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I Sold Two Horrible Old Schwinns To Buy A New Bike And By Complete Chance It's Another Horrible Old Schwinn

Illustration for article titled I Sold Two Horrible Old Schwinns To Buy A New Bike And By Complete Chance Its Another Horrible Old Schwinn
Photo: Facebook Marketplace

After months of searching, I sent $150 to a guy I had never met, for a bike I had never seen with my own two eyes, 3,000 miles from my apartment. A good question would be: why?

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I guess part of the problem was that I successfully sold two bicycles in one day. New York City was getting in deep with quarantine, and everyone who could avoid the subway was doing so. Bike shops across the city were pretty much sold out of bikes, and everyone seemed to be scooping up whatever they could secondhand. I was gearing up to move, and figured it was time to let go of as many bikes as I could. Now was my time.

The first one to go was a redundant bike I had for what I could charitably call scientific purposes. The bike that I have been riding and loving is what I call Big Green, a Schwinn Voyageur touring bike from the late ‘80s that I built up for riding through the woods. Here is Big Green, as you have seen it:

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But before I bought Big Green, I had Little Green, also a Schwinn Voyageur from the late ‘80s. The difference is that Big Green is a 23" frame, which is juuuuuuust about as big a frame as I will fit on, and Little Green is a 21" frame, which is juuuuuuuust about as small a frame as I will fit on.

I loved everything about Little Green. It was light, it was stable, and it was happy loaded up with stuff. But I never felt totally comfortable on its smaller frame, so when I saw an identical bike in a larger size pop up for sale, I nabbed it. Little Green was gathering dust as Big Green ran trails. Little Green went up on Craigslist one evening and before lunch the next day it was gone. The very first person to look at it bought it for what I asked: $250, or $25 more than what I paid for it.

I hadn’t even walked home from selling Little Green to the first person to look at it when the second person scheduled to look at it texted me to come see the bike. When I told the guy it had already sold, he asked if I had anything else for sale, and before the day was done he was riding away on my red 1970s Schwinn Traveler III, a bike I had dragged out of a dumpster back in my home town of Davis, California. It was my first road bike, which I had ridden all through high school, shipped with me to New York, and had ridden here for years. I loved Red Bike, as I had started calling it out of convenience, but there was nothing that it could do that Big Green didn’t do better, so away it went for $150.

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Here is Red Bike, gleaming on a ride out to Canarsie:

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And here is Little Green at the end of this little gallery, carrying home a very full apple picking haul:

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Selling these bikes was great. I had space, I had a clear head, and I had a few hundred bucks in my pocket. My heart was fidgeting. I needed another bike project.

You see, a few weeks back I fairly well put a bow on Big Green. Spending a few weeks Upstate, bombing grassy four-wheeler trails, bushwhacking through swamps, and doing a few pavement-to-gravel day rides was a joy. The bike was riding well, and maybe more importantly, I figured out that there wasn’t much else that I was going to be able to do with it. I went so far as to cold-set the frame and it wouldn’t fit a substantially wider tire than what I already had on it. If bending the steel frame with a metal rod wasn’t going to turn my steel touring bike into something that would fit even a skinny mountain-bike-grade tire, nothing was. There was nothing more I wanted to do with Big Green. I was happy with it.

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Now, while I was going through all of this process of trying to make a road bike into something for scrambling through the woods, many people were already screaming through their computer screens that my whole project was flawed. Instead of trying to make a road bike comfortable for going off road, I should take a mountain bike and turn it into something slightly more comfortable going on pavement.

Old mountain bikes, ones that don’t have super high-power disc brakes or super capable suspension, are obsolete in the world of mountain biking. These old mountain bikes come with durable steel frames, space for big and comfy tires, and since mountain bikers don’t need them, prices are low, too.

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Well, the last part is only half true.

The retro crowd, as it turns out, loves old mountain bikes from the ‘80s and ‘90s, precisely because they are durable and easy to turn into big-tire cruisers that don’t look like cruisers. They often came with very Radwood-grade cool paint jobs and graphics and they just have a nice attitude. This means that the really well-made mountain bikes of the era, particularly low-volume specialty bikes made in the early days of mountain biking, can be hugely expensive. An early Bridgestone can cost $750. A low-volume Ritchey can ring well over a thousand. A really nice Klein with the fade paint? Six grand won’t be enough.

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Me? I have a lusty eye, and I wanted some of that low-volume custom bike look, and history, and I didn’t want to pay for it.

