Lovely Bicycles on a Budget: Vintage vs Modern
[image via niniferrose]
In addition to the variety of comments posted on this website, I receive lots of questions from readers via email. And if I had to say what the one most frequently asked question is, it would be a variation of this one:
I am looking for a nice bicycle for commuting around town and my budget is $500. I would love to get a new Dutch bike or a Pashley, but I just can't afford it. What would you recommend in my price range?Now, I do have a page on this website called Budget Options, and a link to it is prominently displayed in the upper lefthand corner. On that page I keep an updated list of manufacturers that sell budget versions of classic bicycles for as little as $150. I also have a page on shopping for vintage bikes. So, in emailing me the above question, the reader is usually looking for more than to be directed to one these pages. They are looking for my opinion: What would I do with $500? What do I recommend of all the possible options?
Okay, if you really want to know, I'll tell you. But I can almost guarantee that you won't like it and that you won't follow my recommendation. Do you want to hear it anyway? Well, all right. I would recommend buying a vintage 3-speed and spending the remainder of your budget on modernising it. Here is how I would do it:
[image via Trisha Brink Design]
Buy a vintage Raleigh Lady Sports in your size and preferred colour. Make sure the frame is in good condition, and that as many components as possible are salvageable. Try to spend under $100 on this purchase, and absolutely no more than $150. It is possible if you do some research and ask around. Even if there is a shortage of vintage bikes in your area, post a "want to buy" ad on your local C-List and chances are someone will dig one out of their basement or barn. Or join bikeforums and a kind enthusiastic soul on the Classic & Vintage subforum will provide you with some local contacts. It can be done if you are motivated.
Buy a modern 26" (ISO 590) wheelset with alloy rims and a 3-speed hub built into the rear wheel (the shifter is usually included). The biggest problem with using vintage 3-speeds for transportation, is that they have caliper brakes and steel rims - a combination that provides inadequate stopping power in wet weather conditions. An alloy wheelset will solve this problem. Several bike shops sell such wheelsets online at reasonable prices: A Sun wheelset from Harris Cyclery will set you back $200. An Alex wheelset from Niagra Cycle Works will set you back $130. Your local bike shop might be able to order a wheelset from a catalogue as well.
Buy a set of 26" (ISO 590) tires with puncture protection. Schwalbe Delta Cruisers in either black or cream are a good choice, because they look classic, make for a very comfortable ride, and cost only $40 for the pair.
Assuming that you are not skilled in bicycle repair, maintenance or assembly, bring your vintage bike and all the parts to a trusted local shop. Ask them to replace the wheelset, put on the new tires, and give the bicycle a thorough tune up. They will probably end up replacing the chain and some cables as part of that process as well. It should run you about $100.
If the vintage bike you found did not come with a saddle and there is room in your budget, get a Brooks or a lower-priced VO leather saddle. If you are tapped out, look for a vintage saddle, or buy a cheap generic one as a temporary fix until you save up the extra money for a new, quality one.
[image via niniferrose]
At the end of this process, you will have a bicycle with all the comfort, durability and charm of a vintage 3-speed, but with modern braking power. It should last pretty much forever and should feel great to ride. Yes, organising the bike will be a small adventure - but again, it can be done if you put your mind to it.
Having said that, I realise that most of my readers will opt out. For one thing, it seems difficult and time-consuming. It also probably seems absurd to spend a total of $500 on a vintage 3-speed, when you could go to the store and get one of these for the same price, brand new and shiny. I sincerely understand that. But...
Consider that the second most frequently asked question I get from readers over email is a variation of this one:
Three months ago I bought a [Budget Manufacturer X] bicycle, because my budget was $500. Actually, I ended up spending a bit more than that, because I got the 7-speed version. And Basil panniers. And a Brooks saddle. And cork grips. But anyway, I thought the bicycle looked nice and I liked how it rode when I tested it outside the bike shop. But it's only been 3 months, and now my rear fender is making clunking noises, and my chain has come off twice, and I keep getting flat tires. Also, the bike doesn't feel that great over pot-holes and my hands start to hurt on the handlebars towards the end of my commute from work. My bike shop says that I can update some of the components to fix these problems, but it looks like that's going to cost me another several hundred dollars. I am not sure what to do now. What do you think?I never know quite how to answer that one, because at that point the person has already maxed out their budget. Any suggestions? And yes, I am perfectly serious that I get these emails. I respect it when people say they are on a tight budget and I would like to be helpful with solutions instead of saying "save up for a better quality bike". But I honestly cannot think of a solution that I truly believe in other than my vintage 3-speed plan. I have never received an email from anybody complaining about their vintage Raleigh Sports.