Sunday, July 18, 2010


Though it's not always welcome, I'm often not shy about offering advice -- at least on certain subjects. I probably ought to stop, actually, but sometimes I can't help myself. Bicycles are one of those subjects.

Today, I went kayaking at the reservoir with my sister Alison and her two kids. It was a lot of fun having two boats, and I'd love to partner up with someone this summer to take my girls out the same way. It was windy, and I figured out today that kayaks are easier to control in the wind than a canoe, which was pretty handy. There was a Hobie-like catamaran out there with us (actually the lake was pretty busy), and though all of the sailboats were cranking along pretty well, he was blasting back and forth so quickly, he must have been longing for a bigger lake. In any case, the kayaking was good, and I can feel the workout in my abs as I sit here writing this.

After kayaking, I went over to Belmont Wheelworks and picked up a new seatpost for Ava's old puppydog Specialized. I'd shortened the old one (foolishly below the min insertion line) to allow it to be used for pedal-free coasting with a low saddle height, and I was not about to let the bike go with that one installed. A buyer walked off with it tonight, leaving me with a small stack of bills, and marking a cycling milestone at my house -- no more 16" bikes. And within two years, the 20"-ers will be gone, too. Time flies. And as excited as I am to see them progress, it's hard to watch their early years slip away.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand. Alison met me here at the house with her kids, and as we were chatting before heading out, bikes came up (probably my fault). She mentioned she was thinking about picking up a cheap department store bike to ride around the neighborhood with the kids. This is the part where I started offering advice.

If you know anything about me and what I'm riding or encouraging others to ride these days, it has little to do with new, and largely doesn't fall to department-store grade. I've got two good steel bikes over 30 years old. My friend Allyson rides a 25 year-old steel Bertoni that she and I rebuilt. Well, actually she rides a Batavus today, but that sort of proves the point even more, and the Bertoni awaits her in a storage container in Burlington. My kids ride older steel bikes, and will continue doing so until they stop growing (they already demonstrate respect for their gear, which makes me proud and them worthy of something new). My friend Ken rides an early 1980's Bianchi he bought from my friend Liz that came to her via me after one of my little sister's college roommates abandoned it. That was, I think, the first bike refit I ever undertook. My friend Brian has a Nishiki undergoing a rebuild at extended intervals at his place, now. Pearls, all -- good bikes that sat unused, waiting for someone to appreciate them.

Though there's surely a lot of junk out there, my own experience tells me there are many fantastic old bikes hanging in America's garages that deserve far better than to sit idle or be scrapped. With eBay and Craig's List, finding a pearl is no longer hard (though they're not always bargains, given the wider market), and I think it's almost incumbent upon someone with a modest cycling budget to try to find something better and older before turning to something recently welded up and painted a bright color over in China.

So you know where this is heading, of course -- I've started shelling my sister's inbox with worthy bikes currently posted to eBay. Any one of the half dozen candidates I found today would be fantastic. Look at the Bianchi above: It's not new, so it doesn't have the latest in shifting in braking from Shimano. It's got three manufacturers in its drivetrain alone -- Shimano cranks, Suzue hubs and Suntour derailleurs and (I think) shifters. But it's all good stuff. It has friction shifters with levers bolted to the down tube, not brifters or twist shifters up on the grips. And it has only six cogs out back, though I imagine most department store bikes don't better that by much. The tubes are slender and the geometry classic. It's a pearl that my sister could ride for thirty years if she kept it in a dry place.

Now, in fairness, bikes of this sort will certainly need some time with a mechanic (I have my hand up), plus a bunch of new parts (tires, tubes, cables, brake pads, bar tape, saddle, grease, ball bearings, maybe more). But in some cases the seller has already done this as sort of a home business. However it gets cleaned up, the result can be a classic worth savoring and showing off, not just another cheap bike -- another fat-tubed example of our trade imbalance with China.

My advice to my sister is to pick up something like this, and swap out the bars and brake levers if a traditional drop bars doesn't match her imagined riding posture. And I can even suggest parts from Rivendell or Velo-Orange to do just that. My advice to this Bianchi's current owner is to replace it with a bike that fits -- maybe a 58 (this is a 53) -- just look at that hyperextended seatpost! And my advice to the bidders who ran it up from $150 to over $400 as I was writing this (and with over 7 days left on the auction) would be to chill out a bit. It's probably worth that much (it's a nice frame, with really nice and interesting components fitted), but all this early bidding just drives the price up.

My advice to you? Look for pearls.

All for now,


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