Vintage bikes are typically defined as bikes that were produced between the 1920s and the 1990s, although the earlier date is open to debate. Mostly they are bicycles that have been made by hand. The difference between a vintage bike and an antique bike is that a vintage bike can still be used frequently, provided they are in good condition on purchase (which ours are) and are cared for once you own them.
If you’re delving into vintage bikes for the first time, you may be surprised that much of what is “new” in cycling isn’t really new at all. Take the whole gravel thing, for instance. Believe it or not, people have been riding bicycles on irregular surfaces for a really long time, and in fact the macadam roads that allowed cycling to flourish in the late 19th century would set a gravel grinder’s heart aflutter today. More recently, the pre-suspension mountain bikes of the 1980s were in many ways the forebears of today’s gravel and bikepacking rigs: these versatile machines often had clearance for wide tires, braze-ons for racks, and sporty yet stable geometry. Bikes like the 1987 Bridgestone MB-1 and the 1989 Specialized RockCombo even came stock with the flared drops that are now de rigeur on modern gravel bikes.
What’s more, as with any cycling trend, lots of people bought those super-cool mountain bikes and then never rode them, which means that to this day there are well-preserved specimens available for new riders.
If pavement is more your thing, the world of vintage road bikes holds even more potential. While mountain bikes came of age in the 1980s, road bikes have been around forever and besides having to futz with toe clips and reach down to shift, there’s little about even a 70-year-old road bike that would hold back or confuse today’s Lycra-clad cyclists. There are decades upon decades’ worth of old road bikes out there, from lugged steel to Day-Glo aluminum models, and for a fraction of the price of that backordered Shimano Di2 group, you can ride a beautiful classic.
There are many reasons why vintage bicycles are superior to the modern day mass- produced, low-priced bicycles that you can find at your local bike shop. I won’t even bother to discuss bikes built for department stores – those are Bike Shaped Objects that are utterly worthless and designed to be thrown away. Don’t buy them, ever.
But why ride vintage when you can buy a reasonably priced bike at your Local Bike Shop (LBS) that is brand new?
By this I mean the quality of the frame and the components. Vintage bicycles were mostly hand-crafted by experienced artisans. Many builders also crafted or modified their own components. Lugs were carefully filed and brazed, and care was taken at every stage of production to ensure a long lasting frame. Many of the vintage frames I see have no damage whatsoever, some over 8 decades old. That’s far more life than you will see in today’s frames, where fork recall, aluminum fatigue, and carbon fiber failures are routine. Today’s production bikes are simply not built to last a lifetime, at all. If you want a bike to treasure and pass on to future generations, don’t buy a production bike – either order custom or, for far less money, buy a vintage bicycle.
Ease of repairs and component integration: Before Shimano’s domination gutted and destroyed virtually all other component makers, built in obsolescence was unheard of in the cycling industry. Deliberately designing components that could not be repaired, but only replaced, and designing them to ONLY work with that manufacturer’s other components spelled the death knell for low cost and easy bicycle maintenance. Brifters are a good example of this. They only work with the component maker’s indexing system, and if your bike tips over and the Brifters hit the ground, they will easily break (they are made from plastic), and a new set will cost you another $300 or so. They cannot be repaired, so touring cyclists generally get rid of them in favor of reliable downtube and bar-end shifters, which can almost always be repaired on the roadside, and do not break when your bike experiences a mishap. An added plus of getting rid of your Brifters is being able to use appropriately sized and comfortable brake lever hoods.
That’s not to say that a component on a vintage bicycle will never fail. They’re all at least 30 years old, so yes, eventually they will wear out. However, they are, by and large, made of metal, plentiful on Ebay and easy to replace / repair. Pretty much all vintage components are repairable with simple parts that you can make yourself if you don’t have spares handy. They are also easily understood, and learning basic bike maintenance is much easier for owners of vintage bicycles.
Of course, to truly appreciate vintage bikes, you do have to adjust your expectations. Will the cantilever brakes on that 1990 Stumpjumper offer you the effortless one-finger stopping power of today’s hydraulic systems?
No. Take a little time to appreciate the nuances of period-correct stoppers. Sure, some of those “nuances” may include squealing, grinding, and the occasional bout of fork judder, but if you want an antiseptic riding experience, you might as well skip bicycles altogether and go lease a Kia Telluride. Plus, once you understand how they work, you can eliminate most of those issues, and you’ll even find that when properly set up, those old brakes work pretty darn well.
Indeed, it’s precisely the tactile character of older shifting and braking systems that makes them so engaging. Like working the clutch on a car, kick-starting a motorcycle, and dialing a rotary phone, it’s the sort of visceral action that puts you in thrilling touch with the machine you’re operating. Similarly, while poking the Blip on your eTap may be effortlessly precise, it can never rival (SRAM pun intended) the sense of smug satisfaction that comes with properly operating a friction shifter, and while it may take a little practice, that’s part of the fun. I’m not saying cycling should be needlessly difficult, but I am saying that the process of attaining mastery is part of what makes it so enjoyable, and the “better” gear gets, the less opportunity we have to experience that. Keurigs are fine, but sometimes you want to brew the coffee yourself.
Best of all, riding old bikes doesn’t mean you have to forego the delights of wanton consumerism. If you enjoy nothing more than shopping for bike stuff, the world of vintage bikes is the ultimate indulgence. Classic bikes are ripe for both restoration and reinvention.
Not only can you upgrade or modify your bike with other vintage parts, but plenty of companies, like Rivendell, Crust Bikes, Velo Orange, and Soma Fabrications, also offer new stuff that looks classic. In addition to frames, these companies sell components, bags, racks, and accessories that will breathe new life into old bikes. You can comb eBay for some old Suntour bar-end shifters, or you can get some new ones from microSHIFT. The mountain bikes of yesterday were not without their quirks—think narrow bars and squirmy knobbies—but some of them are just a cockpit swap and some René Herse tires away from all-day mixed-terrain bliss.
Environmental reasons for not buying a new bike trump almost all the other reasons. Department store bikes end up in landfills because their components are made to be thrown away, and so are the frames. Each new bike manufactured adds roughly 530 lbs of deadly greenhouse gases to our atmosphere. In 2015, 17.4 million NEW bicycles were manufactured and sold. So, doing the math, that translates into 9.2 BILLION POUNDS of greenhouse gases spewing out into the environment in one year alone, all due to the consumer demand for new bicycles. Don’t buy a new bike! Fix up the one you have or buy vintage.
Art and science, together in one beautiful machine: Who can resist a beautifully made bicycle? Anyone who loves art can appreciate a bicycle’s form and balance. It is a machine, yet its form is so evocative that just seeing an image of a bicycle can transport you (pun intended) wherever you want to go.
Once you immerse yourself in the old stuff, you may find that the newest and latest no longer calls to you the way it once did. You might even start to find it a little…boring. A vintage bike will take you back in time, while also giving you the thrill of bringing a little of the past back into the present.