I Spent $800 Fixing Up a Very Mediocre Bicycle and Couldn’t Be Happier
The case for modifying a cheap commuter bike instead of buying the newest, fanciest ride
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I’m notorious for getting caught up in the latest, greatest gear. When it comes to hobbies, sports, and outdoor adventures, it’s easy to focus on performance. But my latest acquisition has been a powerful lesson that sometimes, experience might matter more.
Behold: the Diamondback Topanga. It hails from the early 1990s, when it would have been one of the cheaper mountain bikes you could find in an actual bike shop. Think of it as a bit of an upgrade from the Huffy you’d buy at K-Mart, but an awful long ways from the kind of ride you’d see featured in this magazine 30 years later.
It came to me through Alter Cycles, a local bike shop operating out of a garage where I live in Bozeman, Montana. I was drinking coffee with Mason, one of the mechanics one morning, when she reminded me I’d been talking about getting a new townie. I asked her to build one for me, and a few hours later she texted me a picture of the Topanga frame, wearing some distinctly rusty parts.
I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with bicycles throughout my adult life. I got into road bikes when I lived in Brooklyn back in the 2000s, and rode every single day that I lived there. My bike habit lasted about three months into my move to Los Angeles, where the speed of traffic and awful road conditions resulted in enough close calls that I gave up riding. I flirted with mountain bikes for the next few years, but the need to sit in traffic for hours just to get to a trail always got in the way. I keep meaning to get back into bikes now that I live in Montana, but my excuses are plentiful: my dogs need exercise, too, the riding season is short (it’s six below zero as a write this, in November), and all the travel, hunting, fishing, floating, and backpacking keep taking priority.
For Christmas last year, I bought my wife one of Adam Sklar’s new production frames, the Super Something. She and Adam turned it into a Dutch-style commuter, and she’s been buzzing around town on it ever since. I promised to start riding with her, and here we are.
While the bare Diamondback frame was in reasonable condition, the rest of the bike was not. I asked Mason to lace a fresh set of wheels, put gravel tires on them, refresh the brakes, and install a new 1×11 drivetrain, along with a new bottom bracket. She also pulled the rest apart, scrubbed it clean, applied new grease, and replaced minor parts where necessary. The total bill was $800. That’s about the same price a Topanga would have gone for in 1993, so considering inflation, this new-to-me one is actually a fair bit cheaper.
What has that money netted me? My wife and I have been riding to the grocery store together, to figure out our nightly meals. We ride downtown to meet friends, and to Roly Poly for coffee. That’s more time together, doing active stuff, more easily. It means the Land Cruiser stays in the garage a little more often, and burns off the calories gained by going to a restaurant for date night.
And the bike itself actually turned out really sweet. The wide, upright handlebars make the riding position far more comfortable than any of my old road bikes, and the mild gear ratios make pedaling up the long hill from Main Street to our house a breeze. The brakes aren’t discs, but I’m not going fast. And the whole thing feels like it weighs something south of 20 pounds.
Am I going to crush times on Strava or pull ahead of a college kid on a hill climb? Obviously not. Is it the fanciest bike in the rack outside the coffee shop? It’s a long ways from it, especially when I park next to my wife. But this crappy old frame from the early 1990s has brought the simple joy of riding a bicycle back into my life. And that’s exactly the experience I’ve been missing.