Sunday, April 20, 2008

Why This Blog Exists (It's not about bikes, really)

I've been stewing about something for a couple of weeks, precipitated by a couple of things. First, a good thing: I needed my front wheel trued a while back, and my neighbor recommended Thomas Bike Shop in South Park. I found their address online and a few good reviews on Yelp, so one afternoon, I took the wheel off my bike and walked it down there, expecting to leave it, as I have had to do in the past at a different local bike shop. It was a pleasant walk through a nice neighborhood, and I like to walk as much as I like to ride, so it was no big deal. Plus, it gave me the afternoon off from work.

There were two folks in the shop when I arrived, and they immediately put my wheel on the truing stand and told me it would be about ten minutes. Well, ten minutes turned into about half an hour as we talked about everything from spoke design to the history of the shop (with lots about old bikes in between). Thomas Bikes has been around for something like 100 years, and the current owner has photos of the original shop from just after the turn of the century. The last four digits of their phone number are the same as they were when the shop's original number was issued back in dickety-aught-whatever.

They're very down-to-earth there, and although you can buy a $1,500 race bike there, you can also by an old $80 Schwinn, plus all the parts and accessories you're likely to need for it. It's a small shop, run by good people who genuinely care about all bikes and riders, not just those willing to drop money on a high-end bikes. The owner asked me what kind of riding I did, and when I answered, "Well, I guess out of necessity," he answered, "Bikes for transportation, we love that, man." He also waxed about the virtues of steel vs. aluminum rims and spokes, concluding that he liked steel better. I agreed, although I don't really know anything about it. I walked away from the shop with my straightened wheel and the satisfying feeling that I had finally found my local bike shop.

The next thing that set me to thinking was the fact that I've gotten emails from several people offering to pay me to write posts about or link to their bike businesses. Well, I never intended to make any money off of this blog, and it doesn't cost me anything to run, so I don't really see why I should. What's more, the businesses that want me to do this don't really have anything to do with old bikes--bikes, yes, but not old ones.

So, here's the thing: this isn't really a blog about bikes. Really, it's about a form of what I call "durable technology," and it's about learning to maintain and repair that technology. We live in a culture that idealizes "new" and ultimately, transient, forms of technology. Since we're always after the new stuff, yesterday's new stuff quickly becomes tomorrow's junk. But bikes have pretty much been the same now for over 100 years, and they're not likely to change too much in the next 100. They're going to be around for a long time, and many of them already have. Learning how they work and how to keep them working isn't really about fetishizing the bikes themselves, it's about teaching yourself a set of skills that can be used to keep a form of durable technology working. Basically, these are the same skills that Mr. Thomas was practicing some 100 years ago when he opened his shop, and I think that's pretty cool.

So, no, I'm not going to take your money to write an article about your bike shop or post a link to your site. Or rather, if I am, it's going to be because I think you and me are simpatico on the subject of making durable technology useful again. There are all of these old bikes out there, still perfectly functional, that can be put to good use instead of going down to the local trendy bike store and dropping $1,500 on a new bike. The only things people need to get these bikes back on the road again are a few tools, some patience to learn a new set of skills, and a desire to make things work again. It's not about the bikes themselves. It's about self-sufficiency. It's about durable technology. It's about people taking back one of the most basic and revolutionary innovations of the last 150 years.

Oh, and I didn't post a link to Thomas Bike Shop because they don't have a website. Give 'em a call at (619) 232-0674 or stop by at 1635 Fern Street San Diego, CA 92101.


  1. Hi again Thom,

    Thanks for your answers! I'm going to wait to see how well the bike cleans up before I paint it and if it needs painting i'll see how much it would cost for someone to do it professionally. I'll probably prefer to do it myself though, even if it wouldn't be such a good job. I like tinkering with things!

    It's great to see that you've found a nice bike shop. I live in London and bike shop workers tend to be bike snobs. I used live in Dublin though where my local bike shop was amazing! I went in one day looking for a new left gear for an old mountain bike. To replace the kind I already had would have cost around 50, but they had just taken an old gear off another bike and gave it to me for free! My bike wasn't the most amazing bike in the world so i was delighted to have any working part at all!

