Shout Out To Old Bikes

A couple Saturdays ago, I got this e-mail from my friend Lee:

Would you or anybody else you know be interested in this classic Trek 820 that Kerry rescued from a dumpster? It is in good shape and mechanically looks and feels sound. Seat tube is 56 cm. Seven speed triple. The pedals are mine. Free to a good home. I want my garage back.

I grabbed two beers out of my fridge to make a down payment on a new-to-me bicycle (total cost: four beers), drove to Lee’s house, picked it up, and a few hours later, cruised it over to a friend’s house for dinner. Lee had put on new rear brake pads, and the frame has a bunch of dings and scrapes, and the headset was a little loose, but overall, it rides wonderfully. If Lee and I weren’t such good friends, I might have even given him up to $150 for it. From what I can tell via some Internet research, it’s a 1994.

I have not ridden very many new bikes in my life, but I have ridden plenty of old bikes. And this one, well, it’s another one of those. A purple one. I believe it retailed for about $300 when I was a freshman in high school, and there’s something very satisfying in riding a two-decades-old bike that still works just fine. Especially one your friend’s wife found in a dumpster and you bought for four beers.

We’ve made a billion technological advances to bikes in the past 125 years, making them way lighter, way faster, and more expensive than a year’s tuition at a public university. All that stuff is cool, but sometimes we forget that whether it’s a carbon/titanium sculpture we can lift with our pinky or a clunky pile of cheap steel we could use for CrossFit workouts, the bicycle is still the most efficient human-powered transportation ever created. And pretty goddamn fun to ride over to the ice cream shop on a summer evening.

As far as the joy of riding to the ice cream shop goes, all those technological advances of the past, say, 30 years don’t make much of a difference when you’re not trying to be king of the mountain. Now, there is nothing wrong with riding a nice bicycle. But if you can’t enjoy riding a crappy bike, I would go as far as to say that maybe you don’t like bikes.

Crappy old bikes are everywhere—pawn shops, thrift stores, garage sales, dumpsters, Craigslist—and many are in better condition than cars built in the same year. Here’s a secret: Many people buy bikes and never ride them more than a handful of times, and 15 or 20 years after the price tags were removed, those bikes are sitting in someone’s garage under a layer of dust. Sometimes all they need is a new chain and a basic tune up and they’re ready to roll. Sometimes they need a new front wheel because Junior plowed the family SUV into the trash can and pinned the bike behind it on his first time backing out of the garage, but wheels aren’t hard to come by. Sometimes the only thing worth saving is the frame, and you can learn almost everything you need to know about bikes spending a handful of nights swapping out the parts for new ones.

Money can buy a lot of things, but there are a lot of things you don’t need much of it to buy—including an old bike with a story.

-Brendan

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22 Comments

  • Absolutely spot-on! My 20 something year old KHS still puts a smile on my face every time I make a beer run with it. Upgrades over the years: a 2nd gen Judy fork and v-brakes (woo!) other than a bunch of chains and general maintenance that’s about it. I rode this bike hard off road for years, now it’s my cruiser. Every once in a while I think about converting it to a single speed but I just can’t bring myself to do it, it’s just too original. I even think I’m going to put the original rigid fork back on it, it’s still in a box somewhere.

  • Totally! My first bike as an adult was a hand-me-down early-gen mountain bike that was too big for me and that I learned to commute on in Chicago. It saw me through school and a break-up, and I tricked it out with all sorts of extras. I grieved for two days when it was stolen–but by then an uncle had given me a 1978 Motobecane that he’d seen on sale for $15 and remembered as a hot-shit bike when he was in college. I fixed that one up and it became my first go-fast bike. I did my first four races on it, kickstand included. I’m all bike-geek n+1 now, but most of my bikes are still old and have awesome pre-me histories.

    • “I’ve never seen any positive correlation between money spent and fun on a bike. If anything, it’s inverse: the cheap bikes can easily exceed my expectations for them.”

      Eric’s nailed it. 🙂
      Low investment + low expectations (but open enthusiastic mindset) = huge chance of great surprised enjoyment.

      (Kind of like discovering a rad old B-movie….and finding out that it’s just as entertaining as anything Hollywood is producing at the moment.)

