Sunday, October 9, 2011

A City Bike: To Build or to Buy

Recently, I posed a question asking whether the color of a bicycle plays a role in a decision to buy a bicycle. I am always genuinely curious what leads a person to select one bicycle over another, and I'm in a bit of a quandary myself at the present. I am presently city bike-less, and I don't like it. It's been a constant in my life for several years now, and not having one makes me feel as though something is missing.
*RAL color chart
In order to remedy the situation, I, of course, have started the hunt for a bike to fill the void. It seems that my criteria have shifted slightly from my very first upright bike, but much remains the same. This bike will primarily be used around town, for sub-10 mile round trip rides. For the most part, it will be used during daylight hours, and it needs to be able to carry a couple bags of groceries or anything I might be picking up around town. While these needs/requirements leave a wide open choice in bikes, I know that my visual preferences will certainly play a large role in the bike selection process.
Former Pashley Princess Sovereign
Something struck me the other day though, and I thought perhaps I should refurbish and build up a bike from the plethora of options of 60s-80s loop or mixte frame bikes. I got excited about the idea of being able to re-paint the frame a color that I'd love, put modern components on it including an internal hub, lighter wheels, and so on. I began to immediately imagine what this "vintage" bike could become. It was exciting, and in some ways, a very enticing prospect.
Former would-be Schwinn project - never quite became a project and was sold instead
Then, the practical side of me decided to become part of the conversation and I realized the costs and time involved with a project like this. First, I have to find the frame or bike, have the frame/fork painted, likely replace the wheels, tires and tubes. Then there are other pieces, such as replacing a rusty chain, perhaps having to find a new crank, switching out a derailleur for an internal hub, and so the list grows. When I sat down and added it up, potentially, I could be looking at a cost between $600-800. Really? Holy cow, that's a lot of money to re-make an old bicycle! It could be done slightly cheaper, but I also know what happens with these projects and whatever amount you think it will be, you have to add 10-25% for those unexpected costs.
*Image from Abici
I began to think of the number of bicycles on the market that are sub-$800, and realized there are so many choices out there. No, I'm not going to find a Dutch bicycle, the Abici Granturismo is off the list, and the Velorbis Scrap Deluxe is certainly not falling into this self-imposed price range, but there are definitely options out there. Linus bikes come to mind, of course Public, and there are others that certainly easily fall onto this list.

There are pros and cons to both sides of this coin. Building up a bike myself allows me to completely decide what will be on the bike. I can obsess and be nit-picky about every little detail. Of course, this freedom of choice comes at a cost. Sometimes my picks aren't the best for a specific bike and I end up having to sell parts and re-purchase, or sometimes the fit isn't quite right. I can't change what an older frame is, after all, so if I end up not liking the ride, there are a limited number of things I can do to change that. There's also the time involved with building a bike up. It could be completed within a couple of months, but the reality is that I am more likely looking at a 6-9 month project. Do I want to wait that long for a city bike?
Rebuilt bicycle purchased in 2001 - a $25 find!
When buying a bike already built, there is the option to walk away without purchasing when the fit isn't right, doesn't feel good, and the like, whereas I don't necessarily know what the fit will be if I find just a frame/fork from a vintage bike. There's no wait time with a whole bike purchase. I can virtually buy the bike, get it home, and start riding. It also means that I don't have the same choice with color options (though it can still be repainted), or components, etc.

Deciding how important each of these factors are will certainly help to make the decision a bit easier, or sway me one direction or another. There are also other options in-between the two, such as simply finding an older bike and just cleaning it up, rather than completely overhauling it, or finding a newer bike on e-Bay or Craigslist at a better price. If given the choice and having the technical know-how necessary, what would you do? Would you rather build from the ground up, reuse something that would likely be discarded, and make it whole, or would you prefer to keep your hands out of the process and purchase a bike ready to ride and make changes as you get to know the bike?


  1. When I first saw the title, I thought you were thinking of building a custom city bike! (Hey, ANT & Violet Crown Cycles makes them. You would probably have to wait a millennia to save up, BUT I would be able to live out my dream of a custom bike vicariously through your blog. Think about it).

    I've tried the build-up-vintage-bike twice and both times the the bikes ended up not fitting me. This has been more because I'm always learning and didn't know much about bike sizing at the time. Though I have to admit, getting a frame powder-coated is a lot of fun. I think the knowledge I've gained from rebuilding both bikes has been very valuable -- not to mention the bigger sense of pride/connection one gets from building up a bike.
    I think it ultimately comes down to bike fit, and what bike is going to fit you better, be it old or new. Personally I would avoid buying just a frame/fork unless it was a great deal & I had some spare parts to quickly build it up with & I had more knowledge about bike fit.

  2. Oh my! I would LOVE to have an ANT bike, but I think Sam might strangle me if I did something like that. At one point I seriously considered trying to get enough together to have him build one a few years ago, but you're right, it would take a bit of saving (and/or selling of something else) to get enough together. I do think it could be an incredibly interesting experience though. It would only be better if I could actually go there and annoy the poor guy to death. I've always wanted to watch someone build a frame (secretly, I want to be a welder - though I want to do lots of things), so I think it would be quite fascinating. I know there are local bike builders, but they just seem to have a different idea of what a city bike would/should be, probably because they mostly build road and mountain bikes around here.

    As you said, re-building a vintage bike can be a chore, and the fit can be off. Fortunately, we tend to have a lot of spare parts sitting around, and a pseudo-bike mechanic in the house, so the cost could be less of a burden, depending on what we found.

    I've had bikes in the past that were supposed to be project bikes, but I never seemed to find the time to get to them, or I wasn't willing to take them apart and not ride for the months it would take to get it all put back together again. I have toyed with the idea of working on a vintage project, and getting something else that would function as a city bike while the project was happening. Unfortunately, the ideas are never ending, while the money supply is limited. Maybe I need to start playing the lottery? :o)


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