Internal Detours
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
  the Dawes

The last time I did a serious ride was in 1983, when I attempted the Mt. Mitchell ride. By the end of that summer, I bought my first car. Soon afterward, I was spending time at the classic juke joint, and it wasn't much longer before I started smoking cigarettes.

My bike gathered dust. When I went to grad school the next year, I took it with me. Somehow it didn't get stolen when my apartment got burglarized, and it came back to Greenwood with me when I walked away from the scholarship and the stipend. The white Puch moved with me through several apartments, in the way, with flat tubulars and scratches and faded bar tape. I finally sold it in 1987 to buy a vintage Fender amp. I regretted it, and a couple of months later contacted the guy I'd sold it to. It had been stolen from his back yard.

When I moved back to Greenwood in 1991, I owned two bikes that I didn't ride. The Bianchi Volpe wasn't a bad bike, but it was really a bit small for me. I rode it some, then I sold it to buy a vintage archtop guitar. The Raleigh Sports gathered dust. I smoked a lot of cigarettes and played my guitars.

I wound up being the eyes and driver for the late, much-missed Ken Henderson. A lifelong collector of vintage firearms, Ken's eyesight had gotten so bad he needed someone to drive him around. One of the places he had me drive him was the Anderson Jockey Lot, the enormous, sprawling flea market in the middle of nowhere.

The Jockey Lot has dozens of buildings that stretch on forever, full of junk and crap you can't believe anyone would buy, surrounded by concrete tables and marked-off spaces for vendors who show up with trucks full of stuff they sell every week. Over on the side are the spaces that the occasional sellers show up, cleaning out garages or store rooms. It was there I met the Dawes.

The first thing I saw was the fancy lugs. I walked over closer and saw the headbadge and thought, "wow, that's pretty!" It was rusty, dirty, and neglected, wearing cheap chromed fenders and sitting on flat whitewall tires. I looked it over, and unbidden came the thought, "you could build a great fixed-gear bike on that frame." It was a strange thought from nowhere. I'd never ridden a fixed-gear in my life.

I walked on. Ken and I wandered around the place, past scrap and junk and stuff that belonged in the recycling bin. We talked to a guy who had a Krag-Jorgenson action that had been shortened into a pistol with about a 4-in barrel, complete with a bad pistol grip stock. The seller wanted too much for it. Ken quietly suggested he might want to remove the pistol grip and sell it as an action, noting that converting rifles to pistols is a violation of federal laws. On our way out, we saw local cops confiscating the Krag.

The guy with the Dawes was packing up to go home. I stopped and looked at it again. It called out to me. I hauled out my wallet. I had one lone ten-dollar bill. "This is all I've got on me," I said to the guy.

He rolled his eyes, then reached for the money. "Beats taking it home."

As I rolled it away, his helper looked over at me and shook his head. "Man, that's a rare one," he said. "That's a four-speed!"

I looked at the shifter for the first time. Hmm. Surprise number one. I'd heard of 4-speeds, but I'd never seen one, much less owned one.

I got the bike home and started dismantling it. My buddy Paul stopped by and we talked as I gently removed the junky, non-original fenders.

"Uh, Russ ... those aren't 26-in wheels," he said.

I looked closer. Surprise number two. The rims were 27-in steel rims, with 27 x 1 1/4-in tires. I sat back, wondering what I had bought. A quick online search on my new computer, hooked up only a week earlier to a dial-up internet connection, landed me on Sheldon Brown's site, where I learned I had acquired a classical British club bike.

The FW four-speed Sturmey-Archer gearhub offered the best shot at dating the bike - it was marked October, 1962. The gears ran from a low of 46 to a high of 87, with the normal gear being a 69-in. Even with the upright bars and sprung saddle, it felt much more like a high-performance 10-speed from the 70s than the classic English sports roadster. It was surprisingly zippy, but still comfortable and controllable.

Over the next few months, as I cleaned and refurbished the old bike, I started rediscovering older bikes. I bought a Peugeot PX-10 like I wanted in 1974, then another one. Vintage bikes came and went, and I started riding again. I commuted on the Dawes on pleasant days, slowly reaquainting myself with what it was like to ride a bike on a daily basis.

As time passed, I sold off all the vintage bikes and focused on getting a Rivendell. Along the way, I sold the Dawes to a nice guy I'd sold a 50's Raleigh Lenton Gran Prix to at the 1999 Cirque du Cyclisme.

In early 2003, I realized I missed the Dawes. I contacted Chris and we made arrangements for me to buy it back in the summer. I went ahead with my wedding plans. All went according to schedule until Chris passed on after a quiet battle with cancer.

At his request, a friend of his had agreed to broker the sale of his bike collection. I bought the Dawes back. When it arrived, I found some of its original parts were gone. Since I had started that by having the wheels rebuilt with stainless spokes on alloy Mavic rims, I didn't complain. I decided to take the bike into full-blown club rider mode, replacing the upright handlebars with dropped ones. The original Brooks B66 was gone, so I fitted a black B17 I had ridden on several different bikes. Finally, I mounted a set of Lyotard Berthet platform pedals with Christophe toe clips.

Fitting dropped bars and a narrower saddle actually took the bike closer to factory specification. I learned from a nice English gentleman named Reg Dennis that the Realmrider was introduced in 1953. While the Sturmey-Archer FW four-speed gear was an option, the majority of these bikes were derailleur equipped 4, 5, 8 or 10-speeds, depending on the year.

I finally took it out on a club ride. Surprise number three. More than four decades after it left the factory in Birmingham, England, this bike still handles beautifully out on the road. I promised a friend I would ride the Greenwood Cycling Club's Bee-Buzzin' Tour on the Dawes.

The heart attack threw off my plans for a year - but in June 2005 I rolled up to the start line on the old black and red bike. The red Bluemels fenders were the only fenders on the ride; I had the only non-derailleur bike. I wondered how things would go.

A few miles out I hooked up with a couple of friends who were feeling frisky. On a long descent, I reached for the shifter and flicked the trigger forward, eased up on my pedaling until I felt the gears re-engage, then began turning the bikes's 87-in top gear. The long bike sprang forward under me like an older racehorse tired of the pasture.

My friends turned off towards Ninety Six and the short route. I went left and headed out for the metric century, and turned in a respectable (for me!) time on the course.

I don't ride the Dawes much. It comes out on nice days and more laid-back club rides now, mostly to keep it rolling smoothly. Generally, it sits on its pegs on the rack in semi-retirement. I don't own this bike. I am its caretaker and its curator.
Nice story about your Dawes. My first lightweight bike was a Dawes much like this with the same lovely head badge. I toured extensively on it (fully loaded) and then raced it quite successfully too after switching to tubulars.

Miss the old machine. A couple years ago I found and aquired an earlier Dawes Courier (early 50's people tell me). Here are some studio photos I shot of it:

Happy roads!
Tim Potter

Dear Russ, get your pleasure out of Dawes! Love the slogan and I love the old Birmingham bicycles. I am researching Dawes history at the moment and I would love to use the pics from your Realmrider. It looks like a 1963 model to me and the reason I am especially interested is the fact that it is the earliest model so far with this type of head badge. This could be proof this head badge was introduced in '63 :) I only started my project 2 weeks ago but it looks promising. Would you be happy to let me use some of your pics and even better - could you tell me the serial number (located on left rear drop out). Many thanks in advance, Rogier (Cambridge, UK)
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