I guess this is, so far, a very long-winded attempt at a justification for spending what has so far rung up to $325.46 for a bike that is:

  • completely obsolete with no suspension whatsoever
  • covered in years of dirt and grime
  • probably fucked six ways from Sunday on every bearing, hub, or any single part that would have once required grease or tension
  • equipped with one of the great dead-ends in bike design
  • by all accounts, heavy as all shit

The bike in question is a Schwinn Cimarron, one which I believe was made in 1987. It’s a kind of weird bike, in that it’s from a big company but was built (kind of) like the low-volume specials of the time. The back of the bike is lugged, the front is fillet-brazed. Lugged bikes look charming, with the tubes fixed together in these cut-out joints. You see these on old road bikes, and on my Voyageur. Let’s see if I can illustrate this with some photos. Here is an example of a lug, as seen on this $3,250 Rivendell being sold by Crust Bikes here on the East Coast. This is a particularly fancy lug, but you can see how the top tube and the seat tube fit inside this multi-ported joint. These tubes are held in place using molten silver and science:

Illustration for article titled I Sold Two Horrible Old Schwinns To Buy A New Bike And By Complete Chance Its Another Horrible Old Schwinn
Photo: Crust
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Here, by contrast, is that same top tube-seat tube joint on a Crust Lightning Bolt, $1,350 for the frame alone. It is fillet-brazed and, conveniently for us, the braze itself hasn’t been painted over, so you can see the bronze smoothly joining the tubes:

Illustration for article titled I Sold Two Horrible Old Schwinns To Buy A New Bike And By Complete Chance Its Another Horrible Old Schwinn
Photo: Crust
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Lugged bikes look wonderful and fillet-brazed bikes also look wonderful, with the tubes of the bike smoothly flowing into each other. They are made by joining the bike’s steel tubes together with melted brass. This is different from welding, in that welding melts the two similar kinds of metal together, while brazing holds them together with a different kind of metal. Here’s actually nice explanation on the difference between welding and brazing in bike framebuilding:

Now fillet brazing and lugged construction are both slightly obsolete, since all bike companies pretty much just weld frames together. But the high-end, low-volume mountain bike framebuilders of the day all fillet-brazed, so when Schwinn produced its first serious mountain bike, the Cimarron in 1985, fillet-brazing is what it got.

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Finding a Schwinn Cimarron is a bit of a challenge, though, because it is an old Schwinn, and one made in America, at that. This was the tail end of Schwinn being an independent company and the tail end of Schwinn making bikes in America. It is American-made Schwinns that drive a particular kind of American Nostalgist wild, as they reminisce about don’t-make-them-like-they-used to manufacturing. As such, it is beset upon by Schwinn collectors, who buy them up, lovingly restore them, and then go on the internet to recite tedious and boring explanations of why fillet-brazing is interesting, or why the mountain bike lineup of 1985 matters at all to anyone. I am not one of these people, I keep telling myself in the mirror.

That is all to say, some Schwinn Cimarrons are Vintage Schwinns and get the attention of collectors who scoop them up for five or six hundred bucks. Other Schwinn Cimarrons are just Old Bikes; the ones not seen by collectors usually get listed at obsolete old bike prices. After a few months of hunting, a listing in the latter category turned up on searchworldmarketplace, in the endless suburbs stretching out of the Bay Area.

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Illustration for article titled I Sold Two Horrible Old Schwinns To Buy A New Bike And By Complete Chance Its Another Horrible Old Schwinn
Photo: Facebook Marketplace

The seller wanted $150 and was clear that they would not so much as clean the bike, which had been sitting in a shed for some years. It was his dad’s bike, and it looked very much like a dad kind of bike. Practical. Frumpy, even.

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It sports tires that aren’t made anymore, reflectors front and back, and what I think is a speedometer. That’s a bike pump mounted to the frame, and a saddle bag that probable holds parts to change a tube or tire.

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I spotted the same kind of gigantic Cat Eye bike light that I had on my bike as a kid. I asked my buddy who lives in Sacramento if he’d drive the hour and a half out of his way to pick it up and he said yes. I coordinated between the seller, his mom (who was the one actually holding possession of the bike), myself, and my buddy, and between the four of us, the bike ended up driven back to a shop in Sacramento, where it is being shipped out to me as we speak. The shop in Sac packed it up for $100, and Bike Flights is handling the shipping for $75.

