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You've all seen that guy, riding around town on his spiffy mountain bike, in full sport bike lycra zoot, maybe a "hydration system", with a grim expression on his face, gritting it though his neck and wrist pain as his taint goes uncomfortably numb. I was that guy, once. This article is here to help you not be that guy.

Now, you could just buy yourself a ready-to-roll upright city bike with all the practical trimmings. In fact, I did, with last year's stimulus check. Even in this year's focacta economy, I'd argue that buying such a bike is an ultimately sensible and even frugal thing to do. That argument is well-practiced at my house. Bikes can be good cheap date fun, and cost less than driving. But there's also a lot of fun to be had in repurposing an old mountain bike with "good bones" that you or Craigslist may have lying around. I did that too. Here's how ...

Entombed in dust and caked-on mud, under my old house, lay an early '90s Marin Pine Mountain unsuspended mountain bike. From the good old days, before bike marketers latched onto suspension as a selling point. I'd ridden it a lot for its intended purpose, on its namesake trails, when I lived in San Francisco, but in Seattle, not so much. Wet roots. Not fun. Plus, I became a dad (squared, now), and found myself without much time for "biking as sport". Not that I miss it, honestly. Everyday cycling has its own rewards.

Inspired by the balloon bikes I was hearing about, and the Retrovelo line in particular, I decided to give this old neglected ride an extreme bike makeover, hoping for a light and zippy yet upright and practical around-town ride for me and my wife. I'm so happy with the result, and am posting this to guide and inspire anyone else looking for a practical bike on a budget.

This bike had a low standover height, which turned out to be great for me and also my wife (who's 5'1" "and 3/4"). A mixte "not-just-for-the-ladies-anymore" frame would also have worked. But it also had the typically long reach to low flat handlebars geometry that works on the mountain, but is silly on the street. Riding more upright and back on the bike may cost you some wind resistance, but your visibility and comfort improves, as does your general outlook on life. It's strolling versus speedwalking. We have a healthy disdain for speedwalking in this country, so why do we tolerate all the lycra on sport bikes around town?

Obvious and not-so-obvious inspirations were Retrovelo, Rivendell and Velo Orange, as well as various online cool bikes, with a healthy dose of Dutch and Danish bike blogs. My local treasure trove of hard-to-find parts was ABR, and Dutch Bike Seattle was generous with knowledge and test rides. The Clever Cycles blog and Flickr stream, and comment threads therein, are essential reading if you like this kind of bike. I was able to do all of the work myself, but I do have a former bike wrench for a brother-in-law. Raising and swapping the stem/bars can get a bit technical, especially if you need longer cables as a result. But totally doable. Here's an annotated guide to the parts that worked out well for us ...

Civilize Your Mountain Bike! Click to enlarge ...

