Long Live Old Bikes | Outside Online

As if we haven’t endured enough in the past year, we’re currently living through what will heretofore be known as The Great Bicycle Shortage of 2021, which means complete bicycles, as well as parts, have been hard to come by. Tumbleweeds are a-blowin’ down the aisles of your local bike shop. Desperate mountain bikers have resorted to using pancake batter as tire sealant. Anguished roadies longing to ride outside are dragging Pelotons into the streets.

OK, not quite. We’re still getting bikes and components. It’s just that supply is lagging behind demand. So, depending on what you’re after, the current supply disruption means that new upgrade you’ve been waiting for could be backordered for quite a while.

But is that really such a bad thing? New bike stuff is only new for an instant, and while it may be thrilling to throw a leg over the latest in cutting-edge technology, it’s only a matter of time before the novelty and excitement wears off. Meanwhile, the bicycle itself has been around for like a century and a half, which means this lack of new stuff could be the perfect excuse to explore the fascinating, enlightening, and at times highly pretentious world of owning and riding vintage bikes.

Of course, to truly appreciate old bikes, you do have to adjust your expectations.

If you’re delving into old bikes for the first time, you may be surprised that much of what is “new” in cycling isn’t really new at all. Take the whole gravel thing, for instance. Believe it or not, people have been riding bicycles on irregular surfaces for a really long time, and in fact the macadam roads that allowed cycling to flourish in the late 19th century would set a gravel grinder’s heart aflutter today. More recently, the pre-suspension mountain bikes of the 1980s were in many ways the forebears of today’s gravel and bikepacking rigs: these versatile machines often had clearance for wide tires, braze-ons for racks, and sporty yet stable geometry. Bikes like the 1987 Bridgestone MB-1 and the 1989 Specialized RockCombo even came stock with the flared drops that are now de rigeur on modern gravel bikes.

What’s more, as with any cycling trend, lots of people bought those super-cool mountain bikes and then never rode them, which means that to this day there are well-preserved specimens in garages all across America, making their way onto Craigslist and eBay as I type this. These bikes have tremendous potential. Thanks to the popularity of gravel, putting drop bars on a vintage mountain bike is a well-trod path, but older mountain bikes are also great candidates for commuter bikes, winter bikes, basket bikes—or, you know, just using as mountain bikes. That’s what they were designed for, and while technology has changed, the laws of physics haven’t. Those 26-inch wheels are still round, after all.

If pavement is more your thing, the world of vintage road bikes holds even more potential. While mountain bikes came of age in the 1980s, road bikes have been a thing, like, forever, and besides having to futz with toe clips and reach down to shift, there’s little about even a 70-year-old road bike that would hold back or confuse today’s Lycra-clad cyclists. There are decades upon decades’ worth of old road bikes out there, from lugged steel artifacts to Day-Glo Armstrong-era aluminum models, and for a fraction of the price of that backordered Shimano Di2 group, you may be able to find yourself a real classic.  

Of course, to truly appreciate old bikes, you do have to adjust your expectations. Will the cantilever brakes on that 1990 Stumpjumper offer you the effortless one-finger stopping power of today’s hydraulic systems? No. But so what? You’re riding a vintage bike! Take a little time to appreciate the nuances of period-correct stoppers. Sure, some of those “nuances” may include squealing, grinding, and the occasional bout of fork judder, but if you want an antiseptic riding experience, you might as well skip bicycles altogether and go lease a Kia Telluride. Plus, once you understand how they work, you can eliminate most of those issues, and you’ll even find that when properly set up, those old brakes can work pretty damn well. Anyway, if you can’t appreciate the purposeful spread-eagle stance of a pair of vintage cantis, you may be dead inside. (Or, if you’re both dead inside and can’t be bothered to figure out how cantilever brakes work, just swap them out for V-brakes, which will easily and cheaply solve 95 percent of your problems.)

If you enjoy nothing more than shopping for bike stuff, the world of vintage bikes is the ultimate indulgence.

Indeed, it’s precisely the tactile character of older shifting and braking systems that makes them so engaging. Like working the clutch on a car, kick-starting a motorcycle, and dialing a rotary phone, it’s the sort of visceral action that puts you in thrilling touch with the machine you’re operating. (Well, OK, maybe not the rotary phone—those things were just stupid.) Similarly, while poking the Blip on your eTap may be effortlessly precise, it can never rival (SRAM pun intended) the sense of smug satisfaction that comes with properly operating a friction shifter, and while it may take a little practice, that’s part of the fun. I’m not saying cycling should be needlessly difficult, but I am saying that the process of attaining mastery is part of what makes it so enjoyable, and the “better” gear gets, the less opportunity we have to experience that. Keurigs are fine, but sometimes you want to brew the coffee yourself.

Best of all, riding old bikes doesn’t mean you have to forego the delights of wanton consumerism. If you enjoy nothing more than shopping for bike stuff, the world of vintage bikes is the ultimate indulgence. Classic bikes are ripe for both restoration and reinvention. Not only can you upgrade or modify your bike with other vintage parts, but plenty of companies, like Rivendell, Crust Bikes, Velo Orange, and Soma Fabrications, also offer new stuff that looks classic. In addition to frames, these companies sell components, bags, racks, and accessories that will breathe new life into old bikes. (You can comb eBay for some old Suntour bar-end shifters, or you can get some new ones from microSHIFT.) The mountain bikes of yesterday were not without their quirks—think narrow bars and squirmy knobbies—but some of them are just a cockpit swap and some René Herse tires away from all-day mixed-terrain bliss. 

Once you immerse yourself in the old stuff, you may find that the newest and latest no longer calls to you the way it once did.  You might even start to find it a little…boring. An old bike will take you back in time, while also giving you the thrill of bringing a little of the past back into the present.

Lead Photo: Viktor Solomin/Stocksy

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