Making a Bicycle Your Own

When getting a bicycle, whether new or vintage, it can be nice to personalise it  -  to make alterations here and there, so that the bike feels distinctly "ours".  I am often asked for advice regarding various aspects of this process, from budget, to component choices, to colour coordination. And while these things are highly personal, there are several general points that I propose keeping in mind.

1. Address functionality and comfort before looks. Prior to buying colourful panniers and covering the bike with flower garlands, make sure the saddle position and handlebar height are properly adjusted for your proportions and postural preference. You may be surprised how much just that factor alone can change the "personality" of the bicycle. And this, in turn, will better inform subsequent aesthetic choices.

2. Personalising the looks of your bicycle need not involve buying lots of costly accessories. Some of the most delightful decorations are also the least expensive. Consider that things like ribbon, faux florals, twine, and stickers can cost mere pocket change. A simple bow in your favourite colour on the handlebars, or some flowers along the edge of your basket, will create an instant, lively transformation.  And if you have an old bicycle with scratched up paint? You could turn it into a "zebra bike", "tiger bike", or "bumble bee bike" by wrapping appropriately coloured electrical tape around the frame to create stripes.

Of course, with an older bicycle there is also the option of using paint. You could try lug outlining, hand-painting small panels, or even painting your own designs along the entire frame. In Europe I see bicycles hand-painted with flowers, polka-dots, zebra stripes, peace symbols, lady bugs, and all sorts of other simple motifs. A paint pen for lug outlining will set you back around $2. Enamel paint will cost around $6 for a small can.

3. Avoid formulaic accessorising. If you saw it in a magazine or on a popular blog, chances are that so did hundreds of others. Do you really want to spend all that money on limited edition saddles, deluxe grips and exotic tires, just to end up with a bicycle that looks identical to lots of other bikes?  Take the time to consider what combination of things would suit you individually, rather than trying to recreate a popular look.

4. Explore ways to trade and barter with other bicycle owners. The components you no longer want might be just what another person is looking for, and vice-versa. This is considerably more affordable than buying everything new, and can yield interesting results. I acquired some of my best stuff via trades, including saddles, dress guards, a rack, and even an entire bicycle!

In the end, the bicycles that are the most striking and feel the most "yours" are those that reflect your personality - regardless of the budget that went into achieving that.


  1. "Keep in mind that if you saw it in a magazine or on a popular blog, chances are that so did hundreds of others. Do you really want to spend $$$ on limited edition saddles, deluxe grips and exotic tires?"

    I sure do if Schwalbe tires will reduce the flat tires I've been getting - I ordered some Marathon tires recently.

    Seriously, I agree with your comment on bike fit - personalization makes a lot more sense if it's a bike you can actually ride.


  2. Stephen--Schwalbe is quite reputable for puncture protection. I hope you enjoy many flat-free miles on your new set. It's especially important if your bike has a hard-to-remove rear wheel. Particularly, some 28" Roadsters come with Marathon Plus, which are supposed to be nearly flat-proof, but heavier and somewhat slower than Marathons. We also like Delta Cruisers, which have "some" puncture protection.

    They also make high quality inner tubes (that have these neat clear plastic valve caps) that are rumoured to leak air "more slowly" than regular tubes. I don't quite believe that, but they have other construction advantages, such as a well-designed stem. For full disclosure, I should add that I did have a manufacturing defect in one Schwalbe inner tube, but I still seek them out if I can.

  3. I thought that last sentence was going to acquire an edit. :)

  4. Oh, of course. I wasn't talking about decisions based on reviews of components, but rather about recreating specific looks featured in magazines and on websites - and doing so very literally, with no individual variation.

  5. Yes, sorry about that - the whole post required a thorough edit! I published it hastily and stepped out to sell one of the children's bikes from yesterday's post.

  6. There's probably nothing wrong per-se with following stuff you see in magazines. It can be something you don't know about yet and would benefit from.

    For example, a year+ ago I saw the Pashley Guv'nor with its flipped north roads. It looked so cool and vintage, and yet its bars were the same as mine, just merely flipped. At the time, the thought was a novel concept to me. I've since lowered my stem considerably and angled the bars down quite a bit (without flipping them) which resulted in a supremely comfortable ride. Later I saw a bunch of French vintage bikes with the same setup. I arrived at it not only via experience, but thanks to what I saw in magazines (and later online).

  7. Anyhoo, I think I'd like to have that Schwinn (and if it's a two speed that's a definite), but I don't think I'd like to sit on that saddle for very long. It seems to have acquired rather too much of its own unique personality for the personality of my arse to be happy with the match.

    I concur on point #1 (not that I have any objections to any of the other points, although the collectors may have some issues with #2).

  8. those $80 brooks grips sure look like something out of a fashion bike mag :-).

    and wasn't it discussed recently how much of a recent phenomenon twining had become? :-)

  9. Bicycles personalize themselves as they are used and loved.

  10. I generally paint my name on my bikes, either on the seat or the chainguard.

    I am also a big fan of painting my spokes. Yes, when truing the wheel the paint sometimes gets messed up, but it's not really an issue and it looks totally badass.

    Plus a custom saddle is never a bad idea!

  11. I never quit riding altogether but I have been, sort of, rediscovering the joys of cycling in recent years. In the future I will likely buy a new and modern bike for the road tours I enjoy but I retain an admiration for the classics. The bike I would have the hardest time giving up is the 10-speed I got when I was 13. It is much different now, personalized and upgraded, but still fundamentally an old ride. There have been impressive advancements in technology but we have lost a lot of style and personality along the way in all our forms of transportation. Progress???

