Words: Simon Smythe
There was a time when Raleighs on British streets were as common as Anglo-Saxon swearwords in Bradley Wiggins’s Tour de France press conferences. And then — just as Wiggo will if he effs and blinds in front of Her Maj as she dubs him with her sword next year — Raleigh ran into trouble.
For the 125-year-old company, the late 20th century was a nightmare of spiralling debt leading to a management buyout in 2001, and 280 workers lost their jobs when the factory in Nottingham closed the following year.
After 10 years of steady recovery, with production transferred to the Far East, the brand was bought this year by Dutch company Accell for €100m. Financially secure again — Accell is a group that owns some of the best known European brands including Lapierre — what can the new Raleigh bring to this very competitive price point, other than clogs, Edam and tulips?
The entry-level AirLite aluminium bikes have been improved for 2012 — losing weight thanks to butted tubing and better speccing. Raleigh has built in mudguard clearance and eyes, sensibly expecting these bikes to be used mostly as year-round commuters, but also claims the AirLite is perfect for a first foray into sportive riding.
The frame is made of 6061 aluminium alloy (the other common one along with 7005 used for bicycle frames) to a fairly relaxed geometry that is aimed at not scaring new-to-drop-bar bike riders. The fork consists of carbon blades with an alloy steerer like the Forme and Ribble, but the difference is that it has 48mm of rake — five more than is considered normal for a bike like this.
The groupset is a Shimano mix ‘n’ match with 105 shifters and derailleurs, a non-series Shimano chainset and cheap Tektro calipers (strangely, although mudguard clearance is built into the frame’s geometry, it uses short-drop calipers, ones that don’t work very well). The wheels are Shimano R501s, which are tough but heavy at 1,900g, but it’s a pleasant surprise that they are shod with Schwalbe Durano 25c tyres — better rubber than the bottom-rung Luganos that come with the Forme.
The finishing kit is mostly Raleigh’s own: the RSP (Raleigh Special Products) name has been revived, but it’s not the elite racing division set up by the Gerald O’Donovan in the Seventies.
So the AirLite 400 doesn’t offer exceptional value for money but Raleigh has made an effort to make it look desirable, and uses a classic font for the down tube; the head tube bears a traditional riveted-on heron head badge, and there’s a flash of Union flag on the seat tube and a little ‘125 years’ sticker to remind you of the heritage. The blue/black paint scheme and matching tyres look classy and modern.
But unfortunately we’re back 70 years or so in the past with the AirLite 400’s handling. Extra fork rake not only lengthens the wheelbase but shortens the trail — ie brings forward the contact point of the tyre on the road closer to being directly underneath the steering axis — and although it’s only 5mm this could be the reason why the AirLite 400 handles oddly. Standing up to accelerate away is an unnerving experience the first time you do it. Compensating for the bike apparently trying to go in the opposite direction becomes instinctive after a few goes, but it doesn’t feel right at speed, with a lack of side-to-side stability. Simultaneously, it feels sluggish
If the 1930s-style fork rake is what’s behind the Raleigh’s quirky behaviour we’ll keep our 21st-century geometry, thank you! If it’s not, Raleigh ought to review the AirLite 400’s geometry elsewhere and revise it to ensure it rides the way modern cyclists expect it to.
It’s a pity, because many people — most cyclists in fact — would love to see the return of Raleigh to our roads, but if its bikes handle like this, sightings of them are likely to be accompanied by the sound of swearwords in abundance.
Model AirLite 400
Frame 6061 aluminium butted main tubes and stays
Fork Carbon with aluminium steerer
Chainset Shimano R600 50/34
Derailleurs Shimano 105
Shifters Shimano 105
Brake calipers Tektro R540
Wheels Shimano R501
Tyres Schwalbe Durano 25C
Weight 9.32kg (20.08lb)
Sizes 47, 51, 55, 59cm
Size tested 55cm
Wow factor 17/20
Build quality 17/20