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Ask the Blargosphere

June 1, 2009

HERE WE HAVE a reverse advice column, where instead of readers writing in for answers to all of their lives problems, we’re going to try something completely different. I will ask you for advice. This one and only installment of Ask the Blargosphere will deal with bicycle commuting.

Dear Blargosphere,

Summer is a short lived affair here in Maine, but there are a few months when the weather is warm enough to cycle to work. And with gasoline prices and my waistline being what they are, I plan on cycling, at least over the summer. I am looking at just under a 9 mile ride each way over non-flat terrain. (You know, a lot of ups and downs, strikes and gutters.)

Anyway, here is the dilemma: I don’t have a bike set up for commuting. And I don’t have $500 to purchase a new one. I could spend $150 or so to pick one up second hand, but have been having a difficult time finding the right bike that’s my size. I do have a couple of bikes though, that I could put the $150 (the less the better) into to modify one to commute on. This is where I could use some advice.

The bikes (don’t laugh!):

Motobecane Nomade road bike, circa 1985.

Pros: faster tires, geared better for road riding, light weight, awesome retro styling.
Cons: needs new tires, handlebars too narrow for comfort (I have wide shoulders,) have to take hands off bars to operate old style shifters, dust and grime from 16 years of storage, and let’s just say you have to plan ahead if you want to use the brakes to stop. Also, despite awesome retro styling, the pedals look dorky.


Trek 820 mountain bike, circa 1996.

Pros: more comfortable handle bar configuration, twist-type shifters on the grips, superior brakes, is newer/needs less tune-up work to be roadworthy.
Cons: gearing makes for arduous road cycling, heavy weight, aggressive off-road tires sluggish on-the-road.

OPTION 1: Outfit the road bike with straight handlebars, twist-style shifters, and maybe better brakes. Could all of this be done for $150, considering I will need new tires and a pretty comprehensive tune-up as well. This is the preferred option in my view. Is this something a novice could do at home, or is it something better left to the pros. Also, how to respond to bike shop mechanic elitism? Self deprecation? Snarkasm?

OPTION 2: Get smoother, less aggressive tires for the mountain bike. Can the gears also be replaced to get more high end? Can this be done within my budget? And will this leave me still with a bike too heavy and slow to commute comfortably?

OPTION 3: Frankenstein the two bikes together into one super bike. I know this could be done on a budget, and would probably have to be done at home. But I’d rather not, as having the spare bike around often comes in handy.

So tell me, Blargospheric Bike Commuters, what can a brother do to get rolling on the cheap? Any suggestions or advice will be much appreciated.

More pictures of the bikes under the cut…

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12 Comments
  1. June 2, 2009 10:56 AM

    My commute is about 9 miles one way. I use a road bike. Takes me about 40 minutes.

    I would suggest going with the road bike – it will be more comfortable, quicker, and require less effort on your part.

    Does your work have facilities/showers? That’s a big plus for commuting.

  2. el serracho permalink
    June 2, 2009 11:16 AM

    pretty much what agi said.

    your idea about putting a flat bar on the road bike is admirable but it may be difficult to find shifters and brake levers that are compatible with your current drive train. do the research first before some shop rat tells you to spend 500 bucks on new components.

  3. Montag permalink
    June 2, 2009 11:38 AM

    Agi: that’s pretty much the way i am leaning. i may just get new tires and have it tuned up, but it would be nicer to make it a little more comfortable. and no, we don’t have a shower at work. i’ll have to pack a change of clothes and freshen up in the restroom.

    el serracho: thanks. looks like i have some research to do. $500 for components is out of the question, otherwise i’d probably just spend the money on an inexpensive new bike. maybe something like this.

  4. el serracho permalink
    June 2, 2009 7:35 PM

    that cannondale is a nice rig for sure but, for me, i would think 9 miles is the outside range for a bike like that. the flat bars seem like a good idea because they seem more comfortable but in reality they put up in the wind (more drag) and change your position so you may have trouble getting a clean cadence. just food for thought, i love all bikes (except recumbents, damn you recumbents!).

    agi’s bike is very nice and it sounds like his commute is similar to yours, he’s a good guy to talk to.

  5. June 2, 2009 11:34 PM

    I’ve got broad shoulders, too, and I’m currently struggling with a bike similar to your option 1, a 1977 road bike with the same handle bars, wishing I had straight bars — despite el serracho’s advice that straight bars cause more wind resistance.

    Smooth shifting of gears is the more important thing for your commute, specially given the non-flat terrain. In my experience, road bikes are the smoothest. I also remember a cyclist friend telling me once that using a mountain bike for road travel is like running with combat boots strapped on your feet. In general, both bikes are designed for different purposes: the road bike for speedy travel on paved surfaces, and the mountain for riding in the woods and climbing over rocks and crap. So I’d look into doing whatever possible to make your road bike commute ready.