  1. Schwalbe Fat Frank tires. 2.35 inches of creamy deliciousness. If you run lower pressures in these, it adds considerable suspension to your bike, and on real-world pavement, it's been argued that these are more efficient than hard skinny tires. They're certainly more comfortable, fun, and stylish, to me at least. Bring on the potholes! And yes, they're plenty fast.
  2. SKS P65 Fenders. I looked high and low for metal fenders, as the thermoplastic ones can get brittle with age, but fitting fenders on these tires was a challenge. But the widest SKS fenders fit. Barely. 
  3. Brooks B67s Saddle, in Honey. Good tires and a good saddle make a huge difference in your ride. This double-sprung saddle is a fantastic upgrade on any upright bike, where more of your weight is on your ischial tuberosities (hiney). Leather saddles do need some care, but end up fitting you perfectly, and don't leave you as schweaty back there as a plastic saddle would. Brooks saddles are going up in price, but I found mine on eBay, and VO has some Brooks-esque saddles out now too. Tip the saddle back at a jaunty angle (somewhat less jaunty than the photo though, since the whole bike is tipped back on the stand here).
  4. Dimension City Handlebars and Pyramid Stem Extension. Sit up and ride! Depending on your bike's original setup (threaded vs threadless, etc), you may need a different way to move your bars up and closer, and there are other excellent handlebars out there. "North Road" style bars are actually my favorite, but my Dutch bike has those. Nitto Albatross bars in the more upright position are popular as well. Try to get test rides on these, as finding a comfortable hand/wrist position is really important. But it's not hard to do better than a flat MTB-style bar. 
  5. Cork grips. Comfy and stylish. 3 coats of amber shellac take them over the top. Tips on glueing the grips and quickie shellac treatments here.
  6. Brompton seatpost adapter. Taking the handlebars up and back is important, but you also want to move your seat further back to get a more comfortable and efficient upright riding position. This adapter is a bit kludgey, but is cheaper than most "layback" seat posts. Adapter idea and general geometry inspiration courtesy of Todd at Clever Cycles - his article on Dutchness is a good place to start.
  7. Grip King pedals. Ditch the clipless pedals for platforms, so you can ride comfortably in any shoe, even flipflops. I love love love these pedals. A nice grippy, big platform, and so shiny!
  8. Pletscher Double Kickstand. Ingenious double kickstand that folds up to one side. I like double kickstands, as they make the bike more stable when loading groceries. Or kids. And you can do simple bike adjustments with the kickstand down. But I need to cut mine down a bit.
  9. Bobike Mini. One of my favorite front child seats.
  10. Velo Orange bag. I do like waxed canvas and leather. But if I get any more VO/Rivbike I may need an intervention (I have been heard around the house threatening to dress exclusively in wool, head to toe. But no seersucker. Yet.). Funny story - my Dad was premed until, in a college chemistry class on the Table of the Elements, he asked "But what about wood, leather, and cloth?". He wound up teaching Greek and Latin.
  11. Rear rack with Dutch Elastic Straps. The rack here is nothing special, but the elastic straps make it useful. No more futzing with bungee cords to stick your jacket or some lunch back there. Clever Cycles and Dutch Bike Seattle/Chicago stock them.
  12. Lights, locks, bell, etc ... I'll leave those up to you. Don't neglect to lock your seat and both wheels with this sexy setup. I'd love to add a ring lock, but I don't think it'd fit the Fat Franks.

What's missing? Well, going to an internal gear hub would simplify things and let me add a chainguard or full chaincase, but I can live without that for now. And something tells me this bike has a future as an xtracycle, but I'm not in any rush. Right now, it's pure zippy fun, and all for about $350-400, not including the child seat. So don't be that guy ...

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Reader Comments (21)

Beautiful. Simply beautiful.

February 14, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTravis A. Wittwer

you might also like this balloon bike

February 15, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjohn

and how! dutch bike seattle carried these for awhile, and that bike was a looker.

February 15, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

That is some bike! Absolutely beautiful and looks just as good as the Retrovelo. I'm impressed that you put all this together at that price. Thanks for sharing! Definitely has got me thinking about my next bike.

February 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDottie

Lovely bike.

Also, re metal guards, my fietsfabriek has big apples of a similar size. I don't what they did it on that, but I heard a rumour that the bike uses 28" mudguards. If you can live without the perfect arc, that might do the job if your stays can accomodate it. Or you can be sensible and live with plastic. I like SKS guards.

Thanks for the inspiration. I have a Kona Kileaua that may get a similar makeover.

February 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMekon

I would like to mention that Al-Wallymart offers a nearly complete bike with many of the aforementioned modifications already built in. The Mongoose Paver has swept back handlebars, big comfy tires, rear rack. The only thing it lacks are decent pedals, fenders and lights.

February 16, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteranon d'florida

Nice work. I especially like the brompton extension. I've been thinking about hacking something like that together out of a couple old seatposts (Val has this going on), but the brompton thing might be a better way to go.

Take care!

February 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTim K

Thanks for all the tips! I'm attempting to fix up an old mountain bike to at least rideable status, but I lurve what you've done with this one!

