A Bicycle Makeover is a recycling project. You take an existing bike, and turn it into a practical vehicle—a Useful Bike—with a few lightweight components and some fitting changes. Almost any bike is a candidate for a makeover, whether it’s a rigid steel mountain bike like this one, or an old road bike like we’ll show in the next issue.
A bike to ride comfortably at any hour or in any season.
A Useful Bike is one that lets you do useful day-to-day things. Even if one of your day-to-day activities is winning bike races, you should still have a bike that will carry groceries, packages, or paperwork. A Useful Bike should be rideable at any time and be able to carry a reasonable amount. With the right bike set-up, you can go grocery shopping, in the rain, at night, safely and comfortably.
If you can pull it off with style, and people notice your bike and appreciate your taste and ingenuity, all the better. Your exact Bike Makeover formula depends on several interrelated things, such as how much stuff you’ll usually carry, how far you will usually go, and how much money you have to spend.
The Basic Setup:
All you need for a good Useful Bike are fenders, a slightly upright position, front and rear lights, and a bag, rack or basket. Fenders are more important in Seattle, less in Phoenix. Your position is up to you: bend too far over and it’s hard to see, sit too straight, and your butt will feel every bump in the road.
An old touring bike from the ’70s, an old 3-speed girls’ bike (a “mixte”), or an ‘80s mountain bike all make great Useful Bikes. The rigid (no suspension) mountain bike may be the best choice: my local bike shop owner says, “I hate to call them Hummers, but… they really are the SUVs of the bike world. You can take them anywhere, and they last and last.”
Specialized HardRocks, Trek 820s, and other mid-line steel bikes are easily found, but sometimes you can find a better bike at a great price, or even free. This Bridgestone MB-4 is a great example. Near the bottom of the Bridgestone line, it’s still well-designed and sturdy. As an entry-level bike from a company with a modern cult following, it could be flipped for around $100. Even if you paid $100 for it, it’s a better value than a brand new $100 department-store bike with fake suspension.
Nathaniel, the founder of my local cycle co-op, bought this MB-4 for $15 at a charity rummage sale, intending to fix it up for his wife Autumn. “Fix it up” in this case meant “make it cool,” not necessarily “make it rideable.” It came to him in near-pristine condition, and 10 minutes of pumping up the tires, lubing the chain and cables, and maybe a quick sanding of the brake pads would have made it instantly rideable. His goal was to make it more comfortable, stylish, and useful. He has a particular aesthetic, based on rugged comfort and utility, which is really attractive. This isn’t his first bike makeover.
This particular Bridgestone is quite a bit nicer than most $15 bikes, but even in its minty condition it isn’t really a collectible. Its cost may be low but its value is high. Most decent mountain bikes of this vintage are perfect candidates for rehabilitation as Useful Bikes. They are plentiful, cheap, and ideally suited to the knock-around life of an errand bike or commuter.
Figure $130 to get even a free bike set up with a rack, basket, fenders, tires and tubes. You could get lucky and find a bike already equipped with a rack and fresh tires (no cracks or abrasions), or you could find a bike that has issues requiring a bit more spending, so be aware and leave room in your budget. A common problem is that drivetrain wear causes the chain to “skip” when putting a lot of pressure on the pedals. This could be a simple fix like adjusting cable tension, or if the problem is more severe, you may need to replace the chain and cogs. Replacing the drive train with new components can become expensive and exceed the price and value of the bike. Having a knowledgeable friend look the bike over before purchasing it can save a lot of time, frustration, and money.
Luckily for you, many used bikes are barely used. A bike at a garage sale is often just being cleared out, sometimes for less than the price of tires. The people who’ve ridden the chainrings down to stubs usually want a lot more money, anyway. They value their bikes, and are only selling them to buy more bikes!
A nice thing about bicycles is that you save more money riding them than you spend on parts. You may spend $25 for a good-quality chain, decent LED light, or excellent and affordable tires like the Panaracer Pasela. That $25 bike item may last for several years and thousands of miles of service, and it costs less than a tankful of gas.
The investment you make in useful components can be recouped later, if the frame proves unworthy. If the bike ends up being too ugly, heavy, mis-sized or uncool for you, the good components can be moved to another frame. (Seatpost and stem may not apply. Likewise changing style of bike completely may mitigate or obviate this advantage. No warranty expressed or implied.)
The original plan for this bike was sort of a mini-monstercross rig, with drop bars and fat knobbies under wide steel fenders, with a rack and the lighting setup from another bike of Nathaniel’s. Something a little weirder than a cyclocross bike, edging into rally-racing truck aesthetics. Maybe “racing truck” really is Nathaniel’s bike aesthetic, I’m not sure yet.
Initial installation of drop bars and a short stem looked really cool…until someone got on the bike. The mountain bike’s long top tube plus the drop bars put Autumn’s riding position way too low. Nathaniel said that watching her ride leaned way forward like that made his neck hurt, and aesthetics had to give way to usability. If the bike were intended for fast, flat fire-roads (“logging roads,” here in Oregon), or racing across the Serengeti, the low, stretched-out position of the drop bars on this frame would have been fine. Since it’s intended for running errands and getting around town, it just didn’t work.
Off with the drop bars, and on with the cruiser bars!
