Good bicycles are wonderful things. They get you to biology class or the corner store without noise or pollution. They give you a sense of freedom and self-sufficiency. They help you lose weight, feel healthier, look better, sleep more soundly and perhaps live longer. They might save you money by allowing you to do with one less car as you exercise your way to the office. In congested cities, they bypass traffic jams, providing not just low-cost mobility, but sometimes more mobility than a car. Their technology is comprehensible to anyone who made it through junior high school. If they aren’t left out in the rain too often, they can be maintained for generations with basic hand tools. They have a fascinating history. Evolving from "Velocipedes" – toys known as "bone-shakers" to those who rode them over cobblestones - through dangerous high-wheels and "safety bicycles", they were finally made practical when a Scottish veterinarian named John Dunlop invented pneumatic tires. By 1895, bicycles as we know them had arrived - ball bearings, chain drives, variable gears, cable controls, and air-filled tires on wheels with wire spokes. Mass production techniques made them affordable, and suddenly the working class had unprecedented mobility, their practical radius as pedestrians multiplied by a factor of about five. Bicycles were well on their way to supplanting horses as personal transportation before they were in turn superseded by the internal combustion engine. Bicycles didn’t require pastures, barns or a winter supply of hay and oats. They didn’t kick, bite, or run away. (They still don’t kick or bite, but they seem to have learned to run away if you don’t keep an eye on them.) Even after the advent of affordable automobiles, bicycles continued to be thought of as utilitarian transportation in some parts of the world, like the Netherlands and Japan. In wealthy North America, though, they were once again relegated to toy status.
Then during the 1970’s, the OPEC oil embargo and environmental consciousness hit the baby-boomers at about the same time, and there was a second "bike boom". Millions of "ten-speeds", more properly called "road bikes", went into the garages of America. Many of them were of very high quality, and many of them were never ridden much as gas prices came back down and their owners aged.
Nowadays, road bikes are out of fashion, and mountain bikes are all the rage. But again in the American tradition, they tend to be thought of and designed for sport and recreation rather than as serious transportation. People put them on automobile roof racks and drive them places to play with in the dirt. The features that make them fun off-road are disadvantages on pavement. Fat tires and knobby treads have greater rolling resistance than thin, slick tires. Upright handlebars permit only one body position, no matter how long the ride or what conditions or winds are encountered. Short wheelbases are uncomfortable and tiring. Shock absorbers and 21-or-more speeds add unnecessary weight to be propelled up hills. Trendy or not, three-decade-old road bikes will dramatically outperform state-of-the-art mountain bikes on hard-surfaced roads. They are a superior choice for anything but bombing down debris-strewn dirt trails.
There are many other types of bicycles serving many other purposes. BMX for racing on dirt tracks, recumbents, tandems, etc. My focus has been very specific: High end ten- and twelve-speed road bikes from the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Such a bike will have drop handlebars and 27" wheels, and a rear freewheel cluster with five or six sprockets, and will commonly weigh close to twenty pounds.
The basic geometry of these bikes had been established by the time of the first world war. Since then, millions of people have ridden billions of miles, all the while trying to figure out how to reduce weight and increase speed, efficiency, comfort and reliability. Although the technology was mature well before the 1970’s, incremental improvements and refinements continue, of course. Road bikes being manufactured today have freehubs, with cassettes of seven or more cogs, as opposed to freewheels with clusters of five or six sprockets. And rims have gone to the European standard, with metric sizing now being the norm.
Old road bikes are thus outdated as well as out of fashion. They have very little resale value, and dealers are reluctant to even take them in trade. Uncountable multitudes of them are therefore languishing in garages or basements, or being hauled to landfills. Yet, in some ways, those older bikes are superior to even the newest versions. They tend to have better frame clearance in case you’d like to add fenders or slightly wider, more comfortable tires. Their frames are more likely to have threaded eyelets with which to attach fenders and racks. They were made before liability concerns outweighed common sense and affected the form of things like front forks and bottom brackets - today’s bikes, in some ways, are designed by lawyers.
In 1979 my college graduation present to myself was a 12 speed. I still have it, and it was well-maintained until I was hit by a car fairly recently. (Okay, technically I hit the car, but the end result was the same.) Once my road-rash cleared up, I went to the local bike shop in need of new wheels, fork, brake and crankset. The proprietor no longer stocked either 27" wheels or freewheels, but he let me in on a trade secret: The best place to get those parts is the local dump or at yard sales. He told me that he himself literally threw away about fifty bikes a year. Sure enough, I started looking over the scrap metal pile at the local recycling center on trash day, and within a few weeks I’d found everything I needed. And the quality was better than that of the originals. Hmmm, I was on to something. Since then I’ve assembled several more bikes for myself, and one for my daughter to take to college this fall, and I’ve upgraded our components when opportunities presented themselves.