    I would love to write a few posts about fixing up the old english bike for you. I'm picking it up this evening and can't wait to set about taking it apart! Feel free to take any pictures you like off my blog too, it would be cool to see them here! I'm hoping to photograph all the steps like you did so hopefully there will be loads!


  2. Hello, I am thrilled to have just found your blog, and to continue to read it. One point you touched on (sort of) has been troubling me lately.

    " a form of what I call "durable technology," and it's about learning to maintain and repair that technology. We live in a culture that idealizes "new" and ultimately, transient, forms of technology. Since we're always after the new stuff, yesterday's new stuff quickly becomes tomorrow's junk. "

    I love my old bikes. I ride my old bikes. For several bikes that means changing out some of the old bits for newer technology. There are people who get very upset about this. For them I feel like the opposite is true, a subculture who idealizes the "old". I'm personally all for durable technology, which may end up being a mish-mash of parts.

    What is your position on historical accuracy in maintaining old bikes?

  3. In the tradition of the old bike blog, I'm responding to an old post.

    I used to mountain bike exclusively, this was mainly because CHP ( in NYC was two minutes from my apartment.

    Now I live in Tacoma, WA and the nearest mtn. biking requires a car ride. Due to this I've sort of re-discovered my love of bicycling and bicycles in general.

    Concurrently I saw a 1936 Rollfast at a garage sale this summer for $25. It was beautiful and I had to have it, so I coughed up the cash and brought it home.

    Searching on the Internet I began to learn about vintage bicycles, antique bicycles, balloon-tire pre-war bicycles, etc. etc. My search led me to blogs such as this and exploded a new interest/hobby/obsession within me.

    I also discovered that to totally restore it to it's original state (won't even discuss the paint job - it appears new) will cost me several hundred if not thousands of of dollars for parts on e-bay.

    I bought this bike because it looked beautiful, and would love to see it restored to its original condition, but not at that price! I have lovingly taken the whole thing apart, cleaned rust, grime, and dirt off of metal parts, re-lubed many parts, purchased ball bearings, bearing grease, cleaning agents, rust removal agents, copper wool, wire brushes. Halfway through this process I discovered a new hobby/obsession, but also new that I don't have the cash to restore the bike all the way. Nor do I want to. I want to learn from it and ride it (actually make it a b-day present for my wife to ride.) I don't have the cash to re-chrome fender braces, trusses, chain-rings , and the handlebars which somebody painted black; I can't justify the $75 for a tank that's currently on e-bay, or the cost of a NOS light and generator. And on and on... So I'm compromising.

    I'm going to clean and fix the best I can. New white walls, tubes, rim tape. Going to purchase (gasp) white spokes (one extra expense) because they will look cool with the red/white paint scheme, gonna teach myself how to true a wheel and then re-build the wheel with the newly cleaned New Departure Hub and white spokes. I got a cheap rack off of e-bay, which I will put on even though it's not an original 8-hole style rack. I got a set of non-painted black handlebars really cheap too, going to add those.

    So in the end the Rollfast will be a present to my wife. It will have given me hours of enjoyment learning how older bikes were built, it will have the feel and look of a fat-tire vintage bicycle, some new parts, some non-accurate parts, some old cleaned parts, and some rusty, not shiny, not beautiful parts. For an original investment of $25 I'd say that's a bargain.

    Wow, that's a lot. The point is I don't believe historically accurate restoration is for me. I don't have the patience or the money for it. I want to ride, ride, ride. Not collect, restore, and display. I'll leave that to others better equipped for it.

    I'll send you some pics of the Rollfast, along with the 1975 Schwinn Suburban (rootbeer color, $15 at a garage sale), 1968 Women's Columbia Rambler ($35, still has sparkly purple-pink paint), Centrix Cruiser ($20 have no idea what this is or where it's from) and all the other bikes I pick up along the way.

    Thanks Thom for an excellent and informative blog!!!

  4. Wow Ian, thanks very much for writing about your projects, and for the kind words. I would very much like to see your bikes--you can email the photos to me and I would be pleased to do a Reader Projects feature on them.

    Best of luck, and I hope to see you around these parts more often!