How to restore your old bike

Not all Londoners have access to a brand new, top of the range bicycle. Many, have a 10 year old hand me down mountain bike from their sister. One such person is my friend Laura. She recently asked me: What do you think of the bike?

As someone who knows a thing or two about bike maintenance, I bit my teeth and awkwardly scratched the back of my neck, while trying to think of a nice way of phrasing my answer.

Sensing my difficulty, she filled in for me: “Well, it says professional on it.”

The truth is, any bike is better than no bike. What I worry about, is that a badly maintained bike can put people off cycling.

My fears may have been proven true. The bike had remained unused for a few months and we decided its maiden voyage should be a short ride to Greenwich Park. Immediately, there was complaints of the gears taking about a minute to change. It also felt tiring to pedal and the seat left a rather uncomfortable feeling.

However, it’s not hard to bring an old bike like this back to life. Here’s a short guide to the things I advised Laura to do (i.e. it will probably end up being me doing) and hopefully it will helps others in a similar situation.

Professional bike

(If it says professional, it must be professional)

Gear and brake cables

Gear and brake cables

The frayed gear cable could well be the reason for problems with slow gear changes.

Fortunately, buying a pair of gear and brake cables from your local bike shop is cheap. To replace them you’ll need a decent cable cutter and some metal ferrules to attach to the end of the cable. It’s a fairly easy repair and we’ve got instructions to replace a gear cable here on the blog. Our Bike Doctor app has more info on replacing a brake cable. After replacing gear cables, you’ll also need to re-adjust your gears.

Bottom bracket

The next thing I checked on the mountain bike was the bottom bracket. Fortunately, there was no play on the crank, so that suggests there isn’t an issue here. If you did need to replace it, you can follow our bottom bracket replacement instructions.

Brake pads

The brake pads also often need replacing. Fortunately, the ones on this bike had been serviced so were still in good condition. However, there was some issue with the pads rubbing the wheel rim. This problem can normally be solved by tightening the barrel adjuster, but in this case the adjuster was damaged. I’d also replace the rusted cable guide for £2.

Saddle

The saddles supplied with lower end bikes are often uncomfortable. I’ll probably be fitting my friends bike with a spare saddle that I own. A new saddle may be a worthy upgrade. If money is tight, these can be bought second hand. It’s also worth pulling the saddle post out and adding some grease.

Cassette and chain

Another problem area is the cassette and chain. You’ll notice this, if the chain keeps slipping when you apply pressure to pedal. It’s a very typical problem. Fortunately, this bike had some more life in it. However, a clean and degrease with some fresh lubricant would certainly help. You can easily find out if your chain needs replacing.

Other typical problem areas with an old bike:

  • Tyres: These can often be worn and are worth replacing with puncture proof tyres. Fortunately, new tyres were recently installed.
  • Pedals: Worn out pedals can be a common source of creaks. The cheap stock pedals supplied with a bike can be replaced with superior metal alternatives.
  • Handlebars: You can check for play in the handlebars and make sure it is properly tightened.

Should you attempt this yourself?

If you don’t have the tools you’ll need, then the cost of buying them will often outweigh the cost of getting the bike serviced in a shop (especially with our current 50% off servicing deal). However, in the long run, you’ll save a lot of money by knowing how to do the repairs yourself. The £100 spent on a toolkit will pay for itself after a couple of repairs.

It’s a real testament to the design of a bicycle that it can still be safely ridden, even with many of the above issues. However, you’ll be much more likely to cycle once the bike has been restored.

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17 Responses to How to restore your old bike

  1. Will 28/08/2012 at 3:37 pm #

    Alternatively, sell the BSO on ebay, put the ~£100 from the sale, plus the £100 you would have spent on tools, plus the £50 for the new saddle and parts together and you can afford a decent new bike or very decent second hand one which will be far better to ride and a lot less hassle for years to come.

    Restoring a cheap bike, unless it’s something special or for sentimental reasons, is a mugs game.

    • Andreas 29/08/2012 at 7:51 am #

      Will – you make a strong point. I think many people are left with little alternative if they simply don’t have that extra bit of cash to get something more suitable second hand. As you say – you’ll make around £100 on ebay/gumtree/going going bike and then you’ll only need another £100-£150 to get a second hand hybrid.

  2. Jack 28/08/2012 at 5:41 pm #

    I second Will’s comment. No amount of TLC is going to make that bike enjoyable to ride. It’s heavy, has full-‘suspension’ so knackering to ride and more to the point the required repair work is outside the comfort zone of someone who simply isn’t passionate about cycling.

    A second hand hybrid would be the best buy.

