The "Friend", an Affordable Touring Bike

The "Friend", an Affordable Touring Bike

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.
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Comments (43)

  • Paul Greenberg (@Paulyg911)

    It reminds me of my dearly departed 1973 Raleigh Gran Prix that took me camping, racing and on long rides along the South Jersey shore. It was indeed a good Friend.

    June 21, 2016 at 8:35 am
  • Xavier

    It is indeed a very nice bike. I don’t get what makes you say that it is (was?) an affordable bike? I see a handmade frame, ornate lugs, nice components…
    What seems to be missing today is big scale bike manufacturers producing bikes like the ones advocated by BQ. Bikes with light tubing, low trail geometry, fenders, permanent light and a front rack seem like they could be produced with all the benefits of industrial production.

    June 21, 2016 at 8:39 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You can see from the details that it was designed to be affordable. There are some compromises in workmanship and design that make this bike a level or two below one of the beautiful custom bikes from TOEI and other constructeurs. As you say, industrial or semi-industrial production can bring the price down significantly, as it did with the Peugeot PX-10 and Raleigh Professionals of the 1970s.

      June 21, 2016 at 8:46 am
      • Xavier

        I hope industry people watch this trend. Friends see the appeal of my randonneuse (Being able to not care about rain, darkness or an impromptu cheese by the fromagerie near the col). But they also see the appeal of mass production prices and are not interested in dealing with a constructeur.
        I would have hoped that the Concours de Machines would have been targeted more at the Machines themselves than the way they are made 😉
        Il existe un engouement fort pour le vélo artisanal, qui ne demande qu’à progresser et se faire connaître. Ces deux leitmotiv qui seront le credo de cet événement. Nous voulons avant tout faire connaître notre travail et notre savoir-faire au grand public, cyclistes ou non, et montrer qu’il existe des alternatives aux grandes séries.
        Why dismissing grandes séries. They can be a great way to put more people on great bikes. People that might someday overgrow their bike and be in the market for a constructeur bike that could fit their weird requirements 😉

        June 22, 2016 at 5:15 am
  • Richard

    Yes, a great idea! If current trends continue, perhaps this will happen. (FYI, BQ introduced me to the idea of fast and comfortable wide-tire bikes; I love my 650B Boulder All Road!)

    June 21, 2016 at 9:02 am
  • Matthew

    “Who will be the first to make a bike like this again?”

    June 21, 2016 at 9:17 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Compass doesn’t make bikes. We are too busy as it is, and we prefer to work with builders and supply them with the parts they need to make excellent bikes.

      June 21, 2016 at 9:29 am
  • PeterB

    Nice, thoughtful post, nice to see a thoughtful bike.

    June 21, 2016 at 9:29 am
    • Don Genovese

      My sentiments exactly.

      June 21, 2016 at 11:34 am
  • John

    Any insight into the origin of the front rack? It looks like it could fold — I’ve been looking in vain for a front rack that will pack down for my S&S coupled travel bike.

    June 21, 2016 at 10:00 am
  • thebvo

    you just never know when you’ll get a bicycle surprise in Japan. I’ve seen cute young girls at coffee shops with braze-on center pull brakes, I’ve seen old farmer dudes riding through rice fields with handlebar bags and hammered fenders, and one time I rode past a garage next to a rural train station with, no joke, 20 handmade touring, rando, and city bikes each with amazing details made by people I’ve never heard of (besides the 2 or 3 TOEI’s) Naturally I imposed my unsolicited friendship and questions upon him.
    Once was less of a surprise when at the handmade bike show (which you posted recently about) I met a few older expats outside looking at the visitor’s bikes. The one that really struck me was an old production Bennyx (ベニックス). It was, as you describe the Friend above, a combination of classic lines, touring friendly, amazing details (braze-on center pulls, nice rack with lights, purdee lugs) and made for Rinko at an affordable price. It even had a copy (appeared well-made) of the Rene Herse crank! It rode on 650B Grand Bois tires (not original and perhaps a conversion from 650A?) and had fully integrated everything. I freaked out. Later I learned that although Bennyx no longer makes bikes like this, Araya and a few other Japanese brands still do, albeit only in smaller sizes. Maybe an import of these could be a start…
    Here’s a link to the old ベニックス brochure

    June 21, 2016 at 10:10 am
  • Phil Randall

    It reminds me of the Giant Marco Polo touring bike given to me in the seventh grade by my parents in mid 80’s Taiwan.

    June 21, 2016 at 10:21 am
  • Mark

    Now that you put this out there, Jan, I bet someone steps up to the plate and takes a swing. Thanks for the post!

