Practical Advice for Transportation Cycling

Sometimes, all that matters is getting from Point A to Point B as cheaply, safely and efficiently as possible. You don't need a fast bike, you don't need a pretty bike, and most of all you don't need an expensive bike, you just need one that works.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Cycling Broke: The Beater

I've been talking a lot about the different types of bikes on the market, but even the cheapest Mountain Bike in the bike shop is going to cost you a few hundred dollars. Sometimes, that's just too much money.

Maybe cash is too hard to come by, maybe you only need it for a little while, maybe you're locking it up in a location where anything worth more than a few bucks is pretty much certain to get stolen. Whatever the reason, you're looking to spend as little money as possible. Enter the Beater.

Image shamelessly ripped off from Beater Bicycle Works because it was just perfect
A Beater bike is a bike that is ugly, cheap and easy to maintain.  It's ugly because it gets beat on and abused, and also to make it unattractive to would-be bicycle thieves  It's cheap because it doesn't have to be expensive to get you where you're going, and if it does get stolen, it'll be easy to replace. It's low-maintenance because you really just want to ride the thing, not tinker with it.

The Beater, in short, is about as practical as a bike can possibly be.

While it may be cheap and ugly, the Beater shouldn't be a crappy bike. A poorly-made bike, or one that is too worn out to function properly is NOT a low-maintenance bike. When you throw a leg over your Beater you should know that you're going to get where you're going without having to worry about jammed gears or malfunctioning brakes. Department stores are full of Bike-Shaped-Objects that are entirely useless for daily transportation because the designers spent more money on flashy decals than on working parts. They're all Show and no Go. A good beater bike is the opposite of this, it's got no Show at all, but has plenty of Go.

Because of this, the best candidate is a decent bike that's past its prime. Old Mountain Bikes make great Beaters, as do 20-year-old hybrids, but probably the most common and most versatile style of bicycle is the old "Ten-Speed" road bike.

While nowadays "Ten Speed" refers to the number of cogs in the rear gear cluster, up until the 1980s it meant two chainrings up front and five cogs in the back. Regardless of manufacturer, these bikes had several common features,

  • 27x1 1/4" or 27x 1 3/8" tires
  • Two chainrings up front
  • Five or six cogs in the back
  • Friction shifters located on the handlebar stem (higher-end models had the shifters mounted on the frame, but stem shifters were the most common)
  • Centerpull or sidepull caliper brakes
  • Drop handlebars
  • Steel frame. 
Probably the greatest example of the "Ten Speed" was the Schwinn Varsity. There were lighter, faster and better-made bikes out there, but Varsities were EVERYWHERE from the 1960s to the 1980s, and, since they were made to be more-or-less indestructible, are incredibly easy to find today. 

These types of bikes offer a number of advantages to those looking for a cheap, reliable way to get around, 
  • mechanically simple, thus easy to maintain even for the non-mechanic
  • available cheap, often for less than $25 at yard sales, or free from the trash
  • easy to find parts for, either from bike shops or by finding one in the trash and scavenging what you need
  • easy to convert to other configurations, such as flat-bar, singlespeed or fixed-gear
  • tires roll faster than Mountain Bike tires, but are fat enough to dirt roads and gravel
Assuming everything is in good working order, you can just adjust the saddle height, pump up the tires and ride a lot of these bikes as-is with no worries, but if you're worried about that even looking too attractive to thieves, or if you just want to personalize your ride a bit, stickers and spray paint go a long way. 

Before and after pictures of  the bike my daughter rides to school, a mid-70s Varsity now known as the "Blue Zebra."
No matter what kind of bike you look to make into your beater, you should look to make sure it's mechanically sound. If the shifting doesn't work, you can always strip much of the system off or lock the derailleurs in place to make it a singlespeed,, so unless you've got a lot of hills to deal with, the  shifters are the least important thing. But if you need new tires, brakes or wheels the cost of replacing parts can quickly add up (unless, of course, you can scrounge parts off another old bike), and if the bearings are bad, it can require some mechanical know-how to get everything in working order. Finally, you should be wary of oddball threading or proprietary parts found on some older bikes (for example, some Raleighs made in Nottingham, England, or Schwinns made in Chicago),  that can make finding replacements difficult or expensive if there's something out of whack (I still have a Raleigh folding bike in the back of my shed that's in perfect working order except for the bottom bracket assembly, parts for which have not been easily available for more than 30 years). 

Perhaps the best thing about finding an old bike to use as a Beater is the fact that if you look in your own basement or your parents' garage, you may already have one. Chances are, there's a bike just sitting there languishing, with its tires soft and its brake pads calcified from disuse. A few minutes with the pump will perk up those tires and a bit of sandpaper will restore the grip to those brakes, and you'll be giving new purpose to a long-forgotten machine. 


  1. And if you don't have one in your basement, there's a better-than-even chance one of your neighbors or friends does.

    1. Yup, and if it's been sitting long enough, they'll often be happy to let you have it just so they can use the storage space for something else.