General thoughts on older bicycles:
Just like a car, a bicycle is assembled from a group of components. The frame is what holds all these components together and gives the bike its primary qualities. Most frames are made out of durable steel alloys, treated and finished with either special chemicals or coated in industrial pigments to keep off the rust (and, of course, to make it look pretty). Therefore it’s not unusual to see a frame which was hand-made in England in the 1940s still out riding today, as nice as the day it rolled off the factory floor.
Given the durability of bicycle frames, refurbished bikes are the natural answer to the problem of getting people with limited budgets on bikes. When rebuilt with modern components, a thirty year old frame can be indistinguishable from a frame built yesterday. Obviously, this is over-stating the case a little bit, since modern machining processes and alloys have improved the overall quality of frames, but these differences are for bike nerds (like us) to fret about. A quality steel frame from the late 70s or early 80s can be as nimble and light as a steel frame today, and can often be highly valuable collectors items.
That being said, our refurbished bikes are not meant to be prized heirlooms. They are meant to be, above all else, an affordable alternative to a new bike. The advantage of a refurbished bike comes from the economics of the bicycle market: when the cost of the frame is removed from the equation by recycling a frame destined for the scrapyard, the only other costs lie in the components and labor. For this reason we are able to take a reliable old frame, get it in good working order, and sell it for a price which is accessible to our customers. They are often still a bit more expensive than what a big-box store might charge for a new bike, but the difference in price is quickly made up in the inevitable (and sometimes very costly) repairs which the big-box store’s bike will need early in the bike’s lifespan.
This is a point worth dwelling on for a moment. Big box stores are able to sell new bicycles for the price they do (around $100-200) for a number of reasons, including economies of scale, but first and foremost is that the quality of materials is as low as can possibly be acquired. Low quality materials mean short lifespans and recurring maintenance costs. Because bicycles are long-term investments – and ought to be seen as such – the low upfront cost of a bike from a big-box store is quickly and vastly offset by what it will inevitably cost in repairs and replacement parts. It doesn’t help that these bikes are often poorly assembled at the factory, or at home, which causes problems to surface all the more quickly. As a lover of cycling, I would rather see someone on a cheap bike from Wal-Mart than not, but as a mechanic I cannot recommend them.
A note on sizing:
Bicycles are generally sized according to two measurements: seat tube (center to center), and top tube (center to center). This refers to two sections of the frame itself, measured from the middle of their intersections. It’s easiest to picture in a diagram:
As you can see, these measurements will vary according to the style of bike–and vary they do, considerably. Furthermore, because sizing involves both a bike and a person, the proper fit of a bike will depend on an individual’s own proportions. Therefore, all sizes are approximate, and the only way to know if a bike fits you is to ride it. We will try to give our best estimate of the height of a person for whom the bike was originally designed, but this is and always will be merely an estimate.
Despite the approximate nature of bike sizing, it is at the same time extremely important that a bike fits the rider. A bike that doesn’t fit the rider will not only be uncomfortable or awkward to use, it could manifest in serious medical problems down the road (forgive the pun), when joints (especially knees) which are exposed to unnatural stresses start to give out. In the short term, common complaints are aching muscles or temporary joint pain: sometimes these are the body’s natural response to acclimating to cycling and will go away with continued practice, but sometimes they are a sign of problems with the fit of the bike to the rider. Like most exercises, when done properly cycling can be extremely beneficial, but when done improperly carries risks of injury. Improper bike-fitting exacerbates those risks.
This creates something of a paradox, since having a bike that fits you is extremely important, but figuring out what fits and what doesn’t is such a challenge. Indeed, bike-fitting is a specialty unto itself, and professionals exist to provide consultations, in which they match measurements of the rider’s body proportions to various components and frame geometries. Short of an expensive consultation session, however, there are a few rules of thumb.
- Cycling is, by it’s nature, uncomfortable. Your body is an engine, and when put to work it experiences stress and, yes, pain. Discerning between what is the natural and beneficial pain of exercise and what is a sign of fixable mechanical problems takes time and practice. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of pain, but ask any athlete and they will tell you that not only is it something you get used to, it is eventually something you crave. Sound weird? I guess it kind of is, but part of the ethos of cycling is self-sufficiency; it’s not abdicating the natural exertion life requires to an expensive and consumptive machine. This requires a little getting used to.
- For that reason, bike-fitting is a process, not an event. There is no way to set up a bike once and never have a complaint ever again. It sometimes takes years to find the right combination of components to make a frame fit as well as it can. This is why there is such a demand from committed cyclists for custom-built frames. Bikes contain a range of adjustments – albeit limited – so you should definitely experiment within that range to find what works best.
- Now for some practical advice, a bike should be more-or-less easy to get on and off. If the bike has a straight top-tube, like the one in the picture above, there should be about an inch of space between it and your groin when straddling it. When riding, you should neither be stretching your arms out ahead of you like Superman, nor be bolt-upright, but have a relaxed curve to your back, shoulders, and forearms. Your wrists should be straight, and it should be easy to keep your head up, although long rides might make your neck muscles sore as they get stronger. When one foot is at its highest point, your thigh should not be parallel to the ground, but angled downward slightly. When your foot is at its lowest point, your leg should still be slightly bent – your knee should never lock up.