  6. June 3, 2009 8:16 AM

    yeah the mountain bike is right out. i did 14 miles on it the other day and struggled to keep up with my dad and he was only on a hybrid/cruiser style bike.

    el serracho: the desire for a flat handlebar is all about the wide shoulders. the bars on that bike now are so narrow it gets very uncomfortable after a few minutes of riding. like doing push ups with your hands too close together. maybe the solution is to find a wider set of drop handlebars.

    Adam: i agree about smooth gear shifting, and fear this will be the biggest challenge. to find some kind of handle bar shifter that will be compatible with the drive train. again the twist shift on the grips of the mountain bike is ideal. it’s hard to know what i’m looking at online. i’ll probably have to bite the bullet and have someone at the bike shop take a look.

    what do you have for a bike, Agi?

  7. June 3, 2009 11:14 AM

    Montag: I like the current placement of your shifters on the road bike, actually. My shifters are a couple of levers in the center of the handle bars, and my knees bump against them at least once during a 9-10 mile commute. Your shifters ae more out of the way… Having the new style of shifters, like you see on your mountain bike, is nice but, in my view, not necessary. I’m never switching gears enough to justify needing quick access to the shifters. Indeed, as you get used to your daily commute, you’ll know exactly when to shift a mile beforehand.

  8. June 3, 2009 1:46 PM

    by way of an update: at lunchtime i dropped the road bike off at the shop. for a tune up and a new saddle. nothing else yet. going to get it rolling and evaluate the handlebar/gear shifter situation after i put some miles on it. it’s going to be $35 of labor for the tune up and the saddle is around $30, so even if i need to turn around and put tires on it in a couple of weeks i’ll still come in well under budget.

  9. June 3, 2009 2:33 PM

    Hi,
    I’ve been commuting by bike for about 10 years, through college, work, etc. I ride everyday about 12 miles. So, credentials out of the way, some advice.

    If your bike has the holes necessary for a rack and panniers (saddlebags) on the back, I’d strongly suggest you go for that to carry your things. You can get set up for relatively modest price and it will save you an immense amount of discomfort from the sweat on your back with a bag across it.

    Get a dry fit shirt if you can and a pair of shorts. Biking in cotton really, really, really sucks. Whick away clothes will make you much less disgusting at work.

    Clean up with soap and water, take baby wipes or alcohol wipes and do a quick rub down when you get into work. Alcohol kills bacteria, which causes stink.

    I would also suggest that you forget about the flat bars, you can get used to the road bike and having different places to put your hands helps keep you comfortable. If you have any pain at all in your knees or back, that means your are not fitted right on the bike. Consult the web search engine to get help fit yourself. It does not mean you have weak joints and should quit. :)

    Learn your hand signals if you don’t know them. Learn the law for cyclists on the road. Watch for glass, learn how to remove the tire and patch a tube (you’ll need patches and a tire lever). Carry a spare tube at all times. I’d suggest getting a liner for the tire that will eliminate 90% of your flats for about $5. Get a small hand pump and attach to the bike, mine is fixed up with zip ties to the rack, stay away from the NO2 air cannisters. If there are cars parked on the side of the street, stay at least 4 feet away from them so no one opens a door on you, if you buzz those cars because you are worried about traffic on the other side then it is only a matter of time before you have a horrific accident.

    Don’t think like a car, I spent a year in LA and rarely dealt with traffic at all because I stuck to side streets and found routes that would never work in a car. Dont get worked up when someone in a car honks or yells at you for being on the road, they are ignorant of the law. Numerous studies have demonstrated that is far more dangerous for you on the sidewalks than the road, keep that in mind.

    Be prepared for other cyclists to want to race, come at you head on in the wrong lane, and generally act as idiotic as people in cars. Most cars dont use turn signals, but you can develop a feel for what they are doing. Pedestrians dont see bikes for some reason and will step out in front of you in the middle of an intersection.

    There is probably more, but most importantly, have fun. Hopefully what was the worst part of the day, sitting in your car, will shortly become the best.

  10. June 3, 2009 3:07 PM

    I would say go with the MTB – you can swap out the tires and put on slicks if you wish, which will net you less resistance on the road. the parts are also newer so they will last you longer and may be easier to replace (in that they’re easier to find at a shop) if they break or wear. there also looks to be more room for fenders and bosses for rack mounts on the MTB which might also be a plus.

    • June 4, 2009 11:14 AM

      thanks, all, for the guidance. i will post a follow-up on how the commuting goes when i get my bike back.

      mr. fun: i hope i don’t regret going with the older obsolete bike. but if i can just get another year or two out of it, either the economy will improve so i can afford a new bike, or the economy will fail and the infrastructure will collapse, in which case the MTB will be at the ready to negotiate crumbling roads.

      Justin: thanks for the tips. some stuff i hadn’t thought of in there that i will now keep in mind.

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