Ride the Bike You Have

“You ride the bike you have, not the bike you might want or wish to have at a later time,” said a famous secretary of defense. (More or less. He was talking about armies, not bikes, but both are tools toward achieving an end.)

That statement paraphrases my thoughts about bicycles. Last year, we posted our series¬†A Journey of Discovery, where we explained how we came to prefer certain bikes. Many readers were surprised that at the time, I did not have my ideal bike. “What, you don’t have a 650B randonneur bike?” was one incredulous comment.

For years, I was riding a bike that was made from stiffer tubing than I considered ideal, that had narrower tires than I prefer, and that had a geometry that was not optimized for the handlebar bag I made it carry. It was a very good bike, but as my preferences evolved, it no longer was what I would have picked, given a totally free choice.

Did this detract from the riding experience? Not much! I had a wonderful time on the bike. I rode it to my best-ever Paris-Brest-Paris finish and many other memorable rides. Only very rarely did I think during a ride “Oh, I wish my bike had less trail/wider tires/thinner tubing walls.”

In fact, I rarely think about the bike during rides at all. I just enjoy the ride. And even though I knew that I eventually wanted a different bike, I was in no rush. I knew my old bike would need replacement eventually – when I got that bike, it already had more than 30 years and 100,000+ miles of hard riding under its wheels.

So I started working on my new bike. I planned to change the things that did not match my preferences. Building that new bike took time, since I made many of the parts myself. In the mean time, I continued to ride my bike on more memorable rides. I used the bike in a number of fast 600 km brevets as I chased the Cyclos Montagnards R60 honor. I rode it on fast Sunday morning rides with friends. I ran errands on it around town. And I enjoyed every one of those rides.

Now I have my new bike. It performs exactly as I had hoped. I love riding it. I still enjoy riding the old bike from time to time. In the end, it’s not about the bike, it’s about the ride.

From the archives: My ride in Paris-Brest-Paris 2007.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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18 Responses to Ride the Bike You Have

  1. A refreshing reminder, thank you. How long did you ride your less-than-ideal bike for once you discovered what you wanted and what eventually prompted you to finally replace it?

  2. AndrewGills says:

    Hear hear! I follow this edict too. I love my old bikes. They aren’t perfect or new (my road bike is from 1996 and my mountain bike is of unknown age because it’s recycled) but the wheels roll and they get me around. I also spend most of my time riding thinking about my ride, not the bike.

  3. Mags Oi says:

    Jan, you’ve hit upon my same feelings regarding the moutain bike wheel size debate. I have read all the magazines and blogs regarding 29 vs. 26 inch. I have yet to meet or evaluate a 650 wheeled ATB but have built up various 29 inch mountain bikes and have tinkered with the tire size on my cyclocross bikes. I spent a lot of time thinking about it.
    Then I asked myself if I ever had a bad ride because I was riding a certain wheel size and the answer was “No”. I have been blissfully riding my bikes without giving it a thought ever since.
    Certainly there will always be the latest and greatest to drool about, and in contrast I have noticed much love and buzz surrounding vintage bicycles. Put me somewhere in between when you see me riding my 16 year old mountain bike or my 10 year old touring bike. I also have this silly habit of complimenting everybody I encounter with “Nice bike!”…if they happen to be riding it, of course.

  4. One of the most sublime moments I’ve had on recent rides was coming home in the dark after an evening meeting, the air refreshingly cool, the sky filled with stars, the country roads free of traffic save for the occasional passing car. I was feeling relaxed, strong, and happy as I rode along briskly on the flood plain of the Connecticut, then climbed the slopes of an ancient hill to arrive home.

    I happened to be riding my heavy step-through commuter bike, with an upright riding position, stiff puncture-resistant 26″ tires, enclosed chaincase, and IGH. I would have ridden faster on another bike, but I can’t imagine that I would have felt any happier.

  5. bryanwieyes says:

    Actually, it’s “ride the bike you have on the day you have”.

    To wit: “ride the day you have” – the only time to ride is uncomfortable weather? Dress for it, adjust the route for it, and go. And “ride whichever bike is in good order if at all sensible” – the winter bike is in for repairs? Ride the summer bike in the rain. The fenders are for you, not the bike. It won’t be ideal, but it’s generally better than sitting home.

    I think for many people (certainly including me at some points) riding is more improved by things like tires, socks, and lights that can be quickly attached to whatever bike is at hand, than new frames that take different wheels.

  6. Steve Palincsar says:

    You said: “For years, I was riding a bike that was made from stiffer tubing than I considered ideal, that had narrower tires than I prefer, and that had a geometry that was not optimized for the handlebar bag I made it carry. It was a very good bike, but as my preferences evolved, it no longer was what I would have picked, given a totally free choice.” The bike in question was the 1973 Alex Singer “reference bike,” correct? Hardly what one could describe as an old POS; in fact for many it might look a lot like their ideal dream bike. I’ll bet if you’d been riding a genuine clapped-out POS instead of a famous classic the text of this blog entry would have been rather different.

    • You are right, and I wouldn’t have ridden an awful bike for very long. (My Peugeot 10-speed lasted only a year once I started riding seriously.) Having a good bike is a joy that I wouldn’t want to miss. But from there, the changes are more incremental, and fretting over them isn’t going to make you happy. However, when the time comes to get a new bike, it does pay to do the research and get the best bike you can.