    June 21, 2016 at 10:36 am
  • David Feldman

    In the 1980’s, the US market had a lot of Japanese made touring bikes available. Maybe not as elegant as your example but great riding bikes–Univega, Fuji, Specialized, Panasonic, Nishiki, Centurion, and Bridgestone all had serviceable touring bikes in their lines. Today you’d make it affordable by using a Taiwanese TIG-welded frame. The 1980’s were the heyday of the undervalued yen, something like 310 to the US dollar instead of around 100 as it is today.
    Good thing is, when you find an 80’s Japanese bike for sale used in the US now it’s almost comically undervalued!

    June 21, 2016 at 11:33 am
  • Jimmy

    “It’s really a shame that bikes like these no longer are available off-the-shelf. As cyclotouring is resurgent, this bike once again could be the machine of many dreams.”
    Can you expand on this? I don’t see what the big fuss is about of having these available off-the-shelf. Almost any business that would sell such a bike off the peg can also sell such a bike a la carte, allowing the customer to choose their preferred accessories.
    Do you feel that manufacturers are missing out on a large number of sales? Or that LBS’s are missing out on a large number of sales? Or that having such a bike more readily available would have some positive influence on cycling overall?
    As you are well aware, this has been tried in the past, and is currently being tried on some models from major manufacturers (caveat: many do not include lights, or only include a rear rack). What could be done differently this time around?

    June 21, 2016 at 1:34 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      What I’d like to see is a bike that is ready to go. The constructeur approach, but made in a production setting and at production prices. The bike as you see it is ready to go. Assuming that you can get the tailor-made low-riders as retro-fits, you then can upgrade when you go on the big tour. Or perhaps they were included.
      Yes, I think it would be a positive influence on cycling overall. It would allow riders to expand their horizons of when and where they can go. Currently, most people who are touring across the country don’t have lights or fenders. Which means that riding in the rain is unpleasant, and getting caught in the dark because you spent too much time exploring the sights along the route is dangerous. It needn’t be that way.
      Yes, a bike shop could (almost) put together a bike like this, the price of “à la carte” bikes is very high, because you have to pay retail for all the parts, and shop labor rates to build the bike. When we tested a Soma Grand Randonneur, a reader commented that the bike didn’t have a “budget” price, just budget quality. And that is true – it cost almost twice the price of a Surly Long-Haul Trucker. The quality is no better, but the bike was put together individually by a bike shop. Imagine building a car from spare parts! It would be unaffordable.
      Of course, there are benefits to the “à la carte” approach – for example, you get exactly the handlebars you want – but the beauty of the “Friend” is that I could ride that bike (if it were my size) and wouldn’t see the need to change anything. Even the handlebars are a good shape for long-distance riding.

      June 21, 2016 at 1:43 pm
  • Frank Perk

    Hi all. What I understand from comments about off the shelf availibility, is that today, at least in France and Germany, (and elsewhere!) the highstreet cycle Shop, or to that matter, any cyclingshop will only sell heavy alloy bike, with front suspension. The aspirant cyclotourist or cyclocamper will be told it is the best he / she could buy, light (16 or more Kg) because made with light alloy, and comfy because of the suspended front fork… Competition from ? (Japan? Taïwan ?) killed the industry. The only good thing about these bikes is the triple chain wheel with low enough gears… When road bikes, even “gravel” bikes have a new craze for compact double chainwheels which on the paper are fine enough with 11 sprockets at the rear wheel, but lack IMHO the versatility of triple chaînes with 5 or 6 gears at the rear.

    June 21, 2016 at 2:11 pm
  • Chris Green

    Hi Jan,
    I very much enjoyed your post about the Friend randonneur and just wanted to provide a little background info, as I lived within walking distance of the main Friend shop in Asagaya (Tokyo) for about 20 years.
    That store, run by the Nakano family, opened in 1933 and is still going strong. In 1969 one of the brothers opened his own shop a little further down the Chuo line, in Zenpukuji. He started a racing team called Leopard, which was also the brand name he used for his custom-built bicycles. He’s still in business and must be in his seventies now.
    Here are the websites of the main store
    and the “Leopard” Friend shop
    I’m sure your bicycle-savvy friends in Japan could provide a much more detailed/personal history, but FYI…

    June 21, 2016 at 4:40 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Thank you for the additional information. I am glad they are still in business. I’ll try to visit next time I am in Tokyo…