If you’re interested in the economic and ecologic sense of alternative transportation and don’t already own a bike, this is a chance to experiment without a large investment. If you have an old bike with sentimental value in your attic – a friend that’s carried you thousands of happy miles – maybe it’s time to put it back in service with upgraded brakes, wheels or drive-train parts. If you already have a nice bike, you might also want a "beater" to ride in the rain, or where theft is a concern. The uglier the better, but it should still be in excellent mechanical order. Get over the pride thing, if that’s an obstacle. Re-using is the ultimate form of recycling, and good for everyone concerned. Consider the energy and material resources it took just to mine the ore for a bike’s metal, let alone to manufacture, market, package and ship it. You’re doing yourself and the world a favor by rescuing and resurrecting one.
Now, back to the scrap metal pile: One might get lucky and find a complete bike in good order, but usually parts are missing or damaged - most often wheels, saddles and pedals, so grab those whenever you see any worth grabbing. Frames will occasionally be of aluminum, but usually of steel. Avoid cheap spot-welded frames with stamped components. While they can be made rideable, they will never be rewarding and aren’t worthy of your time and effort. Good steel frames will be "lugged" – made with sockets that strengthen the joints between tubes, the areas of highest stress. Another quick way to recognize quality is to look at the right crank and "spider" – the starfish-shaped piece that the front chainwheels are bolted to. If they’re cast as one piece, it’s a decent bike. Look, too, for wheels with alloy rims and stainless spokes. Steel wheels are heavy and unresponsive. (Hey, I think I was married to one of those once ….) If a bike’s frame is the wrong size for you, maybe it’s the right size for someone you know. Or maybe the components are worth salvaging.
Give any older bike a thorough going-over. The bearings should be cleaned and repacked with grease. New brake pads are always a good idea. Even if they aren’t worn, they harden with age. Modern cables have stainless steel wires surrounded by a low-friction liner, conducive to clean, quick shifting and braking. Older unlined cables should be replaced. The handlebars will likely need re-wrapping. Look in used book stores for a repair and maintenance manual with a copyright date in the appropriate date range. While you’re at it, get a book or two about how to ride – there’s more to it than you might think. The mysteries of adjusting derailers and servicing headsets will be solved once you sit down with a book and your bike and follow the procedures step by step. You may feel more comfortable if you dissect a junk bike first, just to see how things work, before you begin on your legitimate restoration project.
Once you have what you’re looking for, throw away anything on it that adds useless weight. Those brake extension levers on some bikes, for example. At best, using them will teach you poor riding habits. At their worst, they can be dangerously inefficient. If you prefer straight handlebars and upright brake levers, you can create a hybrid. If the front derailer is damaged, save yourself some weight and complexity and do without it. Remove it and one of the front chain rings, and you own a five-speed. Do you really need any more? If you don’t have many hills to contend with, consider going all the way to a single speed. This will relieve you of the need for the rear derailer, all the rear sprockets but one, and the shift levers and cables. It will save a few additional ounces with a shorter chain, too. A singlespeed is noticeably more efficient than a multispeed in the same gain ratio because of it’s lighter weight and the lack of drag from derailer pulleys. There are several websites that will guide you through the process so that you’ll end up with the requisite straight chainline. Maybe you’ll recapture some of the simple fun you experienced with your singlespeed childhood bicycles. If not, all that’s lost is some time spent in enjoyable, stress-relieving tinkering. Another option for a missing or damaged rear wheel is to replace it with one that has a more modern cassette-style freehub. This may involve spreading the stays of the frame to accommodate a wider axle, but it’s not rocket science and again there’s plenty of information on the web.
While I have a generally minimalist philosophy, there are some things that are worth adding to a bike. Flat tires are by far the most common mechanical malfunction, so a patch kit and tire levers should be in a small bag under your saddle, and a frame-fitting pump on the seat tube. On a long ride, your hands will appreciate rubber brake hoods. Toe clips are considered obsolete by some, and take some getting used to, but they’ll convert the energy you use just to keep your feet on the pedals into forward motion. (Clipless pedals are even better, but require special shoes that you won’t want to walk around in at your destination.) A water bottle will fuel you so you can fuel your bike. Lights are necessary at night. Those with LED’s are remarkably efficient and long-lasting. I’m ambivalent about fenders and racks – if they make sense for you, put them on. Small fenders are useless, but full ones will keep you drier and your bike cleaner if you’re not just a fair-weather cyclist. If you carry paperwork or lunch or clothes, a rack will keep your center of gravity lower than a backpack will. Locks are an unfortunate necessity.
"When I see an adult on a bicycle, I have hope for the human race."