  7. Allen says:

    I also ride an old (1973) bike, one that I really love every single time out. But it has its limitations: as a commuter, it’s hard to fit fenders on. Lighting is external. Not made for any sort of load, front or rear. So I’m saving up for another bike. Over the years, and with a dose of inspiration from BQ, I’ve thought plenty about how my “ideal” bike will be different/better. But my sense of urgency about building this bike is tempered by the simple fact that my today bike is a pure joy to ride. I ride it 12 months a year and would die happy if I “had” to ride it forever. I’m a lucky man, right?

  8. MSRW says:

    Jan, I think you’ve provided a significant insight here. The difference between great and merely good bicycles isn’t anywhere near as large as it may appear in the blogosphere, where even trivial details can tend to appear much more significant than they are when riding. (I recall a forum comment once from a rider considering a Surly Long Haul Trucker. He liked that bike but was concerned that as a touring bike it wouldn’t be maneuverable enough to dodge the puddles that he encountered on his commute.)

    Order of magnitude of difference between bicycles is always critical, if sometimes difficult to quantify.

  9. heather says:

    For me, I have been aspiring to have better quality bikes, rather than a pile of low end bikes, and the article in BQP about what we ride hit home. Commuter bikes are ridden alot, so why shouldn’t they be quality, beautiful and fun? I am short, so such bikes have been hard to find and I want a mixte/step through with lightweight tubing ideal for a small person. But with a limited budget I have to stick to 2nd hand, swap, gifted bikes. I am quite happy with the bike I have right now but it is an upright bomb proof raleigh sports, not meant for going fast although it can really fly, and have been riding it quite far despite it’s limited gearing. I plan to build up a 650b bike with more gearing and long distance minded to ride over the winter, but it is hard not to make it precious. Now my husband wants a 650b bike too, and his bike collection has climbed and could get higher, but only one is high end which he only takes out in spring and summer, another is a beautiful quality vintage italian randonneur bottecchia that needs rebuilding. It’s stunning so he’s afraid to take it and have it turn into rust. His other 2 bikes are crap, but feels he has to ride those ones. We live just outside of Vancouver, Canada in a sea side area with steep hills and roads, so for much of the year mid autumn to late spring, the road crews spray magnesium chloride even though there is rarely frost, and it ruins anything metal. I used to ride year round in proper winter and never had a problem, when I lived in Vancouver I never saw rust on my bike, but out here, the salt goo does great damage. How do you deal with the rain, muck and possible salt spray in Seattle?

    • My fenders have so much coverage that neither water nor salt from the road has much of a chance of getting on the bike. I do put some car wax on my bike, including its components, which goes a long way toward protecting it (and making it easier to clean).

      When there is salt on the road, I do wash off the bike afterward, like I would after a cyclocross race. Lots of water, but no hose, so the water doesn’t get into the bearings. Takes about 5-10 minutes. I use water from our rain barrel…

      I, too, was concerned about salty air, living about a mile from Puget Sound. It hasn’t been a concern, perhaps the water is too cold. I once kept a sandblasted, unpainted frame in my basement for two years, and not a trace of rust appeared on the unprotected metal. Cars also don’t seem to rust much around here, unlike some other seaside places.

      In the end, my “precious” bicycles are too much fun to ride to leave them at home for fear of deterioration. If my new Herse gets rusty 20 years from now, so be it. I can always have it rechromed or repainted.

      • heather says:

        Thanks, I still haven’t put my extra long honjo fenders on a bike to see how much coverage they have compared to fenders I have used. The Pacific is less salty than the Atlantic, and I am sure science could tell us why and how. I lived on the waterfront for a few years and had an old bmw which did not suffer, but neighbours with new vehicles had problems with little bolts and under carriage parts rusting. I am a bit lazy about washing my bike, but my husband has found that some VO components that are supposed to be stainless steel rusted within a few rides even with diligent cleaning. Good tip about not using a hose which we have been and how to make use of all the water in my rain barrels.

  10. Paul Ahart says:

    Ah, just a quick note on bikes that rust/corrode. The best way to prevent your trusty steed from becoming old “rusty trusty” is to NOT leave it outside at night (particularly in coastal areas) where the night dew and cold, along with salt in the air, will work its way into every nook and cranny.
    After a muddy/rainy ride, a bit of gentle hose-down followed by a wipe-down is recommended.
    A neat trick is to follow with a wipe down with a rag soaked in spray furniture polish, such as Lemon Pledge. Cheap, fast, and does wonders. Looks great, too.

  11. Hello – I enjoyed reading that! I rode an old 1987 Cannondale since new until recently. I picked up a road bike, THEN discovered randonneuring. It’s the “wrong bike” for randonneuring. Still, I’m riding it to get my feet wet (literally) and I’m currently building up another of my old bikes for randonneuring purposes. It’s a 1996 mountain bike. I’m replacing the blown suspension fork with a rigid carbon fork. The bike has slacker geometry, mountain gears (I’m a terrible climber), rack mounts, and (best of all) room for fenders! The chromoly may ride smoother, too. I hope to have this bike ready for my first season of ACP events next spring. Until then, I’m riding monthly 200k’s to see if I can achieve the R12.

  12. Doug Peterson says:

    This is especially applicable when touring with a rental bike. Due to the cost & hassle of shipping bikes overseas, I have been renting bikes for several years. Obviously no rental can replicate what one has at home, but a tour is about the experience much more than the bike ride. Overlooking minor (and sometimes not so minor!) flaws in fit or function is not difficult and makes the trip more enjoyable than stressing over the fact it’s “different”. We’ve had rentals that were perfectly good and others with serious mechanical issues but have always enjoyed the trip.

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