Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Garage Bike (Part 1)

Hey, I can't ride my bike right now, so this has been occupying some of my time recently.

In the bike geek world, Spring brings many things. Of course we think of riding without thermal underwear, wool jerseys, and raincoats… all at the same time (Woo Hoo!); We like the idea that riding after work no longer means rigging up some sort of lighting system; And we like that we now get the chance to see what folks are doing in their yards, gardens, and farms, not just how their winter wood piles are holding out.

But something else comes along. If you too are a bike geek I know you are familiar with this to some degree: Because you are known at work, or church, or in your other ‘social networks’ as the bike guy, (or bike woman as the case may be) occasionally someone will come to you, directly or diagonally and mention their old 10 speed that has been hanging in their garage, or out in the shed, or down in the basement.

These people hear your tales of riding and sense that you’re having a little more fun than they are. They see the longer hours of daylight after work and wonder if the garage bike could be revived enough that they might get out on the road and have a little fun with their exercise too. So they come to you and say “I’ve got this old 10 speed out in the garage and I was wondering if you would take a look at it and give me some idea of whether or not I could get it back to running again”.

I am always very cautious in this situation. First off, I’m no mechanic, bikes or otherwise. My bike mechanic skill level is very low for the amount I ride. I should be a much better shade tree bike mechanic than I am, if for no other reason than it would save a little money and I am sure it would add to the satisfaction I get out of my bike ‘habit’.

Then there is the bike: This old Raleigh (or Schwinn, or Peugeot) can be in very good condition, just needing new tires and a little lube here and there, or it can be a money pit. This is a problem because the person comes to you first because they don’t want to spend a lot of money on the bike, and second, the old bike has been around for reasons of sentimentality. Nobody keeps a bike in their garage for 15 years because they hate it and the memories that it brings back.

This happened to me recently and now I have a 1980’s vintage Fuji Monterey out in my shop:

When Randy, a friend at work asked, I said I’d take a look at it and give him my honest opinion about the bikes current condition and what I thought it would take to get it running. This very first interaction is at least a little disingenuous on my part because my first inclination is to say, “go to the Big Box store, or the LBS and plunk down for a low cost city bike/cruiser/hybrid, and ride that $400 bike for the summer and then see how you feel about riding”. This sounds harsh but it makes sense if you hold it up to the light just the right way. Sort of like giving failing banks $700 billion … so they don’t fail.

Even though it is cheaply made, a new (cheapo) bike is probably going to be able to stand up to casual use. And with fatter, lower pressure tires,flat bars, and a more upright geometry it’s probably going to be more comfortable for folks in our stage of life. I’m older than Randy, (shoot, I’m older than television) but he’s no kid. People tend to forget that while that old bike was getting 20 years older, their bodies were too, and what felt good at 30 might not feel so good at 50. Nothing sends a bike to the garage rafters faster than pain when riding, this is supposed to be fun, not painful.

But it's a radical suggestion to make to someone who remembers fondly riding along on their old 10 speed 20 years ago. Shoot, it worked fine when Randy was 23, and it’s just been in storage, not left out in the rain or anything. And come on, “you want me to pony up $600 for a bike, when I have one that I remember so well and that worked fine when I hung it up out in the garage?” For the record, Randy never said that, but the idea is to get back on the road with minimal cost.

But I too have a soft spot for old bikes. I see plenty of people riding old bikes and so I know it is not unreasonable to think that Randy’s bike can be brought back to life, shoot any bike can be made new again. The trick of course is doing this without qualifying for an infusion of bailout money. Rather than just run up the tab for all new everything I told Randy we’d approach this as a wade in, not a dive in deal: First step is to assess the bike, sorting out what needs R&R to make the bike safe to ride. Then sort out the minimum investment necessary to get rolling down the road with that big ole grin from ear to ear.

In my day job I wear many hats. I do a little bit of many different things, but I am really not an expert at much. One thing I am expert at is knowing who the experts are. Same with my bike ‘habit’. I’m not cheating on this assignment, I’m just accessing some great expert advice. I don’t have the Cliff Notes on this little project, I actually have the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary, and the Encyclopedia Bike Mechanica in my hip pocket.

