weekend reading: things I’ve learned about vintage bikes
In August of 2010, T. and I bought this matching pair of vintage Raleigh Roadsters and thus a love affair with vintage bikes ensued. A friend recently asked me some questions about owning a vintage bike (vs. just purchasing a new bike) and I tried to impart some of my love and excitement for these older yet beautiful bikes that have come to replace all of my new bikes. I know divide my commutes between using my 1969 Raleigh Sports upright bike and my sportier 1970s Peugeot Mixte. For a roadbike, I replaced my 2008 Schwinn Le Tour GS with a 1978 Raleigh Grand Prix.
As a disclaimer, I should note that I am a complete novice to bike maintance, vintage bikes in general, and anything much more involved that just hopping on a bike and going. But that’s maybe what intimidates some about owning a vintage bike – that it may require some keen know-how or involved understanding of how to fix old bikes. Vintage bikes run the spectrum of condition: some do need a lot of work and are major fixer uppers and some are just old but in really wonderful condition.
The Raleighs we bought were pretty much rideable upon purchase. They had only had two previous owners (two generations of the same family) and were in great condition. We simply bought some Brooks leather conditioner to condition the saddle, added oil to the hub, cleaned them up, installed new break pads, and added some accessories, like lights, a bell, and a bike basket. I did, after a while, make the decision to upgrade the steel wheels to aluminum ones and you can read more about what prompted that decision here. The Raleighs cost $250 for the pair, so $125 for the one. To that, I added about $50 in accessories and treatment supplies (as outlined above) and could have called it quits at $175 spent total on my bike. Eventually, the upgrade to new wheels and tires cost me another $225, making the total spent on my vintage commuter bike around $400. Considering how much a new commuter bike that would come with an all-steel frame, Brooks saddle, fenders, a rack, basket, lights, chainguard and bell would cost, I think this price tag is quite reasonable. Plus, these bikes come with a history and character that make them all the more special to me.
My other Raleigh, which came next, was more of a fixer-upper from the start. We found this bike on Craigslist (just like the other two above) for only $35. While the price tag was right and we fell in love with the beautiful paintjob, the gorgeous headlight, and the immaculate white handlebar tape, the rest of the bike left something to be desired. It was not rideable. The wheels and tires were completely broken, they were in such bad shape that we didn’t even test ride the bike nor did we photograph the ‘before’ condition because we went straight to one of the local bikes shops with it. While we only paid $35 for the bike itself, we knew that it would cost another $200 or so to make it rideable. In the end, the bike cost about $250 after installing new brakepads, wheels, and tires. The beauty of it though is that I now have a roadbike with a vintage frame but with brandnew wheels, tires, and brakes and it rides beautifully.
While I’ve loved taking this bike out for longer rides on paved trails, I’ve also enjoyed using it around town and wrote about making it do for my rides to work in heels and skirts.
(Also, on a side note, I rode 70 miles in one day on a vintage all-steel Takara last summer and I had no problem keeping the same pace as my husband and friends, who were on newer aluminum frame road bikes. That event is what convinced me that a vintage steel bike does not need to be discountet as a feasable bike for fast and/or long-distance riding).
The last vintage bike to join my collection was my 1970s Peugeot Mixte. This bike is a perfect example of a bike that came in great shape with no need for upgrades or restorations. It was previously owned by one of the local bike guys at my favorite bike shop in town and was in great shape from having been already restored by a well informed bike owner. This bike came with less original components as my other two bikes (the frame is essentially the only original thing on it) but originality is not very important to me. I don’t mind adding newer accessories or components to my old bikes, something that some bike owners have strong feelings about. The only things I added to this bike were the front basket and a chain guard. The bike cost around $140 after those additions.
We still have some upgrades we want to do, like replacing the break cables on my Raleighs. And with the Raleigh Sports, I have to add oil to the internal gear hub about once a month (using a small plastic syringe). It helps tremendously that my husband is very handy with bikes and does much of the work on them. Perhaps I would have been less adventurous in buying older bikes without his know-how and guidance. But I’ve also found the employees at my local bike shop to be wonderful resources of information and advice. So if you don’t know a ton about vintage bikes yourself, and aren’t living with someone who does, having the access to a great bike shop that cares about vintage bikes and bikes for transportation (not just the sport of cycling) could be all you need to make older bikes work for you.
Additionally, Sheldon Brown is a wealth of information. And this site on dating old Raleighs based on their serial number is what allowed me to pin down exactly when and where my Raleighs were built. Buying a vintage bike can seem like a gamble (opposed to just getting a new(er) bike, but the advantages to these bikes is that they are made of quality all-steel frames, often come with quality leather saddles, often come built to be commuter bikes with fenders and chainguard, and are beautiful and unique in a way that only a bike with so much history can be.
Do you own a vintage bike? What are some of the things you’ve learned or come to simply appreciate about riding a beautifully aged bicycle? ~S.