Saturday, 28 April 2018

Our new, old bike - Just how green are we cyclists?

I spent another evening last night, after the children had gone to bed and before Mummy ByCycle came home from the office, tinkering with our new tandem.

I say ‘new’, but it’s anything but, in truth. I think the Suntour 3040 front mech dates it to about 1989, in fact, making our 'new bike' the oldest in the family, by a reasonable margin.

The question, as usual with an old bike, becomes ‘how far do you go?' We’ve ridden the bike, it works, it goes and stops, but the handlebar grips and twist shifters are ergonomically heretical, the chainrings look like a circulating shiver of sharks, and the ‘it’s knackered, change everything’ 0.75mm chain wear gauge flaps around in the links of both chains like a drunkard's wotsit in a pub toilet. The rear cassette lock ring is stuck fast, resisting all attempts to budge it, and the rims are, well, a bit concave. The frame seems sturdy enough and all the welds are sound, but the paint job is badly chipped, there are signs of surface rust, and several of the chromed bits, aren’t very chrome-y. The seats are new, but uncomfortable for Katie and too big for Thomas Ivor; the rear rack is severely wonky; it doesn't have any bottle cages.

The thing is, none of this can’t be fixed. It comes down to what’s economical. Chain rings, five of them, two chains (one of them a big ‘un), new jockey wheels, cassette and realistically front derailleur, new bar grips and shifters, and I’m on the way to £500 including buying the bike. Having done that, you’d end up needing to replace the rims to put serious miles on it, so that’s two rims and a double wheel build, even if you recycle the hubs, which will undoubtedly deserve new bearings if you’re going that far. With all that new stuff on it, you’d want to paint the frame, by some means, just to protect it structurally. Is that uneconomic mission creep, the result of getting too invested in a tired basket case of a bike which would be better melted down, or is it a symptom of a throwaway society in which some cyclists, for all their green creds, too willingly throw away serviceable equipment because manufacturing labour remains cheap and raw materials (for now, at least) relatively plentiful?

By this point you’ve caught yourself saying ‘I could have a nice new one for two grand’ in your head, but:
  • this was meant to be a low budget exercise;
  •  done properly, the bike may still look its age at a superficial level but the components that matter will all be new, should function perfectly, and it will be the spec we have chosen, in the details. Crank length. Saddle choice. Compatible with our lights, luggage and phone mounts. It could even be in our own paint job;
  • we don't have to spend all the money in one go. Some things have to be done together, but by no means all;
  • taking things apart to see why they work, and then struggling with 'reassembly is the reverse of removal', is therapeutic. Sometimes.
  • Even I will struggle to get the budget beyond half the cost of a new one.
The other option, I guess, is to give it a thorough clean, spend nothing on it and just have fun riding it into the ground, like some people do with old cars - but at that, one day something will fail, possibly a relatively simple component, that will put it out of action - perhaps a long way from home. You see so many bikes like that, lined up by the scrap bin at the council tip.

When I bought my first bike, a Raleigh from Halfords for the princely sum of about £130, it came with a lifetime warranty on the frame. Truth be told, the frame is the only original bit that’s aged remotely well, but it’s as solid as ever. As for the components, well, a lot of them got changed over the years. I was seduced by upgrading to 7 speed, and the Shimano 'mega-range' freewheel. The bars rusted so I replaced them, and got some bar ends while I was at it (they were still socially acceptable back then). I changed the pedals, seat post and saddle (my glow-in-the-dark, 'this will preserve your ability to have kids' scaremongering seat has not aged well, I'll admit).

When I took the 'Yellow Peril' to our local bike shop for the headset and bottom bracket bearings to be done, thinking I would rebuild it, the chap convinced me that for what I wanted to do with it (touring with children) I was best off buying a new bike. And I did; it was the right choice in the circumstances - but a good proportion of the components of that old bike have now made it out of the plastic tub in the basement and back onto the girls' trailer bikes, with others now earmarked for the tandem.

This being so, I'm going to take the Tandem (which we really must name now) not only as a foray into a strange new world of not being able to buy so much as a brake cable in Halfords in an emergency, but also a step back. I'm going to see how much I can do to the bike using, as far as possible, only things I already have in the house; see how far that takes it, see how much we love riding it, and then we can think about an investment strategy. Watch this space!

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