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Again, $325 is a foolish amount of money to spend on a bike that is completely obsolete. It will not do big jumps. It will not effortlessly bomb down trails. It will not do the things a modern mountain biker would demand of a mountain bike. But that is completely fine with me. I am not trying to enter the X-Games. I am not trying to fly off of boulders and crush tabletop jumps, or whatever it is that mountain bike people do. I am trying to go zip around little trails and careen down unpaved roads with a bunch of snacks. As far as I can tell, that was what the Cimarron was designed to do. You could get them with mounts for racks front and rear, some versions came with as many as five water bottle holders. They were meant for going out into the wilderness for days at a time, clunking around some rocks, and getting you through your errands, too. That’s me! That’s my dream bike.

Illustration for article titled I Sold Two Horrible Old Schwinns To Buy A New Bike And By Complete Chance Its Another Horrible Old Schwinn
Photo: My Buddy Tirey
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Soon mine will arrive in a cardboard box and I’ll be able to start the laborious process of figuring out what original parts I should take apart and re-assemble with new grease and what parts I should just replace with modern components. I can’t wait.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.

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DISCUSSION

therealbicyclebuck
TheRealBicycleBuck

There are some obvious problems that you need to address. Start with a new chain. That old one is filthy and very likely corroded inside even though it’s slathered with lots of filthy lube. When chains get that filthy, they tend to stick to the chain rings and cause chain “suck,” which is when the chain gets caught between the rings and frame. Given all the missing paint just behind the chain rings, the previous owner had a lot of problems with chain suck, probably because he didn’t take care of the chain. The whole drive train needs a good cleaning.

On a bike this old and obviously not cared for properly, I’d go ahead and buy new bearings for the wheels and bottom bracket. They’re really cheap and it’s best to start fresh. The damage to the headset race is from a set of channel locks. It looks like he didn’t have the right tools and didn’t know what he was doing, so he grabbed a set of channel locks in an attempt to get the headset out. If you’re lucky, he didn’t ovalize it. If he did, then you’ll need a new one. You’ll know if the front wheel doesn’t move smoothly from stop to stop.

The missing paint on the head tube is from two sources - one is from a misapplied tool (probably the channel locks), the other is from the housing rubbing against the paint. The easiest fix is to clean it then apply a bit of vinyl paint protection film. A bit of touch-up paint would be better. Again, cover it with some paint protection film.

The brake and shifter cables should be, at a bare minimum, cleaned and lubricated. New cables and housing can be really expensive if you buy the latest coated wonders. If you stick with older technology and lube them properly, there’s really no need for the latest gear.

Depending on how they were cared for and how they feel to you, grips and a new saddle may be in order. Grips either dry out and crack or break down and get sticky. It’s best to get new ones. The foam inside the saddle can break down over time and make it lumpy. If it isn’t and is comfortable to you, keep riding it.

New tires are a must-have item. You will probably be limited by the size. If you’re planning to ride through sticky mud, don’t go much bigger. You want some clearance between the tire and frame. Tires are a really personal thing and getting the right tire really depends on your mission. I used a mountain bike for commuting for many years, so I always mounted 26"x 1" slicks. With gravel and trails in your intended use, slicks wouldn’t be the best choice. Full knobbies aren’t the best choice if you’re riding some road and easy paths. 

Before taking it on an epic ride, I’d replace the old brake pads. But instead of new pads, this would be the opportunity for the first big mechanical upgrade. A new set of V-Brakes and levers will completely change how this thing stops. Cantilever brakes work really well when properly adjusted, but they can be finicky to get set up right. V-brakes are more forgiving and provide excellent stopping power even when not in perfect shape. If you’re going to stick with the cantis, look for Kool Stop pads in the salmon color. The color comes from the rubber formula and the salmons are widely praised for their performance and longevity.

That “speedometer” is a bike computer. It does what a speedometer/odometer does - keeps track of your speed and distance. If the wires aren’t broken and the magnet isn’t missing, then a new battery should get it working again. The Cateyes have a couple of metal connectors in the mount that can get corroded. A pencil eraser is usually enough to get them clean enough to work again. If the magnet is missing, your local bike shop should have them in stock.

The next upgrades would be shifters, derailleurs, and the rear cassette. Those are harder decisions since there are limitations. The size of the cassette is determined by the hub. The number of cogs on the cassette determines the shifter and the derailleur. It can get complicated, so you may want to consult with a bike shop or make friends with someone who knows what they’re doing. The techs I’ve spoken with over the last five years or so aren’t familiar with old bikes. It’s like taking an old camaro to the Chevy dealer. Most of those kids haven’t seen a carburetor and wouldn’t know how to work on one.