Arts & Culture

The Makings of a Perfect Seattle Commuter Bike

By Josh Cohen March 24, 2010

I love a good bike project. I'm not the world's best mechanic, but I'm competent enough with a wrench to tinker around and rebuild a bike from the frame up. My latest project is transforming my girlfriend's bike from a sporty race bike to a pragmatic urban commuter that will suit her needs far better.

A year and a half ago, while I was living out in the Washington, D.C. area, I spotted an excellent deal on a 1985 Trek 400 on Craigslist that would fit my girlfriend, Becky. There are always plenty of old steel road bikes from the 80s on Craigslist, but this one had a full Campagnolo drivetrain on it (mid-level Triomphe derailleurs and crankset, but still Campy) and was basically brand new after sitting in storage for two decades.

[caption id="attachment_32668" align="aligncenter" width="420" caption="Trek 400 from 1985 Trek catalog. "][/caption]

I drove to and from Northern Virginia in rush-hour beltway traffic to pick up the bike (if that's not love and devotion I don't know what is) and surprised Becky with it. Though the name Campagnolo meant little to her at the time, she was glad to upgrade from the heavy, hand-me-down Schwinn Traveler she'd been commuting on. Becky was a little stretched out on the bike, and the gearing is more race-oriented than she needs, but it worked fine as a campus commuter.

When we moved to Seattle last summer and Becky started commuting further to work (and dealing with Seattle's hills) the little things that didn't really matter on her previous short and flat commutes started mattering a lot. The top tube being a few centimeters too long was making her back sore after a few miles. The racy gearing—52/42 chainrings and a 11-23 6-speed freewheel in the back—is a pain in the ass for climbing hills, a nearly unavoidable part of any commute in this area.

If I had buckets of cash I'd look into buying something like the Civia Hyland, Raleigh Alley Way, or Kona Dew Deluxe, well-designed commuters that come off-the-shelf with features like wide gear ranges, fenders, and disc brakes. But I don't, so we've got to make do with transforming the Trek.

Step one of the project is getting the bike to fit better. Becky doesn't need drop bars for her style of riding. I would argue that the majority of commuters don't need drop bars and would be happier with a more upright position than drop bars typically give. To help bring the bars closer and give Becky a more upright position on her bike, I installed a set of swept-back Wald townie bars (think classic British three-speed) that a friend had given me a while back. They're not marked, but I'm pretty sure they're the 815 model.

The installation took a bit of creative finagling. The clamp on the Trek's stem is 26.0 mm and the bars are 25.4 mm (because they're cheap bars, they actually measure out to be more like 24.9 mm, making the size difference even worse). I picked up a shim that Nitto makes specifically to use 25.4 bars in a 26.0 stem, but because the bars are a little undersized, they were still a little loose in the stem even with the shim.

I used a classic if not slightly inelegant trick to make up the missing .5 mm or so that I needed to fill. I made another shim out of a piece of aluminum beer can. I know it sounds like a sketchy solution (and that there are purists out there cringing at the thought), but I used a beer-can shim on another bike for 1000+ miles and never had a problem.

Once I got the brake levers reinstalled and the grips back on, we took a scientific ride to Molly Moon's to test out the new bars. They seem to be making a huge difference already (I can also report that Molly Moon's Coconut Chunk flavor is fantastic). Becky said the upright position helped alleviate the back pain she's always dealt with on previous rides.

The next step of the project is to replace the crankset and freewheel to lower the gearing. We're on the hunt for a nice square-tapered triple or compact crankset, something I'm hoping to dig up in the used bins at Bike Works. The final step will be installing a rack to give the bike cargo carrying capacity, completing the little blue Trek's transformation from a weekend club racer to an urban machine ready to tackle all the weather and hills Seattle can throw at it.
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