      June 21, 2016 at 5:58 pm
  • Chris Green

    Hi Jan,
    I very much enjoyed your post and just wanted to provide a little background info, as I lived within walking distance of the main Friend shop in Asagaya (Tokyo) for about 20 years.
    That store, run by the Nakano family, opened in 1933 and is still going strong. In 1969 one of the brothers opened his own shop a little further down the Chuo line, in Zenpukuji. He started a racing team called Leopard, which was also the brand name he used for his custom bicycles. He’s still in business and must be in his seventies now.
    Here are the websites of the main store
    and the “Leopard” Friend shop
    I’m sure your bicycle-savvy friends in Japan could provide a much more detailed/personal history, but FYI…

    June 21, 2016 at 4:43 pm
  • Virgil Lynskey Walker

    I saw a bike like this in Kumamoto—likewise, outside a sentõ/onsen. It had a very similar frame (except 650b) and components, three bidon mounts, brazed on centre pull brakes, and a purposeful looking generator light. The tyres were like old Michelin touring tyres—agricultural looking with deep squared off treads—and seemed as old as the bike! The front rack was more like a Nitto (though it wasn’t). I think it was a Panasonic and I often saw it at the onsen. It was battleship grey, very well used, and like lots of Japanese bikes had a small plastic yuru-chara attached to it. For some reason, I thought the owner was a woman though I never met her.
    I’ve seen or met many Japanese cyclotourists on similar bikes, often with heavily laden low rider racks front and rear, in remote parts of Australia. They’re often surprised when told there may not be a town or even water for many, many miles. In the 1970s I met two Japanese men riding hand built *racing* bikes with racks, brazed on centre pulls, Sun Tour racing derailleurs and cranks, and tubular tyres. They’d ridden down the east coast of Australia and were heading to Uluru (Ayers Rock)—not a place then (or now) for tubular tyres! I know they made it, because they sent me post card.

    June 21, 2016 at 5:07 pm
    • Virgil Lynskey Walker

      BTW not far from the onsen in Kumamoto, I came across a shop with two beautiful 1970–80s custom built Reynolds 531 randonneuring bikes hidden amongst modern high-end carbon bikes. They’re equipped with braze on MAFAC centre pulls, TA cranks &c, but use a strange sort of curved upright bar. With my limited Japanese and some hand gestures I learned the bikes belong to the elderly father of the shop owner who was sitting out the back building wheels. Around the walls there were photos of him riding in races and long distance events over many years. When we “talked” and I explained I rode Audax events he told me, if I understood him correctly, that he’d ridden a 200 km event in the mountains the previous weekend. He must have been in his mid-80s. Perhaps that explains the upright bars. I hope he, the shop, and the bikes have survived the earthquakes.

      June 21, 2016 at 5:11 pm
  • manu

    Who will be the first to make a bike like this again?
    They do: (TX-RANDONNEUR)
    Surly (Long haul trucker etc)
    Salsa cycles

    June 22, 2016 at 2:18 am
  • Gert

    The affordable price is the question, what is that today
    The Danish bicycle union sells Cinelli Hobo and Ridgeback Panorama. The Hobo should be available all over the US. In Denmark it is sold for a little more than 2,000 USD, so probably cheaper in the US.
    I would think that is a reasonable price in todays world

    June 22, 2016 at 3:15 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      There are bikes that try to fill that need, and I am very glad about that. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any that are as nicely designed, nor as completely equipped. Today, if you want a bike like the “Friend”, you’ll need to get an expensive custom bike. I am excited that you can order custom bikes that do everything the “Friend” does and more, but it would be nice if a great bike like that would be available off the shelf again.

      June 22, 2016 at 8:35 am
  • David

    Hi Jan,
    It looks like Panasonic still makes something similar (although not quite as nice a the “Friend”).
    See page 26 and 27 of their catalogue:
    From what I can understand, it looks like it’s built for 26″ tires, and comes with rinko ready fenders + headset, a front rack with light mount and optional front low-riders.
    Maybe you could persuade your contacts at Panasonic to start selling these overseas and in larger frame sizes?

    June 22, 2016 at 8:49 am
  • Tom

    Specialized is doing this with its AWOL line of bikes; racks, fenders, dynamo light. The EVO retails for $2500. Steel frame, but no lugs.

    June 22, 2016 at 9:19 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      It’s really neat how the industry is moving more toward bikes that can be used for more than just an afternoon ride on smooth roads in sunny weather. I think the future looks good!

