Friday, May 10, 2013

1950 Columbia 3 Star DeLuxe - Riding Balloon Tire Bicycles

Today was a summer-like day, which brought me to ride the Columbia 3 Star DeLuxe bicycle. I ride this bicycle somewhat sparingly not because of any mechanical defect, but because it's a rather heavy bicycle that's a bit hard on the knees.

Size Issues

American balloon tire bicycles are among the most attractive and unique machines. However, many suffer from having small frames. While the wheels are the conventional 26 inches, the frames have high bottom brackets that cause fully grown, adult riders to have a cramped position. The stand over height is not particularly remarkable, but the high bottom bracket makes it hard to get proper leg extension. At 5ft 7in tall, I can manage on the balloon tire bikes usually, but many larger riders have difficulty. Besides just raising the seat, which becomes a liability beyond a certain level, you can also move the seat back if you have an "L" shaped seat post. Still, the frames are on the small side.

Take a Raleigh Sports 3 speed as a comparison. The Raleigh Sports has 26 wheels the same as the balloon tire bicycle, at least nominally. However, the Raleigh's frame has a lower bottom bracket and usually runs 21 or 23 inches or so from the bottom bracket up to the top of the seat post. That's the nominal size of the frame. If you take a normal balloon tire bicycle, you'll find they run from about 18 inches up to 20 or maybe 21. The high bottom bracket plays a role here and cramps the ride. The makers of these bikes intended them as toys or newspaper delivery machines for teenagers, not as serious adult transportation. They can be made to fit adults, but you have compromises. Moving the seat back and raising it are options here. You could also look for a larger frame. Some manufacturers made sizes going up to about 22 inches, which is better for a taller rider. One quick and dirty way is to look at the head tube. The longer the head tube generally, the taller the frame. This has exceptions, but you can use it as a starting point for most balloon tire bikes.


Weight still comes into play as well.  Even though the rider isn't overly concerned about weight overall, certain accessories and bicycles weight noticeably more. Racks, tanks, and lights all add weight. Tanks are particularly bad offenders if they are a full-sized tank, have a horn unit, and are equipped with D-cell batteries. This is partly because of their weight and partly because they usually sit high in the frame, messing up the center of gravity. The Columbia 3 Star that I have came with a tank from another Columbia bicycle. It fit but the color did not match. I rode it that way for awhile, but quickly found the tank made the bike a dog to ride. It was quite heavy, but worse, it threw off the center of gravity so that turns were very uncomfortable. The bicycle could not maneuver well at all. Even though the bicycle was still heavy without the tank, the center of gravity moved enough to make the bicycle much more pleasant to ride. The tank not being original or matching anyway, I sold it off.

Neither am I advising people to dump original, nice tanks at all. The tanks can be quite attractive. That said, if you're looking for one place to improve the feel of your balloon tire bicycle, losing the tank is a consideration. Most purists want to ride with the tank in there, but it comes at a palpable cost. I suppose if I had a nice, original tank, I would have left it in. Nevertheless, I don't have that, and I've been happy without the non-matching/non-original one I had.

There's also something I like about the base model ballooners. I may be a bit different, but I actually really like the look of the plain, double arch bar roadsters and the plain C-models. They have a nice mix of space and material to form a coherent design. The straight bar Columbia is nice too.

Drive Train

The drive train is likely a coaster brake and a single speed. Some had 2 speeds and some also have 3. Modern variations may have a 7 speed internal gear hub. The drive train is really about what sort of performance and originality you want. Shimano Nexus hubs are nice, as are New Departure 2 speeds. Sturmey Archers aren't bad either. Just make sure your coaster brake is lubed properly and in good working order. You likely have only one brake, so it needs to work.

Enjoying It For What It Is

You're not going to make your best circuit time with one of these bicycles. They're heavy, have slow tires, and usually only have one speed. But you ride these bicycles for the fun of what they are, not for speed. It's ultimately up to the rider to decide what he enjoys most about the bicycle. Some riders may temporarily remove accessories so they can climb hills near their house, while others will insist on going 100% equipped and original. Either is fine, provided you don't do anything to permanently harm or damage the bicycle. It's about comfort, an attractive bicycle, and the sheer fun a simple and vintage machine on a nice, summer evening.

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