Test fittings with the chrome fenders also looked great, but they needed to be drilled and modified with new struts, while the plastic ones bolted right on. Sometimes it’s better just to get the bike on the road.
How much stuff will you usually carry? Small shopping trips, work clothes, two weeks’ worth of recycling? Lots of people use messenger bags, or panniers, but a basket hose-clamped to a rack is an easy, no-hassle carrier, even on a “nice” bike. This bike is set up for a rear load, which works well with its mountain-bike geometry. Front racks and baskets are available too, and some people prefer them for ease of access. You can also keep an eye on the load if it’s up front.
Did you know? Most of the inexpensive bike baskets you’ll find are made in America, by a company called Wald, that has been making bicycle accessories for more than 100 years!
Lights and Visibility:
How much time will you spend riding in the dark? I’ve ridden for years with $20 bike lights and mini-Mag lights. It’s not ideal, but it works. You can get older mountain bike lights with heavy batteries but lots of light for not much money, or you can put down several hundred dollars on a generator hub (or tens of dollars on a “bottle” dynamo) that creates electricity while you pedal. A $20 blinky can put out a shocking amount of light, and be moved from bike to bike. Five dollars worth of 3M reflective tape goes a long way, but loses some visibility in the rain.
The lights and generator hub on this bike are worth two or three times the value of the original bike. Overkill, maybe, but there are no batteries to replace or recycle, or die on you halfway home on a rainy night. If you’re riding a bike partly for environmental reasons, a generator system is appealing. The top-quality German SON dynamo (generator) hub and halogen lights on this bike cost in the neighborhood of $500, and don’t come up on Craigslist or eBay very often. When they do, they sell for very close to retail. Bulbs must be replaced ($4 each), but a generator hub can also drive an LED light, which is brighter at lower power, and the bulbs last 10,000 hours. Cheaper hubs and wheels are available from Shimano and Novatron, and Planet Bike makes a “Blaze” light for use with a generator that costs about half what many German lights cost.
Rechargeable batteries used in less-expensive lights that originally came with disposable AAs, or a nicer system with a lightweight lithium-ion battery pack, are each a lot cheaper than a generator system, but still quite “green.”
I love fenders. They keep the dirty water off you, and off your chain. An un-fendered front tire throws gritty water straight onto your chain, which is pretty much the last place you want it. With fenders, you can not only ride in the rain, you can ride directly after the rain, without worrying about puddles or road spray. What you’re wearing ceases to be an issue, since it won’t get ruined by road gunge.
Fenders come in several kinds, ranging from very long ones that wrap close to the tire, to plastic sticks that try to intercept the foulness somewhere between the tire and you. The “full wrap” fenders provide much better coverage. Many people consider the “clip on” kind to be a waste of time and money.
Most good fenders mount to eyelets in the frame—threaded fittings near the axle and rear brake. If your bike doesn’t have them, you can rig something with “P” clamps from the hardware store, or get Planet Bike fenders that mount without eyelets.
Standard plastic fenders cost from $25 to $55, come in black or silver, and your local bike shop usually has them. Beautiful wooden fenders can be had for about $150 from several online sources. Velo-Orange sells a variety of metal fenders (aluminum or stainless steel) for good prices. Surprisingly, aluminum fenders weigh the same or less than plastic ones.
For this bike, Nathaniel installed fat knobbies under the fenders, because Autumn feels safer on them. Most of the time a fat, slick tire would work better. Slicks give better traction on pavement, even in the wet, and they spray a lot less water. It’s also easier to install the fenders without needing clearance for knobs.
A fat slick will change the handling of a mountain bike less than a skinnier tire, and also cushion more road shocks. Budget-priced mountain bike slicks cost $10–$20 each.
Nathaniel says, “Don’t tape the bars until you’ve ridden the bike!” Test your setup by riding, or watching the new owner ride. Ride a bit before you cut the wires and housing down to exact size, too—you can’t un-trim a cable!
You may find the stem is too short or too long, and you’re more likely to change it if it’s easy. Don’t worry if you end up with a couple of stems; you’ll be able to use one for another bike later, or give it to a friend to help dial in their own bike.
Use decent tools. Adjustable wrenches are okay, but not vice grips! Tools don’t have to be expensive. Get three hex wrenches (Allen keys) in the common bike sizes for about a dollar each.
Sand your brake pads to remove the glaze of age or the grit of use. It’s free, and you’ll stop better. Clean the rims, too, and try oiling that rusty chain before you buy a new one. Sometimes that works miracles. The bike just wants to know you care!
How does the bike work?:
Autumn uses this bike every day. I often see it locked up around town, outside the market or a restaurant, wherever it takes her. Sometimes I see her riding it, and she always looks happy. She and Nathaniel both are crazy for the reflective vests; I think they’re on a one-couple crusade to make them stylish.
A friend gave her a wicker basket for her rack, and she’s using it, even though it doesn’t match the pannier on the other side. Free and classy is always nicer than matchy-matchy, I think.
It’s the sort of bike I would cross the street to check out, if I just happened across it.
[Ed. note: This article, which originally appeared in Bicycle Times Issue #2, was writtern by Philip Williamson with photos by the author. Click here to subscribe to Bicycle Times and here to purchase Issue #2 as a single copy.]Tweet Print