The "Friend", an Affordable Touring BikeJan Heine
During a recent cyclotouring trip in Japan, we stopped at an onsen hot bath. As we locked up our bikes, I noticed an interesting touring bike, chained to a lamppost.
“A few decades ago, a bike like this was every boy’s dream,” my friends remarked. Looking over the bike, I can understand why. It’s a smartly designed, yet affordable, campeur in the French tradition. As a teenager, I would have dreamt of a bike like this, too.
The frame looks nicely made, with Nervex “Professional” lugs. The seatstays cross over the seat tube. This is intended to stiffen the frame at the seat tube, useful when you carry heavy loads on the rear rack. The seat tube is less likely to act like a hinge that has the bike flex in undesirable ways. The lack of logos is a marked contrast to the mountain bike next to it.
The seat tube sticker reads “Friend – since 1933 – hand made”. The pump peg on the seatstay is a nice touch. It frees up the frame’s main tubes to carry bottle cages. And it keeps the top tube clear, so you can shoulder the bike and carry it. A true adventure probably includes portaging the bike…
The front rack is made from tubular steel. Its large platform allows carrying a big handlebar bag, or even a small bundle of firewood. The clamps are for a flashlight – useful to illuminate the road when riding after dark, and easy to remove to use while setting up camp. In addition, there is a generator-powered headlight on the other side.
The fork and the rack stay both have attachments for low-riders. The kink in the rack stay is an interesting design feature: When using a low-rider, it spreads the attachment points further apart, and yet the rack remains triangulated.
There are low-rider attachments on the seatstays as well. Mafac cantilever brakes provide plenty of stopping power. Wheels are 650A (590 mm, rather than 650B/584 mm).
The bike is prepared for Rinko, with a split rear fender. The generator that attaches to the bottom of the seatstay is missing.
The SunTour Vx derailleur was one of the best-shifting derailleurs of its time. Together with the triple cranks, it provided a wide spread of gears. There is even a rubber strap to protect the chainstay from getting scratched by chain slap on bumpy roads. Vertical dropouts make it easy to remove the rear wheel even with fenders – important for Rinko.
Another nice touch is the seatpost: a Japanese SR copy of my all-time favorite, the classic Simplex seatpost. The Brooks Professional saddle looks like a later upgrade to me. It shows that somebody has loved this bike.
The headbadge finally gives away the maker of this well thought-out machine: Leopard. A quick Internet search turned up a bike maker with that name, but it was founded in 2004, not 1933 like the seat tube sticker of this bike proclaims. So it must be another company, unrelated to the maker of this bike.
I didn’t meet the owner of the bike. I would have liked to know more about its history, and especially find out how it rides. It’s probably great. The relatively steep head angle and a good amount of fork offset result in a low-trail geometry perfect for precise handling with a load, but also handles well unloaded. Even in this very small size, it doesn’t seem to have toe overlap. Whoever designed this bike knew what they were doing.
In fact, the entire bike would fit right in with the machines we ride today, after our decade-long “Journey of Discovery” has taught us the merits of fully integrated bikes, aluminum fenders, low-trail geometries and wider tires on smaller wheels. To think that in Japan, as a teenager, I could have bought a bike like this off the shelf…
It’s really a shame that bikes like these no longer are available, except as expensive custom bikes. Cyclotouring is resurgent, and this bike once again could be the machine of many dreams. Today, it’s not just boys who dream of taking to the road by bike, but girls (and women), too.
Just imagine if you could buy a bike like this at an affordable price: A nicely made, lugged steel frame. Low-trail geometry. Wide tires and good components. Even comfortable handlebars. (The shape is remarkably similar to the Compass Maes Parallels.) Aluminum fenders, lights, and a front rack as standard equipment. Front and rear low-riders as optional extras that you can add later, when you are heading out on a tour. And most of all, the “Friend” looks purposeful, yet elegant and beautiful.
Touring by bike is a dream, and bikes like these made the dream more attainable. Before and after the grand tour, the “Friend” would be fun to ride around town and on weekend jaunts.
Who will be the first to make a bike like this again? I have no doubt that it will be successful.