      June 22, 2016 at 11:49 am
  • Thomas G

    Oh man.
    The lack of thoughtful bikes today.
    When I think back to the standard bikes of my childhood in the seventies I can’t help but wonder at the blessings of progress…
    My mothers bike from perhaps 1970 was a low-cost single-speed bike. Yet it had alu fenders with integrated wiring and a dynamo light. Low trail & 650b wheels with 38-42mm tyres.
    Rear rack. Front basket.
    Today? Outside major towns you can buy modern racers, mountain bikes, both types without fenders, lights and racks.
    Or there’s hybrids with skinny tires + racks/fenders. Decidedly non-integrated. Battery lights. Heavier.
    Or clunky dutch-style alu-bikes. Even heavier.
    To find a lightish functional and integrated tourer/commuter bike is near impossible.
    Instead people are commuting on ~28mm tires and converting to ever heavier tires because of constant flats. (we have a lot of flint here).
    The LBS’s are slowly devolving into chain stores with focus on the current years models with ever changing features. But still no fenders and racks and lighting integrated.
    And I’m i Denmark.
    Bicycle country no. 1 (?).
    It’s a disgrace.
    Grrr. Get off my lawn 😉

    BQ is a candle in the dark and gives me hope that there can be great everyday bikes again.

    June 22, 2016 at 3:01 pm
  • Ted Durant

    I wonder if that rack support design allows more fork flex than straight supports would, and whether installing the low rider cross bars would reduce the flex?

    June 22, 2016 at 6:19 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The kink isn’t very pronounced, so I don’t think it’ll add a huge amount of flex, but you’d definitely have a lower payload before the support buckles. The bolted connection at the top won’t help, either. Installing the low-rider will triangulate the rack stay, making it much stronger.

      June 22, 2016 at 6:25 pm
  • Virgil Q Staphbeard

    I have that style SR seatpost and it’s a royal pain. Nowhere near as friendly as the Simplex. I’ve loved all of the other style SR’s, however.

    June 22, 2016 at 6:26 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      That is good to know. I have only used the original Simplex, which is superlight (<200 g, if you have the aluminum version) and allows adjusting the saddle angle wherever you want it (rather than in distinct notches), then holds it super-secure. The best seatpost ever made!

      June 22, 2016 at 6:41 pm
  • Goran

    Thanks for great articles!
    In your march article Carbon and Leather – what kind of fenders were those? just for decoration or real use?

    June 23, 2016 at 1:41 am
  • Leon Webster

    In 1979 I purchased a Centurion Pro Tour. Lightweight tubing, brazed on center pull brakes. vertical dropouts. eyelets for racks and fenders. Sun tour cyclone derailleur, an SR Triple crank, later changed to a sugino. It didn’t have braze-ons for water bottles, nor the seat stay rack eyelets — not many bikes in those days did. The frame was chrome plated under the paint. As I recall, I paid about $475.00. It was a great bike, and I wish I had it back. I sold it in the early 2000’s because I had too many bikes.

    June 23, 2016 at 10:44 am
  • riggs June 26, 2016 at 4:44 am
  • Brian

    People buy bikes for specialized applications, even more so today than many years ago. Road, mountain, commuter, all road, gravel touring, expedition touring, down hill, fat bike, adventure camping, single speed, fixed gear etc., etc.
    The economic outcome of marketing a bike that does a lot of things “pretty well” is not going to lead to financial success. Look at Rivendell. The company has been selling bikes similar to the one shown above for over 2 decades and in many ways it seems like they are still struggling financially. They now seem to be parsing their own niche even further in effort to reach more potential customers. No major manufacturer makes this bike because the public does not buy this type of bike.
    The “Friend” is a bike for a specific type of bike enthusiast, not the general public.

    June 27, 2016 at 10:16 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You have a point – it is harder to sell something that people don’t expect. But I don’t share your pessimistic view. Look at Specialized’s Diverge. It comes with fenders and lights as options, the fork has low-rider braze-ons, and yet it’s proven extremely popular.
      Before Surly introduced the Long-Haul Trucker, the accepted wisdom in the bike industry was that touring bikes don’t sell… Now it’s one of the “hottest” sectors of the market.
      Or consider 650B – when we started to talk about it, people laughed and said that it would never become popular! These days, Cannondale, of all companies, is putting 650B wheels on one of their most popular road model, and most mountain bikes also use 650B wheels.

      June 27, 2016 at 10:29 am
  • Jerry

    Nice bike, but really, bang for the buck, good ride, very stout, Surly LHT. Modern components that actually work.

    June 28, 2016 at 7:08 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      The Long-Haul Trucker is a great bike for riders who want to get into bicycle touring, but it could be improved in many ways.

      Modern components that actually work.

      Interesting comment. What makes you think that older components didn’t work?
      Having ridden much older bikes than the “Friend”, I find that older components work as well as and usually are more reliable than modern ones. Some of them require more rider skill to operate, like friction shifting, but most just do their job.

      June 28, 2016 at 7:35 am

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