Posted on 19 March 2016
The name Raleigh usually evokes at least two responses, at least in Canada. The first might have to do with quality, respect, pedigree, and history. The second would be "aren't the sold at Walmart?"
The fact is, both contrasting reactions are completely legit, again - in Canada. The Raleigh we carry is a phenomenal, quality bike that stays true to its heritage - especially with the use of tough and elegant steel frames. The Raleigh of Walmart? Well, let's say that was a very bad cynical blip on the part of some naughty Canadian businessmen.
The Raleigh of history was a huge eight-block factory in Nottingham, England. Rubber and steel went in one end, and out the other end were complete bicycles, made for the English working-class who rode back and forth to work. Raleigh may have been a standard-bearer for vertical integration of the industrial revolution, with the inner-tubes, bearings, and all the minutiae made on-site. Raleigh owned Sturmey Archer, Brooks and Reynolds - all massive companies on their own. And then it all came crashing down.
The reason, of course, was the automobile. The automobile reduced the bike from transportational necessity to leisure activity, and no one needed the high quality bikes that made Raleigh famous - instead, they wanted silly things like the Raleigh Chopper, which made Raleigh famous in their own right. These innovations represented a shift from England to the Far East. Quality could be lowered along with price and the emphasis was novelty. A proud factory turned into an office with some people and a brand that was now nothing more than a sticker, but a powerful sticker indeed.
Look at Raleigh today and you will see exactly what happened in Canada. Go from each countries Raleigh website and you will see that no two Raleigh's are the same. In Denmark they still produce the classic rod-brake Raleigh, in Japan it is a high quality road-bike company, in Australia it is cheap commodities, in Germany its a ton of good-looking e-bikes, and in Canada it was indeed department store junk dignified with with a sticker it didn't deserve.
However, our Southern neighbours in the USA didn't have the same story. Raleigh USA was producing some remarkable bikes that carried the Raleigh heritage rather well; a ton of good looking steel bikes and a curious resistance to becoming commodified like so many other brands. Except we couldn't carry them. But good lord we wanted to.
And then something very good happened. Accell Group in the Netherlands, a high quality company we are very familiar with (they own a Dutch brand we once imported, and we have been to their HQ several times) bought Raleigh USA, Canada, and the UK. They cleaned house in Canada and plunked the USA collection into Canadian hands. We signed up immediately.
Here's why we like Raleigh. In a world of aluminum bikes - which can dent very easily if locked to metal poles (Devinci is a rare exception) - Raleigh makes a good deal of their bikes out of steel. Steel lasts. It has a marvellous ride that takes road shock and lightly absorbs it - unlike aluminum which reverberates it. We like Raleigh because they cut through a lot of the trendy crap out there and make road bikes that give you speed and distance without sacrificing your body to it. So many road bikes these days are based on what the pros ride, and that trickle-down theory - that the common person should ride what a pro rides - is very questionable indeed.
Most of all, Raleigh is about keeping things enjoyable. Unlike brands like Trek, Giant, or Specialized, Raleigh lacks a sense of bland commodification. Most brands are the autobiography of their designers. There a bunch of boys that have to make hybrid bikes, but they want to build high-end road bikes. The energy and the marketing campaign goes into the road bikes - pictures of dudes straining in cold, wet, mud - like you're supposed to care. It's hardly aspirational, but tell that to the bike industry. A good bicycle is a companion, not a dominatrix.
Thankfully, Raleigh forges their own path. Their bikes have a touch of soul or character - if you believe such things. They make things innovative and pretty at all price points, and that, we feel, builds on their heritage. And nothing boring here either. All of them are engineered, it seems, with a certain glint-of-the-eye wisdom, as if there were an Old Man Raleigh chuckling down from above. And that wisdom is pretty elemental. Whether riding to work or riding for fitness, cycling is enjoyable - and that's exactly what Raleigh captures, then celebrates.