Sunday, May 19, 2013

Vintage Bicycles Boom

Peugeot in the Portland snow. Source: Hart Ryan Noecker
            If Portland is known for one thing other than rain, it’s bikes. Lots of them. Take a look at what types of bikes most people are riding and you’ll see skinny tire, steel frame 10-speed bikes from decades past. Or, as some may say, “vintage bikes." And by vintage, I am referring to bicycles that hark back to an era of cycling simplicity, from the 1970’s through the 1990’s.

            Portland may clearly love older, vintage bikes as a main mode of active transportation, however, vintage isn’t just Portland. This phenomenon is a movement that spans from coast to coast. Steve Swyryt , owner of Cambridge Used Bicycles in Cambridge, Massachusetts can attest to the recent rise in vintage bicycle popularity. Swyryt says that Cambridge Used Bicycles had its best financial year since they opened their doors six years ago and that the success was based “mainly on selling mostly older bikes.”[1]

            A visit to Google Trends reinforces the popularity of vintage bikes – searches for vintage bicycle have been increasing slowly since 2004, with a recent surge in the topic last summer.

            “The popularity of biking in general may be driving the trend toward older bikes.” Swyryt says. However, vintage bikes have certain draws over their newer counterparts. Mainly, the price of a used bicycle is significantly less than a new bike. “For $120 you can get a better old bike than a new one,” Swyryt said. “A bike that came from a bike shop twenty years ago is still better than a bike you get from Walmart.”

Everyday vintage cycling in Portland, Oregon. Source: Patrick Finn
            Durability is a key benefit of owning a vintage bicycle. Bicycles from decades past last for years with minimal investment. The frames were built of steel, a tried and true material that stands the test of time. Plus, “the way the frame is lugged, not welded together, make vintage bikes better [constructed] than new bikes. The steel frames were paired up with a part list that included inexpensive, yet sturdy and able components that were interchangeable between models and relatively easy acquire from any bike shop. Even by today’s standards, replacement parts for vintage bikes continue to be economical and plentiful. In Portland, bicycle shops such as City Bikes, the Recyclery and the Community Cycling Center have built their business models around the idea of focusing on used bicycles along with new and used parts.
Sticker on the door of City Bikes. Source: Author

            Riders of vintage bicycles typically have an environmentally conscious thread. “The idea of constantly throwing things away and buying new things is, in a lot of ways, contrary to what the social mission of a lot of bicyclists is.”[1] Marketing plays a big part in the bicycling industry. We are constantly told that we should upgrade to the newest technology, quickly leaving behind perfectly adequate bicycles that have years of use left in them for the latest and greatest in materials and components. As bicycle companies find ways to streamline production and bicycles become continually cheaply mass-produced, vintage bicycles show their promise to keep the craft of durable, long-lasting transportation at an affordable level.

            “I think it’s great that we should be celebrating a culture where things are built to last forever,” said Daniel Kamalic, the faculty advisor for BU Bikes and the manager of research computing for BU’s College of Engineering. “We can keep them in good condition…and celebrate the beauty of these things that were made to last.”

Thanks goes out to Max Scheideman for kindly editing this post.

[1] Vintage Bikes Grow in Popularity
[2] Image 1, by Hart Ryan Noecker

[3] Image 2, by Patrick Finn


  1. Is there a good service for selling old bikes in Portland? I tried using Craigslist when I got here with little to no luck. Ended up buying a new bike which was hella pricey.

    1. Good question on where to purchase vintage bikes.
      The best spots that I have found for vintage bicycles are at the Community Cycling Center, City Bikes (try the upstairs room on 8th/Ankeny for hidden gems), A Better Cycle and the Recyclery. If you buy a bicycle from any of those groups, you will certainly pay more than if you picked up a used vintage bike on Craigslist. But, with the higher price you get a limited warranty and piece of mind knowing the bike is tuned right and all necessary consumable parts (brakes, cables/housing, tires, etc.) were replaced or passed their inspection.
      There is also Craigslist and there are certainly deals to be had, however, you have to 1) know what's a good deal and what's not, 2) know what needs to go into the bike if it does need repairs and 3) be fast on pulling the trigger because although there are a slew of vintage bicycles in Portland but they sell quickly. You almost need to be on your way out the door, with cash in hand, when you see them online.
      As a serious side hobby, I also find and refurbish vintage bicycles. Although mainly it's for my own sheer satisfaction and the pleasure of knowing that I am keeping steel on the road. Plus, I get to blog about it ( and don’t use my finds as a profit driven turnover machine. If any of you want to know more about purchasing vintage bikes, I’m always open to sharing my opinions and suggestions so feel free to contact me about it.

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  3. Interesting play on the subject of transportation in Portland. I used to ride a schwinn varsity and had alot of fun in that old steel frame. Thanks for the info on the market! I enjoyed your photos too!

  4. Very interesting topic, Josh. I was just thinking about all the old bikes you see on craigslist and cycle shops. As a fellow vintage bike owner, I have to say there are a lot of pros and cons to this recent trend. I agree with your points on durability and cost. Buying a new bike costs at the LEAST $400-500. An old one can be around $200. If you are a new biker, this initial low cost lets you learn about the things you like and want in a bicycle. Most likely, though, that bike is probably going to be pretty low quality.

    As much as a steel frame is durable, a major con is how stinkin heavy steel is! As a former San Francisco resident, owning a heavy bike in a hilly city makes cycling no fun, which is why I barely ever rode it. Here in Portland, hills are small, but even small grades can be challenging on a steel bike. Another con is that steel rusts while aluminum doesn't. I learned this the hard way. Overall, like many "old timey" things(i.e: vinyl, snap-shot cameras, color filters)vintage bikes have been come popular and made to look cool. And for most active transit users they get the job done with style!

    1. Brenda,

      Excellent comments. Thank you!

      I agree, steel can be an extremely heavy material. Just the word "steel" make me think of a dark, hot, forge where guys in coveralls pour molten liquid steel into molds, making something like carburetor blocks, boat anchors or whatever. Steel can be heavy. No question about that.

      However, this touches on the first point I made above to Matt’s comment. As with any market, knowing the nuances and hierarchy of the product is essential. For instance, a 1976 Schwinn Le Tour (a very common bicycle; thousands were made) weighs in at 31 pounds. The steel on that Schwinn was heavy as there were many different grades of steel bicycle tubing. Also, the components that made the bike move were lower on the hierarchy quality list so their efficiency wasn’t quite what a higher end bike was. Parts on the lower end were also oftentimes heavier. You pay for quality and weight.

      Compare that with another fairly common bike for its time, a 1985 Raleigh Prestige. This bike, weighing in at 22 pounds, was made with very lightweight steel tubing that tapers at the ends (weight loss but strength was not sacrificed). The components, including the wheels, were of much higher quality and usually made with aluminum.

      All of these qualities added up to significant weight savings. Is a 9 pound difference that big of a deal? Yes. Very much so! Riding each side by side would prove that point.

      Don’t get me wrong, the Le Tour is still a good, solid bicycle that will last for multiple decades without question. So is the Prestige. However, they are built for different purposes and one may not necessarily know that shopping for a bicycle that is often times older than they are. That is where experience comes in handy.

      Also, just for comparison, I went to Trek’s website and looked up their 7.5 FX, which costs $1,100 and from what I read, is a fairly common aluminum bicycle. Turns out it weighs in at 23.5 pounds which is certainly on par with the Prestige mentioned above.

      As I mentioned above, I am very happy to talk at great lengths about vintage bicycles. Most don’t want that much detail though so if anyone wants any thoughts, advice or comments on anything vintage bike related, I would gladly be happy to talk further!

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