The Well-Tempered Bicycle Commuter: Pimp your ride

By Steve Chambers

How to turn any old bicycle into a commuter bike.
by Steven Chambers

A bicycle makeover is a recycling project. You take an old bike and transform it into something useful —a commuter bike—while at the same time rescuing it from the landfill.

Any old bicycle is a candidate for a makeover. It could be a steel mountain bike from the ’80s; an ancient three-speed; or the ubiquitous symbol of campus life in the 1970s, a Schwinn Varsity 10-speed. A rigid (no suspension) mountain bike might be your best choice, since they can take most anything you throw at them in stride. I’ve crashed on my hardtail mountain bike several times, occasionally hard enough to have trashed my road bike. Each time, my mountain bike just smiled and kept on going. With a minimal investment of dollars and some time, you can transform that old clunker into a true commuter bike; one that is rideable any time, day or night, and able to carry a reasonable amount.

A great place to begin looking for a bicycle-makeover candidate is garage sales. You can often get deals on really good, hardly used bikes—especially this time of year, as people who thought they would take up cycling last spring decide it really isn’t for them and want to make room in the garage for a new snow blower. Check online at places such as Craigslist and Stay away from used bikes owned by avid riders. Those tend not to be such a good deal because the chain rings often are worn down to stubs.

When checking out a potential makeover, look closely at the frame, especially the joints where the various tubes come together. If you see any cracks at all, move on.

Test ride the bicycle and feel how it shifts. Ragged shifting could be just a simple matter of adjusting the cables, or it could mean serious wear on the cogs or chain itself. If in doubt, take a knowledgeable friend with you. If the brakes slip, before you buy new pads, try sanding the old ones to remove the glaze of grit and wear.

Once you’ve chosen your bike, here are a few things to keep in mind as you do your makeover.

• If you bought a road bike with drop handlebars, switch them for more upright bars. Bend­ing too far over makes it hard to see and contributes to a stiff neck.

• Look for a wider seat, one that will spread your weight over more area.

• A kickstand is a great addition, one that you won’t find on many bikes.

• Look at the tires. An old mountain bike probably has knobby tires, which are great for off-road riding, but not so good for commuting. Knobbies are actually harder to pedal because they have more rolling resistance. They provide less traction on pavement than do street tires because there is less surface area in contact with the road at any given time. Knobbies also require more clearance if you install fenders, and tend to spray more water than slicks. Consider swapping knobby tires for a new set of street tires.

• Whether to put fenders on your bike is up to you. If you’re a fair weather cyclist, fenders probably aren’t necessary. Just know that if you do get caught in a rainstorm, you will end up with gunk on your shoes and chain, and a stripe of muddy water down your back. If you plan to commute fall and spring (and maybe winter), you need fenders, front and rear. You can go for fancy aluminum or chrome fenders that bolt on (and may need to be drilled and modified with new struts) or simple plastic fenders that snap on (though many cyclists consider those a waste of money). You can even buy beautiful wood fenders. The “full wrap” fender is best.

• A rear rack makes carrying stuff a cinch and acts like a rear fender. A basket hose-clamped to the rack makes an easy carrier. Baskets come in wire, fabric and woven styles. Front racks and baskets are also available, and some people prefer them for easy access. Of course, you can have both.

• For illumination on riding after dark, refer to my August 2009 column, “Night Rider.”

So there you have it; a bicycle makeover in a nutshell. With some sleuthing and a little work, you can have a great commuter bike for less than the cost of a new department store bike.

Steve Chambers is a Salt Lake Valley bicycle commuter.

This article was originally published on February 28, 2010.