May 6, 2019

Vintage Bikes

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There are many reasons why vintage bicycles are superior to the modern day mass-produced, low-priced bicycles that you can find at your local bike shop.  I won’t even bother to discuss bikes built for department stores – those are landfill bikes that are utterly worthless and designed to be thrown away.  Don’t buy them, ever.

But why ride vintage when you can buy a reasonably priced bike at your LBS that is brand new? Well, here is my list of the most important reasons:

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Build quality:  By this, I mean the quality of the frame and the components.  Vintage steel bicycles were mostly hand-crafted by experienced artisans.  Many builders also crafted or modified their own components.  Lugs were carefully filed and brazed, and care was taken at every stage of production to ensure a long-lasting frame.  Many of the vintage frames I see have no damage whatsoever, some over 8 decades old.  That’s far more life than you will see in today’s frames, where fork recall, aluminum fatigue, and carbon fiber failures are routine.  Today’s production bikes are simply not built to last a lifetime, at all. If you want a bike to treasure and pass on to future generations, don’t buy a production bike – either order custom or, for far less money, buy a vintage bicycle.

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Ease of repairs and component integration:  Before Shimano’s domination gutted and destroyed virtually all other component makers, built-in obsolescence was unheard of in the cycling industry.  Deliberately designing components that could not be repaired, but only replaced, and designing them to ONLY work with that manufacturer’s other components spelled the death knell for low cost and easy bicycle maintenance.  Brifters are a good example of this.  They only work with the component maker’s indexing system, and if your bike tips over and the Brifters hit the ground, they will easily break (they are made from plastic), and a new set will cost you another $300 or so.  They cannot be repaired, so touring cyclists generally get rid of them in favor of reliable downtube and bar-end shifters, which can almost always be repaired on the roadside, and do not break when your bike experiences a mishap.  An added plus of getting rid of your Brifters is being able to use appropriately sized and comfortable brake lever hoods.

Pretty much all vintage components are repairable with simple parts that you can make yourself if you don’t have spares handy.  They are also easily understood, and learning basic bike maintenance is much easier for owners of vintage bicycles.

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Proper sizing for smaller riders:  In the 1930’s and 40’s, at the height of French cyclo-touring, frame builders took great care to ensure that both their male and female riders had frames and wheel sizes appropriate to their height and body build.  You can find many examples of well designed smaller frames that have NO toe overlap and can be easily stood over by using the appropriately sized smaller wheels and shorter cranksets.  Today, smaller riders will likely never find a bike from the LBS that fits properly and is comfortable to ride.  Virtually all bikes sold today come with 700c wheels and slack front geometry, meaning that the bike will also handle poorly at slow speeds.  A new rider will become discouraged, thinking they are not “tough enough” to endure their uncomfortable bicycle, and that they are incompetent riders because they feel unstable.  They don’t know that the problem lies with the bike and not the rider.

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Environmental Reasons:  For me, environmental reasons for not buying a new bike trump almost all the other reasons.  Department store bikes end up in landfills because their components are made to be thrown away, and so are the frames.  Each new bike manufactured adds roughly 530 lbs of deadly greenhouse gases to our atmosphere.  In 2015, 17.4 million NEW bicycles were manufactured and sold.  So, doing the math, that translates into 9.2 BILLION POUNDS of greenhouse gases spewing out into the environment in one year alone, all due to the consumer demand for new bicycles.  Don’t buy a new bike!  Fix up the one you have or buy vintage.

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Art and science, together in one beautiful machine:  Who can resist a beautifully made bicycle?  Anyone who loves art can appreciate a bicycle’s form and balance.  It is a machine, yet its form is so evocative that just seeing an image of a bicycle can transport you (pun intended) wherever you want to go.