A note on pricing:
Often, even though the prices of our refurbished bikes are half what a decent new bike would cost, we still sometimes notice some sticker shock. I think this is for a number of reasons. Being a student myself, I know what a student budget looks like and, frankly, just investing in a week of groceries can feel like an extravagance. Many people are also surprised because they are simply new to the market and have no basis of comparison. Suffice it to say, a bike is an assemblage of durable components which are produced in a variety of factories around the world, assembled in a different factory, shipped halfway around the world to their distributor, and then shipped again to their retailer. The supply chain is long and complex, and their price reflects this. For a real sticker shock, check out the prices of a locally custom built machine from a high-end boutique dealer – these can cost up to $10-12,000! We try to maintain our price point for refurbished bikes between $200-300. This price reflects the cost of upgrading the bike to modern components (where necessary – sometimes the older stuff works best!), and including the time put into it. Because we must sustain ourselves as an independent business, there is also some retail mark-up to cover our overhead costs.
Alternatives – used bike shopping, Craigslist, and eBay:
For a long time we were the only game in town for used bikes. The reason goes back again to economics: most bike shops have much higher overhead costs and selling used bikes is simply not viable in most cases. We don’t begrudge other bike shops from doing what they need to do to survive, and we hope our customers don’t either. One doesn’t go into the bike business to get rich, so you can be fairly sure your expensive local bike shop isn’t trying to fleece you. As the demand for cheaper bikes is currently exploding, some places are starting to find means of making bikes more accessible. One of these is Bike Boom up in Davis Square. You can check out their website here: http://www.bikeboom.net/
There are also those perennial sources of treasure and junk, Craigslist and eBay. Great deals can be found on either, but finding those deals can be tough. Bargain-hunting for bikes is especially difficult since most people don’t know what to look for or avoid. I tend not to encourage people to look for bikes from these sources, since it takes a good working knowledge of the wide array of components, styles, brands, pedigrees, average prices, and also a keen mechanical eye to spot a great deal. It’s easy to get a bad deal, especially when buying sight-unseen (don’t ever do this). Perhaps a more thorough guide to finding a used bike will be forthcoming, but for now I will recommend a few strategies:
- Don’t buy a bike without riding it. You want to make sure it’s safe and in decent working condition. Tuning up a bike is expensive, and if parts are required the price can multiply quickly. Hop on, take it for a spin around the block, make sure no excessive noises are coming from it, that the brakes work, and that everything feels solid. Don’t worry too much if it doesn’t shift gears very well, concentrate more on the overall feel of the bike: does it feel safe? Does it feel nimble or is it sluggish and heavy? As far as condition goes, a little rust on the exterior is generally not a problem, but…
- …Make sure everything moves. The most common and worst problem you can encounter in buying a used bike is a seized component. This happens when an electrolyte solution (like rain) passes between two different metal alloys each with a different number of valence electrons (like steel and aluminum, the two principle alloys used in frame and components). The electrolyte solution allows electrons to exchange between these metals, causing a new intermediary substance to form which fuses the two metals together. This process is called chemical welding, and any chem’ majors out there who want to correct my layman’s understanding of the process are encouraged to shoot me an email. Usually it’s the seatpost (the stick of metal inserted into the frame which the saddle clamps onto) which seizes, but anything not made of plastic is a potential victim. If the seatpost can be adjusted by flipping the quick-release lever, do so, and check that it moves. I personally would not buy a used bike without being certain that it doesn’t have any seized components, as this can permanently ruin a frame.
- Look for older mountain bikes. Old steel mountain bikes have a couple good things going for them: they have low gears which are easy to pedal if you’re not a strong rider concerned with going fast, and they have wide flat bars which many people find more comfortable. They are also generally easier to upgrade than road bikes, which have tighter clearances: this means it’s usually easier to fit accessories like fenders and racks. However, avoid bikes with suspension (springs). Suspension parts have finite lifespans and will inevitably slow you down while also adding a lot of bulk. Old road bikes can be really nice, but tend to have more aggressive (hunched-over) geometry and drop (curved) handlebars, which many people find uncomfortable.
- Singlespeeds are excellent commuter bikes. Singlespeeds are bikes that, as the name suggests, don’t have a range of gears to choose from- just one. Many bikes feature a variety of gears so that you can climb hills easier or go faster on descents or flat spots. However, don’t rule out a single-geared bike as a viable commuter bike simply because it doesn’t have different “speeds” to choose from. Boston is relatively flat, and gears aren’t generally necessary. The dramatically simpler mechanics of a singlespeed bike will save you time, money, and headaches in the long run.
- Don’t buy a bike for now, buy a bike for five years from now. This is general advice for bike shopping. As I have hopefully made clear, bikes are not disposable commodities. They are, in fact, highly engineered vehicles. Try to think of them as longer-term investments, and, if possible, spend accordingly.
Hopefully I’ll be able to write more guides, but for now I’ll refer you to the late, great Sheldon Brown. Many mechanics (myself included) got their start pouring over his webpage, with its vast amount of (sometimes dated) information. Very useful stuff if you want to know more about bikes: http://www.sheldonbrown.com
Also, if you want to contact us directly, as always feel free to do so: firstname.lastname@example.org