Project Bikes Anonymous

For every crazy cat lady, there must be dozens of women who are (as the bumper sticker says), “One bad relationship away from having 30 cats.”

There is a bike equivalent to this phenomenon: Guys (as long as we’re indulging stereotypes) who can’t stop collecting stray bikes. In my town, that guy is Elson Miles, who’s compulsion is thinly disguised as a used bike shop called BiciMundo.

Several things keep me from becoming a full-on “crazy bike man.” First is my deficit in skill as a bike mechanic. Secondly, the fact that I recognize my skill deficit means I’m probably not quite crazy enough. Finally, I’ll never get around to fixing up more bikes than my family and I actually need.

Still, neglected and abandoned bikes cry out to me as compellingly as big-eyed sad kittens do to a cat lady. Although I test and review new bikes from time to time, my heart belongs to junkers.

Last weekend I snapped this photo of a bike I’ve been watching rust and rot for several years.

Univega Safari
Hoarder bait: a Univega Safari neglected and/or abandoned.

I posted the photo and this message to our Facebook page:

I didn’t and I won’t steal this bike. But why do I want to?

Why am I rationalizing that I could and should, save this bike from years of neglect and disuse, and nobody would care, and telling myself that a year from now this bike will still be here, unlocked, and leaning against this same shed?

Who else has this problem? Is there a support group?

Within minutes the first comment came in, which I deleted, but it was something like this:

cuz ur a clepto. u need help.

It was pretty clear what I said. He was not wrong to take it the way he did. But I didn’t mean it that way. I don’t want to steal this bike — a Univega Safari. But the suggestion of kleptomania prompted me to reflect on my compulsion. I realize that what bothers me about cast-off bikes that they represent waste on so many levels.

The wasted object — the bike — really is just a small part of the tragedy. I see wasted objects with potential usefulness all the time, but they don’t stir inside of me the same impulse as when it’s a bike. For example: this surplus military helicopter in a man’s yard on the outskirts of town.

Flagstaff Bomb Guy
Doesn’t do it for me. I’m content to see this languish. Click for just a little more info about the helicopter.

It’s the wasted potential that gets to me. It’s the likelihood that the intended user of the bike is using a motor vehicle; wasting gas on short trips while a lonely bike wastes away. It’s the wasted opportunity to get a little exercise. It’s wasted resolve, because someone at least had the good intention to start riding a bike, but faltered.

This is presumptuous of me — judgmental even. Every neglected bike has a story. And not all of those stories involve a lazy lard-ass who is lacking in determination other than the determination to be sedentary and eat himself to death. (But some of these stories certainly do involve such people.)

In its simplest form, the complex emotion that rushes through me can be expressed in three words. When I see an abandoned bike, I think:

Somebody needs that.

As I said, my impulse to redeem bikes is kept in check. But I have three project bikes going at the moment. I’m hoping that going public with these bikes will mean I actually follow through with these projects.

Let me introduce you:

Murray Monterey (1970-ish)

This bike belonged to my grandfather. (I wrote about him on Father’s Day.) It’s my most recent acquisition, and quickly moved to first priority among my project bikes. It’s my only project bike I’m 100% committed to keeping.

Murray Monterey
Nice bike, Gramps! A Murray Monterey

Yes, there are cruiser bikes that have more collector value, and certainly ones that weigh less than this steel beast — I’m not sure those tubes are hollow. But this bike belonged to my grandfather who walked or biked nearly everyday into his ’90s.

He fell off this bike when he was about 92 and broke his back. He never fully recovered. On one hand, this bike is associated with that injury. On the other hand, a less active person might not have lived long enough to break his back at the age of 92. I give this bike partial credit for keeping my beloved grandfather with us for nearly 100 years.

My plans for this are to restore it, and keep it classy. I won’t over-accessorize it. A stylistically complementary bike headlight. A retro-looking rear rack. That’s about it. No BionX electric assist. No longtail cargo bike kit.

The first step is to find a new set of whitewall tires.

This will be the “extra” bike; the guest bike; the conversation bike.

Diamondback Sorrento

This is my stepson’s bike. He’s only used it once or twice, but I keep hoping.

I’ve fixed it up so that it’s usable, and have promised to put time and energy into the bike in proportion to how much he uses it. So far that means knocking off the cobwebs from time to time.

Diamondback Sorrento Project Bike
Ready and Waiting: Diamondback Sorrento

He tells me he’d like some indexing shifters. The bike has friction shifters (integrated into the brake levers) and a six-speed rear cassette — kind of a rarity these days.