    The only place I don’t agree with Will is the £100 estimate for the eBay sale. Try £20 :o)

  3. barton 28/08/2012 at 6:04 pm #

    Jack and Will may have a point. An old steel road bike is probably worth fixing up, but that thing? For just commuting? I wouldn’t be bothered. I think I’d be likely to thank the person who handed it on to me, then donate it to a local bike charity (the kind that help at-risk kids by letting them fix up bikes for themselves, or for learning skills).

    That said, if you don’t have the tools on hand (like the one needed for the bottom bracket) many bike shops have Open Shop hours where you can use their tools and possibly their hand-holding expertise to fix your bike. Laura would have better luck at this than you, Andreas, I would think, as there seem to be more open times for women (and trans-gender) than just open for anyone.

    • Andreas 29/08/2012 at 7:52 am #

      We thinking of London Bike Kitchen by any chance ;)

      • barton 29/08/2012 at 1:47 pm #

        exactly!

  4. Jack 29/08/2012 at 11:09 am #

    Perhaps a good way of encouraging a friend to buy a decent second hand bike is to let them borrow yours for a day if you match up size wise.

    I got the cycling bug after I borrowed my brothers >£1000 bike for a few hours; wonderful, and a whole world away from cycling on a cheap bicycle.

    • Andreas 29/08/2012 at 11:32 am #

      That’s an amazing tip Jack – when I handed Laura my bike to carry down the stairs while I was carrying the mountain bike she commented “wow, this is so light” a great way to slowly reel them in to a bike they are more likely to use!

      • Laura 06/09/2012 at 10:00 am #

        Ahhh so that was the sneaky plan! Love this post, and you’re right – the fixing of my professional bike will more than likely be done by you, if at all. That seat bruised my bum for about a week!

  5. James 29/08/2012 at 5:03 pm #

    some great advice here. i’m sure evans cycles are still running their £50 trade-in on any bike – which helps the cause. also the cycle to work scheme is a good way of getting a new bike interest free over a year, minus the tax!

  6. Marc 01/09/2012 at 8:26 am #

    On a bike of that age, I’d be checking the headset wasn’t loose, as that is often the source of an annoying wobble as you ride along. And staying at that end of the bike, the stem looks like it might extended too much out of the head tube in the main picture.

  7. Stephen 03/09/2012 at 11:10 am #

    Hello, there’s some great info here. I salvaged my ten year old mountain bike out of the garage earlier this year and bought a new front wheel; new (narrower) tyres; mudguards; saddle and gear shifter. That’s probably about £100 worth of stuff. The frame seems decent and it doesn’t have any “heavy” suspension, so it’s perfect for knocking around on (or riding on the trail). I’ve learnt quite lot during the process of doing this, so if / when I get a new bike, I’ll know what to buy and will take better care of it…

  8. Jon 03/09/2012 at 4:21 pm #

    If you’re in need of spare parts for upgrading a bike an you’re in the Kingston/ Richmond/ Merton area you can have a rummage at Kingston Eco-op and get the bits you want for not very much at all. There are bike recycling projects in many boroughs in London and my guess is they all have a surplus of parts that they just can’t bear to throw away. They may even have a lightweight frame worth fixing-up, or at least a decent non-suspension alu hybrid or MTB frame in the Specialized/ Trek/ Ridgeback vein.

    http://www.kingstoneco-op.org.uk/what-we-do/bike-recycling

    http://www.bicyclerecycling.co.uk/others.htm

  9. Phil 04/09/2012 at 3:35 pm #

    I’m currently refinishing a 27″ 531 steel 1985 Orbit Gold Medal frame, which is going to be built up as a single speed. When my job moves next month, my commute is going to increase from two miles to twenty, so I’ll be cycling to town, locking one bike up at the train station and pootling from the other end on this one which I will keep at the station. I’ve just about got the paint ready for priming, and instead of paint I’m going to wrap strips of old French Michelin road maps soaked in PVA glue round the frame like bar tape, before spraying with clear lacquer.

    • Andreas 05/09/2012 at 9:37 am #

      Clever strategy Phil – make sure you obviously secure it with a couple of big (and different type) locks.

  10. Andrew 07/09/2012 at 10:26 am #

    Lets not forget the satisfaction gained and environmental reasons for restoring older bikes, rather than just ditching them and buying new. Also, is it morally right to sell a bike to someone when you know is not really in rideable condition?

  11. Paul 03/12/2012 at 2:18 pm #

    Quick question if anyone can help, I have shimano shift levers in my road bike, when I flick to shift no prob gear change is smooth, next shift I have to flick the lever two or three times before the gear shifts.
    I have had a new cable on the bike since May this year, and the set up is perfect all aligned etc. Can anyone give me a solution?

    Many thanks,
    Paul.

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