A Cheapskate's Guide to Buying a Commuter Bike

How a beat-up Gary Fisher transformed a bike tinkerer into a bike commuter

The Acquisition
This story begins at 9am on an ice-cold 25ºF degree January Saturday in Phillipsburg, New Jersey. My wife had spotted an ad in the local newsweekly for a city auction where they'd be shilling old city vehicles, furniture and abandoned bicycles. That got my attention, since I fix and resell old bikes as a hobby.

It was a motley group standing there in the cold at the entrance to the city garage. They looked like rejects from "Storage Wars" or "Storage Hunters," tough-looking car mechanics who'd come with money in their pockets and a keen sense for cutting a deal. I waited patiently while they auctioned off the cars, bids flying wildly back and forth.

Then, finally, it was time for the bikes. There must've been 100 of them, in all stages of disrepair. Here's what I could be sure of this lot, given that it was a police auction:
• Most of the bikes were probably junk. Probably 80% of them were Mongooses, Murrays, Huffys and Roadmasters.
• The seats were almost certainly in bad condition.
• The bikes were only picked up after being outside for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. I expected rust and stuck parts.

There was one guy there who was unusual in a group of unusuals. A small, skinny man in an oversized yellow parka and a baseball cap, his face was covered in sores that looked like treated skin cancer lesions. He professed to being 93, and said he loved to fix up old bikes for fun. Was I looking straight into my future in the old man’s face? The thought was disconcerting, to say the least.

Thankfully, the bids went fast on the bikes. The old guy snatched up most of them. I could tell he knew the people running the auction. People helped him load the bikes in the back of his brand-new full-sized Chevy truck. After he'd gone, nobody left in the crowd knew much about bikes, which was to my advantage. I quickly snatched up a 24-inch Specialized mountain bike for $1 and a very scratched-up Gary Fisher hybrid for a buck. Even if I had to put $40 bucks into the hybrid, I figured I could sell it for $100 on Craigslist. That's my rule: If I can double my profit, I will buy.

The Remodel
Getting the Gary Fisher back to my garage/shop, I noticed that there was little rust on the frame but it was extremely scraped up. The seat was shot. The pedals were shot. There was rust on some of the components. The steering was very tight. The tires and tubes were completely gone.

The first thing I usually do when I remodel a bike is make sure the basic systems work and are safe. I put the bike on the stand and ran through the gears. I had to adjust the friction shifters a bit, but they worked fine. The brakes also worked with a bit of adjustment. I took the headset apart and greased it. I steel-wooled most of the components. I sprayed WD-40 on everything except the rims. I replaced the seat and pedals from stuff out of my parts bin (sometimes I find a bike at a yard sale cheap, and I strip it for parts). I tightened each and every screw and bolt. 

Having done all I could on the fly, I sat down and tried to come up with a concept for the bike that would sell. A man’s got to have a plan, after all. This was a really nice bike at one time. The hybrid 700c wheels, upright seating position, cantilever brakes and light, strong frame meant it would make for a great city bike. And since it was scratched as hell, that meant it might go unnoticed by the bike thieves in Philadelphia who, one way or another, end up with a lot of my bikes. Some people in the city intentionally ugly-up their nice expensive bikes so the bike thieves will pass them by, but here this one was pre-uglied. Suddenly a critical flaw was a selling point. A decision was made: This would be my first commuter build.

I made a list of what I’d need at the bike shop:
• Tires and tubes—$40
• Fenders—$40

Then I took it out for a test ride, and something happened… I fell in love with that beater bike. Yeah, again. I fall in love with practically every bike I ride (when it comes to bikes, I’m kind of a tramp—I never met a nice bike I wouldn’t gladly wrap my legs around).

Anyway, it got me thinking. I do have a vintage Trek 8000 mountain bike that's a bit too big for me, and I could sell its frame on eBay and still break even on the Gary Fisher. And work is only a few miles away, so I could probably commute and save money on gas. Also, the bike stands at work are right next to the building as opposed to the quarter-mile walk from the parking lot.  And they had just extended the local bike path, so my ride would be, overall, pretty safe. The dye was cast. I’d keep the Gary Fisher for myself, and use it as a commuter.

I ended up buying very nice Planet Bike fenders—lightweight, easy-to-install and very adjustable. Since I've spent most of my bike-tinkering life removing fenders in order to make bike lighter and faster, it was a strange turn of events to actually be installing a pair.

My bike was ready for the commute! Simply repeat these steps, and you can get your own bargain basement commuter ride.

*There's one caveat—just like with used cars, when you buy a used bike, you buy someone else’s problems. Carefully check each and every screw and bolt. Test-drive the bike over and over. Never put your life in the hands of faulty equipment. If you can’t do the work yourself, take the bike to a good local bike shop. It's more than worth it. ~Cycle Michael

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