This creates a dilemma for someone who is determined to revive a bike. It’s not exactly a classic bike. And It holds no particular sentimental value. I figure I’ll hit my point of diminishing return once I’ve spent $50 on new parts. So either I hunt down the outmoded replacement parts, or I upgrade to a seven-speed cassette and shifters… and a new chain… and…

Well, it opens a can of worms fo
r a bike that’s probably not worth it.

Not worth it. It’s very difficult for me to say that about a bike.

Fortunately, Elson Miles will always take this bike off my hands if I decide to just get another project bike with fewer upgrade issues. Which is kind of like saying, If I don’t shoot this heroin, I know a more desperate junkie who will.

Schwinn Varsity

I picked this up for $10 at a bike swap event more than a year ago. Since then, the bike has been languishing in my garage and/or the shop — which I guess is better than it languishing outside, against a shed.

Some men over a certain age can’t shake their affection for Schwinn bikes. Particularly Schwinn bikes with fillet-brazed frames. Particularly men who were deprived of Schwinn bikes as children. I am one such man.

Deep down I believe, as I did in grade school, that all of my problems will be resolved if I can arrive to school on a Schwinn — and not on the socially inferior bike my parents inflicted on me at Christmas.

I know: Save it for the couch.

Schwinn Varsity in Ted's Garage
All I need is a time machine: Schwinn Varsity

My goal for this one is to commit all manner of Schwinn sacrilege. You can see I already have put a Velo Orange trekking handlebar on it.

I’m thinking 700c wheels, internal rear hub, dynamo front hub and light, bamboo fenders — a mishmash of modern components that will earn me hipster ridicule or admiration, I’m not sure which. But it will be on a goddamn Schwinn frame, at long last.

I want this to be my main warm-weather commuter.

The thing is, I have concerns about my standover height on this bike. Before I invest in the time and components, I need to get it minimally rideable to see how it fits me. This is potentially two project bikes in one. I’ll set this up as a one-speed with some inexpensive 27-inch tires and tubes. I already have cheap front brakes and a brake lever that I purchased together for 50 cents. (I paid $1. Keep the change.)

I’ll ride the bike around for a few days. If it passes the no-taint-touching test, I will begin the sacrilege. If not, it’ll become hipster bait on Craigslist, and my long Schwinn quest will continue.

So I ask again: Who else has this problem? Is there a support group?


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6 thoughts on “Project Bikes Anonymous”

  1. Matt BK says:

    You’re not the only one, and it’s for the same reason. If you want to feel powerless to change something, go visit a college campus and stand next to the bike racks outside a dorm. Loaded full of people’s plans to ride to class, or to the store, or to the bar, or whatever, left to languish.

  2. BSR says:

    Ahhh…a kindred spirit. I fully understand the need to “rescue” bikes — even ones nobody I know would ride. Being married, I have a live-in curb on my impulses. There is a strict one-in-one-out policy that I ignore at my peril.

    I have found a solution. You may not have one nearby, but if you can locate a bicycle co-op in your community, it may solve your problem. The one near me takes in hundreds of bikes each year. These are fixed up stripped down, sold, traded, and loved by a mostly volunteer staff. They have classes if you want to improve your skills. Volunteers can earn points for parts. So, if you have more time than money, you can earn your way to a bike by working there. If you just need some parts for your own bike it’s likely they have something that will work….far cheaper than any shop that sells only new stuff.

    And the magic (for me) is — it’s not in my garage and therefore my marital bliss is preserved. I can indulge my bike-saving impulses without turning my own space into a bike triage zone.

  3. Tom Bowden says:

    I run my own “no kill” bicycle shelter. Further expansion is on hold pending acquisition of more space.

  4. BluesCat says:

    Ah yes. Meet DutchGrl, my 1986 Batavus Course. The bike is actually ridable, and I take her down from the top of the rack and spin around the neighborhood every once in a while.

    One day, I’ll take her all apart, put a beautiful blue powdercoat finish on her, upgrade the saddle to a Brooks and the handlebars to a set of chrome Trekking bars like those your Varsity … get some riding knickers and take her on some Tweed Rides!

  5. Eric says:

    I’ve been commuting 21 miles per day total for 3 years on a 1972 Schwinn Varsity, running it stock. I don’t understand the desire to modify, but whatever. The Schwinn Steel Wheels are freaking indestructable! I used my Converse All Stars for extra braking power on the downhill when it rains. Bike is fun, easy to fix, and because there were a billion built, there are used parts to be found. I rode this bike on a metric century in 2009, hills are not a problem. Steel is Real!

  6. […] have a bad history with project bikes. I never complete them. What makes me think this will be […]

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