So, about two years ago, I bought a semi-messed up 1970s vintage department store cruiser bike with a step through frame. That is, the classic women’s ride around town bike for getting ice cream in the summers, getting to the public library, having some fun, doing what you needed to do in an era when people still let their under 16 kids out of their sight and some families had more drivers than cars and sometimes you just needed to get where you had to go. It really is meant for short trips, it weighs about as much as a front end loader.
It is true I could have bought a new cruiser bike for an affordable price. Buying an older beater and fixing it up is an almost trite bicyclist endeavor, but it sounded like fun and I don’t mind being trite as long as I’m enjoying myself. And I wanted to really do it myself. I was getting a bit frustrated with bike repair. It was expensive, there was a lot of emphasis on tossing whole components and replacing them rather than fixing what was there—or even tossing the bike and buying a new one. Dissatisfied with what was out there, I wanted to be able to maintain my own bikes, and I wanted to fix something, instead of just junking it and starting from scratch.
Finding an old beater bike to fix up is not as easy as one might think. In recent years, a lot of these bikes got shipped overseas by organizations like Bikes for the World and Bikes Not Bombs. Which is all good, although, people are starting to realize that there is an aftermarket here in the U.S. for these utility bikes. The transportation access concept applies here, with a lot of folks in the US whose budgets and lives could benefit from a low-cost, sturdy bike. And some people want simple bikes so they can get ice cream in the summers, get to the public library, or have some fun, don’t care about rolling at 18 mph+ or doing a lot of miles. The vintage bike movement has been somewhat co-opted by the bike community, which has converted a lot of these old bikes to fixies and single-speeds, and by hipsters who have adopted the vintage cruiser (or the vintage cruiser tribute bike) as a fashion statement.
So I bought this beater bike, now know as Yellow Bella. (It is a step through . . . .) Bright yellow frame, with a label that says Tigre Italia. All the parts seem to be Italian, and my dad had a cat named Bell who died of FIV about that time, so Yellow Bella is a bit of a tribute bike. I had a “historic preservation” inclination. No desire to replace the vintage 5 speed drive train, wanted to see if I could fix what was there, rather than merely salvage a frame and rebuild with all new components.
So, where does the Gwen Stefani part come in? For those of you who have been frozen in Carbonite for the past fifteen years, Gwen Stefani is the front for a SoCal Ska-Punk group called, No Doubt, and only female member. Back in the early 90s, she was just a pretty girl lead singer. The group was trying to make it big, but they weren’t getting anywhere. Ms. Stefani, or so the lore goes, having been let down by the boys, went into an empty room and wrote the Tragic Kingdom album basically by herself, including the feminist anthem, “I’m Just a Girl.” Every conversation I had about these wheels included, “why don’t you just replace the wheels?” and “The races in the hub are probably wrecked, you should ditch the wheel,” and “That hub’s not worth fixing.” Some people, I turned around to my way of thinking, they got it, that the point wasn’t to have another bike, but to actually fix this one. And in all my visits to a half dozen bike shops around DC and several bike clinics, I never found a girl mechanic. At one clinic, there was woman with a clip board doing intake, but that’s it. I’m sure the story of the Tragic Kingdom album is somewhat apocrypha and marketing hype, and I will say, I got a lot of help from some of the guys I talked to along the way.
Like many other older mechanical devices, Yellow Bella had everything wrong and nothing really wrong when I got her. The tires were rotted and flat, the wheels were wobbly, the handle bars were frozen, it was covered in a layer of dust an inch thick, everything was stuck, and for some reason the pedals had been removed. (Note: Ladies, if a guy looks at your bike and says, “I can take the pedals off,” run—or ride—in the other direction.)
Cleaning was easy! Just wiped the frame down with a dry cloth, rubbed the drive train with oil and oiled everything else. Replacing the tires and inner tubes wound up being bizarrely challenging, as this bike has an obscure, semi-obsolete wheel, a 650A. It took several weeks to track them down, but fortunately, I found a mail order supplier online and was able to order tires and innertubes in that size. The innertubes that were on the bike actually still held air when I removed them, but I figured it was asking for a flat to try to use them. (The wheel/tire size would wind up really blowing a lot of minds.)
Putting the pedals back on was also bizarrely problematic. I first tried to install them on a really scorching hot DC day, over 100 degrees. One of the pedals wouldn’t screw on the whole way. A few days later, when the temperature had dropped, the pedal screwed on a bit more. I tried again one night when the temperature was in the low 70s and the pedal went on the whole way and it has been fine ever since. The handlebars were just a matter of oil, determination and muscle (don’t laugh). And unsticking the expander bolt which I thought I lost but was actually stuck in the head tube.
The real sticklers were the loose hubs. This was a fun thing to learn. I learned about how wheels work and what can go wrong and why. The front hub was fairly straightforward, just a matter of disassembling, cleaning out, and then adjusting the cone and lock nuts so that it was tight and sealed, but still loose enough for the wheel to turn on the axel. The back wheel proved to be a persistent challenge. I had a hard time getting the adjustment correct, and it kept seizing up. Eventually, with a lot of reading, conversations with various bike mechanics, web hunts and trial and error, I got it working. In the end, what worked? I ordered replacement bearings, opened up the hub completely, took everything out, cleaned it, cleaned it again, and cleaned it again (all with oil and grease), then put it back together. And voila! One ride around town bike, at the bargain price of $35 for the bike, about $60 for tires and tubes, and about another $30 for various parts, tools and oil and grease. (And $30 for a cool Made in America woven basket and a free matching yellow bell from Bike Arlington.)
So, there were a lot of dead ends and frustrations and moments when I wasn’t sure I would get Bella up and running with her original components, but now I have another set of super cool wheels, another look, and I’ve learned a lot about bikes and bike repair. Now all I need is a Gavin Rossdale. 🙂