The Cost of Fixing Up a Free Bike

the bike
This summer I rebuilt a bike whose frame had been gifted to me by my friend Hope’s little sister. She had found it in an alleyway and, thoughtfully, had asked me if I’d like to have it. I was thrilled because I had been wanting a bike and figured this would be cheaper than buying one from Craigslist.

Spoiler: It would not be.

I figured I could buy everything I needed on Amazon, tear off the old parts, and install new ones. Then, the only thing I’d need to do would be replace the chain. I had it on good authority that to do this, I’d just need to take it to a bike shop, say, “Could you replace the chain?” and they’d do it on the spot for a couple of bucks. Plan in mind, I ordered the following off the Internet:

• $6.53 – brake pads
• $13.83 – pedals
• $13.67 – seat
• $28.00 – tires
• $10.70 – tubes
• $11.19 – shipping, handling, and tax

It was at this point that my dad snorted with laughter and told me he had just bought a working bike off Craigslist for $79. “I’ve bought everything I need and haven’t spent much more than that,” I told him smugly. “And,” I added, “I’m also going to get the satisfaction of learning about how a bike works.”

The satisfaction, indeed.

My parcels arrived in the mail and I set to work. My procedure loosely follows.

1. Rip the old tires and tubes from the wheels—which I reused—without a tire lever. This was very hard, bordering on impossible. Instruments I used included: a butter knife, a hammer, my fingers, Hope’s fingers, my roommate’s fingers, a sharper knife, and eventually just brute force and willpower.
2. Install the new tubes and tires, with YouTube tutorials as my guide.

• $4 – rim tape, which I learned existed only by watching these tutorials, all of whose leading actors insisted that the tape was necessary to prevent the spoke nipples from poking into the tube. “Spoke nipples and rim tape,” my roommate commented, skeptically. “Biking sounds awfully erotic.”

3. Take the bike frame—without wheels—to a bike shop for the new chain. When I said I wanted a new chain, I accidentally implied (not being very careful with my biking terminology) that I wanted the store staff to help me steal this bike by breaking off someone else’s chain lock. The guy told me the store had a policy against doing that. Because it was illegal.

“Oh,” I replied, bewildered, and unsure of what to do next. “Well…can I get it done anywhere else?” I asked him. He looked at me like I was a bold-faced scoundrel.

“Yeah, maybe the fire station,” he scoffed.

“The fire station? Just to replace the chain?” I asked.

“OH! You just want the chain replaced?” he asked. “That’s easy.” And legal.

4. Return to the bike shop to get the new chain and find out that the whole something-or-other of the bike’s chain-system-thingamabob is busted. The guy told me they’d need to replace all of it, if I wanted the bike to work. Did I?

• $84 – yes.

5. Bring the back wheel to the bike shop. The guy told me, as though I should have known and he couldn’t quite believe he had to tell me, that he would need the back wheel present to be able to do anything with the chain. All right. In retrospect, I suppose that made sense. I handed over my $84 feeling embarrassed by my biking inexperience.

6. Put on the pedals. Tutorial helped here. “Lefty loosey” applies only to the bike pedal on the right-hand side of the bike—it’s opposite on the left! I absolutely would not have guessed that.

7. Remove the old seat from the post. This proved much more difficult than expected. Props to my friend Mitch, who, after at least eight Bud Lights on the 4th of July, sat quietly and determinedly in a corner of my living room with the seat, post, and a smattering of tools until—at least an hour later—he’d gotten them separated. I still don’t know how he did it, but I’m grateful.

8. Put the new seat on the post. This was very difficult because the post wasn’t the right size. I had to find a second bike shop (because I was too ashamed to show my face at the first) and get a new clamp to connect the post and the seat.

• $11 – seat post clamp

9. Put on the new brake pads. The pads on the original bike were rust-colored so I knew they had to be replaced, which is why I bought a set of new black ones on Amazon. The new pads went on easily, but then the tires wouldn’t spin through them. I went back to bike shop #2, this time with Hope, and told the non-judgmental guy there that the brake pads were too thick for my tires. He said that didn’t make any sense, that all brake pads should fit with all tires. He pointed at the brake pads he sold and asked which ones I had. It was then that I realized my old, rusty pads were not actually old and rusty – they were just orange in color by design! Feeling foolish, I bought a pair of those, since I’d already thrown the old ones away. “Did you adjust the brake cables?” he asked, as if that were a natural question. Hope and I were both too embarrassed to admit that we didn’t know what that meant and so we said we’d try it.

• $8 – second set of new brake pads
• Free – THIRD set of new brake pads, which the guy gave me in case for some reason the rust – I mean, orange – ones wouldn’t work, which, of course, they did

10. Google “brake cable adjustment.” It was actually a pretty easy thing to do! Unfortunately, to adjust the brake cables, I would have had to remove the brake cable nuts (or whatever) and mine were so rounded and rusted that I couldn’t get them off. This is when Hope and I went to yet a THIRD bike shop and asked the guys THERE to help.

11. Attend third shop and ask for brake cable adjustment. The guy at the desk, wearing a straw fedora entirely un-ironically, said that wouldn’t be a problem but that “If I were to do one thing to this bike, to feel comfortable putting it on the road, I’d re-tape the handlebars.” I may not be a bike whiz but I knew that was a dumb suggestion and so I said, “No thanks.” We came back a week later and they had both adjusted the brake cables AND filled my tires.

• Free – Hope paid for this for my birthday!

12. GET THE BIKE READY TO RIDE.

• $22.99 – helmet
• $14.99 – U-lock
• $3.99 – small cable lock
• $24.99 – front and rear lights (legally mandated in Massachusetts, who knew?) (also just a good idea regardless of the law)

13. Get on the bike and realize I DON’T REALLY KNOW HOW TO RIDE A BIKE THAT WELL.

14. Practice. I got better and am proud to announce that I can now ride confidently through rotaries—which, I believe, is the hallmark of a true cyclist. A true cyclist who learned to cycle just in time to retire her bike to the basement for the winter.

Grand total: $257.88

 

Amy Mullen lives in Boston.

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