February 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarrie

If your SKSes ever die, you can find metal fenders for balloon tires from good old Wald:

I did a similar makeover on an old tandem:

The fenders are plenty big and wide to accommodate the Fat Franks.

February 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

Cool, I just ran into your site searching for top tube child carrier for a co-worker. I saw this bike and thought, hey, that looks like my Marin. Sure enough, it is precisely the same bike! I have also done upright handlebars, Brooks saddle, Esge two-legged kickstand, rack, fenders, fat tires (not quite that fat) and ride it as my winter bike or as a beater utility bike in the summer. It's actually a pretty nice machine. I'll have to read on about your other stuff.

March 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

Great post! I stumbled upon your site via Adam Alpern (of Zugster Bag)'s Google Reader feed. I've been loving those balloon tires for a while now, and am wondering about their efficiency. The bike looks all around comfortable too. Definitely inspiration for building one up instead of dropping way too much money on a Retrovelo, Velorbis, etc.

April 10, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterFern

Your conversion is great! I started converting my 1988 Specialized Rockhopper Comp. like this about 6 years ago. Long stem, riser bars, fenders over balloon tires, racks, basket, permanent panniers, bell... I see this becoming more common now, but I joke that this set up took me 10 years of R&D : ) I love this bike (Baby) and although I thought my new bike was being purchased to replace her, no way.

April 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAdrienne Johnson

@Matt - Cool, my bike has a doppleganger ... pictures?

@Adrienne - I was taking a gander at Baby just the other day, wondering who had a higher stem. Lovely! I like your Bikey SF Moms photo-set. Go mamafietsen/Mamachari power! Get some Kidical Mass rides going this summer ...

April 16, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

nice looking bike with the fat frank tires. i was thinking of putting some of these tires on my old GT mtb. im trying to figure out if i will have enough room with my bike frame for the back tire. could you tell me about how wide in inches your tires are when inflated? do you have some close up pics that show what the tire and bike frame clearance looks like? also, what size rims do you have with model and make? thanks a ton.

May 1, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermac

Sweet bike.

May 15, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterspiderleggreen

A nice bike, must be very efficient for what it is. however being 18 years old, if i was seen on a bike like that i would probably have chavs beating 10 tonnes of **** out of me :D ( as i live in england, plymouth)

at the moment i have an 'uncommon' (citation needed) emmelle cougar (fully restored) with road skyline rims & wheels. with a gel comfort seat. in my personnal opinion the emmelle cougar is the most efficient and fastest bike i have ever ridden in my life. and its only 18 speed!

and may i say thankyou very much for tip number 6, it has really helped me to achieve a higher speed going down pemros road, you know them displays which tell you how fast you are going? im upto 37mph but i cant get any faster than that physically impossible! :D

June 26, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterkieren

Love It!

And I thought I was the first person to have the idea of converting my old clunker 80's bike to a dutchie... I'm still thinking about keeping my drop bars, though.

September 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterThe Opoponax

just as i thought, your tips on how to avoid that kind of problem makes my bike really comfortable to used and it really helps me a lot when i am biking around the town.

November 17, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermens mountain bike

Can I ask about some geometry questions? I have a early 90's TREK mountain bike and was thinking of putting Fat Franks on them. Can you tell me the diameter of fat franks on the wheel and the length of your chainstay and the width between them? Thanks very much.

November 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterYR

I hadn't seen this and I really like how your bike came out. The shellac is probably better than the Sno Proof boot wax I used on the grips and your whole bike has a new, finished look I didn't quite achieve (yet). I'm not sure the laid back seat angle helps while riding up a hill but it is more comfortable on the flat and it was clever to use the Brompton part. Nice job!

May 5, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterchicargo

Thanks! I got more than a bit annoyed at the "amsterdamized/copenhagenize tweet, arsey comments follow" dynamic over on your post. The chic euro anti-helmet folks need to tone it down a bit, as they're starting to act more than a bit like Forester and his VC acolytes. FFS.

May 5, 2011 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

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