Queer Eye for the Mountain Bike Guy
February 13, 2009
Julian / Totcycle in Front Seats, How To

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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