-up
2. New brake pads (salmon Kool-Stops are the best)
3. New chain
4. New tires and tubes (this can be anywhere from $15 a tire to $100, depending on your preferences. Cream tires are generally more costly).
Other fun stuff you could pay for:
1. Lowering the gears, so it’s easier to peddle uphill (very cheap to do, especially if you’re having other work done)
2. New Brooks saddle ($90-150)
3. Brass ding-dong bells, baskets, and saddle bags.
Maintenance on a vintage 3-speed is easy: buy a goose-neck oil bottle at the auto store and fill it with automatic transmission fluid. I like to add a bit of Phil Wood’s Tenacity and a few drops of automatic transmission fluid twice a year. That seems to be plenty, though you can also wait for the hub to start sounding like it’s clicking more loudly before you add more oil.
Otherwise, your 3-speed should run forever with few, if any, issues. That doesn’t mean you can’t improve the bikes. Here are a couple “extras” you can eventually add to improve your bike’s performance:
1. Aluminum rims — these will lighten the bike considerably. A front dynamo hub can be easily added at this point, if you want to, for automatic lighting.
2. New calipers and cables for the brakes — help improve the braking. There are some brands available that look reasonable authentic. I haven’t found authentic looking brake levers yet.
3. Add a coaster brake! This solves the above issue, and is fun to have.
3-speeds are great bikes for almost anyone, as long as you aren’t expecting to ride them fast. I highly encourage folks to snap them up!