People have been cycling since the early nineteenth century but for those of us who are of a certain vintage the golden age of the bicycle was undoubtedly the 1970s. This was the decade when, for a wonderful few years, the bike was not merely a functional mode of transport but a fashion statement also. Saddles with backrests and cow-horn handlebars set us apart from all the generations that had gone before us and blessed us with an opportunity to strike a pose. Flares flapping in the wind and platform heels locked awkwardly upon the pedals, we were the original, authentic 15-mph kings of the highway.
The more conspicuously sensible types in our midst eschewed the Raleigh Chopper for the racing bike. Multiple gears, everything in the right place and designed for speed, the “racer” was as practical as the Chopper was audacious. Those who opted for it were oft given to demonstrate its superiority in a test of speed to disinterested Chopper devotees at every opportunity. We just rode on by, parping our truculent rubber horns whilst forever mindful of the fact that a sudden brake propelling us onto the gear-stick, situated as it was directly in front of the saddle, could alter our lives irreparably.
Exploding onto the market at the turn of the seventies, the Chopper was probably modelled on the earlier Schwinn Sting-Ray which had enjoyed some success in the United States a decade or so earlier. As well as the dragster look it embraced such technological curiosities as bobbed mudguards, different-sized wheels (the rear one was thick with chunky tread and was shockingly expensive to replace), and a long saddle leading into a backrest which, when used as its design suggested it should be, exposed the rider to the danger of tipping back – which was all part of the fun. Some owners liked to adorn their handlebars with additional accessories such as wing-mirrors and windshields.
For the smaller enthusiast there was the Chipper, essentially the same bicycle only less of it, and for the very young there was the Chippy, with optional stabilisers. Raleigh’s attempted foray into enemy territory with the GT Sprint – a Chopper with racing bike handlebars – was not an outstanding success.
Towards the latter end of the decade and into the eighties the Chopper was supplanted by the Raleigh Grifter, a BMX-like contraption which paid a certain homage to the Chopper whilst embracing the more practical, less showy approach which the new era demanded. It lasted a few years before the BMX proper completely occupied its niche.
That could have been the end of the story had Raleigh not relaunched the Chopper in 2004, but the alterations from the original which it incorporated said everything about the chasm that existed between the reckless, adventurous ways of the seventies and the austere safety-first approach of the modern age. The backrest had gone, as had the groin-catching gear lever. And the semi-skimmed, decaffeinated, gluten-free 21st century version of this once great bike was made of aluminium.