When I took this project on I sent a note to three friends who make their way in this world building, rebuilding, fixing, and otherwise keeping bikes rolling here in the Pacific Northwet. As I was preparing for this adventure I sent them a message telling them what I was up to and they said they’d be willing to provide me with some degree of tele-advice, for which I am greatly appreciative. Especially fortunate is the fact that all three of these folks have an affinity for, and an enormous depth of knowledge when it comes to old bikes. While the kid in the upscale bike shop might suggest a donation to Good William, these three bike mechanic professionals offer a somewhat more utilitarian perspective. Any wisdom you detect in this piece comes from them; anything that is suspect is mine alone.

So here is my initial assessment:

First let me say, like old cars, old bikes have an enormous range of mechanical fitness. Some truly are best suited for yard art, and some are in ready to ride condition. Randys bike is on the high end of the scale, but not ready to ride.

The frame is in good shape: No big dents or bends in the tubes, the welds look solid, and there is only very slight rust in a few spots. The dropouts aren’t bent or twisted and the cable guides, eyelets, and bosses are all still there, functional and not rusted around the edges.

Here is what Kent had to say about frames:
“We see these bikes all the time at Bike Works and everything that comes in goes through a triage process. Here are a few of our rules of thumb:Old Japanese bikes are almost always worth saving. Even if everything on it is junk, the frames are almost always straight, true and solid. The same factors that made 80's Japanese cars good apply to bikes.”

The wheels are the bike’s ‘Achilles heel’. These are old, single wall, 27” steel rims. The rear is so out of true that it rubs a brake pad when spun.

Beth had this to offer:
“A bike with steel wheels and one of them needing replacement means you should probably plan on upgrading the wheels to aluminum alloy rims. … New wheelset on the cheap (single-walled rims) will run about a hundred bucks or so; nicer set with double-walled rims about twice as much.”

Kent said:
“Steel wheels were a bad idea then and are still a bad idea now. If you are not going to ride in the rain and stick to flattish areas they can be OK, but if you can go to alloy wheels, it's worth doing.”

So of course, right away I’m feeling in over my head (remember? … wade in not dive in?) and worried that I’ve lured Randy into a dark alley and now I am about to jack him up for ransom!

So, before going any farther I asked Cory if he’d look at the rear wheel and let me know if I was about to get out on to the big ole water slide at the deep end of the pool (Cory lives and works near, both Kent and Beth are far).

He gave the wheels a look and with a few deft twists of the spoke wrench had it (the rear wheel) back to rolling. Not perfect but safe and functional. Remember, the goal here is to get this bike ride-able. If Randy digs it, then there will be further decisions to make.

The hubs show no play, and spin without any grating or other indication that the bearings are in need of serious help.

The bars and seat post are old chrome and show rust pitting. But is hasn’t progressed to pin holes, so far just surface rust that does not pose any danger or structural risk, just takes away from the looks.

The drive train is a mix of Suntour and Sugino. The crank arms show not indication of cracks and are not bent. The chain rings and 5 speed rear end aren’t bent and only slightly rusted. Cory pointed out that the rear derailleur (not the hanger) is slightly bent.

The Park Chain Checker showed no wear, and since it looks fine otherwise (no stiff links, more gunk than rust) I’m just going to clean the chain up and use it as is.

The tires are unsafe and must be replaced. The shifters work, but the cables and housing are in such bad condition that it is hard to get the rear to shift more than one gear either way. The cables and housing will be replaced. The brakes work, the brake pads show almost no wear but given their age I’ll replace them, better safe with brakes than sorry.

I think this is going to be a fun project. I like the idea of reuniting a couple of old friends for some fun out on the roads. If it works out great, Randy may become an avid cyclist. And if it is a passing fancy, at least he won’t be out a bucket of money.

I really want to dive into this right away: I’m itching to do more than just sit around reading and teasing the cat, but the Doc has given pretty strict orders that suggest this is not on the list of post-op recovery activities. I’m healing well and fast and I don’t want to blow it, but I’m thinking of heading in to the office tomorrow. I need something to do and I need social interaction, I never thought I would miss going to work.

I’ll post more on the 10 speed project probably next week (I go back for my first post-op checkup next Wednesday and hope to get the go ahead for a more 'active' recovery.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Paul,

    Let me know if there are any vintage bits you need for this project. I'm headed your way next week and can bring some things along. We can maybe do a little wrenching party while I'm there.