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Monday, September 11, 2006
I will take a break here and give myself a little gift. I'll tell you the stories of the two coolest bikes I have ever owned. Both of them happened to be The Raleigh Chopper. First, a little background history of the coolest bike you could own in the 1970's:
Back in 1966, The Raleigh Bicycle company was in a slump and needed a new idea. They sent their chief designer to America, Alan Oakley, to have a look at the latest bike craze that were known as "mucle bikes" in the likes of the Schwinn Orange Krate. This trip got Mr Oakley's brain going and while on the flight back he drafted a rough sketch of the Chopper on the back of an envelope. The bike was first sold in the US in 1968, but without success. It was then sold in the UK in 1970 and that's when it started to become very popular. Fortunately, it was also popular here in Canada. In 1972, Raleigh changed the model somewhat after some complaints and shortened the seat and frame, it was called the mark 2.
Fortunately for me, both of my encounters with this bicycle icon was with the mark 1, the original design. My first Chopper was acquired used for $24 cdn back in 1973. I was 8 years old and my uncle had found it for me. I had collected empty beer cans all summer to pay for it. It was all worth it. It was a red 10 speed with the high backrest sissy bar and it had already lost the original fork to an accident of some kind. The replacement unit was green. I can still remember the first time I saw it. My uncle pulled it off is Datsun 210, got on it and said:"Check it out, it's made to do wheelies!" and he immediatly pulled three wheelies in a row without even trying hard! My brain was floating in Jello while my mother was screaming at him for giving me stupid ideas.
Riding the Chopper was a handful back then, I was a small kid and that thing was pretty big. One thing that was obvious from the beginning, the back brake was just a decoration! I could squeeze that brake handle with two hands and nothing would happen. That didn't stop me from going all out. I remember one decent of a not-so steep but very long hill, I was pedaling to get as much speed as I could. The only problem is that the road ended sharply at the bottom and you had to either turn or stop fast. This run had produced the equivalent of lightning speed for an 8 year old and I was so buzzed from the rush that I had forgotten to slow down. Crushing both brake handles at the same time produced the most amazing endo that I've ever experienced before or since. I flew 20 feet in the air and landed on my hands and knees in some rock pebbles, OUCH! I was very fortunate that my family jewels didn't get caught in the frame mounted stick shifters.
The coolest thing about the Chopper, apart from actually existing, is that it was made for doing wheelies. It would seem that a Mark 1 Chopper could pull off a wheelie while parked! The fact that you were sitting directly over the rear wheel axle helped things a lot. The wheelie "sweet spot" was very easy to find. Well, 2 summers of being the kid with the coolest bike around came to a sad end in the spring of 1975. The Chopper was stolen, to this day it is the only bike that was ever stolen from me.
Fast forward 20 years into the future, I am married with two kids and holding down a job. The last thing on my mind is a Raleigh Chopper, until I see this article in "Bicycling" and there it is, a beautiful black Raleigh Chopper. It is a Mark 2 three speed, but it is just as awsome as it was 20 years before. At this point in my life, I had returned to cycling and even got trained as a mechanic. I decided then and there to start a quest to find another Chopper.
For three years I searched with no luck. Not even collectors could help me out, I couldn't find a single Raleigh Chopper for sale. But then, a miracle. I was coming back home by a different route when I slammed on the brakes not believing what I was seeing. It was Orange, it was a Mark 1, it had 3 speeds, it was all there...in the garbage! I rang the doorbell with my heart beating at 145 bpm, "Excuse me lady, uuuuhh that bike over there, could I give you $20 for it?". The lady said, "No way, just take it, it's yours". I thanked the lady and the all mighty and I was on my way home with my prize.
I ran the Chopper in it's original condition for about 3 years before I took it apart to restore it to it's golden self that you see in the pictures. The Chopper was never issued in Gold, but I figured that since it was my bike, I could do whatever I wanted with it. So gold it was. The ride was awsome and the brakes were still as useless as they were 23 years before. I took it out on many local club rides and it never saw a sprinkle of rain. I enjoyed it for another 3 years and I decided to sell it. The buyer is a deserving guardian who paid a hefty price in dollars to take care of the Chopper. The coolest part is that my kids got the pleasure of trying out and using one of my childhood bikes.
I have no regrets in selling it. For me this was a full circle experience and I was glad I had the chance to live it. It was kind of funny when they brought the Chopper back in 2004. I even tried one out in the store. Somehow the safe seat, safe rear brakes and non family jewel threatening handle bar mounted shifter just didn't do it for me. Even my kids were not impressed, my son even said"It's nowhere near the real thing dad.". In this case, you can't beat the original.
Here's some more details about the history of the Raleigh Chopper. This was given to me by David Gagnon who seems to know a lot more about this than I do. Here's the story:
"Alen Oakly(Raleigh designer) went to the States in 68 & saw the ugly Ross Apollo, no doubt. & figured it needed a redesign if it was going to make a moon shot. It was spring 1969 when the first few carmine Raleigh badged, heron everything, tall frames were sold in Canada & maybe Australia, South Africa. By Sept 69 it was available for sale state side, with the Chopper decal. Raleigh only made a handful of these first test bikes, Or the Pre Chopper & were kept a trade secret A correct bike would be worth $10,000.00 - $15,000.00."
Bike safe, have fun with your kids and Godspeed
Posted by Gerry Lauzon at 12:35 AM