      PS – I’ve got an identically-purple Trek 950 from the same era (1991) that I just can’t let go of. Shifting isn’t 2015-era “right this instant” but man does she roll smooth and produce grins.

  • ssshhhhhh – don’t let out the secret of early 90’s steel or Trek’s will be more expensive than a used Tacoma

  • Last year I bought a 1990 Marin Palisades off Craigslist for $65. The best part? It was never used. Still had the price tag on it. I have transformed it into a nice commuter with better brakes, wider bar and slick tires, but its still that old bike underneath. Rides great!

  • Brendan, you’ve really struck a chord with this one:

    “If you can’t enjoy riding a crappy bike, I would go so far as to say that maybe you don’t like bikes.”

    I often get to ride the newest of the new in the bike world, but have never let go of that joy.

  • I got the exactly the same bike in some funky green color, my uncle found it in some barn and gave it to me, the bike still had the paper stickers on the tires so i guess it didnt see much action, it has a bunch of dings and rust, but i love it, i now ride it everyday to work, some 20K, im thinking a couple of upgrades, totally get you man, this post made my day, God bless you.

  • I bought an old Trek 820 MultiTrack from some guy off of Craigslist for 80 bucks. I call it the clunker and I ride it mostly on pavement and in the trainer in the winter. It’s not the lightest thing in the work, but it rolls and it works great for what I use it for. More than anything, this proves that it’s not the bike but the person who rides it that makes it what it is.

  • I had that exact same bike (different colour) Trek Mountain Track 820. I rode it around the cabot trail (cape breton island) by myself, which was the first time that i discovered that i could load a bunch of camping crap on a bike and ride from point-to-point-to-point.

    It eventually got stolen, but it opened up a new world to me. Great bike.

  • I love new bicycles. The smell of the tires. The perfectly true wheels. The precise click as the derailleur snaps the chain right into the exact gear I want.

    We wanted to cycle tour through Asia and yearned for that perfection in our steeds. So we priced the touring bikes that the hardcore bike-tourers said we must have, with German made Rohloff speed hubs and handmade racks.

    The cost caused me physical pain.

    So we did the next best thing, we built them from two 1980s steel mountain bikes purchased from thrift stores. Okay, maybe not the next best. But good enough. I love good enough more than I love precision.

    The money we saved on the bikes allowed us to tour Southeast Asia for a year, flights and all.

    http://www.vwvagabonds.com/Bike/BikeTheBikes.html

  • Great essay and insight! A friend just stopped by on a 25 dollar mountain bike–some off-brand that I’ve never heard of, but the thing looks brand new. Brakes need a little help, but for 25 bucks, how can you go wrong.

  • Old mountain bikes make the best awesome city adventure bikes! I have an ’89 Rocky Mountain affectionately named Pinky-Purply that just won’t quit. I love the simplicity of an old rigid frame. There are so many great old bikes abandoned in alleys just waiting for a little TLC to become AWESOME again.

  • I had that same model! I got mine used in ’95 I think. Added some front shocks. It was a great bike. Ended up selling it 10 years later. Then around 6-7 years later I needed a bike to cruise around Missoula on and volunteered at Free Cycles(a bike recycle shop) in order to build my own free bike. Rummaging around the shop I found another trek frame that looked exactly like my old 820 so of course I grabbed it!
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=420461553329&l=743246c7f5

  • Dude, I have the exact same bike!!! I just took it out last weekend for a two day bike-packing trip in northern Arizona. The bike killed it! I put on great components but the frame and everything else was great. Nice post

  • I have this same bike but blue. Was purchased for me new as a present from a girlfriend in 1995. Still going strong. Just changed the handle bars for more comfortable ride with a little less lean in it. I don’t know why but dang I cant get rid of it. I have KHS road bike also. But for some reason when I look at the old Trek, I just know it will get me where ever every time. The KHS is my gas burner and my Trek is my Diesel.

  • Great article! I picked up a 1984 Cannondale road bike for cheap in Longmont a few years back. I rode it around Boulder for fun and now that I’m back in grad school it’s my daily transportation. Other than tires, tubes, pedals, seat, and chain, she’s all original. Incredibly reliable for a 32 year old bike!

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