A bike reborn
The simple joy had by transforming a 30-year-old geared bike into a singlespeed
Preparing to move to Minneapolis in 1980, my grandfather asked me to visit. A quiet man of great influence in my life, he offered a going away gift. He paid for a new bike I wanted to ride around the University of Minnesota campus and Twin Cities as I had the roads surrounding my hometown of Milwaukee.
More than 30 years later that Ross Utopian still hangs in my garage. Other bikes have replaced that Ross yet the emotional tie I had to the bike was too strong to just give it away. Taken out for a few short rides once in a while, the bike has remained in a state of limbo season after season.
I spent hundreds of hours on a road bike training for Ironman Wisconsin. While those rides were a means to a memorable end, the training regimes that required religiously documenting miles covered, cadence targets and power meter readings overwhelmed the simple joy of riding a bike.
As spring 2013 arrived, I lifted that decades old steel-framed Ross down from the garage hooks, brushed away the cobwebs and sat on the cracked saddle. Still equipped with the first generation of Look click-in pedals, I recalled how embarrassing it was to crash in front of a crowd of experienced cyclists when I couldn't pull my cycling shoes out of the clips fast enough. Despite all the Ironman training miles on my other bike, the still shiny blue Ross had carried me through far more miles of cross-town jaunts, century rides and explorations of Minnesota's blue highways.
Equipped with what was once considered "state of the art" components, the Ross's 12-speed drive train needed attention before I could consider using the bike regularly again. Pondering upgrading the 30-year old bike, I faced too many options and decisions. Once again, the complexity of cycling was threatening to overwhelm my longing for a simple ride. While I'm not a bike technology technophobe and have spent hours pouring over specifications for a new triathlon bike that's on my wish list, my intentions for the Ross were much more basic. I wanted a bike to ride to the library, transport me to the trailhead for a training run and most important to just wander around the neighborhood.
With the help of Alex Heegaard-LeGros, Minneapolis bike builder and owner of Inland Bicycle Company, I decided to turn the Utopian into a singlespeed commuter.
"Most people probably learned to ride a bike on a singlespeed. They didn't worry about cadence or shifting before a certain point on a hill or worry about that ticking noise from the shifters. They wanted to just go out and ride," Heegaard-LeGros said.
Singlespeed and fixed gear bikes have been a hot trend in the cycling community for several years. My interest in the conversion was less about taking part in that fad than revisiting the reasons I love to ride a bike in the first place. Converting my 30-year-old Ross seemed a better means to that end than buying another new bike to add to an already over-crowded garage.
Heegaard-LeGros understood my point of view. "It's a simpler experience. Riders don't have to worry about what gear they are in, what gear they should be in," he said. "You are getting a simple, easy to maintain ride that doesn't have all the little bits that modern shifting requires to be frequently adjusted."
Although the singlespeed and fixie craze has ebbed a bit, Heegaard-LeGros said he still sees a steady stream of customers seeking to bring old bikes like mine back to life. "This is a great way to keep riding. There is a nostalgia factor involved. People like the way the frame looks and the way it fits them," he said. "These are bikes people want to have a relationship with."
The process of rebuilding the Utopian was a mix of fashion and function. New tape on the handlebars and a new classically styled leather seat updated the bike's look. On the performance side, new modern rims and tires replaced the original out-of-true wheelset. A SRAM Courier crankset, Wipperman nickel-plated chain and a Surly singlespeed 16-tooth cassette cog replaced the aging Suntour and original Dia Compe derailleur and shifting mechanisms.
When I picked up the finished bike at Heegaard-LeGros' shop, snow and ice still crusted Minneapolis streets with temperatures below freezing. Still, there was no hesitation, no waiting for a warmer day. A friend, away for far too long, had returned.
Perched on the seat, the fit familiar and the blue paint shined and polished, I recalled the contentment I felt the day I purchased the bike. Within moments of turning the updated pedals I found myself reaching for the shifters once mounted on the Utopian's down tubes. Smiling to myself, I sat up and just pedaled around the neighborhood getting used to the singlespeed drive train. I rode for an hour with no clear destination in mind. No miles to track, no heart rate to monitor, no bike computer to calibrate. Just gliding down the asphalt and experiencing the simple joy of riding a bike reborn.
Lou Dzierzak is a freelance writer who has covered the outdoor recreation beat for more than a decade.