  12. somervillain--I think they were there to illustrate point 3.

  13. Steve - Very true!

    somervillain - Is that how much they cost retail?? Jeez. I had to check to believe it. As I have written before, while I liked the feel of the washer grips at an earlier point, I later changed my mind. They are too wide for my hands to close over comfortably, and the metal portions at the ends bother me. It took me half a year of riding the bike to even become aware that I was feeling this. But twining that Shimano gear shifter was all win, despite its seeming absurdity!

    kfg - That Schwinn is a very typical Provincetown bike. I regret now not taking close-ups of the gearing.

    Sos - There are so many components involved in "progress", and I think about this question all the time when comparing vintage bikes to modern. There has been progress in wheels, to be sure. I will take modern (classic) alloy rims over vintage steel rims any time. There has been marvelous progress in dynamo lighting, and I would not even think about using a vintage system on one of my bikes (unless we rewired it). But has there been progress in comfort? At least as far as transportation bikes go, I think it is challenging to find modern ones - even in the $1,000+ range - that are more comfortable than a basic English 3-speed.

  14. I suppose that because three of my four bicycles began as custom-built frames and I picked everything that's on them, I tend to think of my bikes as personalized. Even my non-custom bike (the LeTour III) is very personalized because I turned it into a single-speed and changed the handlebars and seat to fit my personal preferences.

    As far as "touches," I have always done a variation of what you've described: I'll pick something unique or unusual that is functional. Two examples are the bells on the steerer tubes of my Mercians and my Bike Burritos.

    One of the most idiosyncratic, though still sylish and elegant, bikes I've ever seen belonged to Conrad, the founder of the bike shop bearing his name in Manhattan's Tudor City. He rode a classic Cinelli, which was displayed in the shop for years after his death, that had mixte-style bars with leather grips that matched his saddle--and a leather tobacco pouch that was attached to his Blackburn rack on the rear!

    And, yes, I think the Schwinn in the photo definitely has character--as your bikes do, Velouria.

    MDI: When I first started cycling, I followed the reviews and suggestions--and, sometimes, the ads--I saw in magazines. Back then, there weren't as many cyclists to consult and there was no Internet. Even now, I think the magazines can make a good starting point, as long as you realize they are just that.

    As for the trendy stuff: It never ceases to amaze me that the more the owners of "hipster fixies" try to differentiate their bikes by mixing neon colors in the chain, rims and such, the more cookie-cutter those bikes seem.

  15. Well now that I've actually bothered to click on the picture:

    Things I see - caliper brakes and a fat can.
    Things I don't see - a reaction arm.

    Smells like an AW.

    Coupla days ago I pulled a Schwinn Deluxe Racer (along with a Huffeigh Sportsman and Rollfast, twin tube, step through cruiser) out of a barn (well, carriage house technically). About the only thing that sorta disappoints me about the Schwinn is that it's an AW model. Woulda liked a red band kickback. Sunrace has just introduced a Sturmey branded version, but as I understand it it's a direct and overdrive, not a direct and reduction. Bummer.

    So now, I'm trying to figure out how to add a personal touch to a Coppertone, when Coppertone isn't exactly me as a base to work from. Maybe it'll grow on me - and at least it isn't that horrid lime green.

  16. My eyes must be bad, because I can't tell at that resolution whether there is a reaction arm or not (and I deleted the hi-res picture). And I don't see that there are necessarily brake levers on both handlebars - though okay, I do see what looks like a caliper brake on the rear wheel. (Or could it be a fender attachment point?) Okay, obviously I am emotionally invested in this bike having a coaster brake!

  17. There are visible calipers front and rear. The cable housing has been changed for black instead of the original white so they aren't obvious. There is also a trigger shifter (again new black one). On blowing it up I can also see the shifter cable, which is routed to a roller at the bottom of the seat tube, cutting across the triangle, rather than snaking along the downtube in a housing. Bell shaped end on the can.

    Here there be AW. Our mutual emotional investments have gone into receivership.

    Oddly enough what I hadn't noticed until I blew it up, although it's perfectly visible, is that it's a tanker. Go figure. I'd guess it's a dress up after market add on.

    And it occurs to me, ya know, that classic steel front hub would look pretty sweet polished up and put on an ANT Truss Bike. Wonder how hard it would be to find a fixed hub to vaguely match. That would make some nifty personalization - if I only had an ANT Truss.

  18. kfg--Mike Flanigan does sell them Truss bikes you know :)

  19. : ) At last, somebody noticed the subtle insertion of this bike! It is a Bella Ciao. Details forthcoming!

  20. oh cool! I definitely want to know about those! :)

  21. "Mike Flanigan does sell them Truss bikes you know"

    The BASTARD!

    "Did you get an Abici?"

    I got saved by the last red one still in the pipe disappearing before I got back to it. 'Course the black ones are pretty nice too. I still have problems with the way they fit it out though and it's still a very expensive bike to buy to just to throw all the parts out and start over.

    In the meantime I'm making due by fixing up domestic swan's necks.

  22. Your bike is your bike and needs to look like your bike.

  23. Try these…

  24. Does anyone know of any shops locally that do a great custom paint job? I have my eye on a particular bike and I'm finding the import requirements difficult to deal with so I was wondering if a better option is to purchase the bike here and have it painted on my own.


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